When we seek unity at the SBC, we often come at it from the wrong perspective.
- We seek to downplay our differences, as if we all walk hand in hand, one in mind and spirit.
- We seek to suppress the voices of dissent and keep them from speaking their minds.
- We demand that those of different cultures and preferences conform to our ways.
- We accuse those who challenge, question, or criticize of being divisive and of threatening unity.
This is a gross misunderstanding of biblical unity and actually tends to lead to greater anger and division. People feel bullied, pressured to stay silent, and convinced that the “powers” don’t care much what the “people” think.
Unity is hard to find in the SBC because it is hard to define. Our struggles for unity today are not new. They are the result of a trend that has been going on for longer than even an old codger like me has been alive.
During the CR there was a pointless argument over whether the unity of the SBC was based on our common theology or our common mission. Conservatives argued (rightly) that we were united by a common theological ground. We were people of the Book and the Blood. If we did not hold to a truthful word we would soon follow other denominations in compromising every fundamental gospel truth. Moderates argued (also rightly) that it was our mission for Christ that united us. They argued that it was the Cooperative Program and worldwide missions work that united us.
Yes, the Southern Baptist Convention historically was united by fundamental doctrine and cooperative mission, but our true unity was something less noble than that. Southern Baptists had an external, cultural unity that bound us together. We were a perfect fit for the Southern culture in the United States – white, morally and culturally conservative, and patriotic. We fit in perfectly – a little too perfectly I might argue – with the predominant culture of the mid-20th Century Deep South.
And there was a true Southern Baptist way of doing things. You could go from church to church to church but the culture of the church remained largely the same. We sang from the same Broadman Blue Baptist Hymnal, accompanied by a piano and an organ. The preacher opened his King James Bible and preached a three-point message with a powerful and emotive invitation. In Sunday School we used BSSB literature. We had Training Union and Sunday Evening services, RAs and GAs, Lottie and Annie didn’t need last names, and every week both the gift and the giver were blessed! A Southern Baptist church was a Southern Baptist church and we pretty much stayed in our own little world.
Our unity was theological and missiological, yes. But the primary ground of our unity was cultural. We dressed alike. We looked alike. We had our own lingo, our own literature, our own outlook on life.
And the changing world of the last 50 years blew that up completely. The SBC has now expanded to all 50 states and the walls, the separatistic walls have been torn down. We engaged with the broader evangelical world and suddenly Baptist churches were using Awana and other programs, experimenting with non-SBC literature, and…gasp…introducing guitars and drums into worship. Pastors began to lose their coats and ties and started serving coffee to congregants!
The biggest changes have come as we began to engage with minorities, especially African-American Baptists. We found that while we hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in common, there isn’t much else that we share. The culture that bound us together in the 50s and 60s is regarded as heinous by many in the minority community. They do not want to “rebuild America” into what it once was and do not long for the good old days as we do. They do not see politics as we see them, do not see culture as we see it, do not see many issues as we have seen them.
The cultural unity of the SBC of my youth is gone and we have struggled to find a new basis of unity. Some have tried to hold on to the trappings of the Southern Culture of a generation ago, but most of us have no desire to unite around that. The SBC now has a real cultural diversity. Attend three SBC churches and you are likely to find a wide range. In one you might hear echoes of the past as it does many things the way they were done years ago. In another you will wonder if you have wandered into an Assembly of God congregation, and in the third you may find yourself reading liturgy. The sermon you hear in an SBC church could be an old-fashioned three-pointer with a poem, an expositional treatment of the text, a theological lecture reminiscent of the Puritans, or a practical motivational speech designed to help you live a happy life. Some churches will have a ruling pastor, others will have deacons, and many now will have elders, ranging from ruling elders to elder leadership. And you will find every position on the soteriological spectrum, from 5-Point Calvinist to Traditionalist and myriad positions in between. On eschatology, ecclesiology, and other topics you will find great variety.
The uniformity that marked churches 50 to 75 years ago is gone.
Here are two facts.
1. Southern Baptists are deeply divided in every human way.
We are racially divided and the more we reach out and open the doors to our minority brethren, the bigger than divide will be. Minorities often do not see the world as we do. For instance, in White SBC culture, abortion is the evil to end all evils. Many of our Black brethren, who also see abortion as evil, are not willing to place it as an evil greater in every way than racism. Let’s face it, trying to decide which is more evil – racism or abortion – is like trying to determine which team is more evil, the Red Sox or the Patriots. Evil is evil.
We are culturally divided. There is a culture in the North, and in the West, and in the Southwest, and in the Midwest, that just doesn’t mesh with the culture that the SBC prospered in 50 years ago. The cultural unity that bound our hearts in Christian love when we were a regional religious force in the 50s and 60s won’t get the job done now. I have been SBC since 9 months before I was born, but I don’t drink sweet tea and I don’t particularly like grits. Southern culture can no longer be the unifying force of the SBC. That doesn’t make Southern culture evil – no more so than northern culture or western culture or African culture or Asian culture. It just cannot be our binding force anymore.
Okay, let’s be honest about one thing. SEC football is evil. That needs to be said. But moving on…
We are theologically divided. No, people need to stop with the nonsense – call it what it is, LIES – about liberals and cultural Marxists. That ungodly junk needs to stop. But the SBC does have a wide range of views on a lot of topics. We span the continuum of soteriology from Five-Point Calvinist to all forms of Non-Calvinism including Traditionalists. We have just about every view on eschatology and varying positions on ecclesiology and all sorts of topics.
