The Caner Controversy and the SBC

I remember taking a class at a Southern Baptist school. Not all of us taking the class were Southern Baptists. The professor had assigned a book written about the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention. One of the students pointed out the self-serving nature of the book. The book focused more on the future of the SBC than anything else. The authors were concerned that the future of the SBC does not look very bright. A non-SBC student asked, “Why doesn’t anyone in the book just say, ‘If the preservation and proclamation of the gospel means the SBC must die, then so be it!’?” It wasn’t a bad question.

The SBC is full of problems. I need not recite them here. The glory of Christ Jesus is infinitely more important than the ‘glory’ of the SBC. In that sense, I could care less about the SBC, just as I could care less about the OPC, PCA, and our other denominations. In another sense, the SBC seems to be doing some important work, despite its glaring flaws.

According to some, one of these glaring flaws is the manner in which the SBC has dealt (or to be more accurate, has not dealt) with one Ergun Caner. If you are not familiar with the Caner controversy, see this article or this video. At some point while Caner served as president of Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, the type of evidence linked to above started to turn up. When it did, Liberty looked into the matter, and to make a long story short, Caner is no longer at Liberty. He went to Arlington Baptist College. Most recently, Caner was hired as president of Brewton-Parker College.

Despite the overwhelming amount of information above, Caner has never, to my knowledge, responded to it. Whether innocent or guilty, one would think Caner would publish some sort of response to clarify the reasons for apparent discrepancies in his testimony and his no longer being at Liberty. If the accusations against Caner are true, they are cause for great concern. A small portion of the blogosphere has persistently brought this fact to light. Many are calling upon the SBC to act, but there may be some problems with this approach. I list them below.

1. The SBC is not an individual.

It seems obvious, but the SBC is not an individual. Moreover, the SBC is far from monolithic. (Perhaps that’s why the SBC does have so many problems?) The organizations and churches and people within the SBC vary concerning doctrine and practice. They vary in their opinions about Caner as well. When people call upon the “SBC” to act, it’s not clear what entities or individuals within the SBC they mean, which leads to my next point.

2. Many in the SBC have acted.

Many in the SBC have acted. Two notable examples are Gene Clyatt, Jr. and Jason Smathers. Clyatt is a teaching elder at Parkside Baptist Church and, from the looks of it, has busied himself concerning Caner for quite some time. Smathers is pastor of Golden Shores Community Baptist Church and was apparently sued by Caner for his involvement in the Caner controversy. Parkside and Golden Shores are both in the SBC, which means that Clyatt and Smathers are as well. Most likely, the bulk of their church memberships agree with them concerning the Caner controversy, though I do not know that for sure. Countless others within the SBC have also addressed the controversy, and some have paid a cost for doing so.

3. Some in the SBC may have good reason for not acting.

Some in the SBC may have good reason for not acting. The stronger critics of Caner seem to think, at times, that everyone should be every bit as zealous as they are about calling Caner to repentance. For them, this apparently means creating social media accounts in order to mock and obsess over the man. Some of them act as though the fate of the kingdom itself is contingent on the Caner controversy. Setting aside the workable excuses of time constraints and ignorance, some in the SBC may not want to address the Caner controversy out of political concern. I know what you are thinking. Truth is more important. I agree. So let’s strive to be known for preaching the truth, not our criticism of Caner. They are not necessarily at odds with one another. I know. But you must admit that some people are known due to their criticism of Caner, rather than their preaching and staunch defense of the gospel. Interestingly enough, it is politically advantageous  for some of Caner’s critics to point out that it is politically disadvantageous for others to address the controversy. Are political moves always wrong? I don’t think so. Shocking as it may be, not every hill is a hill worth dying on.

Take Albert Mohler, Jr., for example. Apparently some in the “Reformed community” have a problem with Mohler, whom they would consider one of their own, not addressing the Caner controversy. From what I have heard from students at his seminary, there are some professors, and perhaps Mohler himself, who have addressed the controversy on a more private level, but not publicly. Even if that is not true, Mohler likely has much bigger and more pressing concerns in his limited amount of time than pursuing the Caner controversy, but it’s fair to say that he addresses many other issues that don’t seem so pertinent as the Caner situation. One could try to argue that the Caner issue is not a gospel issue, although it certainly seems to have some bearing on the integrity of the gospel. But let’s set all of these possible excuses aside. Recognizing that this is all rather speculative, could Mohler be justified in acting out of sheer political concern? I think so. Several people with whom I have spoken have shared with me that Mohler has signed some sort of documents at his seminary that prevent him from speaking out against Caner, a former trustee (this is ‘news to me,’ as they say). Then there’s the negative social backlash of going after someone within the SBC. Here’s my proposal. It may be that Mohler believes it is more politically advantageous to let other people comment on the Caner controversy than for him to do so and risk his job, his seminary, and the future of the Reformed community in the SBC. I realize this still sickens some of the bloggers and pastors of much smaller churches out there, but that may be why they remain bloggers and pastors of small churches instead of one of the greatest reformers of our time at the helm of a major (now) conservative Christian seminary. Sometimes it’s not your sound doctrine that makes you an outcast, it’s your personality. Just sayin’.

4. Individuals within the SBC are relatively powerless.

Individuals within the SBC are not in the types of positions to make immediate changes in the SBC. Right, I just finished saying that Mohler is quite powerful. But look at the power he has over the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Look at the power he has to immediately effect wide-ranging change within the SBC. Oh wait. He has virtually no power in those areas. And if he doesn’t, so much the more for the pastors of small, independent churches within the SBC. Liberty went so far as to remove Caner from his position at their seminary. That did not prevent Caner from going on to teach at Arlington, and now reside and preside at BPC. Sometimes those who are not well-acquainted with the workings of the SBC do not realize how very independent its various churches and institutions actually are. Which brings me to my final point.

5. Caner is not so closely associated with the SBC at large.

Caner is not as Southern Baptist as many of his critics make him out to be. For example, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, where Caner once served, has no direct connection with the SBC. The SBC does not fund LBTS nor does it elect any trustees. Liberty University, the undergraduate school, is in partnership with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, but that is the extent of their relationship. Arlington Baptist College is not related in any way to the SBC. Finally, Brewton-Parker College is affiliated with the Baptist Convention of the State of Georgia, which, again, is not directly connected to the SBC and receives no funding or elected trustees from it. From this vantage point, BPC and those associated with it in Georgia are the ones most responsible, at this time, for dealing with the controversy, not some nebulous concept of “the SBC.”

The Caner controversy is as much a problem for Christians as it is for the SBC. I do not intend to discourage the work of those involved in this controversy, and there are many in the SBC who should be addressing the Caner issue as they can. I am certainly no apologist for the SBC. However, if the emphasis of this controversy is shifted onto the SBC, those calling for repentance will only hurt their case. We must remember to distinguish between obligatory and supererogatory duties, to be every bit as critical of ourselves as we are of Caner (or anyone else), to resist the temptation to make one’s stand on this issue a mark of orthodoxy, and to hold the proper parties responsible.