Southern Baptist Convention chaos – what to do in trying times

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Note: The Index welcomes letters and commentary from Georgia Baptists on the recent decision by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees regarding former president Paige Patterson.

I am writing to Southern Baptists. I am assuming that some of you follow issues that are happening within our denomination. We are experiencing a significant amount of change within our tribe.

Dr. Frank Page, president of the Executive Committee of the SBC, leader of perhaps our most visible public entity, recently retired unexpectedly, later citing a moral failure as the cause. Dr. David Platt, president of the IMB, announced his resignation, explaining that he would return to pastoring. Dr. Paige Patterson on the very day I am writing (5/23) was forced out as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He recently came under fire for comments that he made in counseling abused women and for other untoward accusations that are still being worked through, but the reasons cited publicly at this time concerned plummeting enrollment and financial instability at the Seminary.

For the last eight months or more there has been much public discussion about the election of a new SBC president at the Annual Meeting in Dallas this June. J.D. Greear and Steve Gaines were locked in a 50/50 tie at the SBC Annual Meeting in St. Louis two years ago. Greear graciously conceded the election and it was presumed (perhaps “understood” is too strong a term) that he would be elected to serve the following term. Meanwhile another group of leaders got behind Ken Hemphill, a former seminary president and well-respected Baptist leader. There are clearly theological and generational undercurrents at issue in these developments. Greear is younger and viewed as “Reformed” and Hemphill is older and not Reformed.

Ed Stetzer, formerly of Lifeway Christian Resources of the SBC, recently Tweeted, “SBC family: I’ve worked with dozens of denominations. In case you’re wondering, this level of drama, conflict & difficulty is not normal. It’s gone on too long in the SBC & it’s time for a change. Even if many have grown accustomed to the dysfunction, it’s NOT normal.” That lends some perspective to the events and challenges facing our denomination. Add to this that there are still ongoing conversations happening within the SBC about our poor track record in including minorities in leadership. In a recent Committee on Nominations report 67 of 69 nominees to serve on SBC trustee boards were white.

The sense of uneasiness locally is heightened by the recent retirement announcement of Georgia’s Baptist State Executive Director, Dr. J. Robert White. My opinion is that we are seeing some systemic cultural and generational changes that are sending some shock waves through our denomination. It is time to pass the torch to some younger leaders, and this transition just seems to not be happening smoothly. Maybe these kinds of generational leadership shifts never happen without some expected pushback. We must also accept that differing views on atonement (general or particular) and ecclesiology (Reformed and non-Reformed) are not new in Baptist life. Any cursory reading of Baptist history will bear this out.

Last month I wrote about relevance being relevant. Of course we aren’t talking about giving away Biblical truth in the process, but I don’t want to be part of an irrelevant denomination – that is, one that doesn’t MATTER. Christian truth is always going to be in the minority in culture. We won’t ever win the world’s approval, nor should that be our ambition.

On the other hand, what we believe ought to matter. I have said before that I believe the influence currency has changed and we are sometimes trying to spend the old currency (power politics) and wondering why it isn’t accepted. The new currency, in my opinion, is community connection and servanthood. Guess which one I think is more Biblical.

Meanwhile, here is what we do in trying times. Keep “looking unto Jesus, the Author and Finisher of our faith who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). However chaotic this all feels to us, God isn’t shaken up at all.

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