Since hearing the report from the IMB trustees yesterday, I have done a good bit of reflecting about how the IMB policy on baptism affected me personally and shaped me as I actively engaged in Baptist life. I cannot fully describe the feelings I have about this important change or what this means to me personally. I have long believed that our mission boards ought to represent all the churches in fellowship with the Convention. If a church’s requirements are in line with the consensus of Baptist beliefs (i.e., the BFM 2000) they should be allowed to serve and not denied by the additional doctrinal requirements of a small group of trustees. I am thankful that our IMB trustees have restructured these policies to what I believe is a more biblical and Baptist standard.
But this issue in SBC politics has shaped me in a number of significant ways over the past 9 years and forced upon me a number of decisions about how I would engage in denominational life and, more profoundly, what kind of man did I want to be.
To Blog or not to Blog, that was the question
It is fair to say that I cut my blogging teeth on this issue. The issue was quite personal to me. I marveled at the irony of my situation. My path from a teenage believer in the Assemblies of God to a convictional Baptist and then graduate of Southern Seminary made me in the eyes of some simultaneously too Calvinist and too Arminian to be a missionary. I found myself affirming a doctrinal statement that allowed for latitude on tertiary issues while a number of my brothers sought to “narrow doctrinal parameters” beyond this statement in a way that excluded me. I found myself an outsider in the Convention I loved and have been a part of for decades.
Early on, however, I had to decide if I would blog on these kinds of issues at all. To say I am opinionated is quite the understatement. The question was whether I should state my opinions about these issues in such a public forum as blogging. As a younger evangelical, I clamored to have my voice heard and “have a place at the table.” I had to evaluate whether my desire to blog was fueled by selfish ambition and pride and a desire to be known, or did I actually have something to contribute? That is a question with which I still wrestle today. Added to the decision, too, was the fact that many key leaders saw the new medium of blogging as a threat and were harshly critical of bloggers and the Baptist blogosphere.
Ultimately, I decided to join the discussion. I would not be intimidated by those who saw blogging as a threat to the status quo or by others who labeled all bloggers as troublemakers. Still, I quickly realized that blogging was a medium that could easily generate more heat than light, that it too often brought out the worst in people, that it tempted me to write from emotion rather than thoughtful reflection, and that it could either be used to foster division or unity. I became a kind of on-again/off-again blogger fueled somewhat by a stewardship of time but, more often, because blogging was often a soul-draining experience, toxic to my spiritual life.
Nevertheless, I wrote much on the IMB baptism policies, both on my own (now dormant) blog and in the comment streams of others. I set about making the case that the IMB policies demonstrated a faulty view of baptism, a gross mis-understanding of Arminian theology, and a shutting out of cooperating, Bible-believing, BFM2000 affirming Baptists from mission service. The policies were inherently flawed and needed to be replaced. I joined the larger movement of Southern Baptists that formed its Baptist identity around our statement of faith but rejected the tribalism that isolated Southern Baptists from the larger evangelical world or camps within the SBC from each other.
I voted for the Garner motion, the GCR, the name change, ethnic diversity in Convention leadership, and Dave Miller for VP. I engaged on these issues and more in the Baptist blogosphere always speaking for those issues I cared about but also striving for unity and cordial debate on these important issues.
What Kind of Blogger would I be?
I also had to make a decision as a blogger, how would I engage in this conversation? I knew I had something to say, but had to make a decision about what kind of blogger I would be.
I observed that reasoned debate and legitimate questions too often got mixed with emotional tirades, and an unwillingness to engage each other honestly. I was frustrated by the tone of blogging generally, but also saw the positives of such open and rigorous debate on important issues. In my own personal reaction to the issue, I found myself sometimes behaving poorly (in the early days following the decision, for example, I was mouthing off in the Seminary hall to the VP’s assistant and found myself on the receiving end of a stern admonishment from the Dean).
At some point, as I began commenting on various blogs, I made the decision that if I had something to say, I should be willing to put my name on it. So I made it my practice to fully identify myself, using my full name or including my email. That kept me accountable and I’ve found that to be a good practice for me. On my own blog, I knew I could not be a “watchdog” blogger, having neither the inside information, time to do the kind of research required, or the stomach to play that role. While such shedding of light on such issues is often needed, that kind of blogging was wearying to me. I found my personal bent is to err on the side of naiveté rather than cynicism.
