Unity, Division, the Past, and the Future of the SBC

 

When we seek unity at the SBC, we often come at it from the wrong perspective.

  • We seek to downplay our differences, as if we all walk hand in hand, one in mind and spirit.
  • We seek to suppress the voices of dissent and keep them from speaking their minds.
  • We demand that those of different cultures and preferences conform to our ways.
  • We accuse those who challenge, question, or criticize of being divisive and of threatening unity.

This is a gross misunderstanding of biblical unity and actually tends to lead to greater anger and division. People feel bullied, pressured to stay silent, and convinced that the “powers” don’t care much what the “people” think.

Unity is hard to find in the SBC because it is hard to define. Our struggles for unity today are not new. They are the result of a trend that has been going on for longer than even an old codger like me has been alive.

 

Our History

During the CR there was a pointless argument over whether the unity of the SBC was based on our common theology or our common mission. Conservatives argued (rightly) that we were united by a common theological ground. We were people of the Book and the Blood. If we did not hold to a truthful word we would soon follow other denominations in compromising every fundamental gospel truth. Moderates argued (also rightly) that it was our mission for Christ that united us. They argued that it was the Cooperative Program and worldwide missions work that united us.

Yes, the Southern Baptist Convention historically was united by fundamental doctrine and cooperative mission, but our true unity was something less noble than that. Southern Baptists had an external, cultural unity that bound us together. We were a perfect fit for the Southern culture in the United States – white, morally and culturally conservative, and patriotic. We fit in perfectly – a little too perfectly I might argue – with the predominant culture of the mid-20th Century Deep South.

And there was a true Southern Baptist way of doing things. You could go from church to church to church but the culture of the church remained largely the same. We sang from the same Broadman Blue Baptist Hymnal, accompanied by a piano and an organ. The preacher opened his King James Bible and preached a three-point message with a powerful and emotive invitation. In Sunday School we used BSSB literature. We had Training Union and Sunday Evening services, RAs and GAs, Lottie and Annie didn’t need last names, and every week both the gift and the giver were blessed! A Southern Baptist church was a Southern Baptist church and we pretty much stayed in our own little world.

Our unity was theological and missiological, yes. But the primary ground of our unity was cultural. We dressed alike. We looked alike. We had our own lingo, our own literature, our own outlook on life.

And the changing world of the last 50 years blew that up completely. The SBC has now expanded to all 50 states and the walls, the separatistic walls have been torn down. We engaged with the broader evangelical world and suddenly Baptist churches were using Awana and other programs, experimenting with non-SBC literature, and…gasp…introducing guitars and drums into worship. Pastors began to lose their coats and ties and started serving coffee to congregants!

The biggest changes have come as we began to engage with minorities, especially African-American Baptists. We found that while we hold the gospel of Jesus Christ in common, there isn’t much else that we share. The culture that bound us together in the 50s and 60s is regarded as heinous by many in the minority community. They do not want to “rebuild America” into what it once was and do not long for the good old days as we do. They do not see politics as we see them, do not see culture as we see it, do not see many issues as we have seen them.

The cultural unity of the SBC of my youth is gone and we have struggled to find a new basis of unity. Some have tried to hold on to the trappings of the Southern Culture of a generation ago, but most of us have no desire to unite around that. The SBC now has a real cultural diversity. Attend three SBC churches and you are likely to find a wide range. In one you might hear echoes of the past as it does many things the way they were done years ago. In another you will wonder if you have wandered into an Assembly of God congregation, and in the third you may find yourself reading liturgy. The sermon you hear in an SBC church could be an old-fashioned three-pointer with a poem, an expositional treatment of the text, a theological lecture reminiscent of the Puritans, or a practical motivational speech designed to help you live a happy life. Some churches will have a ruling pastor, others will have deacons, and many now will have elders, ranging from ruling elders to elder leadership. And you will find every position on the soteriological spectrum, from 5-Point Calvinist to Traditionalist and myriad positions in between.  On eschatology, ecclesiology, and other topics you will find great variety.

The uniformity that marked churches 50 to 75 years ago is gone.

 

The Problem

Here are two facts.

