Wednesday, June 20, 2012

SBC 2012 Day 2 Wrap Up

Today's session of the Southern Baptist Convention was perhaps the most historically significant one of our denomination's history. To fully understand that, some historical perspective is necessary.

As many know, our denomination's history on racial relations is less than heroic. In 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention came into being with the primary issue being the "rights" of slave-holders to be appointed as Baptist missionaries. Just like the Civil War, slavery was not the only issue, but it was certainly a major issue. As Al Mohler said tonight, "It was about more than slavery, but never less than slavery." Throughout the long history of the SBC, frankly we have been wrong on civil rights issues numerous times. It has only been in recent years that the SBC has gotten serious about correcting the image, the perception, and the realities of racism. Needless to say (or is it?), the SBC has come a long way, and today that point was made crystal clear.

I have attended fifteen consecutive Southern Baptist Conventions. My first one was in 1998 in Salt Lake City. That was a historic meeting in which we elected Paige Patterson as President. Patterson's election signaled that the Conservative Resurgence had succeeded, and the denomination was finally and fully resting on the foundation of biblical authority. Patterson had been the architect of the Resurgence, and (to use his words) he was the "target man" for most of the antagonism toward the movement. I remember feeling so blessed and excited to be present when the Resurgence was "complete" by the election of Patterson as our President. But, the events of this day far overshadow that one. There were tears in my eyes today as the entire convention stood in support of the election of Pastor Fred Luter of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans as our Convention President, the first African-American President of a denomination that grew out of the soil of slavery. The battle for ethnic diversity in the Convention is not over. We still have a long way to go. We need to follow through on this to demonstrate to the world that Fred Luter is not a token, and not a symbol. We need to rally behind him as our leader for the coming year (and hopefully two), and every church needs to take action to demonstrate that the SBC is a denomination for all people! I couldn't stop the tears, thinking of how much I wish Dr. Paul Early, my past-predecessor at Immanuel and the bold visionary who risked everything to lead IBC to be a church for all people, could have been here to witness this historic moment. Fred's election has forced the issue of diversity, multi-ethnic ministry, and racial reconciliation under the Gospel of Jesus Christ to bear on every Southern Baptist church.

Frankly, some of us were disappointed a few years ago when Luter was passed up for nomination after being almost assured in 2001 (the last time we were in New Orleans) that his nomination would be imminent.   Little did we know that God's providence over Fred's being passed over was perfect. In 2005, his congregation was devastated (along with the rest of the region) as Hurricane Katrina hit. We have watched with amazement how Fred Luter and Franklin Avenue have reassembled, rebuilt, and reestablished a Gospel presence here in Sin City. I recall hearing him stand in my pulpit in 2006 at the African American Pastors Conference and tell of the hardships that the storm brought to his congregation. This only enhanced my joy as we affirmed him as our President today. The phrase "It's been a long time coming" has never been more fittingly applied than to this election.

With that most important matter stated, let me back up and "retrace my steps" of this day. I began my day shortly after 7 AM as I stepped out into a muggy and hot morning here in the Big Easy. I took the famous New Orleans streetcar down Canal Street, and then walked along the Mississippi River to the Convention. I was fully drenched in sweat by the time I walked in and took my seat.

The introduction of motions from the floor is always a highlight of the Convention. Al Mohler said it best this morning when he tweeted, "The glory of the Southern Baptist Convention is that any messenger from any church can submit a motion ... or four." It is customary for the motions to range from the sublime to the ridiculous and today was no exception. I've been to enough of these to know that the Committee on Order of Business is going to refer as many of these motions as possible to the trustees of the respective Baptist entities, rule a number of them out of order for a variety of reasons, and schedule some for further debate. But, the cherished principle is that the microphones are open for anyone to speak their minds about anything, even if only for three minutes. Sometimes, messengers are frustrated with the "dispensation of motions," feeling that they've been brushed aside. At the subsequent year's meeting, the Book of Reports often indicates that the Trustees decided to take "no action" on the item, only further frustrating messengers. Though I have never presented a motion, I have authored several of them for other presenters, and I can tell you from the "long view" of experience that even when no action is taken by the Convention or the Trustees, those "ignored" motions can sometimes spark important conversations among entity leaders that only later begin to bear fruit.

