January 22, 2021

Who Let The Theologians In Here? (The SBC, that is.)

theologf.jpgUPDATE: I have revised and updated several parts of this essay, to make a few things more clear….and probably less palatable.

Russell Moore, Southern Baptist scholar and writer at Touchstone’s Mere Comments blog, dashed off this line a few days ago:

The stakes have been raised in the last twenty-four hours as the SBC’s most prominent theologian, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., has joined the fray.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the changes in the Southern Baptist Convention during my lifetime, and it should generate some blog posts. Here’s the question: What is the impact of the growing numbers of influential “theologians” now attempting to shape the direction of the SBC?

I will spare you the summary of Baptist polity, but here are the highlights. Every SBC church is autonomous. Cooperation is voluntary. Confessionalism is, even with an increased emphasis in the conservative-controlled years, still a “back burner” issue for the vast majority of Baptists, who never hear or see the “Baptist Faith and Message Statement” used in the churches more than a couple of times a year.

Seminaries, agencies and other denominational entities are funded through state conventions and the national Cooperative Program. There is no “denominational head” beyond the “President” elected every year by the messengers at the entirely voluntary convention. Whatever the convention cooks up is usually passed, and agencies have to pay attention to such things, but churches do whatever they please, and routinely pay little attention to denominational directions. So there is no place that theologians have authority in the SBC. In fact, there isn’t much formal authority in the SBC, and depending on your point of view, that may be a good- or not so good- thing.

There is nothing quite as predictable and Southern Baptist as calls for more revivals, witnessing and Baptisms. There is nothing less Southern Baptist than the idea of a permanent stable of theologians telling pastors what they need to do. Theologians were always on the outskirts of denominational life. They wrote books and talked among themselves. They might even appear in a denominational paper or at some high profile convention event, but they were from the borderlands. Interesting, smart and rare.

It’s important to remember that Southern Baptists don’t require anything for ordination except a passable conversion testimony and a church that wants you to preach. What percentage of Southern Baptist pastors are college graduates in theology or related areas? What percentage are seminary graduates? It’s a minority. Southern Baptists also don’t have the “presbytery” supervising the doctrinal stands of ministers or a “church court” hauling people up on charges. No, in Baptist life, if your local association doesn’t like the fact that you have a woman leading music, they can vote you out, but you’d really have to do something outrageous to get kicked out of the state or national convention. I mean, think big…..bigger…..we’re still not there.

I bring all this up because it’s now fairly apparent that we have a “theologian class” in the SBC, and they are pretty busy doing more than writing defenses of Baptism. They seem to be wiring their own place in the power grid of the denomination, and have garnered considerable clout with the advent of Mohler as a national voice for conservative evangelicals. These new theologians are increasingly handing down theological and practical dogma from the standpoint of those who know what Southern Baptists must believe and do. They are playing a role in convention life that is growing in importance and influence. They are leading the SBC into the culture war, and into a focus on theological issues more than missional issues.

I am not denying the existence of influential Baptist theologians in the past. Southern Baptists have an impressive and diverse array of writing and teaching theologians, going all the way back to Dagg, Broadus and Boyce, and continuing today with Dale Moody, Millard Erikson and Carl Henry. I’m aware of our rich- and troubled- theological heritage. It’s not the same as our Presbyterian friends, and there is a reason.

The fact is that Southern Baptists have been a preacher led denomination. Pastor-theologians, but no one would mistake Bailey Smith for a real theologian. Think B.H. Carroll. W.A. Criswell. Hershel Hobbs. Adrian Rogers. These are the kinds of men who have shaped Southern Baptist life. These were men whose lack of theological polish was part of their leadership appeal. They sounded and smelled like Bible preachers, first and foremost.

Am I wrong to say that for the majority of the life of the SBC, the theologians always took a back seat to the preacher, the evangelist and the missionary? Am I wrong that the seminary professor never really had the kind of influence that would matter much in a typical First Baptist Church in Texas? Or in Middle of the Creek Baptist Church in Tennessee? Or among a group of Baptist laymen on their way to a mission project?

