On the nearly interminable red-eye flight from Dakar, Senegal to Dulles yesterday, I watched the movie Invictus to pass the time. It is the story of Nelson Mandela, the Springbok Rugby team of South Africa, and the 1995 Rugby World Cup. After the end of apartheid in South Africa in 1990, Mandela was released from prison and then elected president in 1994. While there has been much debate about Mandela’s activities prior to his arrest and imprisonment, his tenure as president of the country was remarkable.
While attending a rugby match against England, he realized that the black South Africans in the stands were cheering for England against their own national team, the Springboks. Some time later, the South African Sports Committee, now dominated by the once excluded blacks, was ready to do away with the Springbok name completely in preparation for the 1995 World Cup to be held in 1995 in South Africa, a significant event since no significant sporting events were held in Africa during the apartheid era. Mandela went before the committee and influenced them to keep the Springbok name. The nation needed reconciliation, not revenge and retribution, he said. Instead of settling old scores, South Africans needed to overcome anger, suspicion and animosity to build a unified future. The committee narrowly agreed with him and, of course, the Springboks went on to inspire the country and to win a very surprising championship against the All Blacks of New Zealand – one of the great upsets and inspiring moments of sports history.
It happened because a leader chose reconciliation over retribution. Had Mandela gone along with the Sports Committee he would have been completely justified, knowing what had been done to him. Not only had he been imprisoned for 27 years at hard labor, but the blacks of South Africa had been brutalized and excluded in horrific ways – and this only ended 25 years ago! For them to exact a little revenge by doing away with the symbol of South African white pride, the Springboks, would have been justified. Honestly, who of us could have blamed him?
But he looked beyond pettiness, beyond settling scores and retribution, and he brought a nation together. He looked beyond pride and personal grievance to what would build a better South Africa, a stronger nation. Whatever you think of Nelson Mandela in his early years, South Africa is better off today because they had a leader who sought reconciliation over retribution after apartheid crumbled.
Leadership in the SBC
Being a leader in the SBC today is not something for the timid at heart or those who struggle with personal insecurity. No matter what decision a Russell Moore makes, someone isn’t going to like it. Pretty much anything LifeWay stocks is going to offend someone. You simply can’t please everyone.
And, frankly, there is an industry of criticism in the SBC. It existed before blogging, but our little pastime and other forms of social media have given voice to those who have little constructive to add, but only wish to tear down. Whether it is on the right or the left, from Geneva or one of the many organizations that have formed to oppose Calvinism, whether it is from traditionalism or those committed to extreme cultural relevance, someone is going to dislike pretty much everything our leaders do.
It has to get old being excoriated for everything you do and having every decision you make questioned, analyzed and second-guessed. And it is easy to snap back on the culture of criticism by treating all criticism as invalid, unwarranted and even ungodly.
There is a fine balance we must all find. I have to find it at my little old Iowa church and Thom Rainer has to find it at LifeWay.
On the one hand, I must not let perpetual, foul-spirited, flesh-driven, angry critics run my life or deter me from the work God has called me to do. On the other hand, I must not become immune to criticism or anathematize those who disagree with or criticize me.
We need leaders in the SBC with the intestinal fortitude not to let the angry voices drive them or discourage them and not to be bullied by the social media terrorists or their campaigns of mass destruction. But we need leaders who are humble, who listen when Southern Baptists are upset, who are willing to hear criticisms.
We need leaders who actively, humbly and intentionally seek reconciliation with those who criticize them. We need Romans 12:18 leadership.
If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
There are times when you simply can’t live at peace with everyone. There are people out there who don’t want peace, who love the smell of battle. I don’t understand it, but there are people who aren’t happy unless they are questioning the faith of another Christian or anathematizing someone. There’s not much you can do about people like that. There are times when the mute and block buttons are your only solution. But we cannot easily come to that solution. We cannot write our critics off as crazies too easily, before we have legitimately attempted to seek reconciliation with them.
In the SBC we have to learn to give and receive criticism in a godly way. We often fail both in the way we give it and in the way we receive it. Here are a few observations on the topic.
