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A man named Paul Pressler warned us that a wrong view of authority would lead to debauchery and downgrade. He was right. What he didn’t tell us was that his vision for American Christianity would be one of the ways we would get there.

News did not break about the death of the retired Houston judge, the co-architect of the “Baptist Reformation” that we called “the conservative resurgence,” until days after his demise, probably due to the fact that he died in disgrace.

My colleague Daniel Silliman explains excellently the paradox of Pressler’s public and private life. According to multiple serious and credible allegations by named people, with corroboration from multiple others and over a very long period of time, Pressler was a sexual molester of young men and boys. As reporter Rob Downen of The Texas Tribune summarizes in his thread, the nature of the corroborating evidence against the late judge is the size of a mountain.

It’s fair to say that most people—certainly most people in Southern Baptist pews—did not know about these reports of such a villainous nature for a long time. But it is also fair to say that almost everyone, at least those even minimally close up, could see other aspects—a cruelty, a viciousness, a vindictiveness—that displayed the means of Machiavelli, not the ways of the Messiah. His defining virtue—for all of us who retold the “Won Cause” mythology of the reformers who “saved the convention from liberalism”—was not Christlikeness but the fact that he was willing to fight.

And fight he did. At a meeting of pastors, he famously used the metaphor that conservatives would have to “go for the jugular” in defeating the moderate Baptist leaders of the time. Commentator Bill Moyers and I would have sharply divergent views on almost every major theological issue, but he accurately described Pressler, in the 1980s, as one who “rules the Southern Baptist Convention like a swaggering Caesar, breaking good men when it pleases him.” Good men, and women, indeed were broken—and some are breaking still.

I write this as a biblical inerrantist—more convinced than ever that the Bible is the verbally inspired Word of God and that it contains, as an oft-repeated line of our confession of faith puts it, “truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.” There were genuine issues of what any honest observer would call theological liberalism in some places, especially in some sectors of the Southern Baptist academy. But, as I came to realize much later than I should have, some of those deemed to be “liberals” were not so at all. Riffing on a misattributed quote from Andy Warhol, I’d realize that among Baptists, everyone gets a turn at being called a liberal for at least 15 minutes.

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And many others, I’ve come to see, liberalized precisely because they saw the mafia-like tactics of those such as Pressler and concluded that, since this “conservatism” was so obviously not of the spirit of Christ, whatever was its mirror image must be right. I don’t agree, as a Christian, that this is the correct response—but, as a human being, I can understand it.

Sometimes, when teaching theology at a Southern Baptist seminary, I would quote Pressler warning about what he called the “Dalmatian theory of inspiration.”

“Once you say that the Bible could contain error, you make yourself the judge of what portions of the Bible are true and which portions are error,” Pressler said in an interview at the height of the Southern Baptist controversy over biblical inerrancy. “It is a presumptuous thing for an individual to edit God. Somebody has called it the spot theory of inspiration. The Bible was inspired in spots, and we are inspired to spot the spots.”

Even before the court actions and subsequent revelations, though, those of us in the conservative wing of Baptist life should have recognized the low view of biblical authority even in the actions Pressler did in full public view. Instead, we were told, and believed, that the stakes were too high—the orthodoxy of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination—to worry that the warlords leading the charge were not like Jesus. Many of us learned to tolerate the idea that one can do evil that good may result—a contradiction of the inerrant Word of God (Rom. 3:8).

The implicit idea is that, if the stakes are high enough, the usual norms of Christian morality—on truth-telling and kindness, gentleness, love, joy, self-control, etc.—can be ignored, at least long enough to fix the problem and return to normal.

This is not an unusual temptation: Let’s violate human rights in order to save human rights. Let’s terminate the Constitution to save the Constitution. Let’s elect sexual abusers to protect the family. Let’s disobey the Bible to save the Bible. Pressler warned (about other people in other situations) that what is tolerated is ultimately celebrated. That’s not always true, of course, but it certainly was in the case of conviction defined as quarrelsomeness.

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Before one knows it, one ends up with a partisan definition of truth, all the more ironic for defenders of biblical inerrancy and—with a situational definition of ethics—for warriors against moral relativism. When this happens, the criterion by which the confession of faith is interpreted is through whatever controversy enlivens the crowd. Biblical passages that seem to be violated by one’s “enemies” are then emphasized, while those applying to one’s own “side” are minimized. To do this well, one needs some authoritative, if not authoritarian, leaders to spot the spots that are to be underlined and to skip over those to be ignored.

What difference does it make if one’s liberalism is characterized by ignoring Paul but quoting the Sermon on the Mount, or by ignoring the Sermon on the Mount but quoting Paul? How is one a liberal who explains away the Exodus but takes literally the Prophets, while that’s not true for the one who explains away the Prophets but takes literally the Exodus?

If the Bible is breathed out by God, then all of it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, ESV throughout). A high view of biblical authority does not, by itself, guarantee orthodoxy.

As one of my (very conservative) professors in seminary once told me, “Biblical inerrancy, by itself, is just an agreed-upon table of contents.” The work of interpretation must be done, and that requires the hard work of determining what matters are of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3) and what matters can be debated without ending cooperation. True enough.

But one can’t even debate those issues of interpretation in good faith if all sides are operating with their own secret canons-within-the-canon, determined by what to affirm or deny in order to stay in the tribe. That’s what the Bible calls being “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14). Whether those winds blow to the left or to the right or to the center, they leave us adrift.

Paul Pressler said he believed in biblical authority. He said that it mattered. It did, and it does. But the last 40 years should teach us that inerrancy is not enough. It does not matter how loudly one sings the words, “the Bible tells me so,” if one’s life and character contradict the words, “Jesus loves me, this I know.” Conviction without character destroys lives, and, in the long-term, reveals itself to have been something other than conviction all along. Sometimes, a battle for the Bible reveals itself to be a battle against the Bible.

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It’s easy to see this in the tragedy of one man’s life, one denomination’s history. But the truth is that every one of us are vulnerable to the search for someone to spot the spots we are free to disobey. That’s a hill on which to die. It’s not the same thing, you know: going for the jugular and being washed in the blood.

Russell Moore is the editor in chief at Christianity Today and leads its Public Theology Project.