We are preferentially divided. Honestly, I think this is the biggest one. I wore a suit twice in the four days of the PC and the Annual Meeting this year and people acted like I was doing something strange. “Why the suit, Dave?” Well, to be like Bart, of course! But some wear suits, some don’t. Some like hymns, some like rock and roll church. Have you ever noticed that much of the angst surrounding “Calvinism” focuses on non-theological behavioral things?
2. The difference today is that we include people who differ in human ways.
The SBC is different because it now includes people from outside of the dominant culture of 50s Deep South.
- We include people from the Northeast, the Midwest, the West – all 50 states.
- We include minorites – African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, people from all over the world.
- We have older, traditional folks and younger more contemporary people who see things in very different lights.
We are divided because we are different. Our unity was once easier because of our uniformity. Now, we are in no way uniform. We have to seek a new path to unity.
Permit me to state this plainly.
Division is natural for human beings. We are always divided. That is what we do. We will only be truly united if we accept our differences and unite around Christ and in Christ.
The Way of the Flesh
Look at the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20-21. There are all sorts of evil things listed there, but the bulk deal with the basic tendency of human beings to be angry, selfish, and divisive.
…hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy…
We are self-centered people who like us, our ways, our kind, our people, and have a natural tendency to divide from people who are different. Our inner selfishness leads to strife and jealousy, causes us to lose our cool with others, to operate out of selfish ambition, and to wind up in dissensions and factions.
And when we are Christians we call it righteous anger and discernment. I have watched as some of these discernment bloggers and tweeters have eviscerated others on the flimsiest of disagreements. They question the salvation of anyone who doesn’t agree. “He is unregenerated!” If you disagree with my view of complementarianism, you are a heretic, a threat to the church, and a danger! These people call themselves servants of God but let the works of the flesh run free. They act in selfishness, creating dissensions and factions, and call it “discernment” and claim they are seeking to protect the purity of the church.
The church-growth movement used to push the homogenous unit principle. Of course that worked. Southern Baptists loved being able to hang out with not only other Baptists but other Southerners. We like people who are like us. We are comfortable with people who see the world as we do. Engaging people who are different. who see the world in contradictory ways takes us out of our comfort zone.
The flesh pushes us to unite ONLY with those people who look like us, think like us, act like us, vote like us, sing like us, and have cultural preferences that match ours. But if we are comfortable with that, we are living in the flesh. That is not okay.
The Way of the Spirit
Observe the fruit of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:22-23.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
What is the primary work of the Spirit? To produce character qualities in us that fight against the natural tendency in us to be divisive and mean-spirited. Instead of seeking my own I act in love. Instead of being angry, I have the joy of the Spirit. Instead of seeking conflict with everyone who disagrees with me, I act in peace, being patient and kind to others no matter how they treat me. I am good and faithful no matter how everyone else behaves. I am gentle and self-controlled by God’s Spirit instead of lashing out. (Let me be clear – while I spoke here in the first person, this is not a testimony of how I always act, but how I SHOULD act if filled with the Spirit. Would that I always did!)
The work of the Spirit is to fight against the work of the flesh that makes me fight.
Because our homogenous cultural unity has blown apart it will take a work of the Spirit of God to unite the Southern Baptist Convention.
1. The SBC is always divided – and that is GOOD.
It is good for us to be a convention of different kinds of people with different kinds of views. As long as we unite around the gospel of Christ and the Baptist Faith and Message, we should be from all races, all places, and strata of society.
The more the merrier.
2. The question is not whether we are divided but whether we walk in the Spirit or in the flesh.
It is that simple. We are Black and White – and Asian and Hispanic and everything else. Male and Female. Calvinist and Traditionalist and everything in between. We are rich and poor. We are young and old. We are comtemporarian and traditional.
The question is whether we will walk in the flesh and anathematize those who disagree with us, treat the “other” as the enemy, and try to garner power and control for “me and mine.” Or will we walk in the Spirit and let love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the rest govern the day? Are we going to withdraw into our schismatic corners or break down walls and find the way of the Spirit to walk together?
Unity is a work of the Spirit. It is not thinking alike. It is not looking alike. It is not having the same preferences.
3. Building Biblical Baptist (Brotherhood) Unity
I so wanted to use Brotherhood to preserve the alliteration, but we are talking about unity, so…
Our unity is not based on anything human, but on the work of God, the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit within us.
Biblical Baptist unity is:
- Having the same experience in Christ – we have been bought by the blood of Christ!
- Having the same convictions about God’s word – we confess the Baptist Faith and Message as our common ground. (There may be those who love Jesus and don’t agree with the BF&M. There are faithful Christians who are NOT Southern Baptist. But the BF&M is OUR confession.)
- Having the same mission for Christ – we cooperate in obedience to the Great Commission.
Anything beyond that is human and divisive. You don’t have to hold to the same number of points of a theological system as I do or see eschatology through my lens. You don’t have to dress as I dress or worship as my church worships. You don’t have to vote as I vote or see the world as I see the world.
As long as you know Christ, share our common convictions, and partner together with us for the gospel, we can walk in unity. That is biblical Baptist unity.
May the SBC choose the way of the Spirit over the way of the flesh.