Will Falwell be a ‘loyal’ Southern Baptist?
Reprint from the WESTERN RECORDER Oct. 29, 1996
After years of speculation, Jerry Falwell finally has joined the Southern Baptist Convention. But does that make Jerry Falwell a Southern Baptist?
In the strictest sense of the term, yes. Falwell’s church, Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., has begun making monthly contributions to the SBC through the new conservative Baptist state convention in Virginia. According to the SBC’s Constitution, all you have to do to be a Southern Baptist is give money. Falwell and his church now meet that requirement.
The significance of Falwell joining the SBC must not be overlooked. This is a watershed moment in Baptist history, as fateful in reverse as the day Texas fundamentalist J. Frank Norris led First Baptist Church of Fort Worth out of the SBC and energized an independent Baptist movement against the cooperative movement within the SBC.
Falwell has staked his prominent career on being an independent Baptist. He has not seen the benefit of cooperative missions nor of Southern Baptist doctrine. In years past, Falwell and Southern Baptists have been miles apart both in doctrine and practice. But now a merger has occurred.
The most pivotal questions to ask is this: Who moved? Falwell has not moved one inch toward the SBC. Rather, the SBC has slowly moved its tent right on top of Falwell’s camp and now encompasses him.
If we ever lacked solid evidence that the SBC has shifted dramatically to the right, Falwell’s endorsement removes all doubt.
Some Southern Baptists and Kentucky Baptists will welcome Falwell with rejoicing. These Baptists see Falwell as a great defender of the faith, a voice for righteousness and conservative values in a wicked society.
Other Southern Baptists and Kentucky Baptists will hang their heads in shame. To be identified as part of the same religious body as Falwell will be more than they can bear. These Baptists see Falwell as the poster child for religious intolerance and narrow-minded doctrine.
Given the trends, Falwell likely will be elected president of the SBC before the turn of the century. But even if Falwell’s church does continue giving to the SBC and he does ascend to the convention’s top elected post, does that make him a loyal Southern Baptist?
According to the logic the SBC’s current leaders have used in dealing with disgruntled moderates, no. Falwell has clearly stated his church is giving only a “modest” amount to the Cooperative Program unified budget and intends to continue supporting a wide array of independent missionaries and ministries.
Falwell said Thomas Road Baptist Church has “no intention of discontinuing our support to our missionaries who are affiliated with many different fellowships and faith mission boards.”
So what’s the difference between Jerry Falwell and a pastor who attends a meeting of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? What’s the difference between Thomas Road Baptist Church and any church that gives money both to the SBC and the Fellowship?
Nothing, except the response each will get from SBC leadership.
Anyone who gives a penny to the Fellowship or attends one Fellowship meeting is immediately branded as disloyal. The Fellowship “competes” with the Cooperative Program, they’re told in a scolding voice. No member of such a church is allowed to serve on an SBC board.
Everything Falwell has built his kingdom around competes with the Cooperative Program, but don’t hold your breath waiting for him to be labeled disloyal to the Cooperative Program. And don’t expect him to be blacklisted from meaningful involvement in the SBC.
Ironically, many Southern Baptist conservative leaders have been supporting Falwell’s enterprises already. At least eight prominent Southern Baptists currently serve as trustees of Liberty University. The new chairman of Liberty’s trustee board is Jerry Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., and a recent SBC president. Two of the board’s newest members are Gene Mims, vice president of the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, and Ronnie Floyd, chairman of the SBC Executive Committee.
Liberty University is an independent Baptist school that competes head-on with every college associated with Southern Baptists. And one of the primary responsibilities of trustees of any school is fund-raising. In the last 25 years, Liberty University has raised more than $1 billion.
But we’ve not heard anyone suggest that Vines, Floyd, Hunt or Mims is disloyal to the SBC and the Cooperative Program.
The reason is the double standard that exists today in defining who is a loyal Southern Baptist. The definition is based more on political perception than on reality.
If maintaining a monogamous relationship with the Cooperative Program is determined to be the rule, those who make the rule ought to live by it. It is hypocritical to welcome Jerry Falwell with open arms—and to raise funds for his independent university— while shunning those who support moderate Baptist causes.
As my farmer grandfather would say, “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”