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First Thoughts

Fighting and The Soul of Southern Baptists

Why Southern Baptists Fight

Southern Baptists don’t like to fight.

That might sound surprising if you think they fight a lot. But it’s true. Fights only happen in the SBC when convention leaders forget who Southern Baptists are. Southern Baptists are a group of theologically conservative churches cooperating together to announce to the world that Jesus Christ is the only Savior from sin.

The brilliance of the SBC is that churches of all sizes and in all locations understand we can do more together than we ever could alone. They trust each other to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars each year to the Great Commission. That trust has made them the largest mission-sending entity in world history.

If leaders would remember that, we would never have any fights. Certainly not any big ones.

But leaders forget.

The Conservative Resurgence

The conservative resurgence was required because convention leaders forgot the theological conservatism at the heart of the SBC. Liberals denied the resurrection, were embarrassed by “errors” they found in Scripture, and endorsed women pastors. But Southern Baptists came together to remind the liberal leaders what it means to be a Southern Baptist. In an unparalleled feat in the annals of American evangelicalism, they recovered a denomination.

But then something truly dreadful happened.

Some of the most significant figures in the revolt against liberalism grew powerful. They became leaders themselves and forgot that the soul of Southern Baptists is to take Jesus to the nations. Too many started thinking the whole thing was about their power, their prestige, and their money.

The last few years have witnessed Southern Baptists reminding these people that we exist for Jesus, not to pad expense accounts or build platforms.

Sexual Abuse

Other leaders in the SBC forgot our convention does not exist to endow anyone with power to oppress the weak. That forgetfulness has required Southern Baptists to remind our leaders who we really are.

Every true Southern Baptist hates sexual abuse. Southern Baptists exist to care for people and point them to the great love of God. Our cooperative efforts focus on spreading this love, not providing cover for perverse and abusive men. That is why Southern Baptists keep voting to protect victims and expose predators.

Now Southern Baptists are crying out against the recommendation of the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF). Faithful Southern Baptists do not oppose reform but recognize that the task force has forgotten who Southern Baptists are. Baptists believe the task force has offered a solution that will not work to keep people safe and that conflicts with our other convictions. Southern Baptists are a group of theologically conservative churches cooperating to take the name of Jesus to the nations. It does not exist to bankrupt a convention by funneling millions to an organization that publicly endorses a vision of sexuality we oppose.

Nobody wants to fight about this, but if our leadership needs a reminder of who we are, Southern Baptists will provide it.

Women Pastors

Another brewing fight concerns a few leaders in the convention insisting we must admit women to the office of pastor. These leaders are flirting with forgetfulness. Southern Baptists know the Bible teaches the office of pastor is reserved for men (1 Timothy 2:11-12; 3:2; Titus 1:6). They also embrace the biblical teaching that women fill vital roles in ministry (Matthew 28:19-10; Acts 2:17; Luke 24:10; etc.). Baptists just refuse to place these passages at odds with one another.

When Southern Baptists declared in The Baptist Faith and Message that the office of pastor was limited to men, they did not mean that it was also open to women. Southern Baptists would rather not waste time in New Orleans debating this but will take the time if it is necessary to remind forgetful leaders.

Moving Forward without Fighting

In our denomination, it is not the elite leaders who call the shots but the unrecognizable faithful from South Carolina to Sacramento. A leader’s fancy title, expensive clothes, or prestigious church may make him think he is something special, but in the SBC, he has just as much power as the third guy in line at microphone six. Thousands of those dear folks will show up in New Orleans. For a few days in June, the largest grassroots network in all of evangelicalism is going to make their collective voice heard.

If the leadership that those people have entrusted to represent them forget what it means to be a Southern Baptist, thousands of faithful people will give them a crash course in denominational politics.

Southern Baptists don’t like to fight and don’t want to fight. The good news is that we don’t need to fight.

There is still time for all the committees, chairmen, denominational employees, entity heads, and mega-church pastors to remember what this whole thing is about. I believe they can do this, and I am praying every day that they will.

If they do, New Orleans is going to be a delight. Thousands of churches will come together protecting the weakest among us. We will commission missionaries, plant churches, invest in theological education, and rededicate ourselves to playing our part in covering the earth with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). It will be a delightful time of worship, joy, and celebration.

But that requires our leaders to remember what this whole thing is about.

If they insist on forgetting, that guy at microphone six is on his way with a reminder.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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