Don’t Machen The SBC

Timon Cline

The Last Mainline Battle 

As I sat there at the Center for Baptist Leadership launch event listening to William Wolfe, Dusty Deevers, and Chris Bolt issue a rallying cry to fight for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), I had one thought: Southern Baptists can’t Machen this thing or it’s over for all of us. I could almost hear fellow conservatives outside that room pushing back: Get out, now! Some congregations, faithful to Baptist distinctives and Biblical orthodoxy, already have one foot out the door. God bless them, but they are wrong. Now is the time for them to dig their heels in, brace for impact, and fight. 

Mainline Mission 

The SBC should be considered the last legitimate, orthodox mainline denomination in America. It was founded in the nineteenth century and was not the direct result of a split off from another denomination. If you read no further, the message is, we can’t lose another one!

The SBC is, in many respects, the lone bulwark against total liberal capture of our Protestant heritage. It is the only real opportunity for a “Reconquista” that amounts to more than the mere recovery of beautiful buildings. In most towns of middle and southern America, the Southern Baptist Churches are the stateliest, thoroughly American buildings anyway, and no Protestant campus not already given over to foreign gods is more beautiful than the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), nor can they compete with its size and reach.  

In other words, the SBC represents an historic and historically Protestant denomination not yet overrun by liberalism (theological and political) and all the baggage that goes with it, wherein faithful, confessional, Bible-believing Protestants have a chance to win—more than a chance, really. This is a fight worth fighting, and all orthodox American Protestants should consider it their fight. 

We know the stats: the SBC is the biggest Protestant denomination, trains more pastors and sends more missionaries abroad than anyone else, etc. More importantly, perhaps, their annual convention gets more attention from mainstream media than any other denominational gathering, and for good reason. The New York Times and Atlantic know what all Protestants should know: as goes the SBC, so goes evangelicalism. 

True enough, like the rest of evangelicalism, the SBC is not quite what it used to be in positive world. At the beginning, there were real, accomplished men at the helm. From 1845 through the 1980s, the convention was led by giants, men with theological chops, experience, and political awareness. The convention oscillated in leadership between powerhouse theologians and leading statesmen, learned leaders of men and founders of institutions: 

James P. Boyce, the Brown and Princeton Seminary educated founder of SBTS; Patrick Hues Mell, chancellor of the University of Georgia and professor of ancient tongues at Mercer; Jonathan Haralson, associate justice of the Alabama Supreme Court; James Philip Eagle, speaker of the house and governor of Arkansas; Edwin Stephens, the founder of a major publishing house and newspaper; Brooks Hays, the Arkansas attorney general and U.S. congressman; the list goes on. 

This was the caliber of men that built the SBC and made it great. Not so lately. Since 2018, the convention has been subjected to evidently lesser men, viz., J.D. Greear, Ed Litton, and Bart Barber. Quite the contrast. 

With the blessing of Providence, we may live to see the likes of W. A. Criswell, Pat Morris Neff, and Adrian Rodgers again—all of them would’ve been labeled “Christian nationalists” today, by the way, as would Presbyterian leaders like D. James Kennedy. The SBC, and in a way, all of American evangelicalism, depends on it, the return of truly accomplished men of conviction to our denominations, not megachurch plagiarists and spineless grifters. Capable men are waiting in the wings, but first, the rank-and-file and the nascent vanguard must be willing to fight. This is to cut against the grain of conservative impulses. 

Conservative Impulses

The common conservative impulse is to build beautiful things and then abandon them at the first sign of mission drift or corruption. I exaggerate slightly, of course, but typically, conservatives play the part of the good mother who would rather give up the baby than risk splitting it (1 Kings 3:16-28). This is a very natural, sensible, human instinct. No one likes seeing what they love, and have poured time and resources into, turned inside out. 

But conservatives are also usually too sensitive in this area. Meaning, they abandon ship too early, and comfort themselves with their own principled purity—off they go to build their own Google again, but how many times? We lionize uncompromising figures, especially when it comes to historic, Biblical Christianity. Rightly so, standing athwart doctrinal and practical infidelity is admirable, and it’s even more inspiring when these figures stand alone, against the odds. The battle of Thermopylae grips the imagination for a reason. Death and defeat can be glorious—it’s primal. 

Premature surrender, on the other hand, is not so fondly remembered. Put another way, what if defeat is not inevitable? What if on the other side of a little pain and hardship is victory? What if you are crediting your opponent with too much resolve, too much endurance? What if accommodation—prioritizing “mission” and “unity” over doctrinal fidelity is actually the one thing that will make you lose? What if exiting is exactly what they want you to do? 

We’ve seen it before. Liberals are good at making institutional conditions intolerable—or seemingly intolerable—for conservatives and preying upon the latter’s desire for concord, peace, and stability. They know every institutional battle, in which they always play the role of parasite, is a war of attrition. It’s time for conservative Christians to recognize the same and act accordingly, especially in a place like the SBC where victory is so easily within their grasp. 

