Dear fellow Baptists:
August of 1928, a sad month for Southern Baptists, was the date when it was discovered that Clinton S. Carnes, trusted treasurer of the Home Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, had quietly pilfered $909,161 from the treasury of the Home Mission Board. Southern Baptists were humiliated; the Home Mission Board was virtually bankrupt; missionaries were left without pay; church funds were cut off; and, doubtless, lost people who could not get the message of Christ certainly trooped into hell. In 1928, $909,161 was an incredible sum of money!
How could Southern Baptists ever weather the ignominious sorrows of such a sinister event? Would they ever be able to lift their heads in public? Would anyone ever trust the Home Mission Board again? Would the missionary impulse of Baptists be snuffed out like a candle before it could ever give light again to the darkness of the world?
Actually, as many will recognize, the event chronicled here was a disaster, but our Lord is a crowning fiesta of forgiveness. Many will know that this tragedy anticipated the blessings of God on Southern Baptists in an unbelievable fashion. The greatest era of church growth and mission expansion, both in the United States and abroad, followed on the heels of this sorrow.
In more recent time, when the Ashley Madison list of those willing to compromise their marriages went public in 2016, one “prophet” predicted that hundreds of Baptist churches would be pastorless in only a few days. There were a few Baptist pastors on the list, and certainly there are others who are guilty. However, out of 40,000 preachers and in excess of 15 denominational leaders, the number of those who appeared on the list was few. “But for the grace of God, there go I!” True, but how wonderful is the grace of God that sustained 98 percent of our pastors, keeping them from falling!
Once again, a major Southern Baptist leader has caused shame and sorrow to our convention. Whether this is devastating to our witness or a stepping stone to unprecedented church and mission expansion depends solely upon us. How do we convert a personal and denominational tragedy into the blessing of our flawless God?
First, we do not hide our own sins but rather openly acknowledge what everyone already knows—that we are a flawed and sinful people rescued from our sins only by the blood-bought forgiveness of our living Lord. Not all preachers or sheep of the flock have been unfaithful to their vows of marriage, but we openly acknowledge in our sorrow that we have rebelled against God’s plans and purposes in a myriad of ways. This honest admission not only makes it possible to announce the forgiveness of the cross available to all men but also enables us to extend our full forgiveness to our brother who has done this deed. While we acknowledge the plethora of accomplishments of his life and ministry, of which many were beneficiaries, forgiveness is what his soul now craves. And we must all say to Frank Page, “God has forgiven us all so much, while we cannot approve of what you have done any more than we can approve of our own rebellion against God, due to God’s grace, we can and must forgive you.”
Second, we must affirm that the success of the ministry does not depend on our cleverness, ability or righteousness. Rather, any good that any of us produces is a tribute to the righteousness of Christ and His grace. This understanding will prevent ministerial arrogance, taking credit for that which, properly understood, is only a garland to lay at the feet of Jesus.
Third, the experience of our brother should cause pastors/leaders to focus on the harsh reality that our foe—the devil—is unscrupulous and determined. As I tell my students, “The moment you commit your life to the ministry, Satan trains his crosshairs right on your heart. He knows that if his fatal, hollow-point bullet penetrates your heart, not only does he wound you, but he can count on doing irreparable harm to the whole body of Christ.” Therefore, this plea is for the pastor/leader to spend more time on his knees than in his books. Satan lurks in the shadows ready always for the lowering of the shield of faith when, in the spiritually unguarded moment, with the zing of his swift bow he sends a devastating arrow of sorrow into the heart of God’s man. This is a plea to congregations and constituencies to recognize the need for covering men of God with prayer. The Altar of Incense representing the intercession of the people of God was wafted into the Holy of Holies when the veil was opened—providing temporary covering for the priest as he entered to sprinkle the blood on the Mercy Seat. So must God’s people pray for the spokesmen God has given them.
Finally, here is a call to abandon all pettiness. The truth of the Gospel is the only hope of our nation and of our denomination. As we approach the annual Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, may we lay aside discussion of problems we cannot resolve as well as trivial selfish vanities and ambitions. Let us approach the throne of grace with personal and denominational humility. Gratitude to God is the order of the day. Who can tell but that God will honor this posture and again accomplish an astonishing work among Southern Baptists.
Until He comes,
Paige Patterson, President
Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
Fort Worth, Texas