I first noticed the term, “prioritism,” in David Hesselgrave’s book, “Paradigms in Conflict” (Kregel Publications, 2005). Dr. Hesselgrave taught missions at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School for more than 30 years, and he was one of the founders of the Evangelical Missions Society. Dr. Hesselgrave died two years ago, but he was the godfather of evangelical missions. In his book he defined “prioritism” in this way:
“What I will call traditional prioritism recognizes the importance of all or most of those ministries that address the various medical, educational, economic, and social needs of individuals and societies. At the same time it sustains the time-honored distinction between the primary mission of the church and secondary or supporting ministries. With reference to spiritual transformation and social transformation, it gives priority to spiritual transformation. With reference to spirit, mind, and body, it gives priority to the spirit or soul. With reference to social action and evangelism, it gives priority to evangelism. In maintaining these priorities, however, it does not admit to being reductionistic either in the sense of neglecting social ministries on the one hand or confining cross-cultural work strictly to evangelism on the other (121).”
So, what does prioritism have to do with the SBC? Last year, Baptist publications and this blog devoted lots of attention to the organization of the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN). As a student and professor of Baptist history and missions, naturally, I was curious about the CBN. I perused the CBN website, and I watched some of their videos, but I remained confused about its purpose and intentions. When the CBN, announced its Steering Council, I did not know most of those listed, but I did know Dr. Mike Spradlin, the President of Mid-America Baptist Seminary. So, I called Dr. Spradlin and spoke with him about the CBN. (Note: He gave me permission to use his name and share our conversation with you.) Dr. Spradlin told me that he was not one of the CBN’s organizers, but he was invited to an early meeting in Texas. He liked what he heard and attended another meeting. When he was asked about Mid-America Seminary hosting a CBN meeting, he readily agreed. Mid-America Seminary has now hosted three meetings, and the seminary has provided office space for the CBN headquarters.
As we discussed the CBN, Dr. Spradlin insisted the CBN supports efforts to achieve racial reconciliation and equality. Further, he told me that the CBN wants to see sexual abuse ended in SBC churches. However, he said that the CBN believes the attention given to these and other social issues has distracted the SBC from its primary mission of evangelism and missions. According to him, the CBN believes ethical issues have become front-burner matters, while evangelism and missions have been shifted to the rear burners. He did agree that the CBN’s concerns are not theological. They do not question the theology of the SBC’s leaders, nor do they doubt their adherence to the Southern Baptist Statement of Faith and Message.
After listening to his explanation, I said, “Well, it seems the CBN’s concerns have to do with denominational priorities rather than theology.” Dr. Spradlin replied, “Yes, that is a good way to put it. We want to return to the days when evangelism and missions were the priorities.”
So, hopefully, you see the connection between prioritism and the SBC. Let me make some disclaimers. I have not signed on as a member of the CBN. I have not attended any of their meetings, and the CBN did not appoint me to be their spokesman. Instead, I wanted to understand what the CBN wants to see happen in the SBC, and I thought it important to share with our Voices readers what I learned. I truly believe that it is important for all of us in the SBC to try to understand each other. This blog post is simply my effort to promoted mutual understanding. For what it is worth, I agree with David Hesselgrave’s position on prioritism.