To be honest, I did not think the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting was going to go well. Along with many other evangelical observers, I feared that the representatives from SBC churches (known as “messengers”) would vote last week for leaders and resolutions that split truth and love rather than holding the two together. Some denominations are more at risk of losing truth, but the SBC, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, was more at risk of losing love.
Theological liberalism was not going to be an outcome of the meeting. All four candidates for SBC president embraced the Baptist Faith and Message, which affirms the inerrancy, or total accuracy, of the Bible. Indeed, all four candidates also embraced additional BFM conservative belief markers not held by all inerrantists, such as forbidding women from serving as church elders.
Legalism and lack of love, by contrast, was a real risk. Three out of the four presidential candidates believed both (1) that women should even not teach men in adult Bible studies, as I wrote about last month, and (2) that it was more important that the SBC formally condemn critical race theory in its totality than that the denomination offer a well-thought-out approach of its own to understanding and combating systemic racism.
Furthermore, one of the four, the former chair of the SBC’s governing Executive Committee, had been credibly accused of repeatedly stonewalling attempts to get the denomination to investigate its handling of pastors who had committed sexual assault. Under considerable pressure, just before the annual meeting the Executive Committee contracted a third-party investigation of its handling of sexual abuse allegations, but did not agree to grant investigators open access to records or to make the final report publicly available.
And yet a vocal subset of messengers feared liberal “drift” in the denomination. Members of the Conservative Baptist Network styled themselves as pirates ready to “take the ship” to stop of the drift. They believed the recent attention given by denominational leaders to redressing issues of sexual assault and racism within the denomination constituted a distraction from the gospel of individual salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. They thought grappling with these social issues would eventually overtake the call to conversion and evangelism, rather than that grappling with these social issues flowed from a converted heart renewed to combat sin and exercise love for neighbor. They thought truth and love, at least this type of love, did not go together.
I have been deeply troubled by the increasingly strident rhetoric I have seen coming from many corners of American evangelicalism over the past year—about politics, masks, race, gender roles. Lots of vocal concern for orthodoxy and personal rights, but not as much vocal concern for loving our neighbors. And the largest Protestant denomination in the country appeared to be going even further in that direction.
But it felt wrong to just despair. Hope is a spiritual discipline. So I decided to pray for the SBC meeting. Searching for the words, I was reminded of an article a friend had recently sent me about…Taylor Swift.
The author muses that what he really appreciates about Swift’s music is her use of the literary move J. R. R. Tolkien calls “eucatastrophe,” the sudden and unexpected occurrence of something deeply good. (As opposed to catastrophe, the sudden and unexpected occurrence of something deeply bad.) Of course, I thought, eucatastrophe is at the heart of the Christian message: Jesus’ unexpected resurrection changes everything.
So I prayed for eucatastrophe…and it happened.
The only one of the four candidates who robustly combined grace and truth won the election for president. The messengers overwhelmingly voted to create a committee appointed by that new president to oversee the investigation into the convention’s handling of sexual abuse. The 2019 resolution that affirmed that there were some insights to be gleaned from how critical race theory exposed systemic racism—even if CRT’s approach also contains some assumptions contrary to Scripture—was not overturned or replaced by a complete denunciation of CRT. Almost everything went right.
It is fashionable for Christian intellectuals to criticize American evangelicalism. I have done so myself—because too often, we deserve it. But this stream of Christianity has contained many good and beautiful things alongside the bad. Evangelicals have advocated abolitionism as well as resisted desegregation. They have fought for women’s rights as well as ignored women’s voices. And it is good and right that we ask our Lord to redeem the movement—and to live in hopeful expectation that He will do so.
This kind of expectation was common among evangelicals of the nineteenth century, when postmillennialism was the dominant theology of the end times. Postmillennialism asserts that Scripture is best interpreted as teaching that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world in such a way as to bring about a substantially righteous society before Christ returns to rule it at the end of days.
In the wake of the early twentieth-century expansion of theological liberalism within mainline denominations, those who fought loudly for orthodoxy, now called “fundamentalists,” instead widely embraced premillennialism. This theology taught that the world would simply get worse and worse until Christ returned at the end of days to usher in a righteous society. In the mid-twentieth century, many fundamentalists broadened their outlook to care once more about social engagement as well as evangelism and re-took the name “evangelical.” But they held on to premillennial theology instead of their forebears’ more optimistic one.
Ironically, evangelicalism’s twenty-first-century critics, both internal and external, subsequently also inherited this outlook that everything is headed to hell in a hand basket—just about evangelicalism itself rather than about the rest of the world.
Even though I sometimes catch myself thinking like a premillennialist in this way, I am actually an amillennialist (a position more common among “higher church” Christians from Catholic to Anglican to Presbyterian, and shared by some Reformed Baptists as well). Which is to say I do not believe the world is automatically getting either better or worse, and I believe that this uncertainty will remain until Christ ushers in the world to come. Which also means I have a responsibility to pray actively for the good and to pursue the good with hope. And, indeed, to expect it. After all, Christians are people of the Resurrection.
Eucatastrophe happens. It shouldn’t surprise me so much. Thanks be to God, and back to work and prayer.