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Bill Gothard’s Poison Pill for Southern Baptists

This is Memorial Day weekend, when we as Americans remember those who gave their lives for our country.  For me that turns back to my uncle, Don Gaston Shofner, and his sacrifice even before he could get to enemy skies.  But that brings up another point: Gaston (as he was called in good Southern tradition) and his family were (and those who are left mostly are) Southern Baptists.  Now the Baptists tend to get the “left hand of fellowship” on this site, starting with Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology (another Arkansas Baptist) and going downhill from there.

These days they’re getting it from many sources, especially in the wake of the mess surrounding Paige Patterson.  Patterson, with others, was a leader in one of the most successful ecclesiastical coups of the last fifty years: the ascendancy of conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention and the prevention of the leftward drift that has plagued just about every Main Line denomination.  (I wouldn’t describe the SBC as Main Line for a long list of reasons, but that’s another post…)  I was actually in the SBC during the central part of that drama, and it was interesting.  The “moderates” in power appealed for people to “get with the program” of the denomination, while the conservatives appealed to the authority and inerrancy of God’s Word.  For someone like me who had spent much of his growing up years struggling against the tide to place God’s Word above the program, the choice wasn’t difficult.  Evidently most of the Convention felt the same way.

In a sense both were appealing to authority, the moderates to the established authority of the convention and the conservatives to God himself.  At this point, however, something strange happened that got lost in the victory: the conservatives, having justified themselves on God’s authority, proceeded to make getting human authority a big deal.  Although many wouldn’t admit it then (and certainly not now) a good deal of their inspiration came from Bill Gothard.

Gothard, in my humble opinion, had more influence on Boomer Evangelicals than any other single Christian teacher during the 1970’s.  He taught that God’s way was a top-down authority structure, one that started with God himself and permeated through the state, church and ultimately the family itself.  For a generation mired in rebellion, Gothard offered an authority-driven order as not only a way out of the chaos of the 1960’s and 1970’s but as a way of papering over past rebelliousness.

The problem with this as applied to Baptists in general and Southern Baptists in particular is that the Baptists had pretty much torn up the whole top-down authority structure in the church in favour of a bottom-up, congregational model.  Baptist churches are locally autonomous; they call their own ministers, regulate their own finances and ordain their own ministers, to be recognised by other local churches.  The SBC was founded with the idea that some functions, such as home and foreign missions, were best handled “cooperatively” by organisations such as the Foreign Mission Board.  The wonderfulness of that idea wasn’t shared by all Baptists: the Landmark movement, which Gaston’s parents were very much a part of when he went off to war, was started in part as a disagreement over the FMB.

So how did the Southern Baptists hold things in the road with their anarchic system?  Traditionally they did it through an emphasis on rigid conformity and peer pressure.  This appealed to their core ethnic group, the Scots-Irish, because it allowed them to have an organised religion without someone obviously telling them what to do, which they hated more than death itself.  This system can have serious problems but introducing a top-down system like Gothard’s, which seeped into even a self-contained system such as the SBC, was the introduction of an alien idea, one which has turned into a “poison pill.”

Perhaps that alien idea was forwarded by the most distasteful aspect of Gothard himself: his sexual advances on women in his organisation.  The whole fight over WO in the SBC, and the serious complementarianism that is used to oppose it, is based on women not having “authority” over a man.  In a system where authority is a dicey proposition to start with, it’s difficult to see how a hard line can be taken.

The church isn’t the only place where authority is a question.  Gothard and his Baptist allies apply it to the home, but that’s where Patterson got into trouble: he advised a woman to stick it out under “authority.”  Personally I don’t see that the New Testament justifies the use of violence against another human being, and certainly any of Gothard’s advances should be lumped with fornication and adultery, neither of which has Scriptural sanction.  But once you make human authority a central part of church life, you open up the possibility of people exercising their “authority” for unBiblical purposes of all kinds.

Our society has changed, and mostly not for the better.  Much of what the Southern Baptists and other Christians do was once lauded and now cursed because of changes in society, not changes in God’s standard for his people.  But most systems fall when their own weaknesses overtake their own strengths, and that’s a lot of what we’re seeing with the SBC.  In addition to some of the things discussed here, we have the Baptists’ metastable idea of election and perseverance  and their lack of success in breaking out of their own ethnic ghetto.

I don’t see how the Baptists plan to get out of the mess they’re in.  Some things would be helped if they reverted to a more autonomous, bottom-up view of church life they used to have.  Others would benefit from throttling back the regional obsession with status and “moving up,” but one could apply that to American Christianity in general.  But structures survive storms and earthquakes not as much from sheer strength and rigidity but because they can deflect and return to their original state during times such as this.  The whole Baptist system strikes me as too rigid to do that.  This is sad, because many people’s eternity has been changed through the tireless outreach of Southern Baptists, and that–followed by discipleship–is ultimately what the church is all about.


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