To be truthful, the SBC, as I have experienced it, has always been suspicious of theology, and the conservative resurgence, while certainly sparking renewed interest in theology, has not changed the basic Southern Baptist church, pastor or church member. He or She is not looking for or listening to theologians. They are listening to Rick Warren and Beth Moore. They want to win souls, support missions and start churches. Where do theologians fit in? They are supposed to support the missionary and evangelistic work of the churches. To the extent that a theologian can get “down and dirty” in the concerns of ordinary Baptists, then he may be heard and admired.

So here’s my two cents, and that may be over-priced.

The growing “theologian class” in the SBC has very few places to go. They must make their own mischief. Once the seminaries and colleges are in conservative hands, then we can expect the theological battles to move “in-house.” Watch for more doctrinal contention about matters less than crucial to the mission of church. Watch for “theological renewal” to take on more and more the cast of predictable “theological battles” between various teams in evangelicalism. Watch for the conservative resurgence to increasingly sound like a lot of young preacher boys arguing about Calvinism. (Around Louisville, it already does. With a liberal Presbyterian Seminary across the road, it’s SBTS that is turning out preachers of TULIP.)

Watch for one strange turn. The new SBC theologians are culture warriors. They want to “engage” the culture, but what they mean is to assert conservative Christianity in the cultural battleground issues. These issues motivate many pastors and churches because they are “red meat” issues. Backed up by Dobson and the new evangelical media, the theological class is writing less about Baptist views of the church and more about fundamentalist views of the culture war.

Many of these theologians work hard to function as pundits of political and social concerns. These theologians will lead the church full speed into the culture wars….with little interest in how this will affect the overall mission of the church. And there is no denying that it is difficult to fight the culture war on one hand, and be focused on missional vision at the same time. Theology and mission are interwoven, but the negative, “fighting mode” vision of the culture warriors grows churches by bringing in the like-minded: White, suburban, Republican families.

It’s the theologians who are saying “responsible” Southern Baptists must leave the public schools. That’s an interesting development from the standpoint of missions. Is there a matching emphasis on the way on starting cheap, urban, non-evangelical-ghetto schools as a way of doing missions? I am afraid the culture-war theology of the new SBC theolgians doesn’t yet answer some of the complex questions that their “war time mindset” will raise for the church.

Watch the theologians attempt to move the focus of Southern Baptists to issues such as creationism, the role of women, courtship, marriage and motherhood, homeschooling, cultural persecution of evangelicals, media, ecumenism and politics. (Note how theological concerns pushed the SBC to a confessional position on women in ministry, and also precipitated withdrawal from the BWA. Public schools will be the next issue on the docket, then opposition to Hillary, then young earth creationism.)

Expect the theological class to take a chilly attitude toward the non-traditional, missional conversation going on in the emerging church and among innovative church planters and pastors. Watch for more emphasis on theological issues like nuances of the doctrine of justification, and less on how to start churches among postmoderns. Watch for theologians to be hauled into battle as surrogates in tensions about worship, leadership development and missional thinking.

There are many potentially good developments from a higher profile for theologians in the SBC. I believe we need thousands of “pastor-theologians,” and we need good theologians teaching and writing to support the denomination in its best work. I am not attempting to be alarmist or stubbornly negative. I do believe, however, that the growing influence of a “theologian class” in the SBC will have an effect on the denomination for the future.

Next, I’d like to ask “Just what is a theologian anyway?”