I wish I had some easy rubric to share on how to know when enough is enough, when it’s okay to write someone off. I know this – I have friends today who once were enemies. In the Kingdom, reconciliation works. The Spirit of God is actively working among believers to produce love and joy and peace and so when we pursue those things, the Spirit is our ally and our supply. Christians default to reconciliation and restoration, not isolation and derogation. Here are some thoughts that have been rattling around my brain.
1) Even God receives criticism.
Job said some harsh things about God. So did Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Habakkuk and other prophets. When these prophets didn’t understand the workings of God, they called out to God and questioned him; sometimes harshly. They wondered about his actions, his justice, his goodness.
And God did not blast a single one of them to perdition!
He answered them. He restored them. He was direct and honest with them, but he was also compassionate. He told Job that he was the sovereign God of heaven and that he would have to trust him because he couldn’t possibly understand all that he was trying to do. He called Jeremiah to serve him even if everyone hated him while he did it. He told Habakkuk that though injustice reigned in Israel, he had a plan to punish it and handle things.
The point is that if the sovereign God of heaven can take criticism from those he created, you and me can probably be humble and take a little criticism from those we lead. I am not more righteous than God. God heard those who questioned his decisions and actions and responded. I certainly ought to do the same.
Simply put, no pastor or leader is above question. No entity head or ministry leader is too wise or too high or too mighty to be criticized. It is an arrogant fool who acts as if he is above criticism.
2) It is every Southern Baptist’s right to criticize our leaders, and every Southern Baptist leader’s responsibility to listen.
We are a convention of churches, not of entities. In our polity, the entities should reflect and support the churches.
I once made a smart-aleck comment (surprised, right?) to the executive director of my state convention and someone chastised me for being disrespectful to my boss. The exec knew I was kidding and I don’t think he was offended, but the concern should have been that someone in a Southern Baptist church actually thought that the state’s executive director held authority over the pastor of a local church. The entities are autonomous like our churches, but they exist to serve the kingdom and to serve the churches of the convention.
And so, every leader in a convention entity needs to be willing to listen to opinions of Southern Baptists, even if they disagree with their own. Obviously. there are limits to this.
No leader can do his job and listen to everyone. There are not enough hours in the day. Frank Page has a lot of important work to do. None of us wants him to spend his day answering every emailed opinion that comes his way. Same for Dr. Moore, Thom Rainer, the presidents of our seminaries, or any of our other key leaders. But they need to actively take time to listen to Southern Baptist opinion.
- I have yet to agree with a single one of Randy White’s opinions about Dr. Russell Moore’s actions as president of the ERLC. Not a single one. I’ve been on Dr. Moore’s side every time. But Randy White has every right to voice his opinions. More than that, I hope that Dr. Moore (or, more likely, his staff) will listen to criticisms like that and realize that they represent a significant constituency in the SBC. I don’t have to agree with Dr. White’s positions to defend his right to speak those positions.
- I am a big fan of Dr. Thom Rainer and I think his blog is one of the must-reads for Southern Baptist pastors. Lifeway has been the target of a lot of the attacks from those obsessed with destroying other Christians. It would be easy to write off all their criticisms. The fact is that there are a lot of Baptists out there who wish that LifeWay wouldn’t sell the Shack, TD Jakes books, and other materials. I can both love and respect Thom Rainer and disagree with some of LifeWay’s material selections.
- I can both love Dr. Rainer and disagree with him. I can have a tremendous amount of respect for Ed Stetzer and sometimes disagree with what he writes. I can think Dr. Russell Moore is a gift from God to the SBC and still not agree with everything he says. It’s not either/or. It’s not 100% or 0%. There’s none of us who is perfect – including all of the leaders of our entities. They have all done good things, and every one of them will do something that we disagree with at times.
We need to be able to speak criticism without condemnation. Our leaders need to be willing to listen to criticism without feeling condemnation. Sometimes we need to change the tone and tenor of our criticism. At other times, perhaps, our leaders need to change how they hear. But Southern Baptists are a bottom-up denomination and the opinions and critiques of members of Southern Baptist churches must not be summarily dismissed.
3) It may surprise you that well-spoken, clearly articulated and reasonably argued criticisms ARE heard by our leaders.
