My son recently learned about the French Revolution, which came after history lessons about the American Revolution, the Seven Years’ War, the 30 Years’ War, and a couple other bloody revolutions.
“History is just lots of wars and killing people,” he declared with exasperation.
But the “Reign of Terror” in France particularly garnered his condemnation as they cut off a bunch of heads. Even the guy who pretty much led the whole thing, Maximilien Robespierre, ended up with a guillotine blade through his neck.
It’s like Jesus warned, “all who take up a sword will perish by a sword.”
And if we don’t learn that lesson, we’ll keep returning to fight again. There are always new “enemies” to invent. There are always new “heretics” at which to tilt.
Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear this week declared his exasperation about being attacked for alleged liberalism. But rather than recognizing the echoes of Robespierre, Greear tried to frame himself and the movement he represents as still having clean hands. Which would almost be comical if it weren’t for the many faithful Baptists wrecked by the movement Greear’s mentor Paige Patterson led along with Paul Pressler.
“Most of you know that almost immediately after I began to lead our convention, the character assassinations and false accusations and innuendos and exaggerations began,” Greear told the SBC’s Executive Committee Monday (Feb. 22).
While attacking those who ridiculously call him a liberal, Greear framed his attack on his more conservative critics by justifying the earlier effort by conservatives to drive out previous leaders also considered too liberal. With a level of ironic righteous indignation that Robespierre could’ve conjured up just before his execution, Greear played the role of martyr.
“In the 1980s, by God’s grace, we repudiated the leaven of the liberals, a leaven that threatened to poison the gospel,” he said. “I believe the question is now are we going to repudiate the leaven of the Pharisees, which can choke out the gospel just as easily.”
“Is eternal vigilance the price of doctrinal integrity? Of course,” he added. “Should we ever forget the painful battles won on our behalf, for most of us, in the 1980s and 1990s? May it never be. The problem is that many of our divisions are based on 90% misunderstandings, distortion, and often outright lies.”
But what Greear misses is that his argument against his critics today sounds a whole like the claims of those Greear’s movement shoved out in the 1980s.
Consider the words of Foy Valentine, who led the SBC’s Christian Life Commission (now known as the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) from 1960-1987. He quickly became a key target of the Patterson-Pressler movement. Valentine attacked that coalition as “extremists and zealots in public affairs” and “Pharisees and bulldogmatics.”
Now Greear joins Valentine in labeling critics of the SBC’s public policy arm (today led by Russell Moore) as “Pharisees” even as Greear justifies the attacks on Valentine.
Or consider the words of Bill Self, a prominent pastor who served as president of the Georgia Baptist Convention and was the first presidential candidate the Patterson-Pressler coalition defeated in 1979. Back during the controversies of the 1980s, he pushed back against the labeling of professors at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary as “liberal.” And he criticized “the current crop of those in the fundamentalist wind tunnel” as “Caesars, Pharisees, theological vigilantes.”
Now Greear joins Self in labeling critics of the SBC’s seminaries as “Pharisees” even as Greear justifies the attacks on Self.
Perhaps Robespierre doth protest too much.
What if the Patterson-Pressler movement Greear praised didn’t remove “the leaven of the liberals” but instead added “the leaven of the Pharisees”? What if the new cycle of political organizing within the denomination and quests to find hidden “liberals” is just the result of that yeast added in the 1980s? What if the new conservative movement Greear attacks is just the result of what bakers call “proofing,” when the dough rises after adding yeast?
Greear isn’t a liberal. But it would be nice if he now had empathy for the previous generation of so-called “liberals” run out by, in Greear’s words, “misunderstandings, distortion, and often outright lies.”
And it would be nice if he had more humility when praising the doctrines of a movement led by Patterson, who was fired for mishandling allegations of student rapes, and Pressler, who has been accused in court filings by multiple men of unwanted sexual advances. What of that leaven?
One of the key issues Greear complained about in his speech Monday was the racism condoned in too many SBC churches.
“We should mourn when closet racists and neo-Confederates feel more at home in our churches than do many of our people of color,” he said. “The reality is that if we in the Southern Baptist Convention had shown as much sorrow for the painful legacy that racism and discrimination has left in our country as we have passion to decry Critical Race Theory, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess.”
But if Greear wants to know how they got in this mess, part of his research should include looking into who were the Southern Baptists leading the efforts for civil rights and against segregation in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s. If he does look, he’ll learn that the key leaders were those “liberals” like Valentine that Patterson and Pressler attacked and drove out.
It was the godfather of the movement Greear praised, W.A. Criswell, who denounced integrationists as “a bunch of infidels, dying from the neck up.” And when the SBC passed a resolution in 2016 condemning the Confederate flag, Pressler tried to oppose that effort. What if the Patterson-Pressler movement didn’t remove “the leaven of the liberals” but instead removed the leaven of civil rights and integration?
Greear is right that his Southern Baptist critics have lied about him. I have seen the rhetoric that often includes falsehoods and hate. He’s no liberal. Not even close. But as I consider several individuals I know well who were previously cast out for allegedly being “liberal” and for supposedly not believing the Bible, it’s hard to feel sorry for the Robespierre leading the SBC. The crusades of fundamentalists always continue, their quests for “purity” neverending.
The current political organizing and theological witch hunts aren’t recent aberrations in Southern Baptist life.
They’re baked in.
Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way