The SBC is in an unprecedented time of transition and turmoil. We are about the fill the third of the five open entity head positions (the EC votes on its new president next week). Throughout all this turmoil we endure a presidential election last year in which the man who is now our president endured an unprecedented stream of slander and false accusation. Southwestern Seminary had the mother of all bad years. Division over our nation’s politics have split our convention that once united politically. Racism continues to be an issue. The #metoo/#churchtoo scandal in the SBC hit the front pages of our nation’s newspapers and we lost several leaders of denominational entities to moral scandals. Evidence of financial hardship has been revealed at several of our entities. There was a series of stories about troubles at Baptist colleges. And, our statistical malaise continues unabated.
Happy days are here again!
Most people will agree that the SBC needs some kind of turn-around, a renewal. The problem is that since we cannot agree about the problems we have trouble determining the solution. When confronted by the SBC’s problems, people say
- “It’s their fault.” We are often quick to pin the blame for everything on those groups with which we disagree. The Calvinists. The Social Justice Warrior/Cultural Marxists. Downgrade. Everything modern. Whatever the problem is, it is the fault of the people who do not agree with me!
- “We’ve got a program for that.” Our beloved SBC is known for seeking to solve systemic issues with initiatives, slogans, programs, and strategies. If they were going to work, I think they’d have worked.
- “We need revival.” Who wouldn’t love to see a massive Great Awakening-style revival? But perhaps there are things we can and must do under the Lordship of Christ to fix things today while we wait on God.
There are no easy, simple solutions for the problems in the SBC. There is no panacea and while revival is a noble prayer, we must walk in obedience today. Fixing what is wrong with the SBC will take hard work, dependence on the power of God’s Spirit, and a renewed understanding of Baptist distinctives.
Here are key issues, as I see them.
1. We must maintain careful confessionalism.
There will always be a tendency for the SBC to drift into doctrinal error and we must be constantly vigilant and ready to hold our entities and institutions accountable. Let me make two statements before I say this.
- The Conservative Resurgence was the best thing that happened to SBC in my lifetime, and one of the worst. It turned us away from following other denominations into doctrinal decay but it also was derailed into what its enemies accused. It became about power and control and that has borne ugly fruit in the modern SBC. We needed doctrinal correction but we are paying for the excesses and mistakes of the CR in the SBC today.
- The modern discernment movement is a destructive blight on our denomination. Those who abandon the Bible’s calls to love and unity to demean and destroy anyone who disagrees with them, using innuendo, false accusation, misrepresentation – they are all too common in our convention, they dishonor the Christ they claim to defend, and they are tearing down the convention they claim to be protecting with their “discernment.”
Having said that, a healthy SBC must be a confessional SBC. Individual churches can be 1689 Confession or Traditionalist Document supporters, or whatever else they desire to be. But we must regard our Baptist Faith & Message as a standard. Our seminaries and entities must submit themselves to it and it must be the standard of our fellowship.
Whatever the faults of the CR might have been, we decided we would be a denomination of inerrantists who believe in the blood atonement of Christ, the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus, and basic Baptist distinctive doctrines. That is who we are. We must stay faithful to that confession.
2. We must honor, not abandon, our polity.
There has been a lot of criticism of Baptist polity, especially autonomy, recently. I am convinced that the root of the problem is not our polity but our failure to understand our polity and our gross failure to adequately apply it and operate it.
Autonomy is a blessing, not an enemy. Our polity was carefully developed and it serves us well if we operate it well. It has been ignored and abused and we would do well to relearn it and continue to use it.
3. We must abandon (or at least de-emphasize) tribalism.
Tribalism in the SBC is likely another grandchild of the Conservative Resurgence. Before the CR, there was a monolithic culture in the SBC. You could attend an SBC church just about anywhere and it would be eerily similar. Hymnbook. Preacher in a suit. Song leader waving his arms. “Bless the gift and the giver.” Sunday School literature. RAs and GAs. We argued in the CR over whether our mission or our doctrine united us. It was neither. A common culture united us. The leaders of the CR, men I admired, were cut from an independent cloth and when they prevailed, a do-your-own-thing church culture replaced the monolithic SBC of the 60s and 70s. There are other influences there, of course.
Tribalism has become a huge issue in the SBC. You aren’t just a Baptist, you are a Traditionalist Baptist. Or a Reformed Baptist. Or a John MacArthur Baptist (not sure what that title should be). Or a revivalist Baptist. Or a Social Justice Baptist. Or a…you fill in the blank.
Fellowshiping with those with whom we have doctrinal compatibility is not wrong, but isolating ourselves into echo chambers where we only read those with whom we agree, only interact with those who buttress our presuppositions, and only listen to the voices that cheer us on is damaging. The SBC has become a cave system of narrow tunnels with large, isolated echo chambers. We live in our echo chambers cheering one another on, blasting “them” (those in other echo chambers), attend conferences in our echo chambers that tell us how superior our echo chamber is to other echo chambers, and smugly look down on the other, less godly, echo chambers.
