Thursday, June 25, 2015

Countercultural Christianity and the SBC

The Economist recently had a review of Baptists in America: A History, a new book by Thomas Kidd and Barry Hankins, history professors at Baylor University. Among other things, the reviewer avers that current Baptist opposition to abortion and gay marriage is “a throwback . . . to their roots as outsiders resisting the mainstream.”
Certainly there was much countercultural activity by the early Baptists in this country. For example, they rejected the practice of infant baptism and the establishment of a state church—and some suffered because of that countercultural stance. (I wrote last year about one of June’s relatives who spent time in jail for the “crime” of preaching as a Baptist.)
But in some ways Baptists in the South were not countercultural as they became entwined in and ardent supporters of the culture of slavery. As The Economist article says, “. . . white Southern Baptists will forever labour in the shadow of having been badly wrong on civil rights.”
(Most commendably, though, at the 1995 annual meeting the SBC did “genuinely repent of racism”; while some saw that as too little much too late, surely that was better than not doing it at all.)
Last week at the 2015 annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, David Platt, the (relatively) new president of the International Mission Board of the SBC, had a major part in Tuesday evening’s call to prayer “for the Next Great Awakening and to Reach the World for Christ.”
David Platt at the 2015 SBC Annual Meeting
Platt has recently written a book titled Counter Culture. I had a very mixed reaction to Platt’s new book when I read it earlier this year. The second chapter on poverty was excellent, I thought. The eighth chapter was also a strong, and good, rejection of racism.
The fourth and fifth chapters were also quite good, but I had some serious questions about most of the other chapters.
Platt had previously written Radical: Taking Back Your Faith from the American Dream (2010). That New York Times bestseller was my first introduction to Platt, and I found it quite impressive. He is also the author of Radical Together (2011) and Follow Me (2013).
In his first three books, there is virtually no mention of abortion or LGBT issues, but those matters dominate Platt’s new book. In fact, the implication is that being completely and absolutely opposed to all abortion and homosexual activity is necessary for being a Christian.
This, it seems, is a new fundamentalism.
According to Platt, “Abortion is an affront to God’s authority as Creator, an assault on God’s work in creation, and an attack on God’s relationship with the unborn” (p. 69). Consequently, if we believe the gospel, then we must speak out against the injustice of abortion” (p. 72).
In the chapter on the gospel and sexual morality, Platt declares that the Bible is clear that “homosexual activity is sexual immorality before God” (p. 170). He goes on to assert that “unrepentant sexual sin will ultimately lead to hell” (p. 177).
There is a quite different, and much better, view of what it means to be countercultural Christians in Robin Meyers’s book Underground Church (2012), and I plan to share and critique ideas from that book soon.
Early Baptists in the U.S. were, admirably, countercultural in their emphasis on individual freedom and freedom from the state.
But there is nothing commendable in their current “countercultural” efforts to deny freedom to others, such as to pro-choice women or to gays/lesbians who want the freedom to form a legally-recognized, permanent relationship with their partners.


  1. I would confess that, while reading your blog today, I felt an overwhelming sense of weariness at and about American Christianity--particularly this southern-fried nonsense. Any Christianity that wants to claim counter-cultural status would have to be highly critical of American nationalism, of foreign imperialistic ventures, of the militarizing of the state and local law enforcement, of the lack of regulation of exploitative capitalism, and of the gross inequality created by free-market policies.... Where are his chapters titled, "The Gospel and Nationalism," "The Gospel and Economic Exploitation," "The Gospel and Greed," "The Gospel and War"?

    1. I think you are exactly correct, Anton. And that is one reason I am so positive about Robin Meyers's book, for even though those aren't his chapter titles, he deals with the issues of nationalism, economic exploitation, greed, and war, calling on Christians in the Underground Church to be countercultural in those ways.

  2. Anton has eloquently expressed the downside of the new fundamentalism of the SBC and similar groups. So, let me try for the positive. For starts, as Leroy reports, the SBC repented of its racism in 1995. Was that late? Yes! Still, did it finally happen? Yes! As the old saying goes, "The mills of God grind slowly."

    In 2015, even as we write, it appears the Confederate Battle Flag is being swept from official public display across the south. Is it late? Yes! Is there still a long ways to go? Yes! Is part of the energy behind the sweep a certain desperation on the part of southern politicians to avoid the other elephant in the room, southern guns and the NRA? Yes! So what? "The mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine." Or, as Sextus Empiricus put it in the first know use of the statement, "The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind small."

  3. My Thinking Friend in California, who has been a personal friend since the late 1940s, wrote,

    "I disagree with you on your soft approach to abortion & LGBT issues.

    "I am a member of a pretty liberal non-denomination church and they preach against the issues you seem to be receptive to.

    "I would like to know how you can accept what our Bible is so much against?"

  4. Here is a comment that June (my wife) sent in an email (along with comments on other things):

    "It's really strange how the people who hold power in the SBC determine what God believes or doesn't believe. I'm thankful for the years of 'priesthood of the believer' and 'soul freedom' and those things we had for many years."

  5. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson writes,

    "Thanks, Leroy. I haven’t read Platt’s books, so the highlighting of certain of his views helps me to see that the Southern Baptist Convention has not turned over a new leaf from its fundamentalist resurgence."