Messengers gather in small groups and pray June 15, 2021, during the opening session of the two-day Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. Past SBC presidents requested that messengers pray for unity. (Photo by Eric Brown)
EDITOR’S NOTE: Ed Litton is senior pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Ala., and president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
By Ed Litton
In the hours after my election as SBC president, there certainly were a great number of things to do and new places to be. The Lord allowed me moments in the hallways to meet and greet Southern Baptists at their best. There were those who heartily congratulated me. Yet the ones who caught my attention were many, almost too many to count, who reached out their hand to shake mine and said a very similar thing: “Ed, I did not vote for you, but I love you in Christ and I promise to pray for you.”
We often focus on what disunity does to us. What I witnessed at the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting was the real heart of Great Commission Baptists. What I saw cannot be chalked up to “Southern Hospitality” or even good sportsmanship. It is something deeper indeed. It is the work of the Holy Spirit bringing God’s Word to bear on hearts that in some cases were disappointed with the outcome of the election or concerned about our future together. Yet they saw fit to express to me their belief in a sovereign God and His purpose in all things. I was humbled.
Paul admonishes us in Ephesians 4:2-3 “…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.“
In the days since the Annual Meeting, reporters have often inquired how I am going to bring unity or lead a divided people into unity. My answer remains the same: It is difficult to unify people who don’t want to be unified, but I believe that Baptists long for unity in the Spirit and the bond of peace. They know that in their own churches disunity not only hinders the advance of the Gospel, it also makes people bitter and irreconcilable. No shepherd wants that for his sheep.
“With all humility…” It is not my job to humble you or yours to humble me. It is all of our jobs to humble ourselves before the mighty hand of God. Pride always erodes relationships. It makes us more certain that our judgments are beyond question, and certain that our knowledge is full and extensive. It makes us more demanding of our way and less prone to listen or serve.
“And gentleness…” When Jesus chose to describe Himself to us who share His yoke (Matt. 11:28-30), His first descriptor was gentleness. This is the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit of God. He makes us like Jesus.
“With patience…” If we demand to always have things our way, then genuine relationships will be the casualties. Our patience with one another says we value one another, we need one another and we work to see the best in one another. When we are quick to judge or criticize, we strain our relationships. Southern Baptists, even on such a large scale we must remain relationally connected. For this reason, I commit to doing my best to serve all Southern Baptists with wisdom and grace.
“Bearing with one another in love…” Love requires that we are willing to put up with one another, willing to suffer from each other’s unique and maybe even odd ways. We inhabit a sinful, fallen world and we are sinful by nature and by choice. We need the reminder of God’s call to bear with one another. Our love one for another makes God’s love more evident to the world around us.
“Eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit…” Unity is the work of the Holy Spirit of God in us. It won’t be accomplished in our strength. We must be eager for it. I think at times we have forgotten how beautiful it is to be unified. Our unity is not uniformity. How pleased the Father is when a vast array from every tongue and tribe demonstrates a beautiful unity and cooperation for the display of His glory!
“In the bond of peace…” Peace is a binding agent. It holds us together and refreshes our confidence that God has chosen us to live our lives with a Revelation 7:9 vision of every tribe and tongue around His throne.
Our Southern Baptist family is the largest deliberative body in the world, and many outsiders think we are divided beyond hope. Yet in truth, many of the messengers I met in the waning hours of the SBC Annnual Meeting were heading home to preach the Word, make disciples, serve their cities and baptize people in the name of the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. They don’t set the Twitter world on fire; they tenaciously lead and serve by faith. They are the kind of believers Paul had in mind when he wrote these words.
I am most honored to be chosen to lead at this hour in this mission. Please join me in prayer, seeking the Heavenly Father to strengthen our unity in order to fulfill His mission of the glorious Gospel.