The reason that so many conservative evangelicals these days appear to be moral relativists is that they *are* moral relativists. They would deny this, of course. But that doesn’t make it any less true. Here’s why.
They’ve bought into the premise that all statements are either fact or opinion: facts are objective and verifiable; and everything else is opinion—subjective and unverifiable. In other words, they’ve bought into full-fledged modernism. From there, the secular path to moral relativism places all moral statements in the “opinion” category. On this view, morality is subjective—dependent on cultural context, historical background and the like.
Conservative evangelicals recoil from this approach, as they should. So instead, they place morality in the “fact” category, claiming that moral truth is objective and empirically verifiable. And how is moral truth empirically verified? The Bible, of course. Problem solved. This is tempting, for two reasons. First, Scripture is entirely true; and much of that truth pertains to morality.
Second, apart from special revelation, it’s difficult to imagine where we might go to find empirical verification of moral truth—you can’t *see* moral properties. But perspicuity of the Gospel notwithstanding, Scripture is complex. A surface level reading of this or that proof-text might be used to justify all manner of wickedness—and it has, from slavery and Holy War to the subjugation of women and segregation. So if we look to Scripture for empirical verification of moral truth, whose understanding of Scripture is definitive? Do we trust the guy who says that Scripture condones chattel slavery, or the guy who says that Scripture commands us to seek justice for the oppressed?
An alarming number of evangelicals have chosen to trust the discernment of ambitious men who offer Biblical proof-texts bathed in who-is-my-neighbor hermeneutics: political realism and moral relativism with a veneer of objective truth. Thus, e.g., conservative Southern Baptists claim to embrace objective morality based in Scripture, within a theological framework that has engendered totally contrary beliefs over time on such issues of moral salience as slavery, Jim Crow and racial segregation. The arc of that moral evolution wasn’t drawn by objective truth or the Word of God, neither of which is subject to change. Whether through armed conflict or threat of taxation, many in the evangelical fold had to be forced into the embrace of moral progress. How is it that people so dedicated to moral truth are so often among the last to acknowledge the moral outrages of an unjust social order? And if moral truth is unchanging, why are evangelicals constantly amending their moral convictions from one decade to the next? Because it’s a mistake to search for moral truth among empirical facts—that’s not the solution to the ‘fact-opinion’ dilemma.
There’s a third category that isn’t fact or opinion: namely, objective truth that isn’t empirically verifiable. That’s where we find objective morality. How do we arrive at knowledge of truth that isn’t empirically verifiable? Reason—rational cognition—without which Scripture is too easily twisted into a patchwork of self-serving proof-texts, tailored to the interests of men whose principal concern is amplifying their own power.
We’ve got to stop proof-texting. And we’ve got to stop listening to the kinds of theologians and pastors who pretend to have an easy answer for every social or political problem that arises in the course of human affairs. Manifestly, such men do not have the answers: if they did, they wouldn’t have occasion to contradict themselves with every shift of the wind; and they wouldn’t have turned two generations of evangelicals into self-seeking moral relativists.
Imagine you’re in a movie theater somewhere in Nebraska.
In the middle of the movie, your phone rings. You answer your phone and proceed to have a conversation at full volume. After about a minute, the guy behind you taps you on the shoulder and says, “Dude, we’re in a movie theater.”
You could respond in any number of ways. You might say, “No, we’re in Nebraska.” But this response isn’t appropriate. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine that anyone would offer this as a serious retort. For one thing, it’s possible to be both in a movie theater and in Nebraska (as you in fact are). So it’s not much of a rebuttal. For another, your fellow movie-goer has stated something obvious to you-namely that you are in a movie theater-because your conduct is that of a person who doesn’t recognize this fact or simply doesn’t care.
We state the obvious when someone’s actions are inconsistent with their having recognized the truth in question. “Dude, we’re in a movie theater” means “Dude, we’re in a movie theater: you should act like it.” Philosophers of language call this ‘conversational implicature’, which is just a fancy term for basic subtexts that competent language users naturally infer under normal circumstances. Under normal circumstances, when someone points out the obvious to us, we infer that we are doing something that suggests we are unaware of the obvious fact that has just been brought to our attention.
