Are Southern Baptist becoming liberal?

Is the largest Protestant denomination in the world on the verge of complete collapse? The Southern Baptist Convention met in its annual meeting last week and the mainstream media tells us that the convention’s days are numbered. Well, I’m here to tell you, to paraphrase Mark Twain, “The News of our death has been greatly exaggerated.”

Another Day at the Office

Last week in Nashville, Tennessee the Southern Baptist Convention met for the first time in two years because of the pandemic, to have an annual meeting. This denomination saw over 15,000 messengers, that is those sent from the churches, to gather to do the business of the Southern Baptist Convention. The final tally was 15,726 messengers. There were 3,823 guests, 1,892 exhibitors, meaning that over 21,000 people gathered in Nashville for the convention to conduct its business.

It was the largest gathering of Southern Baptists since 1995. Like always, Baptists gather when there is controversy to be dealt with. And so, we saw that unfold in Nashville last week.
We dealt with a number of issues over the course of our two-day convention, issues including Critical Race Theory and the response of Baptist churches to the unfolding drama of that movement in America. We talked about the investigation of sexual abuse instances within Southern Baptist churches and how the denomination should respond to those things. We dealt with recommendations from the Executive Committee, that body that conducts the business of the Southern Baptist Convention in between annual meetings. We also contemplated a new way of doing finances and business.

With all of that what we saw was a hotly contested presidential contest and a number of resolutions that drew a lot of attention from the media. If you read the media accounts since the convention, they almost all claim that Southern Baptists have lost their moorings. We’re passing into wokeness and liberalism. But let me see if I can give you a historical explanation of who we are so there’s a better way to understand what happened in Nashville last week.

Southern Baptists conduct business in a different way than other Protestant denominations. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention is not really a classical denomination in any sense of that word. Rather, we are a convention of churches. Unlike other denominations that have a top-down authority structure, Baptists operate from a bottom-up authority structure. That is, the headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention is in every local Southern Baptist church in the world. And once a year, representatives from those churches gather together to conduct business, to consider the direction of the Convention and to give direction to those who operate the Convention over the course of the year.

What we did this year was we refused some recommendations that came from denominational leadership. In a sense, we followed a classic pattern that has always been a part of Baptist life. That is, we’re not dictated to from those who operate the denominational leadership. Rather, the churches tell the leaders which direction to go. That happened this year. It happened in several instances.

Lifeway Christian Resources presented a plan to change their mission assignment, that is, the task that they’re responsible for. Messengers rejected that.

The Executive Committee offered a new financial plan, a new way of conducting business that would allow them to have an increased influence over the Board’s and Agencies of our denomination in such a way that they would be able to direct those ministries and control the purse strings so that their wishes could be accomplished. The Messengers said, “No, that’s not how we do business.” And those motions were not accepted.

There’s always been kind of an insider-outsider tension in our governance, our polity. That is, those who are charged with operating the Convention on a day-to-day basis must always remember that they take their instructions from those of us who are in the churches. That was on display here.

Now people look at the Presidential race and they saw a Pastor by the name of Ed Litton, who was elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention, a new President this year. He’s the Pastor of Redemption Church, which is in a north Mobile, Alabama suburb. And he was elected by a 52% to 48% vote. The media looks at that and says, “Oh, this is a deeply divided Convention. It’s a reflection of what we see in America in general of two sides that just can’t figure out how to get along.” The fact of the matter is, if you look back at the history of Presidential elections, even among friends, Presidential elections in the Southern Baptist Convention have almost always been closely decided affairs. It is not an indication of a deep division in our Convention. It’s simply a call to different ideas about how to move forward.

What Divides Us?

Let me give you the explanation. In the Southern Baptist Convention’s history, there has always been a tension, a struggle in our denominational identity about whether we are joined together by theological agreement or by missional cooperation. In other words, is the purity of our doctrine what binds us together, or is it the unity of our mission that keeps us working side-by-side? The fact of the matter is, it’s not an either-or proposition. The genius of what God has done with a people called Southern Baptists, is that He has given us this willingness to walk a fine line always pursuing theological purity, always striving to maintain Biblical fidelity. But understanding that as long as we have agreement on the foundational doctrines of the faith, there are other doctrines that we can extend grace on. Churches must decide for themselves some issues of doctrine. And we’ve been content over the course of 150 years as a people to allow those things that are not clearly and obviously heresy or heterodoxy, to use a theological term. Those things that are not in that category, we’ve shown a lot of grace. Baptist churches are very different.