I also found that too often in the Baptist blogosphere, discussion of important issues degenerated into ad hominem attacks, conspiracy theories, mischaracterizations, assumptions of motive, accusations of cronyism, and general mean-spiritedness. I made a conscious decision at that point that I would refrain from that kind of writing and engage as best I could in a unifying way. I would not shy away from tough questions and reasoned debate, but made a decision to not assume motives or engage in personal attacks. I appealed to others to follow suit. Some issues I avoided altogether.
Something happened, however, as I engaged on the Baptism policy issue. I found that some of the men with whom I disagreed were the same men whom I considered role models of Christian leadership and maturity. In my interactions with these men, I found that most of those with whom I disagreed were godly, humble servants, who were trying to serve the Lord. As I got to know other bloggers personally as well, I grew to have a great love and respect for these men. Some of these interactions grew into friendships. I found myself praying for and celebrating these men, even as I disagreed with them on this and other important issues.
Would I continue to support the SBC, Lottie, CP?
Similar to my decisions about blogging, I had to make a decision about my participation and support of SBC missions. Would I continue to personally support and lead my church to support Lottie Moon, the Cooperative Program and the SBC when I felt increasingly treated as an outsider to this Convention I loved? Could I be bold in my opposition to these policies, possibly solidifying my outsider status, while still loving my brothers, giving them whenever possible the benefit of the doubt, and working alongside them to see the gospel go forward?
I remember an early emotional outburst to my Missions Professor at Southern. “Until these policies are reversed, I will not give another dime to Lottie Moon!” I angrily proclaimed. Upon some good counsel, and further reflection, I reversed that position. I realized that God was bigger than my personal concerns or even the SBC. I had to remember too, that even if sometimes bad decisions are made, that God is sovereign. God will work bad policies together for good. No errant decision would thwart his will. Ultimately, I made the choice for continued cooperation.
While I remained unsure about the future of the Convention and whether, ultimately, there would be a place for me here, I chose to stay, engage and fully participate. I honestly believed the SBC was at a crossroads and would either move toward a tribalism and continued narrowing, or would embrace the unity in diversity pictured in the Baptist Faith and Message.
As I continued to engage, the IMB Baptism policy still left a bad taste in my mouth. Though I disagreed on key issues, however, I observed in many leaders (even some of the architects of the policy) an earnest desire to see the gospel go to the nations and a desire to cooperate across the Baptist spectrum to see that happen. As time progressed, I saw other actions of the trustees to be missiologically sound and wise.
While the conversation took place and continues to do so, I have never stopped supporting the IMB and have led my church to give generously to support missions. In my disagreement, I chose to work for change, accept the dissonance, and choose to continue to support our cooperative work. I believed that the overall positive benefits of association far outweighed the bumps in the road. Whether the policy was ever reversed, I would continue to champion SBC missions. Missions support was more important than my personal stake.
In the interim years where no change was forthcoming, the IMB personnel policies forced us as Southern Baptists to have a conversation about what it means to be Southern Baptist and what kind of Convention we want to be. That conversation continues today.
The most important Lessons
I’m glad I entered the Baptist blogosphere and am thankful for the influence bloggers have had over the years. The lessons I’ve learned in this decade of debate are many. I’ve gained perspective from those who don’t think like I do and have been stretched to articulate and defend my positions, and even change my mind sometimes. I have learned how to disagree without being disagreeable. I’ve learned that God is bigger than SBC and our Baptist squabbles. I learned, even as I sought to be included, that Baptist Identity was indeed important and that clearly articulating that identity is not a misguided effort. I’ve learned that Christian brotherhood transcends our Baptist Identity conversation. I’ve learned that many, if not most, of those with whom I have disagreed on these issues are godly, spirit-filled men and women who want the same things I do. I’ve learned the true care and concern of these brothers for me personally even as we remain on opposite sides of certain key issues. I’ve learned the SBC is an awesome collection of believers who are like-minded where it really counts.
All in all, I believe that yesterday’s decision was the right one and I’ve long anticipated this day. The change was needed. Not all will agree. But I’m well past the days where I thought this policy issue was the most important one. I am much more thankful for what these years of SBC life have meant for me: Increased involvement, an appreciation for brothers who disagree with me, true friendships across the Baptist “fault lines”, a shared love for the gospel, and a desire to see the gospel go to the nations. May we continue to move forward together in this great cooperative work!