Since returning from Nashville, I have been asked about the convention by several members of the church I serve, as well as friends and family. Some indicated they had been keeping up through the news media – which frightens me! Others indicated they had heard the convention was “going liberal.” In an effort to communicate with as broad an audience as possible and (hopefully) provide accurate information, I would like to share my personal thoughts on the just concluded SBC annual meeting and where we are as a denomination. After attending the 2021 SBC annual meeting in Nashville and being present for almost every key moment, I offer my thoughts…
There is greater unity than you might think. There were four men nominated for SBC president and, leading up to the convention, there was some very public conflict between SBC leaders. Social media was howling about all the problems and attendance at the meeting spiked to the highest number since 1996. Late on Tuesday afternoon (after the presidential election was settled after a run off and other controversial issues had come to the floor) I ran into a friend of mine who was attending his first convention. “This hasn’t been nearly as bad as I was expecting,” he said. He had been getting his information from social media. While there were certainly moments of passionate disagreement, the overall feeling of the messengers present was positive and loving. How could this be? We all agree on the most important matters – our love for the Lord Jesus and His church, our belief in the inerrant Word of God, our commitment to share the gospel and make disciples, our cooperation together in missions. As the convention was drawing to a close, I saw two SBC pastors who were publicly and passionately on opposite sides of the SBC presidential race. They were eating Nashville hot chicken together at a restaurant and enjoying good fellowship. That is the SBC.
I do not see evidence that the SBC is “going liberal.” The convention took NO steps to alter our statement of faith – the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message – that guides all of the entities in our convention. In fact, nothing along those lines was even mentioned. All four candidates for SBC president openly describe themselves as theological conservatives. While some media outlets describe Ed Litton, our new SBC president, as the “moderate” candidate, I believe that description is unfortunate and doesn’t accurately portray Ed. While I do not know Ed Litton personally, he has faithfully served as pastor of the same Alabama Baptist church for over 25 years and I have no reason to believe he is anything but solid overall in terms of both his character and his theology. The presidents of all six of our seminaries are staunch defenders of the inerrancy of scripture and require all professors to teach in accordance with and not contrary to the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. We have our problems in the SBC, but I personally do not see going liberal being one of them.
The SBC messengers were determined to see the convention do better in terms of dealing with sexual abuse. All Southern Baptists are in full agreement that every church should implement child protection policies and do everything it can to be a safe place for everyone. That isn’t the issue. All Southern Baptists are in full agreement that every church should report accusations of abuse to authorities. That isn’t the issue. The well publicized issues have revolved around what the denomination can do at the national level to deal with past instances of abuse and prevent future abuse. There has also been deep concern about how some SBC leaders have responded to some abuse victims. Due to the polity of our denomination – each church is independent and there is no “top down” authority structure – then dealing with these issues on a national level is much more difficult. From my seat, the clear message sent by the messengers was “We expect you to do much better than you have done so far. Get back to work on it right now!”
The SBC does not subscribe to Critical Race Theory but DOES care deeply about racial reconciliation. In recent months, the influence of Critical Race Theory has been a heated topic within the SBC and in American culture at large. In several different ways, the 2021 SBC convention made clear that the SBC does not support or teach Critical Race Theory. In addition, the convention passed Resolution #2 titled “The Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation” which was, in my opinion, a very strong and very well done resolution. I loved how prominent SBC seminary professor Dr. Hershael York summed up this issue: “Southern Baptists do not like Critical Race Theory but they also don’t like being told that caring deeply about racial reconciliation is CRT. They know the difference.” To that statement, I add my “amen.”
The SBC is becoming more diverse and less focused only in the deep south. It might surprise you to learn that 20% of our SBC churches are ethnic or “non-anglo” churches. That is 1 out of 5 of our churches. Our convention continues to see more diversity in our leadership and participation. We have churches in all fifty states and in some states outside the south we are planting churches rapidly. A Hispanic pastor is preaching the convention sermon in 2022. I say “BRAVO!!” to all of these facts.
The greatest reason to be Southern Baptist remains our two mission boards. One of the first things that happened in Nashville was a Sending Celebration where the International Mission Board (IMB) commissioned 65 new missionaries headed to all regions of the world. Paul Chitwood is giving splendid leadership, and we are slowly rebuilding our international missions force after some tough years a while back. The North American Mission Board (NAMB) is planting churches all over the country, coordinating disaster relief, and emphasizing evangelism. Both IMB and NAMB are doing some exceptional work and I applaud them. 73% of the national Cooperative Program budget goes to these two entities.
The areas of greatest conflict represent a tiny fraction of our SBC work. I talked with a friend of mine who had only seen news reports and social media posts. He thought the whole SBC was about to blow up, seeing reports of conflict regarding the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) and the Executive Committee. What if I told you that the the combined budgets of the ERLC and the Executive Committee represent less than 5% of the SBC budget? That isn’t a typo. Remember our two mission boards receive 73% of the budget and our six seminaries receive 22% for a total of 95%. The overwhelming majority of the conflict and consternation leading up to this year’s convention involved SBC organizations that receive less than 5% of the budget. To be clear, I am not making light of the serious issues involving both the ERLC and the EC, but I am simply pointing out that the work of our convention is vast and goes on every single day regardless of what conflict may be in the news.
Some on both sides of conflicts have not represented Christ well in public. I am amazed to see people who claim to be Christ followers and, on top of that, pastors and church leaders so easily disparage and attack their brothers and sisters publicly and persistently. In this age of social media, more and more people think nothing of going on the attack immediately. It is ungodly, harms our witness, and brings harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ. NO, I am not taking a “side.” Both sides of the recent conflicts in the SBC are guilty. At the convention, we often heard “the world is watching.” Yes the world is watching. What it sees sometimes isn’t pretty. We must do better.
48% voted for Mike Stone in the runoff. Present SBC leaders would do well to remember this fact in coming months. Like Ed Litton, Mike Stone is a faithful pastor who has served at the same SBC church for many years. There are many good and legitimate reasons why so many supported him. There are many good, faithful Southern Baptists who supported him and voted for him. They should not be marginalized for doing so.
We need to brush up on our Baptist polity. The national SBC has ZERO control or authority over any local church. The state convention and local association has ZERO control or authority over any local church. Each SBC church owns its own property, calls its own leaders, and makes its own decisions. That’s right. Each SBC church is an independent church. What about all of that money that we talked about earlier? The money that funds our mission boards and seminaries. Every penny of that money is given VOLUNTARILY by the churches. No SBC church is compelled to give to the denomination. Even if the national SBC made a decision that my local church felt was wrong, it would have no binding effect on my local church. None. The other side of that coin helps us understand why the actions of a handful of churches do not represent the whole SBC.
Our SBC entities exist to serve our churches. Our churches do not exist to serve our entities. Count this as a healthy reminder for all of us. We need it.
One wise SBC leader many years ago declared, “SBC headquarters is the local church.” That statement is accurate. Over 15,000 of us gathered in Nashville for the SBC Annual Meeting. We made some important decisions. Then we all went home to the MOST important work. I think long time Texas pastor Jack Graham said it best after the convention was over…
“Remember this about the Southern Baptist Convention. We are a local church movement. After a well publicized annual meeting we are returning to our church fields ready to fulfill the Great Commission and make an eternal difference in people’s lives. I’m glad to be a Southern Baptist.” – Jack Graham