From 1979 to around 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was embroiled in a theological-political controversy that resulted in conservatives gaining control of the denomination's various entities. The winners call this period the "Conservative Resurgence." But all is not well for contemporary Southern Baptists. Conservatives debate issues such as the emerging church movement(s), Calvinism, private prayer languages, and the finer points of Baptist ecclesiology.
Annual baptism statistics have remained relatively steady for several decades, despite substantial American population growth. Studies show that less than 40 percent of the convention's 16 million members attend worship regularly. Statistics also point to a plateau in membership, including a decline in total membership in 2006. Some observers believe these facts undermine the validity of the Resurgence.
David Dockery, however, is not one of them, though he is concerned about the SBC's future. Dockery is a product of the Resurgence. He has served in a number of denominational posts, including his current position as president of Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. His new book, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal, attempts to build upon the foundation of the Resurgence while addressing some of the most hotly debated questions in the contemporary SBC. Dockery's goal is to unify post-Resurgence Southern Baptists by proposing a theological and methodological consensus. He says, "It is now time to move from controversy and confusion to a new consensus and a renewed commitment to collaborative cooperation."
And indeed, his book provides help for any denomination seeking renewal. A key point in the book is finding the right balance between essentials and nonessentials, allowing diversity to flourish whenever possible.
Dockery argues for a theological consensus to help unify Southern Baptist conservatives of various theological stripes. Southern Baptists, Dockery says, should remain committed to the sufficiency and inerrancy of Scripture as the foundation, with the gospel at the center. Historic Baptist identity must inform the consensus, he says, urging that genuine diversity among convention conservatives also be respected. A healthy confessionalism should guard the consensus by aiding Southern Baptists in distinguishing between primary, secondary, and tertiary doctrines.
Dockery believes that renewed orthopraxy will accompany this consensus in orthodoxy. Southern Baptist worship, Dockery says, should receive insights from both Baptist history and the wider Christian tradition. A renewed theological education must engage the wider academy while remaining accountable to the churches of the SBC. Dockery believes his vision for consensus and renewal will help Southern Baptists better reach the lost world: "If Southern Baptists reflected the kind of love and unity for which the Lord Jesus Christ prayed … it would do wonders for converting sinners and enlarging the church of Jesus Christ."
Dockery clearly appreciates the Conservative Resurgence, but at the same time agrees with Timothy George's dictum that "the mere replacement of one set of bureaucrats with another doth not a reformation make." Dockery does not always go into great detail about exactly how his proposals will lead to the changes he says the church needs, nor does he address every issue facing post-Resurgence Southern Baptists. But Dockery does offer a helpful manifesto for what the SBC ought to look like. Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal also serves as a helpful introduction to the contemporary SBC for evangelicals from other ecclesiastical traditions.
Nathan Finn is assistant professor of church history, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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Hunter Baker interviewed Dockery about Christian higher education.
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