“We must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
That quote, of questionable provenance, is attributed to Benjamin Franklin (or to Richard Penn, or to an anonymous American General) at the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Whether he actually spoke the words, the sentiments are beyond dispute. In such a time of extremity unity is essential, not optional. Those who came together to craft, discuss, debate, and finally sign that document had disparate backgrounds, beliefs, agendas, and purposes. Yet, they were able to unite in the belief that the course of human events had made their action necessary and that they must come together for a cause greater than that which separated them. They believed, whether anyone stated it or not, that they must hang together or hang separately.
The Southern Baptist Convention, which we love, is at such a juncture. Our convention has never been perfect, but it has been blessed. We’ve had divisions and blind spots, we have made mistakes that we now regret, but we have held fast to the truths of God’s word and stood strong for the gospel when many denominations have sacrificed it on the altar of cultural relevance, modernism, or popular opinion. By God’s mercy and grace, we have been a powerful force in this nation and in the kingdom of God in spite of our flaws and dysfunction.
The last fifty years have been tumultuous in our denomination’s history. We have engaged in a battle for the Convention’s theological soul, a battle that was noble yet left some deep scars in our collective psyche. Gone are the days of the 50s and 60s when there was a discernible “Southern Baptist Culture” that was nearly universal and united us throughout our stronghold in the Bible Belt of Southern states and even marked our existence in so-called pioneer areas. A series of cultural, sociological, religious, and theological forces have shattered that monolithic Southern Baptist Culture and we find ourselves now in a deeply splintered and fractured world searching for a new denominational identity.
If you asked a group of pastors in the 60s to describe Southern Baptists, they could have done so with ease. Ask a group of pastors today to answer the question, “What is a Southern Baptist?” and a lengthy debate will ensue, with no satisfactory conclusion. The SBC is in the middle of an identity crisis. Who are we? What is our heritage? What is our future? Disparate groups vie for the right to describe our past, define our identity, and direct our future. In the midst of this battle of wills we have seen a disturbing statistical trend; one which research shows has actually been going on since about 1950. Our growth rate as a convention has consistently slowed, resulting in first a plateau and then over the last decade a statistical decline.
We have reached our Benjamin Franklin moment and must declare that “if we do not all hang together we will all hang separately.” If we care about the future and the witness of the people of God known as Southern Baptists, we must lay aside the petty divisions, the rancor, the secondary pursuits, and unite in Christ. We must find a focus for the future, an identity around which we can unite or we will splinter into a dozen smaller and less effective denominations or denominational-type entities.
We raise our voices today to encourage a New Baptist Future that is founded upon ancient principles, issuing a call to lay down arms and take up our cross to follow Christ in the mission he has set for us.
Who Are We?
We are an informal coalition of Baptists who share common concerns. We lay no grandiose claims to representing some mythical majority in the SBC. We do not stake out territory as the special heirs to grand traditions of the founders of the SBC. There is not a one of us involved in the production of this document who is a “mover and shaker” in denominational life. No one among us pastors a megachurch or one that even comes close. Most of us have been involved in blogging at one level or another.
We are concerned pastors and church leaders who think the SBC, which we love, can be better, do more, and have a brighter future. We share some ideas about how that can happen and we want to promote those ideas. There is no secret handshake, no structure, organization, officers, or meetings. Right now, we are a Facebook group of pastors and bloggers batting some ideas around. Those may shift, sharpen, and adjust as the future unfolds, and other interested parties are welcome to have a voice in that. You are part of us if you share our goals and outlook and want to help influence the SBC in that direction. You do not need a membership card.
It is not completely accidental that we are calling ourselves “Voices for New Baptist Future.” Though SBC Voices will remain a place where a variety of views can be voiced (and responsible articles in opposition to this document will be welcomed), many of those involved are part of the SBC Voices community. SBC Voices will be one place where our views and plans will be discussed.
We have no firm plans about the future at this point. The purpose of this document is to set forward our ideas and to see how they are received. We will continue to advocate for these convictions but our precise agenda has yet to be determined.
The SBC as We See It
Every voice among us is an unabashed and unreserved Southern Baptist, a supporter of our denominational work. We love the SBC, adhere to the BF&M 2000 as our confessional document, support the CP as our missions vehicle, and are in general support of our entities. That does not mean that everything is as it should be in the SBC. It never has been and it never will be. That is the nature of institutions comprised of and led by fallen people. God’s grace works in spite of our flaws, but we must constantly seek to be conformed by God’s work to the biblical ideal.
There has never been a Utopian time in the life of the SBC, a pristine moment of spiritual glory that should serve as our standard. No leader of the past, no era, and no movement is our reference point, but the Savior and the Word he inspired to lead us into all truth. We are “people of the book” not “people of the traditions of the past.”
And so, while we affirm the SBC and we value its history and work, we also believe it can be improved. It is our desire to influence our denomination in a direction we believe will benefit it and be a blessing in its eternal work. We are fully aware that some will disagree, but these are the convictions that drive us.
