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.

Thoughts on J.D. Greear’s Comments on Homosexuality

I was once asked to officiate a wedding for a young couple that had been attending our church.  The young man had waited for me outside the building and he was very nervous.  I knew the couple had been living together, and when he asked, I looked into his face and said, “I don’t normally marry couples who are living together.  That’s against what God’s Word says, so we’ll have to talk about that.”  I’ll never forget that conversation. I was right. However, I did a poor job of loving my neighbor.  I loved being right more than I loved that young man, and it cost me the opportunity to influence a young couple with the gospel.

J.D. Greear has been accused by American family Radio of jettisoning gospel truth in favor of loving his neighbor, particularly those neighbors who happen to be homosexuals.  If you haven’t read the accusations, you can read them right here.  The statement that prompted these accusations seems to have been “We have to love our gay neighbor more than we love our position on homosexuality.”  Greear went on to say, “We say yes, this issue is important.  I cannot compromise, but I love you more than I love being right.

I’d like to give a few thoughts on this article:

  1. The author says that the number one cultural and social issue of the day is homosexuality.  I respectfully disagree and believe that the number one social and cultural issue of our day is the tribal nature and labeling so prevalent in our culture.  If we could find our identity in Christ rather than a political party or a certain moral position, then, as Dr. Tony Evans said at the 2018 Southern Baptist Pastors’ Conference, “Two hundred year problems would become two-minute problems.”
  2. Loving our neighbor does not mean we have to jettison Biblical truth.  we need only to look at the example set by our Savior to see an example of loving they neighbor and standing for truth.  In the eighth chapter of John, Jesus is confronted with a woman caught in adultery.  Did He shame her for her adultery?  Did he tell her that adultery was against God’s plan for her life?  Did he tell her that she would need to repent of her evil before He could offer His help?  No, He saved her life!  think about that for a minute.  Jesus, who could have rightly condemned this woman for her evil act, saved her life first from the hypocritical religious leaders of her day.  He loved her.  Did he let her sin slide?  No, he instructed her to go and sin no more.  He both loved her and stood for Biblical truth.
  3. We have to learn to live with those who have specks in their eyes.  The author of this attack on Dr. Greear seems to assert that we cannot live with those who are living homosexual lifestyles.  How exactly is Christ supposed to use us to draw others to Himself if we have to live separate from them?  We can live with sinners and not participate in their sins.  We do it all the time.  If we knew everyone in our communities who had been convicted of a crime or spent time in jail, we would understand that we’ve always lived among sinners without participating in or endorsing their sins.
  4. What about millennials?  The author says something about millennials and the election of Greear as SBC President.  I’m not sure what that has to do with Greear’s election other than I guess the author is blaming our generation for the future demise of the SBC.  I’ve been a Southern Baptist since I was born, and if our convention is advocating showing more love to those who do not know Christ, then I will continue to be a Southern Baptist.

Let me be clear, I believe sin is clearly defined in God’s Word.  God has shown us what is right and what is wrong, and we are responsible for communicating God’s truth to the unbelieving world.  We’re also responsible for loving the unbelieving world.  I would be willing to bet that the man who had been beaten and left for dead in Luke 10 was glad that the Samaritan man didn’t read him a list of all his sins before he bandaged his wounds. I’d bet Matthew was glad that Jesus didn’t condemn him for being a cheating tax collector before He asked Him to come follow.

Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 13, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a ringing brass gong or a clashing cymbal.”  What good does it do us to have knowledge of everyone’s sin yet fail to show them love?  I’m afraid AFR is becoming a clanging gong or a clanging cymbal.

Yes, Resolutions Do Matter

Leading up to the SBC annual meeting every year, much is made of the resolutions that are being submitted. Many of these resolutions are posted online for all to see even as they are being submitted to the resolutions committee. With this comes the inevitable pontificators stating how resolutions really do not mean anything at all. So what’s the point?

On one hand, it is true that SBC resolutions are non-binding. As you surely know, resolutions are considerably different than motions offered on the floor during the meeting itself. SBC churches are not bound in any way by the resolutions that make it to the floor and pass the messengers’ vote.

However, resolutions are not meaningless, and they do matter. I would like to offer just three main reasons why they are so important.

They Cause Us to Consider

Neither this point nor the next two points are quantifiable, and perhaps that is why the insistence on the meaninglessness of resolutions is so prevalent every year. Speaking from my own experience, I have seen resolutions cause people in the SBC to consider things they otherwise have not, or would not.

This year I submitted a resolution on the plight of Arab Christians titled, “On Prayer and Support of Arab Christians.” I was greatly encouraged to see this resolution go through the committee and make it to the floor where it was adopted with the other 15. Thanks to social media and the resolution being graciously posted on SBC Voices, I have had several people inside and outside the SBC reach out to me and tell me that they had read the resolution online and were considering the plight of their Arab brothers and sisters for the first time.

What about those who did not reach out to me? What of those who read the resolution in its entirety in the published bulletin or online now on the SBC official website or who will read it in the future? There’s no way of knowing, but if the resolution caused untold amounts of people to begin to pray and consider their Arab family in Christ and their plight for the first time, that is a victory.