If the SBC is going to survive and thrive, we have to come out of our echo chambers and unite around our confession and mission. As long as we are splintered into tribes, we will continue on a path to our eventual demise.
4. We must abandon elder rule in the SBC.
Settle down, folks. I just talked about autonomy! If your church wants to have deacons, or elders, or both, or wants to have a board of janitors that manages its affairs, have at it. I am not speaking about church governance, but SBC governance.
During the CR, it was necessary and understandable that a group of prominent pastors met to chart a course. Who will run this year? They met in secret to make decisions about who would be the next president. We awaited their decisions and then went to the convention and voted for the candidate they selected.
It has been a long time since the SBC needed such a group of men meeting privately to decide who will run for president (or PC president). The SBC is a political body and any eligible person is free to run for office. No person or small group of people has been given the authority to meet and decide whose time it is to run.
Actually, anyone has the right to do that. The problem comes when they tell people who are considering a run for office (SBC or PC President) that “it isn’t your turn” or pressure them not to run. Those decisions belong in the hands of the messengers.
The SBC is not elder ruled. We’ve elected no elders and have assigned such authority to no one. These powerful men are not bad men. They are not evil-hearted. But they have assumed the role of SBC elders that we have not given them. And we must make it clear that the SBC does not have elders.
I believe it is up to average churches to do this.
5. We must restore the concept of respectful dissent.
I love the SBC and have spent my entire ministry serving in it. I want it to succeed. I think there are good men leading our institutions. But we are not a perfect convention and there are things that need to be changed. We’ve lost the ability to accept criticism.
A lot has been said about the “11th Commandment” recently – the unspoken commandment about criticizing other leaders in the SBC. It is unhealthy to have a convention in which disagreement and dissent is viewed as ungodly or unhealthy.
We tend to go to the extreme in this area.
- Some offer a firehose of false accusation, angry insinuation, and hateful insults about our leaders and entities. After a while, people assume all criticism comes from the same sinful heart and lack of integrity displayed by those who lodge those criticisms.
- Because of this extreme criticism our leaders sometimes tend to fail to listen to reasoned criticism, categorizing all those who offer a disagreement along with the rabid discernment bloggers.
A few days ago, Todd Benkert wrote a remarkably respectful article about some comments that one of our seminary presidents made. People attacked Todd (and me) because we dared to even ask questions about such comments. Todd honored the man he questioned, but in some eyes, just asking a question is wrong.
We have to find a way to ask such questions. Respectfully. Humbly. With integrity. It is an essential part of our polity is that we hold our leaders accountable.
6. We must humble ourselves.
I was speaking to someone a few weeks ago, one raised in the SBC, and a #metoo survivor with a story that is hard to hear. She still serves the Lord and is a member of an SBC church. She said something to me, after having observed the scandals of the last year or two.
Dave, the biggest problem in the SBC is pride, arrogance.
She was speaking of leaders who refused to admit and repent of sin, of the tendency of churches to hide, coverup, and defend their reputation rather than to minister to the victims. Her words struck home. Of course, it should be no surprise. The root of all sin is pride. “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord.”
We have been an arrogant people, speaking of our own greatness as a denomination while underneath the surface there was racism, there was sexual abuse, there was idolization of numbers, there were political maneuvering and backroom dealing that we just accepted as normal.
Maybe God is reminding us that he cannot and will not bless human arrogance “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord and he will lift you up.” Perhaps that works for denominations as well as for people? Perhaps God has been reminding us, with our scandals and numerical decline and financial crises and so many other things, that we are poor and needy. Perhaps what we need as much as anything is to hit the dirt so God can lift us up.
7. We must have spiritual renewal.
There has been a passage that has bothered me for a long time. Galatians 5 gives two lists of behaviors. The first delineates the “works of the flesh” – those actions that give evidence that we are not walking in the fullness of the Holy Spirit and that our lives are not being shaped by the Spirit. Read Galatians 5:19-20.
Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, moral impurity, promiscuity, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.
In Galatians 5:22-23, we see the fruit of the Spirit, those things the Holy Spirit is working to produce in the lives of believers.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Simple question: which list better describes the interactions of Southern Baptists over the last few years? Am I wrong in saying that much of our public discourse is marked by the first list, not the second? Of course, we justify it because Jesus turned over tables in the Temple and spoke strong words to the Pharisees, and Paul told us to identify those who threatened the church.
But, if you are operating from the first list in your “ministry,” YOU are a threat to the church. You are not protecting the church, you are destroying it.
We need a spiritual renewal in which we humble ourselves and in which the Spirit of God captures us anew, conforming us to Christ and producing the fruit mentioned in the second list.
Until we stop operating in the flesh and start walking in the Spirit, all the programs, strategies, leadership changes, and denominational initiatives will come to nothing.
In this list, I saved the best for last, or at least the most important. There are other issues, but these will do for now. The floor belongs to you.