The Wednesday morning session of this year’s Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was slated to be a historic moment in SBC history. Messengers found themselves prepared to cast votes for the third time in twenty-four hours for the election of President of the SBC. After two runoff votes, messengers would finally elect Pastor Steve Gaines, or Pastor J.D. Greear, in an incredibly close and passionate election. Most who were prepared to vote were unaware that this historic morning would be determined by significant events from the evening prior.
After much prayer and conversation on Tuesday evening, Pastor Greear believed it was in the best interest of the Convention and its messengers to withdraw his name from the nomination. Pastor Gaines came to similar conclusions for his own position on Tuesday evening, and was ready to take the same action in withdrawing. Greear, believing it was his duty to serve the older pastor in this election, announced his decision standing next to Gaines before a crowded convention hall of Southern Baptists. As Greear made his decision from the platform, a standing ovation erupted across the hall.
Following the election of the first ever black SBC President, Pastor Fred Luter, at the 2012 Annual Meeting, I would argue this moment was the greatest post-Conservative Resurgence moment in SBC history. An election that could have led to deep bitterness and the thickening of tribal lines, instead became a moment of great unity among generations of Southern Baptists. We left St. Louis with tingly feelings. The significance of this occasion was captured and proved in no shortage of blogs and videos reflecting on the power of Greear’s decision and Gaines’ humble response in a heavy moment. It was truly a powerful moment that personally, I will never forget.
Now let’s be real for a minute. As previously stated, the moment was incredible. The standing ovation and gathering of SBC pastors in unity together created an overflow of emotions to carry us home from St. Louis. The conclusion of the election was a display of respect, appreciation, and admiration for two men modeling Christ in a kingdom-minded moment. While this certainly was a unifying moment, I would argue it does not prove a united Convention. Five seconds before Greear’s announcement, he had received 2,306 votes on the runoff ballot, compared to Gaines’ 2,410. Clearly we are deeply, deeply, divided as a Convention. We stood in applause, but the evidence is obvious and undeniable. We are divided in differences.
Seeking to understand the divide, I continue to look at SBC seminaries. Many argue generational differences create the greatest divide, and certainly there are some. However, the seminaries are where I believe we can trace major differences and gain a greater understanding of our angst over division. The reality is, in the SBC, we have two different approaches to preaching, theology, and mission. These two approaches are exhibited well by the leadership culture and values of our seminaries. The students and leadership of Southern, Southeastern, and Midwestern Seminaries are largely aligned in theology and approaches to preaching and mission, while the students and leadership of New Orleans and Southwestern Seminaries are close aligned in their own approaches. Of course there are exceptions to this observation. This isn’t a perfect case to be made, but one must understand and acknowledge these differences in order to grasp the contested St. Louis election. Focusing on the seminaries is nothing new. They were part of the strategy for doctrinal and theological change during the conservative resurgence of the SBC. The movement to return the SBC to doctrinal orthodoxy saw the seminary campus as ground zero of where eventual change would come with a line of consecutive conservatives elected as SBC President. The seminaries explained so much then, and still do so today, just in a different manner.
One of the most significant ways in which these groupings of seminaries differ from one another is in the culture of these organizations. Cultural differences largely defined the tension leading up to this year’s presidential election at the SBC, and while cultural differences are evident among the seminaries, I would argue they also trickle down into churches and pulpits. One of these cultures is not superior to the other, but they are obviously different and impact the dynamics of SBC leadership. For seminary presidents, professors, students, and alumni alike, we are a Convention united around biblical fidelity and orthodoxy, yet in some ways theologically and methodologically, we are divided.
Before the acknowledgement of this division causes even more tension, I will say that these major differences can be a good thing. My friend Bart Barber, pastor of FBC Farmersville, Texas, believes so. In an exchange on Twitter, Bart said to me that the differences in the seminaries are what keep us together. The existence of varying views allow people to have a place in the SBC without requiring complete alignment on beliefs outside of those addressed in the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). I agree with Bart. The differences are not a bad thing, but they must be realized because one generation “handing it off” to the next is not going to change a 49% to 48% split Convention. The differences will remain, and a standing ovation in St. Louis doesn’t change anything. Thankfully, it does show we can cooperate and unite with one another when needed, and that should be celebrated.
So where does this lead us? Three months after such an election and historic moment, we have the opportunity to retain the spirit felt during that standing ovation. Some steps need to be taken and actions called for to further embrace cultural differences within the SBC as we move forward together.
- The younger generation of SBC leaders should stop policing gospel centrality, and relax.
Just as we do not appreciate hostility toward Calvinism, we need the “young, restless, and reformed” folks to stop giving others reasons to justify it. Over-evaluating sermons and dismissing anything that isn’t “gospel-centered” enough makes people dislike you, recent seminary graduate. Certainly speak to heresy and protect your flock from it, but that is not what is taking place with the gospel-centered police. Such harsh evaluation implies that your hermeneutic is the only acceptable one and anyone else that uses a different approach is not preaching the gospel. For example, one pastor might make the transition to the cross when preaching through an Old Testament book quicker than another, but that hardly means his counterpart is not preaching the gospel. I am one who can pull the gun out quickly in this area, and I need a reality check. The truth is that many whom I claim are not “gospel-centered enough” have been preaching Christ longer than I have been alive.
