Politics, civility and SBC leadership

The 1989 Southern Baptist Convention meeting was remarkable. We met in Las Vegas and had more than 2,000 people participating in a massive witnessing effort in that city. Before the evangelism push, Southern Baptists prayed for every name in the Vegas phone book. Evangelists contacted 120,000 homes and recorded more than 470 professions of faith. It was a vigorous political year as well. Florida pastor Jerry Vines was up for his second one-year term as convention president and his challenger was Texas pastor Dan Vestal. That year was my first in the SBC pressroom. An unprecedented thing happened that year in the presidential race: Dan Vestal’s supporters bought time on local television stations to support his candidacy for SBC president.

It still sounds odd to me, but that effort shows how intense the political climate was in the 11th SBC meeting of the Conservative Resurgence. That was an era of mass mailings, rallies, endorsements by SBC entity heads and a lot of back and forth in the media in hopes of winning the presidency. Vestal lost the 1989 election and the 1990 election in New Orleans before leading a few hundred Southern Baptist churches to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

When you read of those years and the decisions convention messengers made at very large gatherings, the political intensity of our day seems tame. But this year’s presidential election has its own drama—so much that the two candidates have urged their followers to tone it down a bit, to keep the debate civil. I agree with Ken Hemphill and J.D. Greear in urging a more kindly tone in our Baptist discussions. Two reasons make me compare it with the hard-fought years of the resurgence: First, the issues between this year’s candidates and their followers are neither as distinct nor as basic as the issues we debated in the 1980s and ‘90s. Clearly, both Greear and Hemphill are inerrantists and both are evangelistic. Second, many, me included, have had to repent of intemperate language we used in trying to win important points. In the heat of debate, the issue sometimes became about victory rather than about the truth. This second point remains valid more than 20 years after the resurgence was complete.

I tremble to think what the years between 1979 and 1995 would have been like if we’d had social media. This year’s presidential election has been elevated in volume by our ability to say it immediately in a few words. Accusations have flown back and forth about who is being more political and who is being inappropriately endorsed. These activities and complaints are not new, even if they are magnified by media unavailable in 1989. In this and in other potentially divisive discussions within our convention of conservative evangelistic churches, here are some things to remember.

We do not broadly disagree about the nature of the gospel. Some talk as if we do. I’ve heard comparisons between those of one tribe and another in the SBC described in terms of who’s more committed to the gospel. This week I saw a blogger refer to his fellow Southern Baptists who preach a “truncated” gospel. The accusation was not specific enough to avoid painting most of us with the brush. It’s unhelpful posturing.

When two people “agree to be nominated” for a position, they both want it. They may not have the same vision for the role or even the same methods for telling their side of things, but the reluctant and noble candidate thrust into the spotlight by surprise is still a willing candidate. Some of the divisive language I’ve seen during this particular SBC presidential race has to do with one candidate “politicking” while the other candidate—what, just stands above it all? As I said, it’s divisive and untrue to speak this way.

“Politics” is a neutral term. It refers to how people in community make decisions. It can popularly refer to a self-centered willingness to deceive for the sake of winning. That would rarely be a fair way to speak of our fellow Southern Baptists. Advocating for your view of our common work can be done in a God-honoring way. This is also politics.

Name-calling and its ugly cousin, self-exaltation, are not politics. They are simply sin. When a decision at the SBC or in your church or in your family has been finalized, make sure you can still look at those who voted another way without guilt for what you said about them.

That’s where I’ll leave it. As I said during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, we still need to work together and live together at the end of this. Unless you plan to leave if you don’t win a vote, don’t do anything you’ll regret in service to even a noble cause. Winning that vote will seldom be as impactful as you hoped. Losing will almost never be as bad as we fear. The relationships you hazard are going to last a lot longer than the consequences of most things we’ll decide at one vote.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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