Back Off the Baptists: Why Steven Furtick Does Not Anathematize the SBC

Many of have taken issue with Steven Furtick in recent years. Pointing out Furtick-level pastoral narcissism has been common fare on a number of popular podcasts. I’ll assume you haven’t actually made your habitation under a rock and that you’re aware of the Furtick controversies; the increasingly scary cult mentality of Elevation Church as it pledges allegiance to it’s “visionary,” that Elevation Church demands unity not around the Gospel but around Furtick’s “vision,” the continued “corrections” about Furtick and the church’s property and finances that are made each time the local media points out their perpetual dishonesty, contrived “spontaneous” and miraculous baptisms, manipulated book sale figures that even the New York Times has caught on to, letting women and anti-Trinitarians preach from his Southern Baptist pulpit, and his insanely self-centered eisegesis, just to name a few. I would provide links to all of this, but once again, unless you’re not under a rock and your Google-machine works properly, you don’t need my help.

Some of the [rightful] criticism of Furtick and Elevation Church comes from outside the Baptist circle, most notably Chris Rosebrough and his program, Fighting for the Faith. Some of the criticism of Furtick and Elevation Church (actually, a huge amount) comes from secular media in his hometown. Some (but not nearly enough) come from Southern Baptists. Little, if any, come from other mainstream evangelicals.

It’s no secret that I want to see revival and Reformation in the SBC. It’s no secret that I believe the SBC is in a likely death spiral that can’t be escaped outside a move of God. It’s no secret that I see Furtick and Furtick-esque Southern Baptist celebrity pastors like Perry Noble, Rick Warren, and Ed Young to be prime examples of the Modern Day Downgrade in our Convention. In fact, those preaching a self-aggrandizing, crowd-pleasing, Scripture-twisting Gospel are at least as much the bane of our Convention as the institutional cover-ups of scandals including Ergun Caner, Joe Aguillard or Bob Reccord. Preaching garbage is no less a death knell to our convention than dishonest chicanery.

So why am I suddenly defensive of the SBC when I see outsiders use Steven Furtick’s obvious pastoral malfeasance as a whooping stick to castigate the entire Convention? Maybe it’s because I’m still a Southern Baptist. Maybe it’s one of those “I can pick on my brother, but you better not” glaring, but generally accepted, inconsistencies. Or maybe it’s because using Furtick’s obvious pastoral malfeasance as a whooping stick to castigate the entire Convention is just plain unfair.

Here’s what we do know.

1. The secular press has more integrity than the Baptist Press. The Baptist Press is, at best, well-meaning propaganda. During the Conservative Resurgence,  conservatives argued that our press was doing the bidding of the entities and there was no honest journalistic expression. Let’s face it – that’s still our reality. Why is secular media pointing out Furtick’s sin while the Baptist Press twiddles its thumbs in the corner, writing the latest fluff piece about a state convention somewhere that has pledged to increase their CP giving or see a 3% increase in professions of faith over the next 5 years? We have to be willing to point out error and call ourselves to repentance, and an honest and open Baptist Press has to be a primary vehicle for that.

2. By SBC leaders not voicing their opinions about the mischief going on at Elevation Church, there’s no clear message to the watching world that the SBC – as a whole – is not complicit in it. Yes, churches are autonomous (more on that to follow). Praise God. But like what we’ve seen in Louisiana and Georgia, when leaders keep quiet by hiding in a veil of autonomy, it does neither the local Southern Baptist church or the SBC as a whole any favors. SBC leaders need to clearly articulate (speaking for themselves as a matter of personal conviction and not for their entities) that they do not endorse or commend, and may in fact, oppose this foolishness when it arises.

3. That Southern Baptists are not the most prominent critics of Southern Baptists speaks to our deficit of integrity. Honestly, it should shame us that the chief critic of Steven Furtick is a confessional Lutheran. Likewise, LCMS Lutherans (a denomination with which I would fiercely disagree on their sacramentalism but with whom I have the utmost respect for their commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture) should be the loudest critics of LCMS Lutherans when they misbehave. The Assembly of God should be the loudest critics of the Assembly of God, and so on. We must learn to judge ourselves. “Protecting our own” may be the mantra in the mafia, some kind of jungle tribalism, or urban gang warfare, but it shouldn’t be the motto of our Convention. We should be open, honest, and transparent. And let’s face it – of all the positive things you can say about Southern Baptists, transparent is not one of them.

