The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, is holding its annual meeting June 12 - 13 in San Antonio, where it last met in 1988. In view of this, Douglas E. Baker, a writer and former Baptist pastor, wrote the "The Wall Is the Castle" for Baptist Press. Baptist Press, which is funded and operated by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), posted the op-ed on May 30, 2007, but removed it within 24 hours. Baptist Press told CT that the column had been temporarily removed for editorial reasons and that the column's failure to reappear was a separate decision. BP had no further comment. Christianity Today asked Baker to rework his thoughts so that a broader audience might understand his original message to Southern Baptists.

Wars are seldom easy to explain. What once seemed a just cause for engagement can soon become clouded amid scenes of carnage and death. Motives ever so slowly elide to camouflage error. One moment in time (often only one speech) is all that is required to morph a mountain of mistakes into a hill of courage.

This was once accomplished in American history by a President who knew that, after gruesome news of one particular battle reached the public, men might no longer be motivated to lose their lives killing their own countrymen. Masterfully, President Abraham Lincoln did what anyone in his position would want to do: He transcended the politics of the moment and the war's strife to call the destruction he saw that day evil—for that is what it was. Lincoln's Gettysburg Address attacked no one, but touched millions. After his address, hardened cynics mourned not only the death of thousands of men, but also the loss of the unity that caused the conflict in the first place.

When the Southern Baptist Convention returns to San Antonio in this summer of 2007 after 19 years, it will be, in some ways, like visiting Gettysburg years after the battle. Some Baptist historians point to the 1988 annual meeting as the point when the schism within the Southern Baptist Convention became most apparent. Biblical inerrancy dominated discussions among the almost 33,000 messengers.

At that convention, the revered pastor of Dallas' First Baptist Church, W.A. Criswell, stepped to the podium for his famous "skunk sermon" on "the curse of liberalism." His words, "a skunk by any other name still stinks," echo through the collective memory of the denomination. At that same podium only days later stood another Southern Baptist icon—Joel C. Gregory. He is now derided by many in SBC circles for his abrupt resignation from First Baptist Church in Dallas and for his subsequent divorce. But in 1988, Gregory was soon to occupy Criswell's position.

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Preaching classes across the nation still speak of Gregory's San Antonio convention sermon, "The Castle and the Wall." He moved beyond the business of the denomination to warn that continued warlike strife could soon forever replace the convention's witness before a watching world. When allies are regarded as enemies, Gregory warned, the very fortress of Christian orthodoxy can cause those who desire to protect the Christian castle to instead use their resources to construct a wall. The same stones that build the castle can all too easily be used to erect a partition.

During this "civil war" of Southern Baptists, amid competing visions of what "being a Baptist" meant, here was a Lincolnian moment. The respite from rhetorical gunfire was only temporary, as the war had to be won by one side. Just as Gettysburg was the turning point of the War Between the States, the Southern Baptist Convention has never been the same since San Antonio.

Much has changed since that noon hour 19 years ago, when words calmed the vast torrents of theological warfare. W. A. Criswell is dead. Denominationally speaking, so is Joel Gregory. A new generation of Southern Baptists—many of whom have never heard of Criswell or Gregory—will soon gather in San Antonio. But one thing hasn't changed—the denomination seems to be still at war.

The nature and perfection of Holy Scripture no longer dominates denominational battles. This year, the conflict will be over the issues of Calvinism, private prayer languages, alcoholic beverages, and the integrity of denominational statistics.

The overall impression seems to be that seismic shifts are at work which might change the SBC forever. Some predict the inevitable loss of the denomination. If history is a guide, they are correct. The effects of the Fall seldom enable people—even Christians—to work well together for very long. Pride rears its ugly head and personal agendas quickly choke the life out of good efforts and sanctified innovation.

Yet this could be the Southern Baptist Convention's finest hour if, by God's grace, people of God will rise to remember the heritage of the Southern Baptist Convention. The return to a founding vision once empowered an American President to transcend the trials of the present and press forward toward a reconciled nation. Perhaps such a study of the Baptist past might enable the pastors of the present to press toward the goal of future ministry armed with history's warning that if great humility and prayer do not mark all who perform ministry in the name of Christ, the wall of human arrogance will replace the castle of Christian theology.

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The new birth of freedom of which Lincoln spoke could only happen if, as was his wish, the dead who consecrated the killing fields of Gettysburg would be remembered as something more than mere participants in a battle. He desired that they be seen as advancing the cause of the American founding generation who conceived of a nation of liberty and were dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

How much more should the Southern Baptist Convention remember the passion of past leaders as a uniting force dedicated to the divine proposition that all men are born sinners who stand in urgent need of the saving grace of God. Could this be a turning point in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention?

That history is yet to be written.

Douglas Baker served as special assistant to former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, as associate pastor of First Baptist, Alexandria, VA, and as the founding editor-in-chief of The Kairos Journal. He is now a writer who lives and works in the Washington DC area.

Related Elsewhere:

Associated Baptist Press and Baptist Press are covering the SBC meeting in San Antonio.

The original column is cached, but not available on Baptist Press's website.

Previous columns Douglas Baker has written for Baptist Press include "Inerrancy Isn't Enough," "Harry Potter & Sunday School," and "Semper Reformanda: More Than a Phrase."

Bloggers, including Timmy Brister and Travis Hilton, have picked up on the removal of Baker's column.