When we say, “Black lives matter,” there’s some conversational implicature at work. We live in a society that routinely functions in ways inconsistent with our having recognized that, among all lives, the lives of Black people matter. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we mean, “Black lives matter,” and you should act like it. When we say, “Black lives matter,” we are saying that institutions in our society do not function in a way that is consistent with the recognition that Black lives, specifically, matter:
When Eric Garner is suffocated to death in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it. When Freddie Gray dies of injuries sustained in police custody and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When Trayvon Martin is gunned down while walking through a neighborhood and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When Elijah McClain dies after being choked by police officers and injected with ketamine, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When Ahmaud Arbery is gunned down in broad daylight, on video, and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When Breonna Taylor is shot 5 times in her own apartment by the police and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
When George Floyd suffocates to death under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer and no one goes to jail, our society functions as one in which Black lives don’t matter. Hence, “Black lives matter,” and we should act like it.
So when, as a competent language user, you respond by saying “all lives matter,” one of two things must be the case. Either you’re not fully aware of how our public institutions treat Black citizens; or you are aware, and you’re okay with it–in which case, you are a racist.
Recent discussion of critical race theory (CRT) in conservative evangelical circles has become a distraction from substantive issues of real concern—a chimaera, invoked by culture warriors in a transparent effort to preempt serious conversations about systemic racism.
In point of fact, the concept of systemic racism is used across a number of disciplines to describe a variety of different phenomena. Two general fields of application stand out. One has to do with psychology—racist attitudes and so forth. The other has to do with institutions.
Yet some politically conservative evangelicals talk as though the concept of systemic racism owes its existence to CRT; and they define CRT strictly in terms of theorizing about racist attitudes. Consequently, the notion of systemic racism is merely a contrivance of critical race theorists who wish to assert the ubiquity of racial prejudice among white Americans—an assertion that rings false to white evangelicals who reflect on their own attitudes and think to themselves, “Well I’m not a racist, so systemic racism can’t be real.”
Finally, the culture warriors point out that CRT is vaguely related, in ways that they can’t quite explain, to Marxism. The Gestalt that emerges from all this noise is that systemic racism is a myth—perhaps even a conspiracy—originating in the minds of godless Marxists who say defamatory things about white people and America.
And the culture warriors manage to elicit this reaction without saying a single word about systemic racism qua institutional injustice—which has nothing at all to do with CRT, except insofar as some critical race theorists happen to comment on the racial inflection of institutional injustice in the U.S.
It’s really a remarkable sleight of hand. It allows white evangelicals to dismiss all claims to do with systemic racism qua institutional injustice, without saying the first thing about, e.g., the federal government’s discriminatory housing policies that remained officially in force until 1968: policies that wrought all manner of chronic social infirmity—from school segregation to racial disparities in wealth and income, incarceration, etc.—tangible effects of injustice that impact the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans, many of whom happen to be our brothers and sisters in Christ.
A lot of the same white evangelicals who reject the notion of systemic racism qua institutional injustice also claim they’re praying for some sort of national revival. I’m not sure whether a modern nation-state is the sort of thing that’s eligible for a spiritual revival. But let’s set that to one side.
The God that I read about in the Bible will have nothing whatsoever to do with people who store up harvests sown with the seeds of injustice.
In fact, God detests the supplications of such people:
Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord! Why do you long for the day of the Lord? That day will be darkness, not light. It will be as though a man fled from a lion only to meet a bear, as though he entered his house and rested his hand on the wall only to have a snake bite him. Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light—pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals; your assemblies are a stench to me. Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them. Though you bring choice fellowship offerings, I will have no regard for them. Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps. But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!
So as long as you persist in denying that systemic racism is a problem, don’t worry about whether the government permits you to go to church, with or without a mask. Don’t worry about what kind of music you sing or whether you sing at all. Because none of it matters.
As long as you refuse to address systemic injustice, and willingly continue to benefit from it, God simply doesn’t want to hear from you. Your church is just a building where you meet up with your friends.
When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.
Update: Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s “Jesus and John Wayne” (2020) has persuaded me that my reflections here underestimate the prevalence of hyper-complementarianism in the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence. I leave the anecdotal account of complementarianism below since it accurately reflects my own experience.
A plucky band of Culture Warriors is calling for another Conservative Resurgence in the SBC.
