As a Southern Baptist I have been following the recent controversies and tensions at a distance. There is no shortage of opinions, commentary, criticism and defense. The tenor leading up to next week’s convention in Dallas promises to be eventful and significant. There is ample reason for self-examination personally and denominationally. There are lessons we can learn and reasons we can have hope in spite of the controversy and tension.
- The SBC is an affirmation of the biblical narrative. When you look through the scriptural storyline, you will not find biblical heroes, but rather you will discover sinful and fallen people. Moses murdered an Egyptian. David committed murder and adultery. Solomon became an idolater. Peter denied the Lord. Paul persecuted the church. Yet God used each of these fallen leaders. We are all fallen. I do not write this to excuse the faults of SBC leaders, nor to excuse the tactics and commentary of some of the critics of those leaders. But we must realize that we live in a fallen world with fallen people. Our ministry heroes are fallen and some of them (some of us) will fail spectacularly. The lesson is that we are not any better than our heroes and must walk continually in a spirit of repentance and pursue genuine accountability. The reason for hope—we serve a holy God who will not be mocked, but who is also full of grace and forgiveness.
- The SBC is committed to Biblical inerrancy and authority. Even with the recent criticisms and accusations against leaders in the Conservative Resurgence, the shift from theological liberalism to biblical inerrancy was good and right. The Conservative Resurgence of the 1970s and 1980s was in large part healthy theologically. Obviously, a correct view of Scripture does not always result in proper interpretation, but an incorrect view of Scripture is certain to produce flawed theology and practice. The lesson is that we must apply what we say we embrace—biblical inerrancy as the foundation for evangelism and missions and guide for our personal character and conduct. The reason for hope—we can be confident in the authority of Scripture (not the authority of individuals) to guide our faith and practice.
- The SBC is committed to theological education. I am the product of Southern Baptists. I grew up in the home of an SBC pastor. All my formal education (Bible college, undergraduate, masters and doctoral) has come from schools that are SBC or affiliated with state conventions. As a result, the financial burden for my education was far less than it could have been. Theological education is incalculably important to our denomination. Through our schools and seminaries, men and women can grapple with interpretive differences, develop their theological foundations and build commitment to biblical authority and Christian practice. The lesson is that we must learn to hold essential doctrines tightly and non-essential doctrines loosely. The reason for hope—we have excellent educators (at least in my experience) who are training seminarians to think clearly about theology and speak articulately about the gospel.
- The SBC values missional cooperation. Even amidst the current tensions (theological, personal, denominational and political) within the denomination, we are a denomination built on cooperation. With our congregational convention model that flows out of autonomous church government, we can disagree, challenge and voice an opinion without destroying cooperative mission efforts. Jesus gave all of his followers a clear mission—make disciples of all nations. I pray that we will coalesce around our mission to make disciples, send missionaries and spread the gospel. The lesson is that our cooperation for missions must overshadow minor disagreements. The reason for hope—we have many godly, Spirit-filled pastors and missionaries national and international who are spreading the powerful gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations.
- The SBC is becoming increasingly aware of its blind spots and theological tension points. The Conservative Resurgence for many was singularly concerned with the issue of inerrancy. The theological shift catapulted new leaders into positions of power and influence denominationally. A cursory view of history in general and church history, in particular, reveals that power often leads to corruption and protectionist ideology. We must not stand at this moment in SBC life surprised by the improprieties or mishandlings by those in positions of power. Rather, we must bow our knees in humility and contrition. We must recognize our faults, repent of our sins and learn from our mistakes. Some of our current tension points relate to the validity of women serving in ministry within complementarian theology, multiethnic representation in leadership and the pursuit of influential leadership versus the pursuit of and protection of power. The lesson is that these blind spots or tension points (I’m sure there are others) can become platforms for evaluating and clarifying orthodoxy and orthopraxy within the SBC. The reason for hope—we now have the opportunity to acknowledge these blind spots, recognize these tension points, and respond with honesty and transparency.
We are far from perfect as a denomination. I pray we will learn from this season of conviction and purging. I hope that we can continue to participate in our denomination with humility, a spirit of cooperation and a pursuit of the gospel.
Dr. Chris Hefner is Senior Pastor at Wilkesboro Baptist Church in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.