1. Southern Baptists are deeply divided in every human way. 

We are racially divided and the more we reach out and open the doors to our minority brethren, the bigger than divide will be. Minorities often do not see the world as we do. For instance, in White SBC culture, abortion is the evil to end all evils. Many of our Black brethren, who also see abortion as evil, are not willing to place it as an evil greater in every way than racism. Let’s face it, trying to decide which is more evil – racism or abortion – is like trying to determine which team is more evil, the Red Sox or the Patriots. Evil is evil.

We are culturally divided. There is a culture in the North, and in the West, and in the Southwest, and in the Midwest, that just doesn’t mesh with the culture that the SBC prospered in 50 years ago. The cultural unity that bound our hearts in Christian love when we were a regional religious force in the 50s and 60s won’t get the job done now. I have been SBC since 9 months before I was born, but I don’t drink sweet tea and I don’t particularly like grits. Southern culture can no longer be the unifying force of the SBC. That doesn’t make Southern culture evil – no more so than northern culture or western culture or African culture or Asian culture. It just cannot be our binding force anymore.

Okay, let’s be honest about one thing. SEC football is evil. That needs to be said. But moving on…

We are theologically divided. No, people need to stop with the nonsense – call it what it is, LIES – about liberals and cultural Marxists. That ungodly junk needs to stop. But the SBC does have a wide range of views on a lot of topics. We span the continuum of soteriology from Five-Point Calvinist to all forms of Non-Calvinism including Traditionalists. We have just about every view on eschatology and varying positions on ecclesiology and all sorts of topics.

We are preferentially divided. Honestly, I think this is the biggest one. I wore a suit twice in the four days of the PC and the Annual Meeting this year and people acted like I was doing something strange. “Why the suit, Dave?” Well, to be like Bart, of course! But some wear suits, some don’t. Some like hymns, some like rock and roll church. Have you ever noticed that much of the angst surrounding “Calvinism” focuses on non-theological behavioral things?

 

2. The difference today is that we include people who differ in human ways. 

The SBC is different because it now includes people from outside of the dominant culture of 50s Deep South.

  • We include people from the Northeast, the Midwest, the West – all 50 states.
  • We include minorites – African Americans, Asians, Hispanics, people from all over the world.
  • We have older, traditional folks and younger more contemporary people who see things in very different lights.

We are divided because we are different.  Our unity was once easier because of our uniformity. Now, we are in no way uniform. We have to seek a new path to unity.

 

My Thesis

Permit me to state this plainly.

Division is natural for human beings. We are always divided. That is what we do. We will only be truly united if we accept our differences and unite around Christ and in Christ. 

 

The Way of the Flesh

Look at the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:20-21. There are all sorts of evil things listed there, but the bulk deal with the basic tendency of human beings to be angry, selfish, and divisive.

…hatreds, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy…

We are self-centered people who like us, our ways, our kind, our people, and have a natural tendency to divide from people who are different. Our inner selfishness leads to strife and jealousy, causes us to lose our cool with others, to operate out of selfish ambition, and to wind up in dissensions and factions.

And when we are Christians we call it righteous anger and discernment. I have watched as some of these discernment bloggers and tweeters have eviscerated others on the flimsiest of disagreements. They question the salvation of anyone who doesn’t agree. “He is unregenerated!” If you disagree with my view of complementarianism, you are a heretic, a threat to the church, and a danger! These people call themselves servants of God but let the works of the flesh run free. They act in selfishness, creating dissensions and factions, and call it “discernment” and claim they are seeking to protect the purity of the church.

The church-growth movement used to push the homogenous unit principle. Of course that worked. Southern Baptists loved being able to hang out with not only other Baptists but other Southerners. We like people who are like us. We are comfortable with people who see the world as we do. Engaging people who are different. who see the world in contradictory ways takes us out of our comfort zone.

The flesh pushes us to unite ONLY with those people who look like us, think like us, act like us, vote like us, sing like us, and have cultural preferences that match ours. But if we are comfortable with that, we are living in the flesh. That is not okay.