Today, there was much open and frank dialogue about the "elephant in the room." I sarcastically quipped to some of my colleagues that most of the time, when we are talking about the elephant in the room, it is during the Guidestone report as O.S. Hawkins reminds us that we are an obese and unhealthy group of pastors. But that was not the elephant we were discussing today. Today's elephant was the issue of Calvinism in the SBC.  Full disclosure -- I have never classified myself as a Calvinist. Frankly I don't think I am one. But I am unashamedly a "reformed evangelical" who has many sympathies and affinities with my Calvinist brothers. I am likely far more Calvinistic than I am "non-Calvinistic" (there aren't many Southern Baptists who want to be called Arminians). Most of my friends in the Convention are Calvinists, and whether it is guilt by association, or broad-brushing, I am usually cast as a Calvinist, and honestly, I don't consider that a negative comment. There is much that I respect and resemble about the movement. But I am first and foremost a follower of Jesus, secondly, reformed and evangelical, and thirdly a Baptist, fourthly a Southern Baptist. If the SBC went out of business tomorrow, I'd still be a Baptist by conviction. Those convictions that I hold have been held by Baptists for centuries, though there have also been plenty of Baptists who do not share certain convictions that are labeled as "Calvinistic." But I am a Southern Baptist because I believe in confessional cooperation, and I know that throughout SBC history, Calvinists and non-Calvinists have cooperated in healthy ways for the spread of the Gospel, and it is my earnest prayer that we will continue to do so for many years to come.

But the elephant in the room is the growing awareness that there are some on both sides of the issue who seem less than willing to cooperate with Bible-believing Baptists of "other stripes" on this issue. Prior to the convention, the rhetoric was toxic as a group of prominent non-Calvinists posted a very hurtful caricature of "New Calvinists" in a statement on "Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation," and other developments. Those who are invested on each side of the issue came in with chips on their shoulders this year, and that was evident from the first fall of the gavel. But, I have to say, today we witnessed bold and courageous confrontation of the issue from two of our most prominent leaders: Dr. Frank Page and Outgoing-President Bryant Wright. In both of their addresses to the convention, each of these godly leaders confronted the divisiveness, and called us to cooperation. There was a call to humility for the Calvinists, and a call to abandon judgmentalism on the part of the non-Calvinists. Frankly, both calls are right on target. These statements were repeated in the Baptist 21 luncheon and the 9 Marks session. We can do more together than we can apart. We are a convention of Bible-believing, Gospel-proclaiming brothers, and we need each other too much to split over this issue. I wish we weren't debating it, but I am glad that we are debating this, and not the inerrancy of Scripture, the ordination of homosexuals, or any other discussion that is going on in other Christian denominations today.

There was much anticipation today for the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission (ERLC) report. The ERLC is our "Washington Watchdog" entity. Younger Southern Baptists often just shake their heads about the existence of such an entity, while older Southern Baptists perhaps see the political actions of the ERLC as one of the more important aspects of Baptist life. But all of that has been overshadowed in recent days by the unwise, racially insensitive, and ironically timed comments of ERLC President Richard Land concerning the Trayvon Martin case. There were also accusations that Dr. Land had plagiarized some of his comments on this case. Land has publicly repented of both issues prior to the convention, and has been reprimanded by ERLC trustees, who also suspended his daily radio broadcast. While I applaud the trustees, I have wondered if they went far enough. I have wondered if it may not be time for a changing of the guard at ERLC. But today, as Dr. Land confessed and repented before the Convention messengers, and shared the record of the ERLC's activities over the last year, I am content that God has definitely blessed us with the leadership of Dr. Land in this position, and I hope that we can all move beyond it.

