There were many tragic events during the years of the Second World War, but perhaps one of the most troubling occurred on July 25, 1944. As the Normandy campaign began with the historic beach landings of D-Day, massive allied bombing campaigns ensued clearing the way for Operation Overlord. Around 3,000 allied planes took flight that morning in a plan known as Codename Cobra and as they approached their target the pilots experienced low clouds making visibility almost impossible. The pilots intended to fly east to west along the enemies lines unloading their payloads, instead they approached from the north dropping their bombs on both the Germans and the advancing Americans. Among the casualties on the ground was Lt. Gen. Leslie McNair, the highest ranking American officer killed in the war, shot at by his own comrades. He wasn’t alone as 136 American servicemen were killed on that day from the payloads of their own planes. It is estimated that 2% of the allied casualties in WW2 was a result of friendly fire, being shot by their own brothers.
Friendly fire in battle is a great tragedy, but spiritual friendly fire might be worse. As Southern Baptists descend upon the convention in Nashville, we approach it with a sense of uneasiness of what might result from the divisive issues we face. For the second time last week I heard someone describe their expectations of the meeting as “bloody.” What a horrible descriptor, but it might well be true. If my friend’s prognosis is accurate it will be the result of friendly fire; brothers and sisters in Christ turning their guns toward their own blood-bought kin. The issues that divide us as Southern Baptists today feel much different than the issues that led to the important 1979 SBC in which Adrian Rogers was elected president. At that historic convention decisions were made which ultimately shifted the theological direction of the SBC, and I have personally benefited from that shift. The question facing the SBC in the late 1970’s was one of utmost importance: do Southern Baptist affirm the authority of Scripture as inerrant and infallible? The battle for the Bible which ensued in the 1980’s has now become known as the conservative resurgence of the SBC. It was a battle that needed to take place because the main issue was of prime importance and central to the collective soul of the convention. At times this battle was ugly and I am certain there were some friendly fire casualties along the way.
The issues that divide us now, however, feel very different. Issues of social justice, complementarianism, soteriology, and political ideologies have risen to the surface in the last few years and seem to be at a boiling point. The concerns of the messengers coming to the Houston convention in 1979 concerning the trustworthiness of scripture seem so much larger than the divisive issues of today. The battle of the Bible during the conservative resurgence concerned the historical reliability of the first eleven chapters of Genesis and other parts of Scripture; today we are asking if a woman can be listed on a church staff as a “children’s pastor.” In my opinion the issues we face today as a convention are not as primary, as much as they are secondary or tertiary. I am reminded of the words of the great puritan preacher Richard Baxter: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” The tent of our convention should be large enough to include those we disagree with on issues that do not compromise our convictions regarding the authority of scripture and the Great Commission. As we continue to shrink our tent, soon we will have no tent at all. I recognize that some of these areas of disagreement concern varying views of passages, many of which have been debated for centuries. My prayer as we head toward Nashville is that we will focus more on what unifies us, rather than on what divides us.
The Southern Baptist Convention has historically been used by God as a source of gospel saturation all over the world, doing immeasurably good and reaching millions for Christ. Yet as we splinter into micro-groups we inevitably limit the amount of missionaries we send to unreached people groups, lessen the amount of churches we plant and lower the amount of hurting and hungry people we touch for the cause of Christ.
My prayer is that the SBC will choose to focus on issues that unite us as Southern Baptists such as the sufficiency and efficacy of Christ’s redemption, the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, and the fact that there is a real place called hell and millions are headed there.
As we argue about secondary issues, we lose focus of what is most important. For example, we can disagree about social justice issues and CRT, but we cannot overlook those who have been denied membership in our churches based on skin color. We absolutely must hold to Biblical authority on controversial societal issues and not waver in our commitment to scriptural fidelity, but this must be accomplished with a noticeable humility.
As some Southern Baptists come to Nashville with their spiritual guns loaded ready to fire on their own comrades, we should carefully consider the prayer of Jesus in John 17: 20-23. “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.”
Let us recall Paul’s prolific call to unity for the Colossians, “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful.” 3: 12-15.
I am a proud Southern Baptist and will be for the remainder of my life. I love my convention and willingly serve it. I fear, however, that we are on the precipice of disaster if we continue to focus on the wrong things. My plea to brothers and sisters as we look to the 2021 SBC, leave your weapons at home and don’t fire on soldiers of the cross. Our enemies will celebrate a Baptist bloodbath, and be assured that the devil is scheming. Secular media are waiting with baited breath to report on the demise of the SBC, let’s not give them any negative fodder. May they report only about an unusual and peculiar Spirit-filled meeting where thousands of Southern Baptists recommitted themselves to reaching the lost and being a healing balm for a wounded nation.
Dr. Kevin Blackwell is Director of Samford’s Ministry Training Institute at Samford University.