Baptists disagree. We started out disagreeing with the Reformers over baptism, over state churches, and over the restriction of religious freedom. In the 70s and 80s, we began to dissent from the leftward drift in our institutions and entities, and a swelling tide of leaders expressed those concerns publicly. Perhaps, with hindsight, we would modulate our tone a bit, but men stood and spoke, saying the direction of the SBC was not what it should be. Dissent from our leaders is at the heart of Baptist life. It still is today.
I am a loyal Baptist, a lifelong Southern Baptist and I want our convention to prosper. I want our statistical decline to reverse and for history to record that in 2019 our best days lay ahead of us, not behind. But, as the leaders of the Conservative Resurgence looked at the direction of the SBC in the 70s and dissented, I look at where the SBC is headed to today and see things that ought not to be. Our failure to embrace racial reconciliation and to include minorities in our denominational leadership is a serious error. Our tendency to divide into soteriological camps and lob bombs at one another is self-destructive. Our tendency to hide, cover up, and eschew transparency has brought devastating consequences. If we are going to be the denomination that we can be, we need to change. If we are going to change, people have to speak out.
Frankly, a lot of people are afraid to speak out. They are afraid that they will be blackballed and blacklisted. It happens (it really does). Since I’m an old codger from the frozen north, the power-brokers have nothing to hold over me. I decided a while back that though people might get angry at me for it, I need to be one who speaks out. The worst people can do is dislike me and I’ve learned to survive that.
So, I express my disagreements. I dissent. But my dissent is not hate. It is not the invocation of anathema. It is just disagreement.
I disagree with the fact that three of our entity search teams selected presidents without interviewing minority candidates in the final process. I think that was a mistake. Does that mean I think these committees were racist? No. The two that have announced actually made home run hires. Dr. Chitwood at IMB and Dr. Greenway at SWBTS appear to be the best of the best. My quarrel is with the process. There are some home runs among our minority communities and if we keep ignoring the resources in those communities we will regret it.
When the EC announces its candidate, I reserve the right to disagree. They may claim they’ve found “God’s candidate” but as a Baptist, I am not bound by their designation. If I dissent from their choice I will still support the EC and seek the success of the SBC. I will never engage in mindless criticism of the SBC or an entity. But I reserve the right to disagree even when someone else claims they’ve found “God’s man.”
I disagreed strongly with both the content and the tone of the chapel message Dr. Chuck Kelley gave at NOBTS at the beginning of this school year, as he reviewed the tumultuous events at SWBTS. In spite of my disagreement, I consider Dr. Kelley a faithful man of God who has given noble service to the seminary. I can disagree with him and not hate him.
I have been less than thrilled that Southwestern’s trustees have failed to explain the published information about the financial situation at SWBTS. It seems reasonable to me that they would tell the people what is going on. I hope Dr. Greenway will lead them to an era of greater transparency. But I believe Kevin Ueckert has led the Trustees well through what may be the most difficult time in that seminary’s history. I respect and appreciate him even while I disagree with the lack of transparency.
I expressed my dissatisfaction with the Executive Committee’s Bylaws Workgroup’s “inquiry” into the ten churches named by our president at the last EC meeting. They botched it badly. They were not qualified to engage such an inquiry. I wouldn’t have been either. These are tough issues. They aren’t bad people. They were just high school ballplayers trying to play in the Major Leagues. They struck out.
Ken Alford, chair of the Bylaws Workgroup, resigned after the intense backlash. He appears to be upset about the reaction to their work. I agree with the criticism of the workgroup and think that at this point, his resignation might have been the best thing. However, I think the criticism of Alford in many circles became personal, attacking his character, raising issues of the past that were unnecessary and unfair (if the information I have is correct), and resorting to ridicule and gloating when he resigned. The workgroup was inadequate, but I believe some of the response was ungodly.
Sometimes, I disagree.
Finding the Balance
Finding that balance is never easy. Some are unwilling to criticize and, contrary to all Baptist history, view it as inherently ungodly. Others embrace criticism as a way of life and go off the deep end in so-called discernment ministries. Finding the balance of criticizing our fellow Baptists in a biblically acceptable way is not easy. It is like walking a tightrope – to lean to either side can have serious consequences.
I have often leaned to the side of failing to state criticism I knew I should. I like to be liked and criticizing others is not the path to popularity in the SBC. Many of our leaders and celebrity pastors have insulated themselves from criticism and react badly to it. I remember being horrified when Mark Driscoll claimed that a church member criticizing him was a sin against God. There are pastors and denominational leaders who act as if speaking a word of disagreement or criticism against them is the unpardonable sin. I have failed to speak at times because of this.
At other times, I’ve made my criticisms personal. There are people who are ungodly, disqualified from leadership by their sinful actions, arrogance, or ungodly attitudes. But the vast majority of the people I disagree with are not disqualified or worthy of receiving my anathema. They have just done something I don’t agree with. I do not need to make my criticism personal. We are saved by grace and I am constantly amazed at how little of it we display toward one another in public discourse.
An odd thing has happened over the years. Some of my closest friends in Baptist life are people I started out disagreeing with and still disagree with often. I have found that I can have close relationships and deep friendships with those with whom I do not see eye to eye, as long as we keep our disagreements in godly perspective and do not “go personal.”
I have been attempting to walk this tightrope for a baker’s dozen years, failing as often as I succeed. The struggle will continue. I will hold back when I should speak out and speak out when I should shut up. But we baptize believers because our forefathers dissented. We have religious freedom because of dissent. The CR happened because people disagreed with the powers that be. And if the SBC is going to see kingdom greatness in the future, there are going to be some changes necessary. We are going to have to speak the truth in love. Truth. In love.
That is one tough tightrope.