It was great to be back with you last Sunday after spending a week in southern California. As you know, I was in Anaheim for the SBC Convention and for a few days of family vacation following our meetings. Many in our church, and around our entire nation, had their eyes focused on Anaheim last week. Most of the interest was due to last month’s released report from the SBC’s Sexual Abuse Task Force. As I’ve already discussed with you, this report was saturated with heartbreaking stories of abuse that transpired in Southern Baptist Churches over the last 20 years. But it was also filled with shocking stories of leadership who mishandled reports of abuse, and even worse, mistreated victims. Considering these horrifying details, many in our country have been waiting to see if the SBC would be prompted to action.
I’m proud to say that the messengers at the annual meeting did overwhelmingly approve two recommendations presented by the SBC appointed task force. These two recommendations will not be the final reforms, but they will serve as a place to start. The messengers approved the creation of a shared SBC database that will keep track of ministers who have been credibly accused of sexual misconduct. This database will hopefully help prevent ministers from traveling between churches and then hide behind individual church’s autonomy. The messengers also commissioned another task force that will study and oversee necessary further reforms this year and report back at the annual meeting in 2023. I believe these two recommendations were essential first steps for the SBC to repent of sin, seek forgiveness from victims, and prayerfully begin to rebuild credibility in our culture.
While I was pleased that some action was taken on this specific issue, I must admit that the overall feeling of this year’s meeting was rather discouraging. Across the country, cooperative giving is down, baptisms are down, new members are down, and even the number of messengers this year was down. Some in the convention are arguing that this is due to a theological “drift” that is happening in the SBC. While I hear their concerns, I do not agree with their position. I remember what a real drift looked like in the 1980’s. At that time churches and seminaries were battling over the inerrancy of Scripture. Baptist pastors and professors were teaching against the authority and sufficiency of God’s Word, some were advocating a pro-choice position, and some were even sympathizing with the emerging LGBTQ movement. I would call that a theological drift, but I would not call today’s problems the same thing. This is because I sense that nearly all the 44,000+ SBC churches still adhere to the same confession of faith in the Baptist Faith and Message. It seems that today’s problems are not rooted in orthodoxy, but rather orthopraxy. Our denomination’s primary struggle is not in what we believe, it is in what we do.
As I sat in one of the Pastor’s Conference sessions, I heard one pastor share a sobering illustration. He said his young adult son has a good friend who is not a believer, so this pastor decided to do a little personal research with his son’s friend before he came to the convention. He asked that unchurched 21-year-old young man what he thought about the SBC. The young man was a little perplexed by the question but then responded, “Aren’t they the churches that are always fighting with each other?” Sadly, I believe that young man’s words were piercingly accurate. Many in the SBC live to argue with each other, and I would contend that the tribalism in our denomination has grown to an alarming level. Some look down upon others for being reformed in their theology, while some who are reformed look down upon others for not belonging to their camp. Some pastors see big churches as impersonal and watered down, while some big churches see small churches as lazy and ineffective. Some in the SBC despise churches for being too political, while others cast stones at churches for not being political enough. Some contend that you are only theologically conservative if you join a new network, while others would argue our entire convention is a network of theologically conservative churches. People in the SBC are constantly drawing lines in our own house, and then casting stones at family members who do not step over to their side. And then we as a convention wonder why less and less outsiders are wanting to walk through our doors?
This rising conflict in the SBC is troubling to me for three primary reasons. First of all, the church is not supposed to be famous for its conflict; it is supposed to be famous for its love. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Paul explained it further: “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14). Jesus summarized the entire law with two simple commandments: love God and love people (Mark 12:28-30). And the apostle John went on to explain that you cannot separate those two commandments; if you try to love God but hate your brother, the Word of God says you are a liar (Cf. 1 John 4:10). Love is not a recommendation from God, it is a clear mandate for His people. Yes, we are called to guard our doctrine, but we are also called to give each other grace on secondary matters. As Augustine said, “In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, love.”
