Amid growing concern that the nation's largest Protestant denomination is increasingly "woke" and drifting from biblical orthodoxy, a new network has formed to emphasize evangelism and the sufficiency of Scripture within the Southern Baptist Convention.
The Conservative Baptist Network, which is being launched Friday, describes itself as a grassroots effort to maintain the proclamation of the Gospel at the center of SBC life, in addition to prioritizing fidelity to Scripture and all of its implications, including presenting a vibrant, biblically-informed witness when engaging culture. The network fully affirms the longstanding beliefs of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
Those involved in the network's formation, many of whom spoke with The Christian Post, say their efforts are needed given the direction and perceived future of the Convention that many devout Southern Baptists find troubling. But the network is not, they say, a new denomination, a blog or a social media page that exists solely to air grievances or a competitor with other like-minded ministries.
“We are concerned about the current road our Southern Baptist family is traveling. It is a road that is twisting what God’s Word is saying about things like human sexuality, biblical racial reconciliation, and socialistic justice,” said Brad Jurkovich, the network spokesman and the pastor of First Baptist Church in Bossier City, Louisiana, in a press release exclusively provided to CP Thursday.
“There are three choices that every pastor and church have to make,” he explained.
Those three options, he said, are to remain in the SBC and say nothing and watch it drift into obscurity; walk away entirely, cognizant of what they are leaving behind; or remain within the denomination and contend for the restoration of what has been lost in recent years.
The Bossier City pastor believes many desire the third option and the CBN pastors, lay ministers and seminary professors are ready to stand alongside them.
“Are the apparent theological, ethical and social compromises simply indicative of Southern Baptists succumbing to the apostasy of the Laodicean Age? Are we doomed to the fate of an unrepentant church or will we open the door to let Christ in, overcome our present malaise and experience another spiritual renaissance?" Jurkovich offered, speaking to how he presently sees the spiritual status of the denomination as a whole.
He further maintained that a significant number of Southern Baptists are especially concerned about the overemphasis on certain issues that have received more attention than has evangelism and spiritual renewal — emphases that have helped make Southern Baptists the largest and most influential evangelical group in the nation.
For many, particularly those who make a point to attend the denomination's annual meeting each year, their concern was crystallized following the 2018 gathering in Dallas when motions were made on the floor to prevent Vice President Mike Pence from speaking to the messengers. While those efforts ultimately failed, some in attendance nevertheless got up and left the convention center in protest as Pence began to speak, actions many considered disrespectful and contrary to the admonition in 1 Peter 2:11-17 about showing proper deference to governmental authority.
Another contentious matter that has rankled many longtime Southern Baptists is Resolution Nine, a 2019 measure that the messengers adopted which states that what is known as critical race theory and intersectionality are useful analytical lenses. The resolution defined CRT as "a set of analytical tools that explain how race has and continues to function in society" and intersectionality as "the study of how different personal characteristics overlap and inform one’s experience."
The network regards these tools as fundamentally flawed because they stem from worldviews like Neo-Marxism and other ideological systems that are hostile to the Christian faith.
Lorine Spratt, executive assistant to Jurkovich and an African-American layperson in the SBC, told CP in an interview Thursday that she supports the aspirations of the new conservative initiative and that she finds Resolution Nine's words on CRT offensive.
"To even suggest something else is needed as a tool to engage the culture is ludicrous," she said, noting that anytime someone mentions it to her she responds by referring to the story of the Ethiopian eunuch to whom Philip explained the Gospel in Acts 8.
"That man went back and evangelized his people [in Ethiopia]. And so there was no tool to help him. Philip obeyed the Lord and God did what He does."
Although the text of the resolution stipulates that critical race theory and intersectionality "should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture — not as transcendent ideological frameworks," she still views what is happening in the SBC as an insidious push from increasingly vocal "woke" pockets. The influence of these theories ultimately undermines the mission of the Church, she believes, "because they are diametrically opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ."
