Since the ERLC announced that they will be having a discussion about religious liberty with a couple of politicians at the SEND conference, we have been asked to respond. After all, we’ve been questioned, if we have concerns about the SBC pastors’ conference invitation of politician Ben Carson, shouldn’t we have concerns here? It’s a fair question. Perhaps those asking for a quick response will forgive us for our response time. In relation to the Carson post, we had months of time to wrestle with it before we sent our post to the pastors’ conference leadership. Then, we gave it another month before we posted it. While it’s tempting to do something similar with the SEND conference leadership, here are a few initial thoughts about why we aren’t as concerned with the SEND invites as we were with the other.
First, the goals of the conferences are different. The SBC pastors’ conference is primarily for pastors. The SEND conference has been marketed for all people. There are speakers you would invite to a conference about the mission of God that you wouldn’t invite to speak at a pastors’ conference. The SEND conference seems to be broader in scope. As a pastor, I’m taking 25 of our church members to the conference because I want them to be better equipped to live on mission. I didn’t take our people to the SBC pastors’ conference, although I as a pastor attended. NAMB and IMB, the creators of the conference, both understand that the mission of God is big enough to include all aspects of the lives of the people of God. And my people are facing the sophisticated religious liberty challenges at work—even here in the South. So a discussion on religious liberty is more appropriate with this type of conference.
Second, the formats and topics of the conferences are different. At the pastors’ conference, Ben Carson was going to speak in a sermonic fashion, opening his bible and talking about cultural values. The politicians at the SEND event will not be speaking in the same way, but will be interviewed specifically on religious liberty issues. They will not be opening a bible and delivering a sermon. Am I surprised the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is having a discussion on religious liberty? No. It’s one of the reasons they exist. Do I think having a politician opening up a bible and talking to us generally about its values is a good idea, especially when he has significant different theological views? No. There’s a significant difference here. Baptist21 never called for a complete disengagement from political involvement. We did, however, raise concerns about the way we were engaging politically as a denomination. We hope the SBC can be a prophetic voice that is not tied to one party, but is wed to the Kingdom of God and the mission of God. However you think that should play out, the formats and topics of these two conferences are different.
Third, the invitations to the conferences are different. At the pastors’ conference only one politician from one party was invited. This party—the Republican Party—is the only party that has historically received invites to SBC events. Our concern was that a close association with a political party would dilute our gospel witness. The ERLC invited candidates from both parties. Regardless of who comes, they have made an effort to engage with both parties. Whether one thinks this is enough or not, it is a different approach—one I believe that makes our previous concern harder to raise. In fact, during the pastors’ conference situation, when different parties behind the scenes asked us how pc leadership might handle the situation differently, we suggested that they could invite a politician from the Democratic Party to have a discussion on religious liberty. This is what happened with the SEND invite. There’s progress here. Whether or not there is enough progress to avoid diluting our message and mission is yet to be seen. Some B21 members are skeptical. The news that Democrats will probably not be represented at SEND is disappointing and still contributes to the perception that the SBC is tied to 1 party, but we are thankful for the effort to include both parties.
These are just quick points of observation. We assume that they won’t be completely agreed upon. Even among the Baptist21 brethren there are those not excited about this portion of the SEND conference. But the Southern Baptist emphasis on cooperation assumes different perspectives. The question isn’t whether we’ll disagree or not. We will. The question is whether we will disagree without being disagreeable or not. Let’s not be offended by opposing views. Let’s engage with them. Voice your own as winsomely as possible and let’s advance the kingdom of Christ together.