You visit one Southern Baptist church and you see one thing. You visit another Southern Baptist church and you see something very different. And people wonder why we’re not more cookie-cutter. But it’s because we don’t have a single image of what a Southern Baptist church looks like that is then pressed down from above on all other churches. We are autonomous churches with Christ as the head of each church. And we seek to do the best we can to be faithful to the instruction of God’s Word.

What that means is that, we find ourselves in a situation today where the culture around us is so divided that that language is applied particularly by the media to try and make sense of what’s happening in the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve seen headlines over the last few days that tell of the Southern Baptist Convention becoming woke. They use the language of wokeness. They describe a struggle between conservatives and liberals in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Let me tell you something. In the 1980’s, when the Southern Baptist Convention actually had a theological battle over the authority of God’s Word, I saw up close and personal true liberals. I talked to men, pastors of churches, denominational leaders, who didn’t believe that the Bible was fully the Word of God. I talked to people who didn’t believe that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine. I talked to true liberals. That’s not what’s happening today. In fact, if I could describe what happened at the Southern Baptist Convention, I would say that what the media doesn’t tell you is that there was remarkable unanimity on one thing. That is that Jesus Christ has called us to take the Great Commission and go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them and teaching them to observe everything that He has commanded.

In fact, we built that into a document that we adopted called Vision 2025. I’ll read you the points of that in just a second. But I want you to understand. What’s happening in the Southern Baptist Convention, in spite of what you’re reading in the mainstream media, is not that liberals and conservatives are having to battle again like we did in the 80’s. That’s not what’s happening. If I could summarize the Southern Baptist Convention last week, I would put it this way. The ultra-conservative party is angry that the conservative party won’t be more conservative. By-in-large, while there may be individual churches who practice things that we would not be ok with and we have to deal with those things. By-in-large the Southern Baptist Convention is still a body of believers who are committed to advancing the cause of Christ.

Now, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing about the decline in denominational numbers, our, membership decline over the last couple of years. That is a real issue. But understand, like I said, the SBC is not a denomination. It is a collection of churches. So, what’s happening is not that people are leaving the Southern Baptist Convention. It’s that our churches in some instances are not doing a good job of advancing the kingdom in their local setting. The numbers of the Southern Baptist Convention are simply a collection of the numbers of 15,000 individual churches.

Well, let me tell you about Vision 2025 real quickly.

The Future of the SBC

Vision 2025 had six things that we approved that we can agree on that we want to drive us in the days ahead.

Number 1, we made a commitment to send 500 more missionaries overseas than what we already have. We have thousands of missionaries both at home and abroad. But we made a commitment to pursue 500. Now, with an attrition rate of retirement and medical withdrawal, we lose about 300 missionaries a year. So, 500 missionaries by 2025 as a net increase means a fairly substantial increase on an annual basis of those that are going to the nations with the Gospel. 500 more missionaries overseas.

By 2025 Southern Baptists committed to plant 5,000 additional congregations across North America. That’s Canada, the United States and Mexico. 5,000 new churches? You say, “Well, we have a lot of churches in my area. I see one on every street corner.” We have a lot church buildings in America but we don’t have a lot of Biblical churches. And that’s what we put into communities that need to hear the Gospel.

We want to call out the Called. That is, we want to see God’s Spirit move in such a way that we facilitate the entrance into ministry of more of our young people than we’ve seen in recent years.
We want to reverse the decline in children and teenage baptisms, those under the age of 18. We want to reverse those numbers into a positive direction. And we want to strengthen discipleship. Because to teach our children and our students to follow Jesus at that stage in their life is to pass the faith on without hinderance into the next generation.

We want to increase giving through the Cooperative Program. The Cooperative Program is simply the unified budget that allows individual churches to participate in this global endeavor called the Southern Baptist Convention. We want to rediscover in our churches a new commitment to doing the work of the kingdom together on a global basis.

And the last thing we committed to was to prayerfully endeavor to eliminate all incidents of sexual abuse and racial discrimination among our churches. In other words, for all the details that need to be worked out, we said we are moving in a direction where race and sexual abuse will not be allowed to hinder the Gospel in our generation.

Folks, the Southern Baptist Convention is not a perfect collection of perfect people. But we are also not marching off a cliff to oblivion. God has a lot to accomplish with us. And what happened in the city of Nashville last week was that by-in-large Southern Baptists came together and said, “We’ve got some problems that we need to deal with. We’ve got some issues that we need to struggle with. But we know who we are. We are the people of Jesus Christ. And we will advance the kingdom with all of our energy.”

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