Academic convocations are meant to feel consequential. Marked pageantry, like academic regalia and faculty processionals, typify these services in which the institution’s president often delivers words of vision and challenge. The formalities of convocation and the stateliness of Southern Seminary’s Alumni Chapel proved a grand stage for Roy Honeycutt to deliver one of the most memorable—and controversial—sermons in the history of the SBC.
On August 28, 1984 Southern Seminary president Roy Honeycutt preached “To Your Tents O Israel,” a sermon that landed in the SBC like a bombshell, sending shockwaves throughout the entire denomination. Dubbed the “Holy War Sermon,” Honeycutt called the seminary community—and the broader, moderate SBC faction—to arms against Southern Baptist “fundamentalists.”
Honeycutt’s sermon came two months after the epic 1984 SBC meeting in Kansas City, Missouri, where over 17,000 SBC messengers gathered, with 52% voting to elect conservative Charles Stanley as SBC president. Stanley’s election—and other acts of conservative muscle-flexing at the SBC meeting, including a resolution on women in ministry and an attempt to defund the Baptist Joint Committee—elicited more aggressive involvement from SBC agency heads and prompted Honeycutt’s Holy War sermon.
From the outset, Honeycutt struck a militant tone, arguing: “Our heritage demands that we hear again that ancient call to battle—calling us to duty, unity, and honor.” Honeycutt hurled phrases, like chunks of red meat, to his hearers. “Unholy forces are now at work—which, if left unchecked, will destroy essential qualities of both our convention and this seminary.” These forces were led by the “myopic and uninformed action of independent fundamentalists” who were determined to “hijack the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Honeycutt charged, “Those in the Southern Baptist Convention who are seeking to legalize life by eviscerating freedom from the gospel have more in common with the Judaizers of ancient Galatia than with the apostle set free on the Damascus Road.” He accused them of “the unscrupulous use of power and manipulation….Their actions only confirm that in every generation there are individuals committed to religious causes who walk on the dark side of ethical conduct.” In response to the fundamentalist movement, Honeycutt vowed “to every twentieth-century Judaizer now seeking to realign our convention, I say without apology, restraint, or hesitation: We shall not submit again to slavery’s yoke.”
Honeycutt’s Holy War sermon was demagoguery in the purest sense of the word. In hindsight, despite its forcefulness, his call to arms seemed destined to fail for four reasons.
Winston Churchill once observed that governmental leadership should align with the country’s need and the people’s mood. During wartime, a man of war is needed in office, and during peacetime, a man of peace is needed in office. Misaligning the two results in ineffectiveness, or even disaster.
By all accounts Honeycutt was by nature an irenic man, a Southern gentleman serving in a time of intense denominational conflict. In fact, the Holy War sermon almost seems thrust upon him, emerging more from the denominational pressure cooker than his own heart.
Though determined to turn back the conservative movement within the SBC, he was not a natural pugilist. In the Holy War sermon, his words were full-throated, but his follow-through, at times, appeared half-hearted. It is as though before the words were out of his mouth, they were beginning to wither on the floor.
Declaring holy war on a majority of one’s own denomination, however you nuance the phrase, is never a winning proposition. This is especially true when the denomination both owns and funds your entity. Since the SBC owned the seminary, they had the legal standing to redirect it. Since they funded it, they had the added incentive to do just that.
Sociologist Nancy Ammerman’s 1985 survey found 85% of Southern Baptist pastors and lay leaders believed that “the Scriptures are the inerrant word of God, accurate in every detail.” With statistics like that, a Southern Baptist Cicero could not have reversed the tide in the SBC through oratory alone. Honeycutt acknowledged this fact a mere two years later in his commentary on the Glorietta Statement, noting that simple math (as in vote counting) has a way of chastening us all.
Theologically, Factually Disadvantaged
In courts of law, the old saying, “If the law is on your side, argue the law. If the facts are on your side, argue facts. If neither are on your side, attack your opponent” is often practiced. For the moderates, they had neither the confessional nor legal standing to their advantage, thus they were forced from the beginning into defensive positions and rear-guard actions.
As long as the focus was on the inerrancy of the Bible, the Baptist Faith and Message, and the Abstract of Principles, the moderates were forced to play a losing hand. These realities were probative, and, when coupled with the convention’s legal ownership of the entities and the concurrence of the vast majority of Southern Baptists, were decisive.
Too Little, Too Late
Szun Tzu, in his timeless The Art of War famously counseled, “The victorious strategist only seeks battle after the victory has been won.” Honeycutt’s declaration of holy war came too late, with inadequate strategy and insufficient follow-through. Though the moderates would contest presidential elections until 1992, by 1984 the conservatives had already gained near-irreversible momentum.
In the final analysis, Honeycutt’s attempt to stem the conservative tide would prove too little, too late, with moderates being midway to losing 14 straight presidential elections until altogether ceasing political contestation in 1992 and forming alternative networks and entities.
Reflecting on Southern Seminary—and all six SBC seminaries—in 2014, it is almost impossible to believe the institutional ricochet that has taken place. In fact, I wish every Southern Baptist would view Honeycutt’s sermon as a reminder of the previous state of denominational affairs. For us, the Holy War sermon reveals two extremes: the seriousness of yesterday’s SBC challenges and the relative ease of our current ones.
Honeycutt’s references to biblical authority, the implications of the atonement, pluralism, and unity make current discussions and challenges over the same look pedestrian, even on our most strife-filled days. We should be thankful to God from whence he’s brought us, and redouble our determination to be faithful stewards in this generation of all he has entrusted to us.
In hindsight, Honeycutt’s “To Your Tents, O Israel” sermon looked destined to fail. That is not a statement of triumphalism, for chest pounding is not a spiritual fruit. It is statement of gratitude that God, in his kind providence, gave the SBC a second chance.
It is also a reminder to this generation to guard our life and our doctrine—and that of our churches and our entities—and to persevere in these things, knowing that as we do we will ensure salvation for ourselves and for those who hear us.
 Roy Honeycutt, “To Your Tents, O Israel,” in Going for the Jugular: A Documentary History of the SBC Holy War (ed. Walter B. Shurden and Randy Shepley; Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1996),124.
 Ibid., 125.
 Ibid., 127.
 Ibid., 132.
 Ibid., 126.
 Nancy Ammerman, Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1990), 74.
 Sun Tzu, The Art of War, IV.15.
 I Tim 4:16topicsChurch History, Evangelicalism, Roy Honeycutt, Southern Baptist Convention, Southern Seminary