- The SBC must unite around biblical principles to stop the splintering.
Since our cultural uniformity disintegrated, we have struggled to find other uniting principles and have to this point been unsuccessful. Some have fought to define our denomination theologically either by its perceived Reformed historical roots or by rejecting that and appealing to various non-Calvinist streams. Some have advocated for a return to that monolithic cultural past. “If we did today what we did then, we’d see today what we saw then.” Others argue that we must change with the times or become hopelessly irrelevant. The 25 year “worship war” was but one battle in this conflict. There are personality conflicts, and battles between young and old. There is a significant conflict in the SBC today over the importance of the culture wars in the church – whether they are a distraction from our task or essential to it.
We are never going to agree on all these issues. The issue of soteriological sovereignty has been argued long before Southern Baptists were a gleam in the radical reformers’ eyes and it will be argued until Jesus returns. Arguments on strict tithing, moderate alcohol use, the culture wars, worship styles – these will not be solved no matter how much or how long we argue them. If we insist that our unity rests on uniformity on these issues, then we might as well call a lawyer now and seek legal separation and an equitable distribution of property! Divorce is inevitable.
But we believe there is a better way, that there are solid biblical principles on which we can unite that will bring us together, establishing our identity on a confessional core, a missional system, and a love for Christ and the lost world. If we will allow this to supersede the internecine squabbles that divide and splinter us, then our future is hopeful.
- We must remember that Jesus died for a united body, and that unity is a divine mandate.
The Bible calls us to doctrinal fidelity and we are thankful that the previous generation of Southern Baptists heeded that call. But for every call to doctrinal fidelity there are multiple calls to unity, to oneness in Christ, and these often go unheeded. This cannot be. If we believe the Word, we must obey its call to unity in the Body of Christ.
Jesus redeemed one Body. We do not have to create unity; the Savior did that and the Spirit continues to unite us today. Our duty is simply to maintain that unity of the Spirit which Jesus produced in us. We must prize unity enough to take those actions which preserve and promote it. We must love one another, forgive one another, show grace to one another, believe the best about one another, and seek to build up one another.
This unity is a primary concern of our Savior and a fundamental command of Scripture. We cannot be obedient Christians or “good Baptists” if we are not seeking to build up the Body and maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace. We must “speak the truth in love.”
- We must unite for a New Southern Baptist Future.
Once, our unity came because we sang the same hymns from the same hymnal, used the same literature from the same Sunday School board, and heard similar sermons from pastors trained at the same seminaries. That cultural identity is gone and must be replaced by something new. We believe our future will focus on the following items. That future will be set as we maintain the proper focus .
- Our New Southern Baptist Focus must remain confessional.
The Baptist Faith and Message is not an infallible document, but it is a sufficient ground for our denominational cooperation. Not every Christian agrees with our confession and someone can be a good Christian without being a Southern Baptist. But if you disagree with the BF&M in a significant way you are not Southern Baptist. A fellow-believer who shares our fundamental gospel fidelity but diverges on Baptist doctrine or practice need not be treated as the enemy. We shake their hands, bless them, and pray for them as they go out from us to other fellowships. We must hold to gospel truth and to Baptist doctrine – unswervingly, uncompromisingly, and unfailingly. Biblical confessionalism is non-negotiable.
Though it is neither a perfect or inspired document, we have no desire to renegotiate or rewrite the BF&M 2000.
- Our New Southern Baptist Focus must be cooperative.
For nearly a century, the word “cooperative” has been central to our existence as a convention and the Cooperative Program has been the channel for our missions giving. Will it be tweaked in days ahead? Perhaps. Will it look exactly like last century’s CP? Perhaps not. But we believe that the CP is best the foundation for the future and that efforts to return to societal giving are ill-informed and unfortunate. We recognize that autonomous Baptist churches have freedom to choose their level of support and their methods of mission support, but we believe in, support and will promote missions through the Cooperative Program.
- Our New Southern Baptist Focus must be marked by freedom.
Romans 14 teaches a powerful concept with which many of us struggle. We have a Lord who died and rose again for the right to rule our lives. He earned that right and we ought to obey him. But as a corollary to that, we must remember that the Lordship of Christ precludes us lording it over one another. On issues of conscience, on disputable matters, we ought to live by our conscience under the Lordship of Christ and allow others to do the same.
This attitude must be part of our focus. On gospel matters we must be like iron – unbending. On Baptist doctrine we hold our convictions both firmly and graciously. But on other issues we follow our biblically-based convictions with the realization that others will do the same. We do not judge or disdain those who disagree. We may discuss, even argue, but we accept as full partners in Baptist life those who disagree on these issues.