The Way of the Spirit

Observe the fruit of the Spirit, listed in Galatians 5:22-23.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

What is the primary work of the Spirit? To produce character qualities in us that fight against the natural tendency in us to be divisive and mean-spirited. Instead of seeking my own I act in love. Instead of being angry, I have the joy of the Spirit. Instead of seeking conflict with everyone who disagrees with me, I act in peace, being patient and kind to others no matter how they treat me. I am good and faithful no matter how everyone else behaves. I am gentle and self-controlled by God’s Spirit instead of lashing out. (Let me be clear – while I spoke here in the first person, this is not a testimony of how I always act, but how I SHOULD act if filled with the Spirit. Would that I always did!)

The work of the Spirit is to fight against the work of the flesh that makes me fight.

Because our homogenous cultural unity has blown apart it will take a work of the Spirit of God to unite the Southern Baptist Convention.

 

Conclusions

1. The SBC is always divided – and that is GOOD.

It is good for us to be a convention of different kinds of people with different kinds of views. As long as we unite around the gospel of Christ and the Baptist Faith and Message, we should be from all races, all places, and strata of society.

The more the merrier.

 

2. The question is not whether we are divided but whether we walk in the Spirit or in the flesh.

It is that simple. We are Black and White – and Asian and Hispanic and everything else. Male and Female. Calvinist and Traditionalist and everything in between. We are rich and poor. We are young and old. We are comtemporarian and traditional.

The question is whether we will walk in the flesh and anathematize those who disagree with us, treat the “other” as the enemy, and try to garner power and control for “me and mine.” Or will we walk in the Spirit and let love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and the rest govern the day? Are we going to withdraw into our schismatic corners or break down walls and find the way of the Spirit to walk together?

Unity is a work of the Spirit. It is not thinking alike. It is not looking alike. It is not having the same preferences.

 

3. Building Biblical Baptist (Brotherhood) Unity

I so wanted to use Brotherhood to preserve the alliteration, but we are talking about unity, so…

Our unity is not based on anything human, but on the work of God, the work of Christ, the work of the Spirit within us.

Biblical Baptist unity is:

  • Having the same experience in Christ – we have been bought by the blood of Christ!
  • Having the same convictions about God’s word – we confess the Baptist Faith and Message as our common ground. (There may be those who love Jesus and don’t agree with the BF&M. There are faithful Christians who are NOT Southern Baptist. But the BF&M is OUR confession.)
  • Having the same mission for Christ – we cooperate in obedience to the Great Commission.

Anything beyond that is human and divisive. You don’t have to hold to the same number of points of a theological system as I do or see eschatology through my lens. You don’t have to dress as I dress or worship as my church worships. You don’t have to vote as I vote or see the world as I see the world.

As long as you know Christ, share our common convictions, and partner together with us for the gospel, we can walk in unity. That is biblical Baptist unity.

May the SBC choose the way of the Spirit over the way of the flesh.

Locked Compartments (Ann Hibbard)

Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Ann, and I am a compartmentalized woman.

I have a variety of titles, jobs, responsibilities, all of which I often need to keep individualized and separate. Even if some of my responsibilities overlap, typically each job must hold its own space on the schedule. The lines between them cannot be allowed to blur lest I fail to honor my responsibilities in one or the other.

For many years, I have seen this compartmentalism as necessary for functionality, organization, balance, and excellence. And this viewpoint has, indeed, proven useful. I have seen ways in which various roles and tasks have been able to be added or taken away simply because they were not intricately intertwined with other aspects of my life.

Lately, though, a nagging thought – heavily based in what I’ve been studying in God’s Word and other spiritually nourishing sources – has begun to challenge my compartmentalism. Holes in my “balance” are appearing, and an underlying conviction eats at my mind as I consider the ways I cling to the barriers I have placed between each of my roles.

Recently, my husband and I were challenged to create a personal, six-word mission statement. We have created mission statements before, but it was definitely time for a fresh evaluation. As I pondered mine, my mind settled on one of my favorite refocus verses, 1 Corinthians 10:31: “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (NASB)” From that flowed my new mission statement: Glorify God in each immediate task. It seems somewhat vague and generic. Yet for me, when kept in front of me day in and day out, this simple statement provides focus and direction for every single thing I do. Details can be hashed out, but this becomes the focus.

