On November 17, Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) in Dallas-Fort Worth did something rarely seen in the world of evangelical leadership. He publicly criticized another Baptist institution, tweeting out a letter he’d sent to Michael Spradlin, president of Memphis’ Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary (MABTS).
“I write to you with extreme disappointment that the institution you lead has plans to host a ‘film premiere’ of Enemies Within the Church,” Greenway began, placing scare quotes around film premiere as if to suggest there was some doubt over whether the movie in question was actually a film.
“The film’s trailer,” he went on, “contains campus footage of the institution I am privileged to lead overlaid with narrative insinuations of ‘Marxism’ … I take strong umbrage to such scandalous and scurrilous slander, particularly when it is apparently condoned by an institution such as yours.”
Greenway finished by asking Spradlin to reconsider his decision to show the movie.
This post was shared and cheered by hundreds of Christian leaders, journalists, and authors — many with blue-checks by their names and Washington Post bylines in their bios. But Spradlin was not to be deterred.
His office fired back with a statement saying that the school was “very concerned” about the evidence of creeping liberalism the film presents. “We believe Southern Baptists, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are wise and able to arrive at the conclusion that glorifies our Lord and advances the gospel. Documented information and concerns should be considered instead of suppressed.”
Spradlin finished by quoting the late, great Southern Baptist pastor and author Adrian Rogers: “It is better to be divided by truth than united in error.” The film screening went on as planned.
Neither Greenway nor anyone else applauding his calls to cancel the showing of Enemies Within The Church (EWTC) offered counter explanations to the detailed and extensive evidence the film presents that individuals motivated to promote a leftist agenda have taken up influential posts within evangelical institutions.
From the outset, it must be noted that this is a documentary that wears its agenda on its sleeve. It doesn’t pretend to be a neutral, journalistic investigation, but rather, is something more like a carefully argued court case that comes complete with a detailed bibliography. And the case, in the words of one of the interview subjects, is that some of America’s foremost evangelical leaders have gone from “communicating the Bible to souls to transforming social structures.”
Nothing New Under the Sun
The best service “Enemies Within The Church” renders viewers is the historical context it offers for the ideological shifts people in the pews are seeing today. It broadens the scope of the discussion beyond current headlines on Critical Race Theory and white privilege to their foundational philosophies of socialism and communism, of which these buzzwords are only the latest costume.
The film persuasively traces how, in the 1930s, communists like labor union activist Bella Dodd subverted Catholic ministries, particularly among the more education-oriented Jesuits, and turned them from teaching the gospel to teaching social engineering. Dodd described bringing 1100 young communists into the Catholic church over decades. “By the time she got out [of communism] 20 or 30 years later,” Michael Hichborn, president of the Catholic Levanto Institute explains, “she had seen many of those young men raised to the rank of bishop and even cardinal.”
From there, the film moves on to the 1970s and how a who’s who of progressive Christian intellectuals and professors came together to draft the Chicago Declaration, a document that argues for “attacking” American “materialism” and “the maldistribution of the nation’s wealth and services.” In full, the declaration reads like a primer for the social justice lingo we hear from an increasing number of pulpits today, particularly its focus on redistribution of wealth: “[Christians] must rethink our values regarding our present standard of living,” it asserts, “and promote a more just acquisition and distribution of the world’s resources.”
The same playbook, the film argues, is playing out now in evangelical educational institutions under the guise of identity politics. We see how deeply seminaries like Fuller and Wheaton have already been compromised by the priorities of social justice over biblical justice and how leaders educated at those schools are carrying what they learned to once-conservative universities like Baylor and Biola. There, we see invited speakers discuss how white people need to abstain from their privilege like “vegetarians” abstain from meat.
The message today, narrator Cary Gordon, a pastor himself, explains, “is not that you need to receive Christ and repent of your sins, it’s that you’re under the weight of sexism, racism, and homophobia.”
If you follow the various evangelical camps on Twitter or other social media, it’s easy to come away thinking that all of this is just so much academic infighting that has little impact on regular folks in real churches. EWTC illustrates how mistaken this assumption is.
Its most disturbing example is how members of First Baptist Church Naples were treated when they voted against a black candidate to take over as senior pastor.
Though his application came with the strong support of national Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders, many church members were concerned that Marcus Hayes had recommended progressive books like “Woke Church,” tweeted praise for Vice President Kamala Harris, and endorsed ideas like reparations. He also did not meet the requirements the pastoral search committee had originally laid out for a new senior pastor.
A group of 30 to 40 longtime church members circulated a petition that received 800 signatures calling for a meeting to discuss those issues, as well as their concern that their 27-year former head pastor had been pushed out and maligned in order to make way for Hayes. They never got the meeting, but nonetheless Hayes failed to meet the vote threshold to win the job. In response, the church’s leadership excommunicated 18 people who led the vote against him. They then released a statement blaming racism on Hayes’ inability to secure 85 percent of the ballots.
“A portion of the 19% that voted against Marcus Hayes did so out of racial prejudice,” the executive pastor proclaimed, adding, “it exposed a sickness in what we characterize as a cancer in our fellowship.”