The word "woke," as a political term, is often said to be African-American in origin and refers to a perceived awareness about racial issues and social justice, and is often employed for other pet causes of the secular left.
Spratt said she feels patronized when proponents of CRT say that they need the tool to engage her ethnicity and culture.
"I say absolutely no. The Gospel is totally sufficient. Totally sufficient," she emphasized, "and the fact of its origin should tell anyone that we don't need that in the Southern Baptist Church or in the church realm at all."
Asked what she makes of the argument that examples of intersectionality can be seen in Scripture, such as when Jesus ministered to the Samaritan woman at the well — who was doubly marginalized in that day because she was both a woman and a Samaritan — Spratt maintained that defenders of the theory only highlight passages of Scripture that dovetail with a predetermined narrative of their own design.
The Jewish tax collectors were also hated and marginalized during that time, she pointed out, but "the woke" somehow never mention that instance.
"I am embarrassed. I really am embarrassed that they would insinuate that an analytical tool needs to be used to deal with me. I'm insulted that they would think to use something like that to say that my culture or ethnicity ... that we need extra care. That is not true," she said.
"What it does is seek to make us a victim so they can then rescue [us], so they can make themselves feel good about helping [racial minorities]. Well no, you're not helping me if you're not pointing me to the Lord Jesus Christ. And I am not a victim. I am victorious in Jesus Christ."
Those affiliated with the new network remember the gains made during what is known as the Conservative Resurgence, a movement that began several decades ago and was marked by a lengthy struggle within the denomination over its theologically liberal trajectory at the time. This movement's key players have insisted that as moderate and liberal leaders of seminaries and other SBC entities were replaced with theological conservatives, the denomination flourished and in many ways became a standard-bearer of sorts for both evangelism and biblical orthodoxy in the United States. Opponents of the Conservative Resurgence often derisively refer to the movement as the fundamentalist takeover of the SBC.
But some theological conservatives are now wondering, in light of growing apprehension over shifting theological winds in many churches, if their values remain represented in their agencies and if another similar resurgence may be at hand.
Mike Spradlin, president of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Cordova, Tennessee, said his consistent aim is to stay anchored in the truth of Scripture and that, under its authority, he speaks to every area of life with conviction. Spradlin also teaches Old Testament and Hebrew at the seminary.
"To me, it's not just a new struggle, but a constant struggle," he said, noting the importance of diligence because it is easy to slip away from the Bible's essential truths.
"And as a theologian I'm very sensitive when you try to add to the Gospel or add to the Bible and say: 'This is necessary for salvation or for godly living or societal change.'"
Southern Baptists are losing their passion for personal evangelism and missions, he asserted.
"It's kind of like the elephant in the room. Nobody wants to talk about it. As a Southern Baptist, our denomination is in decline numerically. We are also declining rapidly in baptisms, which is a good indicator that people are coming to Christ. So that should be a crisis moment for us," he said.
Though the denomination has always had various camps and groups that tend to rally around particular ideas, theological paradigms, or personalities, the conflict is not new, he stressed.
He continued that because of how the denomination is structured — it's a collection of churches and not one singular institution — frustration sometimes emerges in churches as some feel disconnected from denominational leaders, particularly if they have differing visions of what the SBC should be.
Yet, he said, "we're going to choose to work together because we want to get the Gospel to the nations. I think that has always been a rallying cry in a good way. And if you want to rally Southern Baptists you'll rally them with taking the Gospel to the nations," Spradlin said.
"My hope is that the Conservative Baptist Network will keep people engaged on the Great Commission, that they will stay plugged in, that they will not disconnect or just throw up their hands but they'll stay engaged and take the Gospel to the nations," he reiterated.
Echoing Spradlin, Chuck Kelley, president emeritus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, said the need for the network comes about particularly because of the ongoing decline of the Southern Baptist Convention, a trend he has been tracking and calling attention to for many years.
"I am a simple-minded evangelist," Kelley told CP. "That is the passion of my life, that is my calling. It has been the focus of my adult life as a scholar in the academic world."
"And what has really concerned me is a true crisis of the Southern Baptist Convention in evangelism and in health of our churches," he said.
Before talk of the decline was more common among Southern Baptists, Kelley was sounding the alarm with presentations in various Baptist forums. Years ago when he gave one such presentation about this, Baptist Press refused to cover it because the outlet deemed it "too controversial," he recalled. The decline is now unignorable.
The former NOBTS president notes that depending on whom you speak to in the SBC, their thinking about the health of the denomination varies significantly.
In 2018, in the wake of a burgeoning #metoo movement and a tumultuous annual meeting, he encountered several conservative pastors who confided in him that they were not sure if they could stay in the SBC much longer because of the direction it appeared to be heading.
The well-known tension over the theological orientation of the SBC between the Calvinist and traditionalist wings remain, Kelley said, but the lack of conversation about evangelism is more shocking.
He hopes the efforts of the network will alleviate the "unsettledness" in the denomination and provide a "clear voice" that will show that the SBC, as it has been historically, is "committed to the inerrancy of Scripture and the Word of God, and making first things first and keeping first things first."
"And evangelism is on that list of things."
Lee Brand, dean of MABTS underscored the importance the network is placing on the primacy of the Bible and hopes it will be a forum where people can come together to dialogue.
"I think about pastors and churches because those are the people for whom I'm greatly concerned. I want our pastors to know that we champion the position that the Bible is enough."
"We want to make sure that anything we say about the Bible, that we hold the Bible in its proper esteem as not only the Word of God but enough to handle all the issues of life," he stressed.
When asked how he sees the CBN as a catalyst for unity in the church, Brand said that he believes it will be a vehicle to launch a timely discussion around the sufficiency of Scripture.
"We're at a very important time in the life of the SBC. We're talking about the largest mission sending agency in our country and that mission that we're on is rooted in Scripture. And I think that if it's the roots and foundation thereof I think it needs to be the focus going forward," he said.
Unlike other SBC seminaries, Mid-America Seminary receives no funds through the denomination's Cooperative Program.
"It's not a money issue for us, it's a matter of principle," he emphasized.
Rod Martin, who serves on the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention and on the state board of missions for the Florida Baptist Convention, explained to CP that the most important thing for the new network to achieve is to offer hope to "countless" Southern Baptists, who need to know they are not alone.
"There is an enormous media push in the direction of the left," he said, noting that the push is both theological and political. "It's not what it was in the days of Uncle Walter [Kronkite]. You could trust him, look at the television and he said it and it's true."
Yet today, much of the purportedly mainstream press has a strong advocacy bent, he asserted, and "they might as well be Super PACs. And that [influence] bleeds over into the church."
Given such widespread distrust of mass media, Southern Baptists are prone to giving up hope too easily, he said.
And since Southern Baptist polity is organized around the autonomy of the local church, an ecclesiastical structure they continue to believe in, at the Executive Committee level what needs to be reestablished is the ongoing validity that the EC does not tell local churches what to do, Martin said; the reverse, that churches tell the EC what to do, is the SBC standard.
"Do we need to take a stand against sex abuse? Absolutely. Do we need to take a stand against racism wherever we find it? One hundred percent. I'm completely there. But at the point at which we start becoming some other denomination ... if I want to go be an Episcopalian or a Presbyterian I'll go be one," he said.
"But we've chosen to be Baptists and we have to maintain the autonomy of the local church. And we're having real issues there. But with that said, the Executive Committee's role is partly to defend the reality that the entire superstructure of the Convention is about stewarding the local church's gifts to do collective ministry, not to preach to them."
Thus, the EC has to defend the rights of local churches to spend their contributions in a biblically faithful way, he said.
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention will occur in Orlando in June.