For several months leading up to the 2019 SBC convention, FoundersMin has been raising awareness about a spiritual predator—a wolf in sheep’s clothing, lurking behind SBC pulpits. Scores of men in the SBC have attended church gatherings in which they consented to sit under the teaching of woman Beth Moore. The response from several SBC leaders has been swift, decisive and proportional to the gravity of the threat. On May 31st, for example, the President of Southern Seminary tweeted that:
We have reached a critical moment in the Southern Baptist Convention when there are now open calls to retreat from our biblical convictions on complementarianism and embrace the very error that the SBC repudiated over 30 years ago. Honestly, I never thought I would see this day.
The gravamen of their complaint is this: the SBC has retreated from its commitment to complementarianism, and this retreat has been hastened by an erosion of our collective faith in the inerrancy of Scripture—a faith that was hard won in the heady days of the Conservative Resurgence over 30 years ago.
As it happens, I have a personal connection to the Conservative Resurgence. And I think these folks may be misremembering.
The Conservative Resurgence
(For those unfamiliar with the term, the “Conservative Resurgence” refers to a concerted effort by conservative Southern Baptists to take control of the SBC’s six major seminaries, beginning in the 1970s.)
My grandfather, Bob Crowley, was on the Board of Trustees at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1985-95. The Baptist Press summarizes my grandfather’s service at Southeastern here.
Long regarded as the most liberal SBC seminary, Southeastern was basically untouched by the Resurgence until the mid-1980s. The Resurgence gained traction at SEBTS beginning in 1986, when a small contingent of conservative students met with an SBC committee to discuss incidents involving seventeen faculty members. The committee found that roughly 50% of the faculty at Southeastern supported the ordination of women, rejected the doctrine of inerrancy or objected to the SBC’s position on homosexuality.
In 1987, when Southeastern’s Board of Trustees reached a tipping point in favor of conservatism, rapid changes ensued. In October of 1987, my grandfather was elected chairman of the Board. The following spring, the President and Provost resigned in protest over policy changes designed by the Board to block hiring and promotion of faculty who denied the inerrancy of Scripture. Most of the administration followed that summer. By the fall of 1988, enrollment had dropped from 1,246 to a record low of 803; and five of Southeastern’s thirty-five faculty members had resigned.
Here’s the headline. At one time, a lot of SBC seminary professors openly denied the inerrancy of Scripture and supported the ordination of women to serve as pastors in the local church. In 2019, not a single SBC seminary professor does this and keeps his job.
The Culture Warriors
With sights fixed on Beth Moore, in podcast interviews, blog posts, Twitter feeds, live-streamed conferences and genre-bending short films, at least a dozen individuals associated with FoundersMin have rehearsed the following complementarian line. “In the book of I Timothy et al., Scripture explicitly forbids women from teaching before an audience that includes men. Therefore, women who teach men and all who allow women to teach men are not only in error, they deny the inerrancy of Scripture.”
Let that line of reasoning sink in: Whatever you think you believe about inerrancy, if you don’t agree with the FoundersMin apostolate in every interpretive detail, then you reject the inerrancy of Scripture. Astonishing, is it not?
For whatever it’s worth, I will here invoke the memory of my late grandfather. I don’t think I ever heard him use the word ‘complementarianism’. I’m certain that whenever he and Grandmother were forced to make a joint decision on which they couldn’t reach an agreement, my grandmother deferred to the judgment of her husband. I’m equally certain that on those occasions, my grandfather viewed the need for such deference as a failure of his own leadership. I suppose that arrangement counts as a version of complementarianism. Whatever it was, it wasn’t a point of pride.
Be that as it may, in word and in deed, my grandfather categorically rejected the views now being promulgated by Owen Strachan, Tom Buck, Phil Johnson, Tom Ascol, Jared Longshore, Josh Buice and the rest of the FoundersMin apostolate. And yet my grandfather regarded his fight for biblical inerrancy at Southeastern as one of the most important undertakings of his 45 year career as a Southern Baptist minister.
Make of that anecdote what you will. Now let’s reason together.
Inerrancy and Impertinence
The belief that Scripture is inerrant doesn’t arise in a vacuum. We believe that Scripture is inerrant because we believe that Scripture is inspired by God. So when the apostles of FoundersMin say that anyone who rejects their interpretation of Scripture thereby rejects the inerrancy of Scripture, they’re presenting a dilemma: either you agree with their interpretation of Scripture, or you reject God’s authorship of Scripture.