  1. iMonk, that was brilliant. Coming from an SBC church my whole life and working for the SBC have shown me that convention politics scare me. However, I give a second reason for your question of where are the theologians supposed to go. Many of today’s amazing Southern Baptists don’t like the convention very much. They prefer Jesus instead. No, I’m serious. Most of the graduates of SBC seminaries I’ve met who have a theological mindset have run from the convention as quickly as possible – many times to plant churches that reach people for Christ. That is where your emergent church leaders are going. Your reformed SBC theologians are sometimes getting out of the denomination altogether, because although the Baptist Faith and Message has a Calvinist thread in it, most Baptists don’t know or don’t believe it. And I think the rest of us have just given up completely on trying to influence the bigwigs of the convention and have gone overseas with the IMB, where the SBC doesn’t matter as much as spreading God’s love does. It’s hard, because I know the worst part is that these people I’m speaking of are the very people the SBC needs to change it. If I’m an SBC pastor/teacher/missionary (which I am, I’m stuck with the predicament of whether to leave the SBC because of my beliefs and objections to the current trend of leadership, or to stay, knowing that unless some of us stay and try to influence others, things will only get worse.

  2. Benji Ramsaur says


    Thank you for your comments. What you said makes alot of sense and I think reflects what is actually going on and what the mindset is for many of these theologians.

  3. “I just read Aaron enough to know that he is another person who sees the SBC as Calvinistic, and judges all things by that view.”

    If that comment was about me, then it is not true. I see the SBC as historically Calvinistic in its origins and early years, but now moved far from its roots. I see a renewal of Calvinism in the SBC and hope that it will continue, although I hope that it maintains good theological balance.

    I also do not “judge all things” by this. What makes you say that?

  4. Benji Ramsaur says


    You said “But the SBC is Texas revivalism and will be for the next century.”

    I think Texas Revivalism is dieing. I think Rick Warren is still strong and I think that if it were not for him (if he is revivalistic) that Finney might actually go out the door in this century.

    I do not see the younger generation as in love with 50’s style revivalism as I think the older generation is.

    Paige Patterson and men like him are not going to live forever. And I don’t see anyone of their cut capturing the imagination of younger guys on the level of a John Piper

    “The Next Centurey” is a bold statement for you. Surely you know of the kinds of changes that can happen in a century.

  5. Good thoughts, Benji. If they had had blogs in the 1860’s, perhaps the Calvinistic Baptist theologians would have writing essays entitled, “Who let the ‘new measures’ revivalists in here? The SBC is Calvinistic and will be for the next century.” Of course, they would have been wrong with that projection.

  6. Benji Ramsaur says


    What led you to ask Aaron “would you not say you aspire to be one of the new Calvinistic theologians in the SBC?” and state that he “sees the SBC as Calvinistic, and judges all things by that view” (which you then seemed to explain to mean that he thinks “the SBC is full of Calvinists”)?

    Just based off of what I have read of Aaron, I don’t see anything that he said that would lead one to ask this question of him or state this assertion about him.

  7. The Aaron I had in mind is NOT on this comment thread. Total mistake on my part. Sorry. Forgive. Grovel. etc.

  8. Forgiven. There are too many Aarons around here. I will try to remember to always identify myself as “Aaron O.” (which I failed to do in my last comment).

  9. Benji Ramsaur says


    We can get the wrong impression of what we are saying to each other because we can’t hear the tone of what we are saying to each other. So, let me just say that what I am about to say is no sarcastic.

    Even though I have never met you, for some reason I could just hear you (or some imaginary person I guess say) “Sorry, Forgive, Grovel. etc” and it brought me a good laugh. Thanks, I think I need a good laugh from time to time.

  10. kelty broadstone says

    Or, maybe the result of younger SBC reformed theologians will be a new baptist denomination because they will realize they/we will continue to be outnumbered and that reformation within the SBC is a pipe dream, a utopia. Perhaps they will be neo-protestants.

    Or, maybe the result will be that younger SBC calvinist will simply develop a gracious ability to work across intra-theological lines with older SBC arminians. And somewhere in between the pomo’s and traditionalist will realize they don’t give a rip about theological issues because they never did any way, that it was more their own cultural contrivances which created the rub.

    However, the thought occurs to me that divisions within the SBC are not simply calvinistic vs. arminian anymore than they are pomo vs. traditional.

    Or, maybe the result will be more and more confusion.

    And maybe the issue is we really don’t love God or each other very well.