Last year, the Executive Committee came out with a proposal concerning conformity to the Baptist Faith & Message. They announced the proposal and they actually invited people to respond. People did. They gave opinions – several here. And lo and behold, the Executive Committee listened and developed a new plan that accomplished the goals that they wanted to accomplish without creating any of the issues they were worried about. Something that was shaping up as a nasty convention floor fight turned out to be nothing – because THEY LISTENED!
They actually set up an email and invited response.
Let me share something I was told by a key leader of a convention entity. If any member of a Southern Baptist church sends a letter or an email to that entity to speak to a particular issue, that letter is distributed to the trustees (or perhaps the appropriate trustee committee) and that opinion is taken into account. If you write an angry rant, filled with wild accusations and threats, that will likely be discounted. If you write a letter as long as the kind of posts Bart and I write, it might get lost in the shuffle. But a concise, well-written opinion on a topic of convention business can make a difference.
Entity heads don’t have time to peruse blogs. You can rant and rave on blogs all day and little will be accomplished – battle blogging is largely ineffective in changing the SBC. Twitter bullying and name-calling, battle blogging and such are not likely to influence anyone. But when Southern Baptists express reasonable, biblical, cogent opinions, they will be heard.
4) Just because they don’t agree doesn’t mean you haven’t been heard.
It has to be said. Just because they don’t agree with you doesn’t mean they haven’t heard you. Maybe they have information you don’t have. Maybe they just simply disagree with you. Maybe there are other forces at work that you don’t know about. But too many times people assume that if they don’t get their way they haven’t had their say. Not so. Maybe (gasp!) your logic isn’t as compelling as you believe it to be. Maybe they heard you, looked at all the facts, heard all the perspectives, and believed that you were simply wrong. Or at least that you weren’t right enough to change courses.
I hate secret ballots. If you are a man or woman of conviction, you don’t need to hide behind secrecy to vote your conscience. Hold your hand in the air and speak your mind. I tried to get a “no ballot votes” provision in our church constitution in my last church, but it failed miserably. I brought it up at my current church one time, and a friend grinned and said, “I call for a ballot vote if we bring it to a vote.”
To me, the logic seems unassailably clear. Secret ballots serve no purpose in the local church except to allow people to be cowards. But to this point, I’ve been unable to convince two congregations of this. Oh well. Should I rant and storm until they bow to my opinion? Or just move on to other things? Does the fact that the church refuses to bow to my opinion mean that they didn’t hear me or respect me? Maybe it’s okay to just disagree? (For the record, ballots at the SBC are useful for counting close votes – in a megachurch they might serve that same purpose.)
Someone can listen to your opinion, give it a full hearing, and simply disagree. You’ve been heard, even if you haven’t been agree with.
5) Godly leaders seek reconciliation.
Jesus is Lord of all and he devoted his life to seeking reconciliation with sinners. In a church, the pastor is God’s chief agent of reconciliation. It is every Christian’s duty to be an agent of reconciliation in the Body of Christ, but the pastor and other leaders of the church carry the burden of being God’s agents of unity and reconciliation. We must endure scorn, criticism, anger, insult and all of these in the name of building up the body. When you sign on as a pastor, you are agreeing to swallow your pride to build up others, to be slow to anger, quick to forgive and first to seek restoration and reconciliation.
Within the boundaries of the possible, SBC leaders ought to be men of peace and of reconciliation. They ought to be willing to hear their critics, even to give them a serious ear. I can’t imagine what men our entity heads go through. But when they accept the job to lead us and to lead our schools and agencies, they accept the burden to be men of humility and agents of reconciliation and unity, as much as is in them. As Christ gave himself to seek reconciliation with us, leaders give themselves to seek reconciliation with those God gives them to lead.
Each of us has the responsibility before God to guard our tongues, to speak the truth with grace and to avoid the kind of derogation that has become so common today, even among Christians. Leaders have a special responsibility to be Christlike agents of reconciliation, even with those who disagree with them and their ideas, and even those who criticize them. Somehow, we need to create an environment where civil discussion, debate and even disagreement can take place – among Calvinists and nons, traditionalists and relevants, megas and smaller churches, whatever our divisions are. We need to be respectful in how we criticize and humble in how we receive criticism.
Having said that, I’m glad I’m not the leader of one of the ERLC, LifeWay or one of our seminaries!