As I processed through creating this mission statement and evaluating its implication, I was also about halfway through reading Your God is too Safe by Mark Buchanan, in the middle of a chapter discussing our tendency toward compartmentalism – not necessarily our divisions into different roles, but instead our distinction between sacred and secular. Our tendency to make some aspects of our life about the sacred relationship we have with God while others are just about life. About the way we build our homes and cook our meals and process through daily life without an utter sense of the perpetual sacredness of life as children of God. One paragraph in particular grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let go:

“Here’s a problem: The Bible doesn’t know about this distinction. Read the Old Testament or read the New: The Bible makes no room for the idea of the secular. In the biblical worldview, there is only the sacred and the profane, and the profane is just the sacred abused, unkempt, trampled down, trivialized, turned inside out. It is just the holy treated in an unholy way.”

Buchanan follows this statement with a series of Scripture passages – Colossians 1:16-17, Psalm 50:12, and Acts 17:28 – that eradicate the distinction.

I have prided myself in my habit of compartmentalization, but this habit has become less about keeping balance in my life and more about trying to create a distinction between the sacred and the “secular.” This distinction compromises the importance of each role in the sight of my obedience to Christ. It has created a god out of my callings and roles rather than allowing those roles to honor and glorify the one true God. In short, it has abused the sacred calling God has put before me.

Whether you define it as calling or destiny or simple obedience, I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that each of the roles I’m a part of has been God-ordained. And yet, if I am honest, I have to recognize that I have allowed these roles to become taskmasters, driving me to accomplish the work well for the sake of being good at what I do rather than for the purpose of glorifying God. After all, if I keep each role compartmentalized and the barriers between them strong, then when I am failing in one area, perhaps I can still succeed in another. Where I am being ridiculed in one role, I can seek praise in another. Where I am weak and uncertain in one, I can be strong and confident in another.

Because of my compartmentalization, the glory is in the role because the roles reign supreme.

When I change my focus, I instead realize that there is one role and only one that I truly need to consider: I must seek to glorify God in each immediate task. Whether that task is serving beside my husband in ministry, teaching my children, creating lesson plans or editing content for work, preparing a Sunday school lesson, listening to a woman from church pour out her heart, hashing out an article or blog post, or simply pushing through the daily tasks involved in being a wife and mother, those tasks must be done with the sacred in mind. They must be done under the overarching umbrella of the glorification of God.

As I ponder how my life must change in response to this nagging lesson, I realize there is no problem in keeping my schedule compartmentalized. Each role, each task, may still hold its slot in the planner. The healthy boundaries can and should remain so that I can stay diligent in the tasks before me. But, the compartmentalization of the roles themselves must go. I must have only one role: to glorify God in each immediate task. To live a life so immersed in Christ that He is able to show me the sacred in every breath and action of my life.

 


Ann Hibbard is a follower of Jesus and recognizes that God was gracious to gift her chocolate and her husband coffee. She is a Southern Baptist missionary kid, second generation homeschooler, pastor’s wife, and mom of three. She loves encouraging and equipping others, especially women in the homeschooling and ministry communities. You can find her on Twitter and Facebook.

Lament, Power, and the Future of the SBC

Less than a month ago, my dad dropped dead of a heart attack. This was shocking, unexpected, and disorienting for our family. As much as we wanted to pretend it didn’t happen or distract ourselves with other things, we have been helped through the process by talking about it, expressing our emotional responses, and letting each family member grieve in his or her own way. We knew we were going in the right direction when my 3-year-old said, “I miss Grandpa. I feel sad. Grandpa was a pilot. Grandpa died. He’s dead now.”

Perhaps because the loss of my dad was so fresh on my heart, I was hoping the SBC Annual Meeting in Dallas would offer our family of churches an opportunity to state difficult realities and express our emotional responses to them. In the last three months we have taken one leadership hit after another in front of a watching nation. Frank Page, the CEO of our Executive Committee, resigned due to an adulterous relationship. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary, was fired because of (among many other things) mishandling two cases of sexual violence. Paul Pressler, Patterson’s fellow architect of the conservative resurgence, is being sued on charges of predatory behavior against young men. And three seminary professors from our Southern Baptist seminaries have resigned due to (stated or implied) moral failures. Save Pressler, all of these have been exposed in the last three months.