2. The false caricatures of and obsession with Calvinism must stop.
Southern Seminary has a reputation for Calvinism (however one defines that word). Does anyone truly believe that the seminary is not teaching or practicing evangelism? Does anyone REALLY believe the faculty and students don’t have an active heart for the lost? A segment of non-Calvinists in the SBC sure love to talk about Calvinism and warn of conspiracies. I had someone hand me a piece of paper at a SBC Annual Meeting giving the ten warning signs that a staff member of your church is a Calvinist. Seriously. Why exactly should we be warned?
Looking at another example of this, the resistance to David Platt being president of the IMB surely didn’t have anything to do with his heart for the lost and the nations. If he wasn’t “Calvinistic” in his soteriology, there would be no Will Hall pieces bashing him in the Louisiana State Paper, or any passive aggressive comments about his leadership. The anti-Calvinism sentiments need to stop. I don’t know of one Calvinist pastor leading a church in the SBC who cares about whether a student at Southwestern or a member of Bellevue Baptist affirms TULIP or reads the Puritans.
- We must appreciate a diverse methodology of evangelism in the SBC.
D.L. Moody prepares the way for us. When questioned on his evangelism techniques, Moody replied, “I like my way of doing evangelism better than your way of not doing it.”
Are we really debating how evangelism should be practiced in the SBC? Evangelism for some may be relationally driven, taking four conversations to build trust and get to a gospel presentation. For others, evangelism will be accomplished through Sunday night “door to door” visitation. Thank God for all of it! The cries that “we aren’t evangelizing anymore” are false. Many are doing evangelism; the methods are just different.
We can look at the example of baptism after evangelism. Some churches see a high number of baptisms after Vacation Bible School (hopefully after in-depth conversation with each child and their parents), others are very cautious to baptize children but have church members who are plowing away in building relationship with co-workers and neighbors, looking for the right moment to share the gospel. I can hear a preacher responding that “it’s always the right moment to share the gospel,” as the choir he is preaching to applauds. In the same way, this divide impacts preaching as part of evangelism. I recently read a tweet from a prominent SBC leader who implied that if a preacher doesn’t give a formal invitation in his sermon, he isn’t really preaching the gospel.
This is where the problem lies. There is a cultural divide toward evangelism in the SBC, and we must arrive at the place where we believe any evangelism is better than not doing evangelism. As long as the message remains the same, of Jesus Christ crucified and raised, then the approaches can be different. Praise God for those who stop a stranger at the gas station, and for the college student who has been meeting for coffee with an atheist classmate every week for three months, and they are still just talking about football. Let’s pray both evangelistic efforts lead to a decision, baptism, and the making of a disciple who will make disciples.
- The alcohol litmus test must be abandoned.
I hope those who have strong convictions against alcohol never have a drink touch their lips. These convictions should be respected, period. With that sincerely stated, the immediate dismissal of a pastor who enjoys a glass of wine over dinner or a beer with some friends while watching a football game is wrong and should stop. One might say it is an issue of wisdom, and I agree one should be very wise when it comes to alcohol, but I would say it is actually an issue of the sufficiency of Scripture. Southern Baptists love to joke about gluttony, which the bible actually prohibits, yet believe someone is disqualified from leadership over his or her consumption of wine, which the bible does not prohibit. Can you see where that would be confusing to those new to the SBC or considering joining? I cannot think of a more inconsistent, dishonest position held by those who contend for the inerrancy and authority of the Bible than to claim the wine in the Bible was grape juice. That would have been very confusing to those reading Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, in which he commanded the church to not be drunk, or to Jesus, who amazed the crowd by bringing the good wine last to the wedding festivities.
We must absolutely be able to have sensitive, direct conversations about wisdom toward alcohol, especially toward brothers and sisters who have a history of abuse. However, using the simple fact that someone drinks alcohol at all as a litmus test draws an unfortunate cultural line the Bible does not recognize. A mark of maturity is self-control, exercising wisdom in liberties. Rather than continuing to allow this to be a dividing issue, let us maintain extra-biblical convictions personally without expecting others to share the same.
To summarize these action steps and point us forward in unity, this last recommendation is meant to suggest the place where we all find common ground:
- The Baptist Faith and Message must be where we camp together.
This incredible statement of faith is the real deal breaker, the true litmus test within the SBC. It is what we affirm and unite around despite our cultural differences. Pointing back to the Annual Meeting in St. Louis, we were able to leave in good spirits together because we know that both Pastors Gaines and Greear affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. This statement of beliefs is where we find cooperation for the Great Commission, and it is what we must turn to in the future for all measures of legitimacy of SBC pastors and churches.
The cultural differences among us in the SBC will remain as long as we allow them. That can be very healthy if we can acknowledge and accept these differences, rather than allowing them to define us. The beauty lies in our opportunity to create the space needed for a diverse approach to the very large Great Commission task lying before us. From Wake Forest to New Orleans, the methods and cultures are varied, but there is the same gospel. That is what brings us together, and that alone should be enough.
Today’s article is by B21’s very own Dean Inserra. On top of serving on our leadership team, Dean is the lead pastor of City Church Tallahassee, which he founded in 2007.