    I tend to think imonk is correct that the new theologian class is having an effect. Predicting the logical outcome of this effect is tricky.

    Personally, I love theology and I love fighting against heresies and I love reading all the old dead cool theologians. I also love my brothers/sisters in the Lord who I know really “get it” and are humble about themselves and are passionate to be holy. I love the feel I get from being part of something ancient and old and yet ageless as God. I love good friendships and I love it when I can get my point across without being harsh or glib.

    I love Jesus most and I’m just ready for Jesus to come back soon and make it all better.

    I’m going to be attending SBTS soon and I hope it goes well. The first thing on the schedule when I first visited the seminary was speaking with a professor who had just gotten back from India for a missions trip. He’d been back just a few days and had missed Wednesday night church the night before. He had stopped by a gas station instead to get ice cream or something and the man in the store had only been in the states from India for a few months. The excitement and wonder this professor shared at such providence was encouraging.

    I tell this story because we talk about “them” but these are real people, more than that, real brothers and sisters. My sense is this guy probably really loves people and wants to evangelize. He is also a fairly decent egg-head theologian. Both aspects appeal to me.

    There is certainly an effect from the so-called “theologian class” but I don’t think it is a threat to the SBC. Anyone in the SBC is a threat who isn’t living by the Spirit, Romans 8.

    Grace and Peace,


  11. Imonk wrote:

    I think that YEC is about to become a badge for really being an inerrantist (or a Biblicist, as it may be called by then), and it will be interesting to watch those who aren’t YECers- like Mohler, so I’m told- deal with this.


    When I graduated from MBTS in 1990, I was in the “conservative” camp theologically, at a time when that school would have been labeled “moderate.” I’ve served in a church in the area since then and have witnessed the “conservative resurgence” that took place among the faculty there through the eyes of several students who attended my church.

    Initially, I thought of this shift in “my direction” as a good thing (though I should add that I loved many of my professors and learned much from them). However, to my suprise, something quite unexpected happened to me: the “box” defining what it meant to be conservative kept getting smaller and smaller until one day, I discovered (through a staff member who was attending the seminary) that I and my church were no longer in it!

    What happened? The box had become defined not only by theology, but by practice as well. And, as one of those non-expository-preaching-entertain-while-watering-down-the-gospel Willow-style churches, we didn’t fit. Even worse, I was the one who planted the thing.

    All of which leads me to a conclusion concerning many who today fit comfortably inside the current theology and practice “box” … don’t be surprised when you find yourself on the outside of it because of issues like YEC (which amazingly, I believe, and have actually preached to those “just entertain me or I’m gone” seekers. Yes, clearly, I am one confused pastor).

    I know this post has an edge, but after awhile you just get sick of YOUR OWN PEOPLE taking shots at you and what you are doing to reach and teach those who you know and love who will never darken the door of a traditional church.

  12. I may regret asking this…but what is so big bad and scary about believing in young earth Creationism? What, are we afraid a scientist might laugh at us? That we might look a little silly? Seriously…what’s wrong with it?

  13. I have no trouble at all with you believing whatever you want about science.

    But I can’t believe in a young earth, and I can’t accept the idea that Genesis must be scientifically verified to be “true.” And I really can’t deal with being told I “must” accept YEC to be Christian.

    I wrote all I have to say about it here:


  14. Benji Ramsaur says


    I read some of your article and it seems as if you belive in a/the framework view. Is this true?

  15. Michael that was an extremely well written article. I have been SBC my entire life, and consider our staff to be “pastor/theologians”. I am not sure what the outcome will be from this new wave of theology being introduced into the SBC, but I pray that in a lot of ways your predictions are wrong. Especially the move into politics, but as you know SBC has always had a hand in politics. Let’s hope that at least some good, theologically sound churches will, dare I say “emerge” from the lastest interest in changing our seminaries in to theologically correct institutions.

    Yes that was me you slammed in “BoarsHead” over the “inspired liturgy” comment.

  16. Ron Freyer-nicholas says

    Al Mohler is a theologian??? Who came up with that idea?

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