Next week the Southern Baptist Convention will meet for its 2021 Annual Meeting in Nashville, Tenn. The largest evangelical denomination faces some contentious issues and conflict as messengers (delegates to the annual meeting) will meet for the first time in two years due to COVID-19.
Trevin Wax, who currently serves at LifeWay, the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention and will in August become the vice president of resources and research for the North American Mission Board of the SBC, at The Gospel Coalition, wrote about the “big questions” Southern Baptists are fighting over.
He identified three, they are:
- Do Southern Baptist churches unite primarily around doctrinal consensus or missional cooperation?
- Should we engage secular sources of knowledge with a fundamentalist or an evangelical posture?
- How politically aligned must Southern Baptists be in order to cooperate together?
These questions touch on issues such as women in teaching roles, sexual abuse within the church, Critical Race Theory, race relations, and political ideological differences.
When I first placed my faith in Christ, I worshiped and ministered in several Evangelical Free Churches and still look upon that association with affinity and fondness. Later in life, I have found a home within the Southern Baptist Convention.
I think your average Southern Baptist tends to be insulated from much of this debate I’ve seen played out online. However, the rift has become more public as the SBC recently had two prominent figures leave – Beth Moore and Dr. Russell Moore (no relation).
On top of this, Southern Baptists have seen a decline in membership even though the number of churches cooperating with the SBC has increased. COVID-19 certainly impacted attendance, but the SBC was in a membership decline before then, having lost two million members since 2006.
The SBC is at a crossroads. What will the future hold?
I’m deeply concerned by what Dr. Russell Moore said about the SBC executive committee’s handling of churches with credible accusations of sexual abuse in a letter to outgoing SBC President J.D. Grear. The Houston Chronicle’s 2019 report was stunning, and it appears that the SBC executive committee has not only not addressed it adequately but has also denigrated some of the victims.
While, yes, we need to respect due process, what will the denomination do to address credible accusations of sexual abuse when there is evidence that a church covered it up? Or, worse yet, has a sexual offender on staff?
Then you have accusations of sexual predation and mistreatment of women, something Beth Moore called out and was criticized for. The SBC must find a way to address that biblically without rejecting complementarianism. However, at issue isn’t so much complementarianism, but how complementarianism is defined and practiced within the church. For instance, Beth Moore continues to embrace that only men should be pastors but believes women should have a greater ministry role.
Along similar lines, Saddleback Community Church, a Southern Baptist Church in Orange County, Calif., started by Pastor Rick Warren (author of the Purpose-Driven Church), recently ordained three women as pastors, a departure from the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message, the SBC doctrinal statement, that says explicitly, “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
Then there is the debate over Critical Race Theory, which continues after Resolution 9 passed at the 2019 Annual Meeting. There will be efforts to rescind it. I am concerned about CRT infiltrating the church. Still, I’m also concerned about how the opposition to it has become so broad that it also resists any attempt to address race relations.
The SBC must find a way to address those with divergent political priorities. Jesus is not a Republican or a Democrat, as Dr. Tony Evans has famously said that when Jesus returns, he will not come back to take sides but to take over. As the denomination has become more diverse racially, it has become more diverse politically.
Being a Republican or a supporter of former President Trump shouldn’t be a criterion for being a member in good standing in the Southern Baptist church. That is not to say that the SBC should shy away from proclaiming the truth about abortion, sexuality, and a whole host of other moral issues.
Last week, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, indicated his willingness to be nominated to serve as president of the SBC last week. I’m encouraged by his openness to serve in this way.
He shared ten steps he would take to help the SBC move forward:
- “I will call Southern Baptists back to our bedrock convictions, not just in a general affirmation, but in a way that will highlight the beliefs that we share and that we must not compromise.”
- “I will use the convening influence of the SBC president to call Southern Baptists to talk to each other about the issues of strain and stress.”
- “I will encourage Southern Baptists to avoid gathering in separate corners as if we are waiting for a fight in the ring.”
- “I will seek to represent Southern Baptists before the watching world with fidelity and respect.”
- “I will seek to make SBC leaders more accessible to all Southern Baptists, starting with the messengers to the annual convention.”
- “I will seek to draw the work of Southern Baptists at every level into closer conversation and cooperation.”
- “I will hope to lead Southern Baptists to avoid embarrassment.”
- “I will do my best to convince Southern Baptists to talk to each other rather than to tweet at each other.”
- “I will tell Southern Baptists the truth.”
- “I will commit to leading the Southern Baptist Convention with joy.”
It is unlikely that Southern Baptists will agree on every single issue. It’s not realistic to think that we will. Ours is a voluntary, cooperative fellowship. We need to cooperatively, concisely affirm what is vital for churches to remain in cooperation with one another. Requiring anything other than Christ and His Gospel, the authority of scripture, and historical Baptist theology would be disappointing.