Secondly, the state of the SBC is troubling because it makes us look like the world. Our world is filled with division. In fact, one could argue that our nation has never been as polarized as it is right now. We live in a culture that cancels and condemns anyone who does not agree with them. This problem has only been exacerbated by social media. The world is prone to be careless with words as we are quick to speak, slow to listen, and quick to get angry. But the Bible tells the church to “not be conformed to this world” (Cf Romans 12:2). God’s people are called to stand out and look different because we have a Spirit that unites us through our shared salvation and coming inheritance. The church’s unity is so important to Jesus that He actually prayed for it before He went to Calvary: “I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20-21). Jesus prayed for a radical unity in His followers that would be so strong that it would actually cause the watching world to believe in Him! But instead, I sadly believe the world oftentimes does not believe because they see more fighting in our religious houses than their own secular homes.
Thirdly, the state of the SBC is troubling because it could compromise our mission. I personally do believe denominations are still helpful. Every church is individually called by Jesus to fulfill the Great Commission, but the truth is we are stronger when we work together than when we work alone. In the SBC, I’m grateful for our cooperative program’s impact on ministries all across the globe. Since the CP’s inception, the SBC has commissioned over 25,000 missionaries around the world through the International Mission Board. The IMB currently has over 3,000 missionaries deployed, and we commissioned 52 more missionaries at the annual meeting last week. They are the true heroes of the SBC, and their ministry would not be possible without the SBC’s cooperative program. Additionally, our SBC seminaries produce over 70% of our nation’s seminary graduates. That is a staggering number because it tells us the vast majority of our nation’s future ministers are trained by the SBC. Many of these seminary students are only able receive that training because SBC churches consistently give $6-10 million a year to these seminaries to help subsidize tuition and make theological education affordable for our future pastors. The list could go on and on with all the good that the SBC does, and my fear is that it will become harder to continue these vital ministries as more churches grow tired of the SBC’s problems and leave. Make no mistake about it, the SBC must continue to address our convention’s cultural issues, or more churches will continue to opt out and our critical missions will lack their critical support.
So what should we do in light of these things? I’d encourage you to do just two simple things. First, continue to pray for the SBC. Pray for healing in our convention and for the new leaders that are rising up into positions. Many new people were appointed to committees due to folks resigning or turning down previous offers to positions. Pray especially for this new leadership and for God to give them new vision. Pray that unity and love would begin to permeate throughout our convention. Pray for our new president, Bart Barber, and our new Pastor’s Conference president, Daniel Dickard. Pray for the missionaries, church planters, ministers, and seminarians that continue to press forward in their callings amidst tumultuous times. And pray that God would help our convention begin to heal and rebuild its unity this year.
Secondly, commit to be an agent of change in your own church. One of the defining marks of a Baptist church is its autonomy. For those who don’t understand, this means every local Baptist church has the freedom to minister as it so chooses. The SBC may have some cultural problems, but that does not mean their culture has to become a local church’s culture. I’m grateful for Austin Baptist Church, as I do believe that love is clear and evident in our church family. Our people do care for one another, pray for one another, encourage one another, and stand by each other in times of need. And praise God, we do see new people walk through our doors every weekend, we celebrate that people are joining our church, and we’re encouraged when we see the baptismal waters stirred. God is at work here, and we must remember to give Him the glory. But we must also continue to stand on the truth of God’s Word and lift up the name of Jesus Christ, because if we do, I believe God will continue to draw more people to Himself here at ABC. Commit to do your part to build up this family of faith in love and unity. Exercise your spiritual gifts and use them for the glory of God and the good of others. The SBC will only make progress as individual churches make progress in their own ministry contexts. The SBC is not a top-down organization, it operates bottom-up. If you want change to be evident at the annual meeting in New Orleans next year, I recommend that you let that change begin in your heart and your church’s heart this year.
Onward and upward,