The Southern Baptist Convention in Birmingham was my thirty-seventh consecutive to attend. The battle for the Bible was taking place when I first began participation as a messenger. The call for biblical fidelity in our institutions was front and center. Once inerrantists were in leadership attention was given to trimming the bureaucracy. For several years the convention looked at how to make the system work more efficiently. Through the years there have been different pressing issues that needed attention.
It seems that for a segment of time the convention was concerned with internal matters. In my fourth decade of participation in the Southern Baptist Convention a new generation of leaders is emerging. We are facing unique and unforeseen challenges prior generations could have never envisioned. Southern Baptists have not shied away from controversial topics.
A greater awareness of sexual abuse in the churches was brought to the forefront this year. A moving worship experience was in one of the sessions. It focused on repenting, lamenting and seeking forgiveness for failures in the area of protecting the vulnerable. This year’s annual meeting took historic steps to address the sexual abuse crisis. The SBC constitution is being amended, seeking to deal with churches that do not reflect the convention’s position on protecting the vulnerable. The SBC is not a confessional fellowship. A church does not have to affirm the currently adopted Baptist Faith and Message Statement in order to be affiliated with the convention. However, the convention does retain the authority to declare a church no longer in friendly cooperation with the SBC. A newly formed standing Credentials Committee will review concerns raised about churches.
Birmingham was an appropriate city to seek racial reconciliation. Racial oppression reached horrific proportions in the 1960s. Southern Baptists confronted the evils of racism in word and deed. Panel discussions explored paths to better understanding. A very diverse platform presence modeled the call to love one another. Messengers acting decisively approved a constitutional provision to declare a church not in friendly cooperation (excluding the church from the SBC) if the church exhibited discrimination against any ethnicity. Someone remarked that none of the founding churches could be a part of the SBC today had that provision been in the original constitution. This step alone fundamentally changes the SBC.
With much-needed change in these areas and others, there are some core values that have not changed. Although founded with flaws, there was a biblical mandate in the origins of the SBC. Churches had the burden to reach the nations with the gospel. This desire has never wavered. In fact the stack pole for churches working together is the effort to get the good news to those who have never heard.
International Mission Board President Paul Chitwood drove home the call for churches to unify around sending missionaries to the unreached of the world. The heartbeat of the SBC from 1845 until today is to go until the whole world knows about Jesus. I have witnessed a number of IMB commissioning services, but this year was one of the most moving ever. We are at our best as Southern Baptists when we are focused on missions.
Ronnie Floyd as the president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee issued an optimistic challenge to know that the future is bright if we stay together for the gospel. His strong leadership will help keep us on task. SBC President J. D. Greear reiterated the theme of the convention “The Gospel Above All,” in issuing an appeal to each individual believer to find their “one.” While racism, abuse and other heartrending matters must have our attention, the level ground at the foot of the cross is where real transformation begins. Missions and evangelism remain the sine qua non of the Southern Baptist Convention. With an inerrant, sufficient Bible we proclaim a supernatural Christ who can cleanse every sin, empower every life and enable victory until we get to heaven. May Southern Baptists remember the gospel above all!