So when we gathered in Dallas for our annual meeting, I expected that some part of our meeting would include a time of lamentation, of repentance, of expressing our brokenness over the sin in the camp. Because healthy families talk about our losses. We tell the truth. We communicate. We discuss what is going on, even when it isn’t pretty or easy.

But instead, we didn’t hear any of these fallen brothers even mentioned. Their disgrace thrust them into some Voldemortian category of “he who must not be named.” It was like they did not exist and nothing happened. Rather than having space to lament the moral blight on our denomination, we learned Monday afternoon that Vice President Mike Pence initiated a visit to the meeting on Wednesday to commend us “for our contribution to the moral fabric of our nation.” At the risk of redundancy, let me reiterate. Two high-level leaders who were supposed to be on the platform leading our gathering were absent because of moral failure, yet this was eclipsed by the fact that we accepted Vice President Pence’s offer to praise us for our moral uprightness.

This burdened my heart deeply. Healthy families grieve. Healthy families talk about reality and set an appropriate tone based on that reality. We don’t plan circuses when we should be at the funeral home. We don’t just go on, business as usual, as if nothing happened. We process. We feel. We hurt. And we figure out what needs to change to move forward in a healthy way.

So on Tuesday morning I began planning a time of lamentation, repentance, and prayer for renewal in our family of churches. And on Wednesday, while Vice President Pence delivered what turned out to be a political stump speech, a group of pastors joined together to cry out to God, to express our broken hearts over the state of our convention, to listen to God’s word, and to repent from our own sins based on God’s holy standard. We prayed for our President and our Vice President; we prayed for our denomination; and we prayed for ourselves, knowing that the same weakness and struggle that brought down our fallen brothers exists in us as well.

One of the texts that we listened and responded to is James 3, which contrasts demonic wisdom from below with Spirit-birthed wisdom from above. This text broke us, because even as we gathered in quiet protest to the way our annual meeting had turned into a political rally, James’ words pierced our hearts about our propensity to become cynical, jagged, arrogant, and bitter. You stand up and say, “It shouldn’t be that way, it should be this way” and it is easy for that process of working toward the right way of doing things to turn into what James calls “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” Our ambition for the power to move things in the right direction can subtly morph into the ambition for power for its own sake.

At the end of the day, I think that is what I was grieving most in Dallas. I owe a debt of gratitude for the conservative resurgence and the biblical faithfulness it has yielded. But in the last year, the two primary architects of the resurgence–Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler–have been exposed for abusing power in very different but seriously damaging ways. The old adage that “power corrupts” has been on display in those who used power to bring about change for the better in the SBC. If we do not learn from their failures, we will be bound to repeat them.

I do not pretend to know how a denomination so unwieldy and loosely held together as ours is to maintain humility while we hold firmly to God’s unchanging truth. But I know how God is calling me to lead the SBC church for which I will give an account. It has everything to do with atmosphere.

On our drive from D.C. to Atlanta for my dad’s funeral, the AC started going out in our van (our dog also had to be put down–it was quite a week). The light indicated that the AC was on, but it seemed like something changed in the type of air coming out of the vents. Before long, complaints were registered from the way, way back and the reality was unmistakable: the AC was definitely not on, light notwithstanding. Thankfully the problem was temporarily addressed by turning the AC off and on multiple times. But to avoid precipitous rises in temperature, my wife and I developed a keen nose for when the atmosphere in the van shifted from the cold, dry, conditioned air to the cool, moist, recycled air. The change was subtle but consequential.

In the same way, the shift from James 3’s wisdom “from above” to the wisdom “from below” is frighteningly easy. You don’t have to convert to Satanism to exhibit “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom. You simply have to take whatever power you have and start using it for yourself instead of for others.

The stories emerging about Paige Patterson’s litigious responses to actions by his board of trustees and, most ominously, his request to meet with a rape victim to “break her down” serve as cautionary tales of what power can do to any of us. We must train our fellow leaders to sense the first hint–subtle and atmospheric though it may be–of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our use of power. The only hope I have for our denomination is if it is led by those with a finger on the trigger, ready to repent at a moment’s notice when our power is driven by anything but the wisdom that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). God help us.