4. Steven Furtick and Elevation Church and their “success” in ministry does not reflect poorly on the SBC. Because of local autonomy (again, more on that to follow), one church’s apostate ways don’t reflect on other churches (at least in any fair, literal sense). What does reflect upon the SBC, however, is that Lifeway has been peddling Furtick’s poison to thousands. Furtick has been promoted throughout the SBC by our churches and entities. Even his parents-in-law have found success on the Southern Baptist speaking circuit by their relation to this “dynamic, successful leader” – as the Montana Southern Baptist Convention called him when promoting his in-laws’ speaking gig last year. I believe that our entities, and many of our churches, whore (in an idolatrous sense) after celebrity and fame. That Steven Furtick exists does not reflect poorly on the SBC. That Elevation Church is huge does not reflect poorly on the SBC. That the SBC’s churches and entities promote Furtick and lift him up as an example for us does reflect poorly on the SBC.

Here’s what those outside the SBC need to know.

We are autonomous. By that, we don’t mean some kind of pseudo-autonomy that certain denominations claim to give churches to project a semblance of local control. Unlike other “autonomous” denominations, the SBC does not ordain our ministers. The SBC does not settle disputes in local churches. The SBC does not put erring ministers on trial and the SBC has no system in place to discipline pastors, members or congregations. All of these things are to be done within local churches, in submission to the Scripture through Biblical church governance. And speaking positively of Southern Baptists, we do a pretty decent job at disciplining pastors when they need it (although we do a terrible job at disciplining church members).

I have neither the time, nor the inclination, to provide a defense of local church autonomy for those outside the Baptist faith who find such freedom to be bizarre. To those submitting to an (I believe, unbiblical) outside authority in the matter of church discipline, I know this may seem strange. Consult Chapter 26 in 1689 London Baptist Confession for a traditional Baptist perspective on local church autonomy or a more concise (and therefore less precise), abbreviated explanation of local autonomy in an explicitly Southern Baptist view, consult Article 6 of the Southern Baptist Faith and Message. If I could summarize these confessions, it would be this; we see no governmental control over faith and religious practice in the Holy Writ outside the local body, and therefore we employ none through our voluntary associations.

No doubt, some will use Furtick (and are) to proclaim the inherent weakness or failure of the autonomous Baptist model. These outside critics decry the lack of discipline, feigning outrage and disbelief that the SBC has not yet stepped in to remove him. This would never happen, they might argue, in the LCMS or some other denomination that has a process for dealing with situations like this. I see it quite differently.

I am so very thankfully that Furtick’s leaven can only leaven my lump so much as I let it. His toxic, counterfeit Gospel can also spread throughout my church to the degree that I voluntarily open the door. And so, we guard the pulpit. Lifeway can sell whatever garbage they want. I can preach against it however and whenever I want. I’m free to throw out his material should it come to my door. That’s the benefit of autonomy. No one is telling me what to preach, what material to use in Sunday School, or what kind of strategy to employ (or not) in evangelism. And should Lifeway or other entities make suggestions (and believe me, they do), there’s no penalty – real or threatened – for ignoring them. In short, if a congregation like Elevation Church goes to hell, we don’t have to go to hell in their hand-basket.

Contrast this with the terrible pain and heartache we’ve seen in denomination after denomination with no autonomy or contrived, pseudo-autonomy. Consider the many Lutheran churches in the ELCA that are between the proverbial “rock and a hard place.” They see their denomination slipping further and further into outright apostasy and because they are in the minority, they have no protection. Unless they bail, they’re going down with the ship. And believe me – in that kind of denominational structure, leaven leavens quite easily. The same can be said for the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Methodist Church, and countless other mainstream denominations whose testimonies are of once-solid denominations going full-blown apostate lock, stock and barrel. And as always, there are congregations here and there that are hold-outs, but they too will fall eventually.

The principle is this…

When the local church is at risk because of encroaching heresy, its best defense is not a denomination that can come in to rescue it through a series of dictates, directives or denominational discipline. Their best defense is a local church that has been Biblically primed to deal with discipline and to settle their own affairs under the headship of Christ. And if a church “goes bad,” this way it need not take the entire denomination with it. Doctrinal cancer may destroy a church, but in the autonomous structure, it will stay there and die with its host.

So does Steven Furtick anathematize the Southern Baptist Convention? Not hardly. Furtick does give us another example for why we need a Reformation, but it is hardly the “whooping stick” those some outside the Baptist tradition are making it out to be.