The other "big issue" of the day was the discussion of the new "descriptor" (think, "nickname") of the SBC, "Great Commission Baptists." The driving factor behind this is the perception among many that the name "Southern Baptist" presents a hindrance to the Gospel in some areas outside of the South, and among some minority peoples. There was much heated debate on the subject as it came to the floor today. Those opposed to it seem to misunderstand the nature and need for the new term. Those in favor of it have been uncharitable and unsympathetic to others, and have used a fallacious form of argument to advance their position. Repeatedly, the motion's defenders "appealed to a silent majority," as they said, "We've heard a lot of people say they need this." Friends, there isn't a pastor in the room who doesn't absolutely abhor that kind of rhetoric in deacon's meetings and congregational meetings. It isn't any more appealing here. At this point, we still do not know the result of the vote, but we will find out Wednesday morning if this new "nickname" will be official or not. Here again is where a good historical perspective would be helpful. I have witnessed in my years of Convention attendance several failed attempts to change the name of the Convention. I am not fond of the notion of changing the name. I am in agreement with the proposal to add "Great Commission Baptists" as a descriptor for the sake of those who find the label "Southern Baptist" problematic in their cultural context (so long as they do not use it in a deceptive way). Here's the bottom line: this is the best possible "win-win" situation for all sides. In my opinion, if we do not pass this, it will continue to come up year after year, and eventually we will get saddled with some ridiculous "new name" that sounds more like a WNBA team than a Christian denomination. Let's deal with facts and truth, stop reading too much into this, and move forward for the sake of the Gospel.

Well, as you can see from this lengthy post, it was a busy day. I capped it off with dinner with a dear friend who serves with the International Mission Board. I can't share his name because he is a "Level 3" missionary, meaning that his identity has to remain confidential for security reasons. I have known him for 10 years and have prayed with him and his family through several personal crises. He's become a friend to IBC as he's visited a number of times to challenge us from God's Word. We strolled to the French Quarter and had a splendid dinner at Napoleon House (muffaletta and jambalaya!) followed by beignets and cafe au lait at the famous Cafe Du Monde across from Jackson Square. During this time, we exemplified "iron sharpening iron," as he helped me think through some missiological issues, and God granted me the opportunity to be his pastor through yet another deeply personal struggle. As we strolled the Riverwalk (dodging the nasty rats!) I couldn't help thinking that perhaps God has me in New Orleans for "such a time as this," to have that conversation with my dear brother.

A final note ... Cafe Du Monde is a well-known tourist attraction in New Orleans. But to Southern Baptists who are "in the know", it is significant for more than just the coffee and beignets. It was here that Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler sat down decades ago to begin to sketch how the Convention could be returned to its conservative, Bible-based roots. Looking around the place tonight, I saw young Baptists and old Baptists, guys at their first convention, and guys who've been to dozens of them, seminary professors, mega-church pastors, ordinary pastors and missionaries, along with tourists, locals, and others. As I was sitting there thinking, "This is where it all began!", Ken Whitten came by our table, put his arms around both of us and said, "Boys, this is where it all began!" We've talked a lot about the Conservative Resurgence this week, as we do every year. Folks may wonder why we keep rehashing this "old news." The fact is simple: were it not for the courageous actions of men like Patterson, Pressler, Adrian Rogers, and many others who began and saw the Resurgence through from beginning to end, there is absolutely no telling where we would be as a denomination today. And where are we today? We are a denomination that has come full circle theologically, and full circle racially. That is a good place to be.

We still have our problems. Will we divide over Calvinism? Will the Cooperative Program be around when my kids and grandkids gather for the Convention? Will there still be an SBC, will we be called by another name, or will we cease to exist? I tell you what I think the bigger issue is for us. I think I am uniquely positioned to make this observation. I am 38 years old, and I've been to 15 consecutive conventions. It is an uncomfortable place to be. I am too young to be old, and too old to be young. Hershael York and I had a brief chat this morning as we walked into the Convention Center, and we both agreed that "generationalism" is the real elephant in the room. As a young guy, I can say to my younger brothers, "Love your elders, and respect them." These guys ate bologna sandwiches and slept in their cars at Conventions year after year so that you could be a part of what the SBC is today. Sometimes they get cranky, like the old man that fusses at kids playing in their yard, but they've watered this garden for a long time, and we could do better at being humble kids who honor those who've gone before us. But as an old guy, I can say to my older brothers, "Don't despise what God is doing through a new generation of Southern Baptists." They might be more "Calvinistic" than you like. They might dress different and look different, but they are the future of the SBC. In a very real sense they are the present, but one day, they will be where you are ... that is, unless you push them away here and now. We are making great strides in the race-conversation. I think we will survive the Calvinism issue. But if we can't turn the hearts of the "fathers" and the "sons" back toward each other, we will certainly destroy one another and implode. And that will be a great tragedy.

Rodney King died this week, but his infamous statement should ring in our ears, "Can't we all just get along?" We can, if we keep Jesus and His Word at the center of it all!

Recaps of reports, motions, and other business of the convention can be found on the Baptist Press Blog.

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