The biggest names and most influential national leaders in the SBC bolstered this version of events. Then-SBC president J.D. Greear called the statement a “bold, Gospel-faithful response” to “sinful prejudice.” Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, described the racism charge as a “strong and redemptive word.” One of the foremost black voices in the SBC, mega-church pastor Dwight McKissic, said, “You cannot cure racism with an antibiotic, it takes amputations. Grateful that [First Baptist Church Naples] is moving toward amputating the racists.”
Except, there was never an iota of real evidence that any of the church members who voted against Hayes were motivated by racial animus. Yet their motives and character were maligned in major newspapers across the country with the help of the biggest megaphones in the nation’s largest protestant denomination.
One of the excommunicated deacons, Bob Caudill — who had been a member of the church for 50 years — begged Greear and Akin to retract their implicit accusations of bigotry. Neither deigned to respond to him.
Nor were they willing to answer questions from independent religious news outlet The Roys Report. “We reached out to leaders at FBC Naples about a dozen times, seeking evidence for the racism charge, as well as comment on other issues at the church, but no one responded,” TRR reported. “We likewise contacted SBC President J.D. Greear, SEBTS President Danny Akin, and Rev. Dwight McKissic for comment, but none responded.”
At least The Roys Report tried. Few established evangelical news outlets even attempted to cite support for the accusation — which would have been hard, because, to this day, none has been brought forward.
Questions That Demand Answers
That brings us to the main problem the very existence of the film highlights — the unwillingness of the biggest Christian news publications, religion reporters, and ministry leaders to investigate and demand answers on issues that might discomfit high-profile, institutional figures. Thus, everyday people, worried about what they’re hearing in their churches, are flocking to independent voices who will ask tough questions no one else will.
These voices are often labeled as fringe dividers by organizational representatives, as we see happening to the filmmakers behind EWTC. In some cases, it may be deserved. But what those who occupy the upper echelons of the evangelical world fail to recognize as they send each other “thankful for your ministry/leadership” tweets is that the “fringe” discernment bloggers and rogue filmmakers are increasingly speaking for millions. They represent the concerns of average Christians who are sincerely unnerved to show up to church on Sunday and suddenly hear they’ve been unknowingly raising their kids in dens of racism and patriarchal oppression.
Is “enemies” too strong a word for some of the individuals highlighted in this film? Probably, and it certainly isn’t one Christians should use of each other carelessly without seeking explanation. But the longtime, faithful members of First Baptist Naples were also treated like enemies when they wouldn’t fall in line. Where is the leadership condemning that slander? Where are those seeking a charitable understanding of their concerns?
Unlike those accusations, EWTC has presented evidence. A lot of it. Is it lacking context? Is it misleading? Then it should be answered rather than censored.
Long before this film premiered at MABTS, everyday Christians wanted to know why they’re hearing major pastors using the language of Critical Race Theory and speaking of a “bag of privileges” white people carry around with them, as mega-church pastor, Matt Chandler did. They want to know why J.D. Greear tacitly endorsed the idea that the members of First Baptist Naples were racist without any clear evidence for the charge. They want to know why Southern Seminary New Testament professor Jarvis Williams seemed to suggest that theological textbooks must meet diversity requirements when he called for “decolonizing” seminary curriculum from “whiteness.”
Again, that’s not to say there might not be additional background that would cast these slices of speeches and comments in a different light. Perhaps Greear spoke too cavalierly about a situation about which he didn’t possess enough information. (Show me the man or woman who hasn’t sinned on that count.) Williams has given other interviews where he expressly disavows CRT. But it must be said that the disavowal would certainly seem to conflict with his earlier statements, and the sympathetic interviewer did not explicitly ask him about those comments.
That reticence to face hard interrogators is another element contributing to distrust and division. Institutional leaders hear the worries that they are drifting left and believe, with the applause of echo chambers ringing in their ears, that they are addressing them their with vague, dissembling responses to friendly, in-house interviews. That is not the path of transparency or allaying fears. Instead, they should be talking to real journalists who will ask real adversarial questions or, even, have actual discourse with their critics.
That said, one failing EWTC has is that it doesn’t explore other possible motivations that can account for creeping liberalism in ministries. While I came away convinced that there certainly are actors subtly and not-so-subtly working to introduce the “different gospel” of social justice into evangelical institutions, more common failings than being wolves in sheep’s clothing could account for why some pastors, presidents, and ministry leaders don’t do more to stop it.
The great sin of Adam — passivity — comes foremost to mind. There’s also simply the desire to hang on to hard-won positions. Men who have spent lifetimes building up institutional respect aren’t often eager to risk it by stirring up hornets’ nests with angry and energetic social justice warriors in their twenties and thirties.
But whatever the cause, concerns over wokeness in the church, even if overblown, will not be dispelled by ignoring or suppressing them. Like so many things in American life, the solution is not less speech, but more. It isn’t in demanding that films screenings be cancelled but that the issues they bring up be forthrightly answered.
I don’t know the truthfulness of every allegation “Enemies Within the Church” presents — it would take weeks to fully flesh out every point. But I know they have presented more than enough to warrant a hearing.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire.