Timothy George was absolutely prophetic twenty years ago when he said, “The exchange of one set of bureaucrates for another doth not a reformation make” (he later put his thoughts in print). I supported the conservative resurgence in the SBC. The denomination desperately needed a theological correction. Everyone who is committed to the inerrancy of Scripture has reason to praise God for the change in direction.
One of the great dangers that I see in the aftermath of this change, however, is a triumphalism that seems allergic to any kind of self-criticism. When moderates and liberals where in charge, conservatives rightly criticized their theological commitments and improper actions. When those clinging to the levers of denominational power rebuffed such criticisms or circled the wagons they were (rightly) charged with being insensitive to and detached from the churches. The moderates responded with apocalyptic threats (Leon McBeth telling a church in Bryan, Texas in 1979, “If Adrian Rogers is elected president of the SBC, our convention will be over and Southwestern Seminary will be turned into a Bible College”), condescending dismissals (“We are the architects of ‘Bold Mission Thrust!’ You have no idea all that is involved in that so you cannot possibly understand the importance and complexities of what we are doing”) and cajoling, almost whining pleas (“We are good guys. We have noble plans. Don’t derail those plans by criticizing us. Trust us!”).
Now that conservatives are in charge, the theological commitments have changed, but the method of operating seems interchangeable with the previous regime. Consider the kinds of responses with which even friendly criticism is met.
Sometimes there is intimidation and the threat (subtle or otherwise) of not being truly conservative. “Don’t you support ‘The Cause?’ The CBF crowd doesn’t like what we are doing, either. You sound just like them!”
At other times criticism is met with paternalism. “You guys just don’t get it. If you understood the issues and knew what was at stake, you would get back in line and support us.”
Still other times the response is met with an almost incredulous disappointment that the actions of “conservatives” would be questioned at all. “We are inerrantists! You can trust us. We have ‘Empowering Kingdom Growth.’ We are good guys. Why are you questioning us?”
All of which brings me back to Timothy George’s prophetic observation. Bureaucracies exert a self-preserving pressure on people to conform. Those who yield to such pressures are bureaucrats and they cannot abide legitimate criticism because it is perceived as a threat to the very existence of the organization. So bureaucrats tend to serve the perpetuation of the organization more than the original cause for which the organization was established.
If a man is a bureaucrat, it may not matter what his theological convictions are, because they become sublimated to the preservation of the organization. If current and future SBC leaders remain unwilling to be self-critical and to listen to legitimate challenges in the way things are done in the denomination, they will continue to see faithful, conservative pastors and churches relate the the convention with antipathy. There is a growing number of such churches and pastors who see the desperate need for reformation and who realize that bureaucrats and bureaucracies are impediments to that goal.