The Subtle Schism Forming in the Southern Baptist Church

SBC division

The headlines reveal there is a change underway in the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest protestant denomination.

Just about everyone involved agrees there is a schism to some degree among Southern Baptists leaders, but nailing down what is at the heart of the divide is harder to pin down.

Malachi O’Brien, a former second vice president of the SBC, describes the tension as a “generational disagreement.”

He says younger leaders in the SBC feel a need to acknowledge past wrongs and acceptance of new sensibilities. “We’re in an identity crisis in an ever-changing world that’s requiring higher accountability,” O’Brien told ChurchLeaders.com. “We live in a day and age where we have to be careful of everything we say and do. No matter how far back it goes. The world is watching.”

To correct those wrongs, younger pastors emphasize a host of social issues; racial equality, poverty, the #metoo movement.

The SBC institution that is driving that agenda is the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Ken Hemphill comes from a different generation. He has pastored several churches, he’s the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and now special assistant to the president for denominational relations at North Greenville University. He is also a candidate to become the next president of the SBC.

He says while there may be some generational gaps, “they aren’t as wide as some people want to make them.”

He’s worked across generations for years as a pastor and seminary president and finds most in the younger generation value their relationships with the older community and want good mentorship.

Social media bringing Southern Baptist differences to light

Hemphill believes there always have been generational tensions in the SBC but are magnified today by the growth of social media and the fact that most churches now minister to five generations rather than just two or three.

He agrees that there is some division over cultural issues with younger generations more focused on basic issues of justice and mercy. But he says the disagreements are not “should we be engaged but how to go about it.”

Dr. Jeremy Roberts, lead pastor of Brushy Creek Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C.,and an adjunct professor at Liberty University and Midwestern Seminary has a more nuanced view of the divide, which he describes as “definitely present.”

He calls the division more soteriological and less generational.

“I think of it as two political parties. One is younger and one is primarily older but there are mixes in both. It’s more of an issue of Calvinists vs non-Calvinists rather than older vs. younger.”

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Bob Ditmer
Bob Ditmer has worked in Christian media for more than 20 years including positions with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries and Focus on the Family.