A week of doing well in New Orleans

It was the first time I’d seen New Orleans since Katrina. Some buildings were still being demolished; some neighborhoods were still empty but the city was functioning. One thing I noticed that may have been fallout from the hurricane was the prices. New Orleans is a pricy place to visit these days. Our Southern Baptist Convention messengers left behind over 800 newly professed Christians, a pile of money, and a good reputation when we adjourned and headed north toward home. This was the most interesting Southern Baptist Convention we’ve had in more than a decade. Three or four things were in the news as we enjoyed an unusual visitation from non-Baptist media. Our new president’s press conference was packed with visiting press as they sought to understand Baptists and why we do things. Here are a couple of major items of discussion, in no particular order.

Name change: We didn’t really change our name, or even consider doing so. What we did was officially endorse a “descriptor” for those who consider “Southern” to be a confusing term in their own context. In some cases, the SBC is thought to have an unfortunate reputation because of things we’ve done, not done, or are believed to have done over the course of 167 years. The vote was affirmative but close, not a mandate or a game changer. It will be interesting to see how those who prefer to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists” will benefit from doing that. In all likelihood, if Southern Baptist institutions or spokesmen begin to use it widely, it will lose its panache.

President Fred Luter: THE news, by far, the most significant news of the 2012 SBC. And it was more than a gesture. This election was the inevitable result of changes in the SBC for a generation. It did not begin in 1995 with the resolution on racial reconciliation. That effort was itself co-led by Gary Frost, an African American SBC vice president. Neither Frost’s election, the resolution, nor Luter’s election were mere gestures. They were substantive reflections of a reality in the SBC. The leaders of our convention, the employees of our convention, and the messengers to our convention have for decades embraced the common parentage of all men and the equality of all men before God and before American law. Fred Luter is an exemplary pastor and leader quite apart from his race. I believe he will have a new perspective to offer as he represents us and offers well-proven leadership across our convention.  

An MSNBC reporter implied that the SBC elected an African American as president because we were worried about declining numbers; and that we adopted the Great Commission Baptists nickname to distance ourselves from an unfortunate reputation. Ignorance on display. Consistently, those who ever listen to what we say or read what we write will hear that we are concerned about one number, only one. We are genuinely concerned about the number of people who follow the example of Christ in baptism as a testimony of new life in him. That’s it. Cooperative Program numbers, membership numbers, number of church plants, number of missionaries or seminary students—those are all servants of our Great Commission ministry.

And I guess it’s time we stop wincing when we hear someone say we have a bad reputation. Everyone who’s ever done anything has a bad reputation with someone. Folks, the gospel has a bad reputation, so does the Word of God. Yes, we are capable of doing the dumb things that large groups of people do, but mostly the people who scoff at us simply disagree with us on things about which we are merely trying to follow the plain teaching of God. When we reach the point where relevance or reputation or bragging numbers become more than data that help us track our effectiveness in reaching the world with the gospel, we are useless. And to those within and without who aren’t sure, I say that we are not useless in this day.

Congratulations to our own Nathan Lino, elected first vice president of the convention. Pastor Lino is a naturalized citizen and pastors Northeast Houston Baptist Church. Another exemplary pastor we look forward to seeing at the podium next year.

And congratulations also to Pastors’ Conference President Greg Matte from Houston’s First Baptist. It’s a great affirmation for pastors to recognize one of their own for leadership of this meeting next year. Pastor Matte led our own pastors’ conference (we call it a Bible Conference now) in 2008 and did a great job. I look forward to seeing what he does with the conference next year in Houston.

Calvinism: Let me use the “C” word as shorthand for our efforts to understand what the inerrant Bible says about how we are saved. It’s a big issue and important. It’s not one we need to settle once for all. That’s good, because most of us are not as smart or dedicated to the task of offering the final word on Calvinism as those who have gone to their graves having failed to do so. At one point during our 2012 SBC meeting, we discussed an aspect of Calvinism for about 30 minutes. During this time, messengers went to microphones in an orderly fashion, waited their turns, and often quoted Scripture at one another. At the end of the time, we voted and then went on with our business. I’m not ashamed of that. I’ve already heard a couple of people talk about this as an example of “feuding Baptists.” It’s not that. Instead I’d call it the necessary deliberation that undergirds our voluntary cooperation. Sometimes we debate theology, sometimes procedure, sometimes some pretty trivial things. Families with convictions and purpose will do that.

I honor the desire for unity that powers Executive Committee President Frank Page’s intent to appoint an advisory group to guide him (and us) through our core mission with theological integrity, missionary energy, and gospel fellowship. No such group, no pronouncement can end the discussion. The closest we’ll come was adopted in 2000 when we rolled out the latest Baptist Faith and Message. That document, in article IV (Salvation) and article V (God’s Purpose of Grace) says that God’s election of sinners for salvation is “consistent with the free agency of man” and “the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness.” We won’t do better, and we will debate the implications of various (there are more than two) interpretations of Scripture in the future. Grown-ups can do that without being haughty or unkind. And it is not too trivial for our attention. Those who are impatient with even dignified theological debate need to stand by graciously while we talk.

Homosexual marriage: It’s a footnote to us but not to the world outside. Our resolution affirming the biblical definition of family expresses a significant disagreement we have with President Obama’s recent pronouncement on the subject. We shouldn’t expect lost people to understand our convictions on family issues. In fact, it’s a place where human reason, our sense of fairness, our desire to be compassionate, or even our wish that the Bible said something else must be subject to what God has actually said. The demonstrable best interests of our communities must also trump shallow affirmations of tolerance for its own sake. “Other” sorts of marriage, whether it is between two men, two women, a mother and son, or a man and two women are corrosive to the foundation of our culture. No argument based on sentimental anecdotes of people who are happy in an “other” marriage or are sad outside it is pertinent.  

I believe it is still worthwhile for Southern Baptists to express their opinions on timely issues like this, by the way. We have been judicious in the subjects we choose and in how we express our opinions but it is part of our witness to say “here is how we see the revelation of God applied to the news of the day.”
In addition to the normal business of passing an annual budget, appointing boards, and responding to good and not-so-good ideas from across our fellowship, we did some unusually interesting things this year. This was a meeting that advanced our Great Commission purpose as well as our fellowship within that purpose. When Christians come together, treat one another well, share the gospel with those around, and take care of business that can’t be handled in any other context, it’s a good day and one that glorifies our Father in heaven. Houston next year; you should plan to be there.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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