Splitting the Southern Baptist Convention

Driving in New England last month, I passed a car with an obnoxious bumper sticker. I was shocked at how rapidly I judged everything about the driver; his views, his choice of auto—even his character was summed up in that one errant political view. The response immediately tasted bad in my mouth and gave me an insight for the Southern Baptist Convention. Maybe we aren’t disagreeing about issues so much as just being disagreeable. Between Woodstock, N.H., and Woodstock, Vt., I wrote this column in my mind.

I’d read that morning a column about comments Paige Patterson made 18 years ago on divorce and incidentally related to spousal abuse. The writer suggested, hopefully I think, that the SBC could split over this disagreement, or over the person of Paige Patterson. It will not. In his antipathy for Patterson, the writer was distracted by symptoms and not causes.

Neither will we split over Calvinism. One group speaks as if every Calvinist in the SBC is an existential threat to our mission. Another group talks down to the majority of “less theologically minded” (less-Calvinistic) Southern Baptists as if they don’t know how to read the Bible properly. This centuries-old discussion gets ungentlemanly in a hurry, but it is not the division in the SBC.   

We will not split over the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission or the International Mission Board or the election of Donald Trump or the role of women in our churches. These subjects have resulted in personal divisions and sharp exchanges but none of them is the reason our fellowship is wounded. These issues, some of them noteworthy in themselves, have become flashpoints because we have absorbed the toxic tribalism of our culture. Too many disagreements have become ultimate. 

SBTC President Juan Sanchez is right to point out the imperative of love between the brethren from 1 Corinthians 13. Also consider chapter 1, verses 10-17, of that same book. In Paul’s discussion of divisive quarrelling in the Corinthian church he notes Apollos, Peter, Jesus and himself as the invoked rabbis of the church’s sects. I’m struck by the real distinctions between those four. Apollos was a well-spoken African Jew who came later to the Lord than did Paul and Peter. Paul describes himself as the least of the apostles, born out of time, because he learned the gospel from Jesus after the Ascension. Paul’s ministry was heavily among the Gentiles. Peter had been with Jesus from the beginning and saw everything as it happened; he was the leader of the 12 by nature and experience. These three were not enemies but they had reasons to approach their ministries from different perspectives. It makes sense that different churches or individuals might like the style of one more than the others. Perhaps the most divisive people in the church were those who were above it all: “We follow Jesus,” they archly boast. In this way they praise themselves by praising their rabbi, and thus scorn those of other tribes. Neither Paul nor Peter, nor Apollos nor Jesus were at fault for these divisions; they were simply labels for the foolishness of men—those who boast in themselves (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

Is it mere coincidence that this period of sharp and unyielding disagreements in our convention follows a contentious political decade—one marked by the rise of social media, by which millions can say immediately every silly thing that crosses their minds? It is not coincidence and it is not in our best interest that we absorb this cultural habit. Consider a few contrary ideas.

  • Love: The greatest Christian virtue submits our own interests to the kingdom of God and to the best interests of God’s children, our brothers and sisters (Romans 12:10). Genuine love will make it difficult to see our brethren as mere adversaries. Beware of those who benefit in some way by making it harder for you to love Christians who see things differently than you do—especially over issues or emphases that will pass away.  
  • Humility: This is the second of the Christian virtues (Philippians 2:3), and no more easily displayed in our lives than the first. The world teaches us to promote ourselves, brand ourselves, brag, humble-brag, and then score points off others to exalt ourselves. It is difficult to use the tools of the secular hype industry without falling into sin. 
  • Forgiveness: We too easily say we forgive others when we continue to the think less of them afterward (Matthew 6:14). We may forgive others for something they did to us, but what about the offense we take when someone is “wrong”? My response to the bumper sticker in New Hampshire was arrogant, but mostly unforgiving. Can Calvinists, anti-Calvinists, never-Trumpers, unenthusiastic-Trumpers, all-in-Trumpers, J.D. Greear partisans and Ken Hemphill partisans forgive each other for being wrong? 

Here’s where we split—the unloving, arrogant and unforgiving attitude we have toward brothers who believe the Bible and love the Southern Baptist Convention, but who say some things differently than we do. While some things are worth parting over, that list should be shorter than we often make it. The number of things we call “heresy” or “basic to the gospel” should be few. Loss of focus is the temptation of a diverse denomination and the tendency of a generational changeover. This “everything is worth killing or dying for” message is the clamor of an unhappy society. Our SBC culture should not be like that. 

That’s the question. Are we willing to continue in fellowship for and around the gospel? As we speak to one another, or about each other, think of that question. If the Southern Baptist Convention fragments, it won’t be over the nature of the gospel or the results of a presidential election. If we split anytime soon it will be because too many of us stopped loving one another. 

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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