Same goes with the other resolutions passed this year, which were all excellent. Perhaps many rethought their position on immigration or racism or their own words and actions on social media or women’s roles in the convention, or even in their own church, and will act differently on these issues going forward.

I can say with certainty that this is true and, if this is true, then resolutions do have a positive effect on the hearts and minds, which will lead to actions, of many Southern Baptists.

They Encourage

Allow me to speak again of my own experience briefly. Leading up to the annual meeting and even in the last few days, I have had several people reach out to me who were encouraged by the resolution I submitted. I have even had brothers serving in the midst of Arab Christians inside and outside the U.S. who have told me how encouraged they were that the resolution was written and passed.

Again, who is to say how many others have been, or will be, encouraged to see that the largest Protestant denomination in America has passed a resolution voicing support for Arab Christians? Especially in the midst of a feeling of abandonment or thoughts that they were resented by American brothers and sisters?

How many SBC women were encouraged to see resolution 1? How many SBCers have had family or friends harmed by opioid abuse encouraged by the SBC recognition of the epidemic? How many SBCers who are sons or daughters of immigrants were encouraged by resolution 5?

There are doubtless many, making the encouragement these resolutions give, well worth the effort.

The Watching World

Finally, it must be noted that the resolutions the SBC passes every year receive considerable attention from those outside of the convention. Perhaps our passing of some of these resolutions communicates to the world that not all evangelicals fit into a neat little box of stereotypical politically conservative Christians.

If those outside of the SBC thought that we were anti-immigrant, this year they must reconsider their views. If those outside thought we were anti-women or that we are ok with turning a blind eye to abuse, they must think again. On and on we can go.

Of course, as mentioned from the beginning, these resolutions won’t necessarily cause those in the SBC to actually adhere to the resolutions. However, getting a resolution passed is no small thing. They not only had to be submitted properly and on time, they had to make it through the resolutions committee and then to the floor of the annual meeting and voted on by the thousands of messengers in attendance. Further, messengers could have come to the microphone and voiced displeasure or offer amendments.

Even through all of that, these resolutions passed overwhelmingly with only two amendments. That’s a big deal. That says to the world that we might not be who they thought we were and that we are committed to strive towards reform on issues we may have been painfully weak on.

Every year in perpetuity you will hear and read how SBC resolutions aren’t worth the paper they are printed on or worth the effort or attention given them. For the reasons listed above, I encourage you to gently push back against such assertions. These reasons may not be quantifiable, but that does not mean they are any less real or valid.

We consider, we are encouraged, and the world is watching. Taken together, these resolutions are well worth the time, attention, and effort we give them, and perhaps, even more.

What about you? What benefits would you add? I would love to read them in the comments below.

 

Mike Pence & the SBC – It’s a Mixed Bag (Dave “Tarheel” Cline)

I want to say from the outset that I would strongly prefer that no elected politician, candidate, or official speak at the Southern Baptist Convention.  I would even go so far as to suggest that the host city send a tourism or chamber of commerce representative to welcome us to their fair city instead of a mayor or councilperson.  I hope the SBC exec committee will, as a result of the referred motions regarding this, propose a formal nix going forward of our historic practice of inviting and granting space on the platform and/or on the schedule to elected politicians or candidates for secular civic office – I will enthusiastically vote for such a policy if a messenger vote is necessary.

Now for my other thoughts… I agree with my friends who have said that the convention is not the place for “political rallies” for numerous reasons.  Among the chiefest of these reasons that comes to mind is that in following JD’s “Gospel First” vision for the SBC inviting (or allowing to come) a speaker who brings a charged partisan political message that is not the gospel or about our cooperative efforts to proclaim it worldwide seems oxymoronic. In addition, the desire toward maintaining and growing unity in our thankfully more and more diverse convention is not advanced by political speeches from the mouth of the VP to perhaps the most controversial President we have ever had.

Having stated that, I also want to say that I am somewhat that glad Vice President Mike Pence spoke at the Southern Baptist Convention.

I am glad because with him came a large gaggle of reporters with cameras and recorders in tow. While they were there, these reporters were exposed to the proclamation of the gospel in song, as well as to the VP of the US refereeing to his personal salvation experience. Several networks broadcast portions of the speech live and so the exposure was not only to reporters but also beamed into the television sets of tens of thousands (maybe more?) of Americans watching at home.

I am further glad that the Vice President of the US is a born-again Christian who is not ashamed to say so.  I am glad that he wanted to address our convention.  I am glad he cares enough and appreciates us enough to want to speak to us. I am glad that he, as far as this self-proclaimed political buff can tell from a distance, has modeled consistency and straight arrow legislating in keeping with Christian values in a way we can be proud of for well more than to two decades.  VP Pence has done this all the way from his time in the US House of Representatives to the Indiana Governors mansion and now he is still influencing the worlds most powerful people with godly principles from the plush 1 Observatory Circle on the campus of the U.S. Naval Observatory.

The point is that he spoke is neither the best thing to happen during the convention this year – nor is the worst.  No doubt, there are some who feel his speaking was one or the other, but do I see it as a mixed bag.

I think we might all do well to consider that while many of us would prefer not to have VP Pence speak at the convention – the cloud we felt it brought might, in fact, have a silver lining or two.