Don’t Go Full Machen, This Time

It’s not just Presbyterians who venerate J. Gresham Machen. Most conservative evangelicals do. Rightly so. He was, as the title of Daryl Hart’s essential biography of Machen suggests, a defender of the faith. Everyone should read Christianity and Liberalism

Reflecting on Machen’s life is a bit funny because his battles presage our own in miniature but also because his struggles within what is now the PCUSA, in their expression, seem almost quaint today; it was a different time. Back then, an ecclesiastical trial got front page New York Times treatment, and not because a resentful exvangelical wrote it up, but because it was legitimately national news. That was still positive, which is to say, Protestant world. 

Machen also belonged to the elite class which helped. Both of Machen’s parents were well-bred, rich, and well-connected, and he attended the right institutions. Plus, he made his own mark. His days at Princeton were ones where the Warfields dined with the Wilsons. To boot, notoriety was gained because of Machen’s press-worthy antics and public commentary. Once, perusing the stacks in the Montgomery Library at Westminster, I found a copy of William F. Buckley’s spiritual biography. Inside, on National Review letterhead, was a personal note from Buckley addressed to Machen’s niece, gifting her the book with kind regards—a now surreal time capsule of an all too brief moment in the 20th century when Protestant elites still existed and mattered. It wasn’t just the SBC that used to be governed by giants. And you don’t have to cherish Buckley to recognize that.  

Back to the man himself, Machen was intolerant of tolerance… tolerance of doctrinal drift. So should we be. We can’t ever know what would’ve happened if Machen and company had remained at Princeton and slugged it out. Maybe their departure was the right call. What they created in Westminster Theological Seminary and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church has been a blessing to countless Christians for going on a century. That said, the counterfactual is alluring. As Winthrop Hudson points out in American Protestantism, even Harry Emerson Fosdick ended up realizing that his faction had gone too far. By then it was too late, in part because stalwart conservatives had left. Mainline Presbyterianism is now gone, and so are its schools and ministries. 

But the Machen Option isn’t perennially advisable. Which is to say, it is not always prudent or justified. It’s also another way of saying, we aren’t all Machen, and shouldn’t be. 

By some miracle, the situation in the SBC is not what it was in the Presbyterian church of Machen’s day. The International Mission Board may be bleeding, but it’s not preaching abject heresy abroad. The North American Mission Board may be questionable in its management and finances, but it’s not introducing unfiltered modernism, at least not yet. And the leadership of the convention may be lackluster, but that can be readily and swiftly corrected. A minority of convention churches may be leaning egalitarian, but it is not the majority. Southern Baptist seminaries may have made questionable hires and public messaging decisions over the past eight to ten years, but they are not yet in such irredeemable shape as Princeton Seminary—a beautiful but Barthian, current thing-affirming ghost town hiding behind a massive endowment. 

The point is to recognize the difference between Machen’s situation and the SBC’s. Perhaps the institutions that first housed Machen weren’t salvageable, and his stand was necessary to galvanize a new movement unto Biblical faithfulness, new institutions to cut a path through the wilderness of modernity. His exit might have been unavoidable. But prudence requires that we distinguish between a field routed and a field ripe for the taking. The SBC is, in my view, and without question, the latter.   


Southern Baptists—the real ones—need to reclaim a sense of ownership over their denomination, its trajectory, leadership, and future. This begins with getting to the convention, not just this year, but every year. Do you know why liberals control precincts, school boards, and libraries? They show up. Southern Baptists also need to recognize their own potential. They are, and in a way ever will be, the folksy Appalachian, hymn-singing fundamentalists that raised me. But in this moment, as a denomination, they are the leaders of American Protestantism. No path to national renewal can proceed without them. In my view, they should proudly assume this mantle. 

Substantively, SBC’ers need to doggedly assert their doctrine without apology. They need to be shameless about the plain meaning of the Baptist Faith and Message and insist that it be read in light of two millennia of Christian conviction backed by exegesis. Egalitarianism has no place here, full stop! So on and so forth. 

Compromise is uncompelling. Whatever churches leave the convention over a firm stance on the pastorate will, I predict, be recovered several times over in short order. There is a young generation of pastors and churchmen looking for strong leadership and unflinching, historic orthodoxy who will flock in droves to the SBC if the convention demonstrates stability through strength. No one wants to build a house on a foundation of sand. As myriad other American denominations have shown, its women pastors today, gay pastors tomorrow, and androgynous, pagan, dancing trees the day after that. As I argued last year, the slope is, indeed, slippery when wet. 

Don’t leave, fight! Don’t stay home and grill, go to Indianapolis! American Protestantism depends on it. As venerable as Machen is, his legacy of intolerance requires a different response today. Go forth and conquer for Christ. We Presbyterians will be cheering you on. American Protestantism, such as it is in this present deleterious state, will be watching, and that’s far more important than “the world.” 

This article was first published at American Reformer.

  • Timon Cline

    Timon Cline is the Editor in Chief at American Reformer. He is an attorney and a fellow at the Craig Center at Westminster Theological Seminary and the Director of Scholarly Initiatives at the Hale Institute of New Saint Andrews College. His writing has appeared in the American Spectator, Mere Orthodoxy, American Greatness, Areo Magazine, and the American Mind, among others. He writes regularly at Modern Reformation and Conciliar Post.