What does all of this mean? It means that we are seeking a Southern Baptist fellowship that is confessional, cooperative, and free. We need to accept that we will be young and old, traditionalist and culturally-relevant, rock-and-roll and piano-and-organ, we will wear coats and ties and jeans and t-shirts, and most importantly, we will be inerrantist Baptists with divergent views on the sovereignty of God in salvation, on eschatology, and on several other issues.
We must be willing to join with others who share our gospel, our commitment to Baptist doctrine, and are willing to cooperate around our missions program, even if they are drastically different than we are in other ways.
- We must seek unity by broadening participation in the SBC’s leadership.
For a denomination as large as ours, leadership has been held in a relatively narrow corridor. That must change. We have two primary concerns here.
- We must continue the progress and increase the pace of racial reconciliation in the SBC.
The election of Fred Luter as president was not the sign that racial reconciliation had been finally achieved in the SBC, but merely a step along the path that began in Atlanta in 1995. Much remains to be done. We are encouraged by the responsiveness shown by SBC presidents and by the leaders of the Executive Committee in this area. But we believe that the progress we have made must be maintained and the pace accelerated.
The number of minority trustee appointments has increased, but a greater representation is needed. Increasing diversity in upper management and administration at our entities is crucial. It is happening and will continue to happen. We also believe that the convention needs to continue to elect officers from various minority groups. We simply need to keep our eyes open to see that the rate of progress increases and that we do not become satisfied before the job is complete.
- We should include smaller churches in the leadership of the SBC.
We understand that 95% of churches in the SBC average under 400 on Sunday morning. On the other end, there are only about 150 megachurches, churches that average over 2000 in attendance on Sunday. That means that about 1/3 of 1% of all SBC churches are megachurches. However, the leadership of the SBC is drawn almost exclusively from those 150 megachurches and trustee representation often favors those churches disproportionately.
We are not going to engage in class warfare of any sort. Megachurches have a role, a big role in the SBC. They are reaching people and doing a great work and it is not our purpose to engage in the anti-megachurch rhetoric some use. Since the explosion of Baptist blogging, when many of us became active in the convention, we’ve seen megachurch pastor after megachurch pastor elected president of the convention, and each has done a wonderful job.
But our individual admiration for these men does not change the fact that the presidency of the SBC is not the divine right of megachurch pastors. The constitutional duties of a president could be performed in exemplary fashion by many from smaller and medium sized churches and there is no reason to dismiss the vast majority of our pastors from consideration simply because their churches do not match up statistically with the megachurches.
We believe that both in the election of officers (including president) and in the selection of trustees for the entities of the SBC, greater effort needs to be made to expand the circle of participation.
- We must build unity by allowing for principled and constructive dissent.
Unity is not advanced by the suppression of dissenting voices. Godly leaders are always willing to hear and respond in humility to those who give a counterpoint to their point.
This has been a delicate balance for leaders. Harsh voices have spoken, seeming more intent on destruction, insinuation, unsubstantiated conspiratorial allegations and character assassinations than on productive, godly edification. It is not always easy to discern hearts or differentiate constructive criticism from that which has no godly intent. Denominational leaders are subjected to criticism for nearly every decision they make or action they take.
But this reality must not blind us to the fact that principled dissent is both a godly thing and a cherished part of Baptist history. Our denominational roots are in opposition to the establishment churches of Europe and even of colonial America. Those who raise concerns or even criticize a leader ought not be branded as trouble-makers or sentenced to the denominational gulag.
Among our group are those who have faced that kind of response when they have raised issues or expressed disagreement. We believe in working inside the system, but we also believe that no leader, no entity, and no board is above challenge.
Destructive criticism is sinful and can be rejected. Yet, if we as a denomination refuse to hear critics, if we bully those who ask a question or raise a concern, and if we ostracize those who disagree with decisions that are made, then we are not honoring the Savior and we are not fostering unity. True unity is not enforced uniformity; it allows dissent and disagreement so that godly agreement and spiritual unity can be reached.
We are plotting our course for the future and discussing options. We believe in the power of God and in the future of the SBC, and we intend to raise our voices. None of our plans are set, but they will undoubtedly include the following.
- Networking – we will talk to others and seek to advance our goals and beliefs.
- Writing – blogging and other writing provides a forum for us to advance our convictions and we intend to make use of those opportunities, here at SBC Voices and at other places as we have the ability.
- Politicking – It has become a bad word, but at some point, you have to try to win a majority vote at the annual meeting! As Dr. Patterson and Judge Pressler showed us, the election of the president of the SBC is a key component to this and we are looking at either enlisting candidates or endorsing them.
We submit this document for your consideration and critique. We are preparing other documents which will further express our views, our intent and our purposes. Our first step is to see how many share our concerns and our convictions.
This was a group document. Dave Miller was the initial author, but it was edited by several of those signed below and redrafted several times. It is presented as the group effort of the following:
We are not specifically seeking to do a “sign-up” for this, but if you’d like your name added to the list, all you need do is ask and we will add you.