But this is a false dilemma. There’s a third option, which their presentation of the issue obscures: it’s possible to agree that Scripture is God’s Word, while disagreeing about how to interpret that Word.
You and I can agree that Herman Melville is the author of Moby-Dick, even if we disagree about how to interpret Ahab’s obsession. We can agree that John Milton wrote Paradise Lost even if we don’t agree on whether the narrative depicts creation ex nihilo or ex prima materia. And fellow believers who are committed to the inerrancy of Scripture can disagree about the role that Scripture assigns to women. In short, interpretive disagreement doesn’t imply a denial of God’s authorship—i.e., inerrancy.
The FoundersMin apostolate refuses to countenance this third option; and many Southern Baptists refuse to accept their refusal. So we find ourselves at an impasse.
As a denomination, we have rules for settling disagreements of this kind. These rules are found in The Baptist Faith & Message, which is a detailed statement on matters of broad doctrinal agreement within our Convention—including matters of agreement around what is and is not clearly mandated by God’s Word. The most recent iteration of this document is The 2000 Baptist Faith and Message.
Article I of The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message states that Scripture is inerrant. With that assumption in place, Article VI provides that:
Each congregation operates under the Lordship of Christ through democratic processes. In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, Article VI
Article XVII adds that “God alone is Lord of the conscience, and He has left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men which are contrary to His Word or not contained in it” (my emphasis).
So, according to the Southern Baptists who ratified The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, God’s inerrant Word reserves the office of pastor for men. And beyond that, eligible interpretations of God’s inerrant Word are broad enough to allow local churches, comprised of individuals whose consciences are governed by God alone, the autonomy to discern God’s will concerning whether and under what circumstances women will be permitted to teach in their midst.
In other words, according to The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, the apostles of FoundersMin are mistaken. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be Southern Baptists; it just means that their overweening confidence in the rightness of their own views on complementarianism is inconsistent with Southern Baptist doctrine.
Perhaps the FoundersMin folks would feel more at home in a denomination with a robust hierarchy. But joining another denomination would require them to submit to someone else’s authority; and they don’t seem to appreciate supervision when it’s directed their way. And they’d prefer not to start their own denomination from scratch. (Too much work.) The SBC already has infrastructure and a mass of loyal congregants—and it just happens to have a power vacuum at the top, waiting to be exploited. So the FoundersMin apostolate has decided to hijack the SBC.
And that, I strongly suspect, is why they’ve decided to pick a public fight with Beth Moore. I’m sure that they really don’t like what she’s doing, and they really do believe the complementarian line that they’ve been peddling all over the internet. But this is just part of their much broader attack on what they call “the threat of Social Justice.” These guys aren’t just committed to a very particular brand of conservative Reformed theology. They are cultural conservatives, and they think the rest of the SBC should be, too.
Conservatism and conservatism
This fight isn’t really about a new resurgence. It’s about the Conservative Resurgence that happened 30 years ago and what the enduring legacy of that Resurgence is going to be.
At some point, we need to reckon with the fact that the Conservatism of the Conservative Resurgence was part theological and part cultural. There’s an important difference. The question that Southern Baptists need to confront—especially Southern Baptists born before 1970 or so—is whether the SBC is going to go along with the FoundersMin effort to conflate theological and cultural Conservatism.
Don’t misunderstand. We should keep whatever elements of cultural Conservatism are strictly implied by theological Conservatism—e.g., the defense of life in all of its forms. But a lot of cultural Conservatism is either unrelated or antithetic to theological Conservatism. (I address specific examples in my open letter, here, and elsewhere on my blog.)
My generation is done with those aspects of the Southern Baptist tradition. So you all can try to salvage pieces of the Conservative Resurgence that never should have been there in the first place, just so FoundersMin-types can play Culture Warrior and pontificate about keeping women in their place and the dangers of social justice. In that case, you will continue to preside over a dying denomination. Or you can shepherd my generation in our efforts to confront the social infirmities that God has called us to address.
Questions? Care to discuss? Comment below or contact me on Twitter @scott_m_coley .
 Webb, Robert K., and Leslie H. Peek. “Academic Freedom and Tenure at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (North Carolina).” Academe (May-June 1989): 35.