Editorial: Who Southern Baptists are matters for Texas Baptists and me

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Southern Baptists want to be known for missions and evangelism. They may want to be known for other things, too, but more than anything, they want to be known for telling people all over the world about Jesus.

Despite such aspirations, Southern Baptists are known by many for other not-so-noble things.

The question for Southern Baptists as they approach the 2021 annual meeting is not how they want to be known, but who do Southern Baptists want to be?

You will know them by their fruit

From the 1970s through the 1990s—the majority of my life—Southern Baptists were a denomination at war with itself. Coalescing storm clouds suggest a new war within the SBC.

Since at least 2018, Southern Baptists have been embroiled in one scandal or controversy after another, most notably involving sexual abuse in the church, the removal of Paige Patterson as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, racial justice within the denomination and, more recently, reactions to and the departures of Beth Moore and Russell Moore.

None of the scandals, controversies and wars are how Southern Baptists want to be known, despite some Southern Baptists believing such rows strengthen and purify evangelistic and missional efforts. Yet, if Gallup or Barna were to poll the general public, we can be sure Southern Baptists are known for precisely the things they don’t want to be known by.

Given the fact such acrimony, hostility, division, scandal and controversy have been front and center among Southern Baptists for the better part of—or some might say the entirety—of the last 50 years, a Southern Baptist would be hard pressed to argue against the assertion these things are not simply how Southern Baptists are known, but it’s who Southern Baptists are.

Many Southern Baptists will not like that last paragraph. Many will bristle, deny it and otherwise reject it.

And yet, here Southern Baptists are again, embroiled in controversy and acrimony as they pack their bags for another upcoming annual meeting.

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Who is responsible for bad Baptist behavior?

Southern Baptists are going to have disagreements about the truth and how to maintain accountability. But the way in which Southern Baptists disagree ought to reflect at least some semblance of the love Jesus said his followers would be known by. That love for one another has been hard to see in the SBC.

Truth and accountability are needed in matters related to SBC boards, committees, agencies, institutions, churches and their leaders. It ought to be possible among Christians to seek such truth and accountability without devolving into name-calling, political maneuvering, hostility and division. Yes, it ought to be possible, but the easier thing is to devolve. I know, because I’ve taken the easy way a time or two.

Most messengers to the SBC annual meeting generally are not counted among the leadership of the convention. As such, these messengers might argue they aren’t the ones generating the controversy and conflict.

The argument rings hollow, however, when one remembers Baptist polity understands leadership of the convention is held precisely by each individual messenger and local church. For decades, messengers have spectated at annual sparring matches among elected and appointed leaders without rising up to say: “Enough! This is not who we are, and we won’t tolerate your behavior.” That’s fertilizer for the SBC’s bad fruit.

On the eve of the SBC annual meeting June 13-16 in Nashville, Southern Baptists ought to be thinking about who they want to be. Instead, they likely are thinking about which of the four men nominated for SBC president they will vote for—a decision attended by its own set of controversies. They probably are wondering what actions will take place around critical race theory; what to make of Russell Moore’s leaked letters; what—if anything—will result from Southwestern Seminary’s report accusing Patterson of theft; and perhaps what will happen about sexual abuse in SBC churches.

In short, it doesn’t look like Southern Baptists will give their best energies to what they really want to be known for—missions and evangelism. Instead, their best energies will go to denominational politics, problems and intrigue. That’s a shame, in large part because it’s predictable.

Who do Texas Baptists want to be?

Who Southern Baptists want to be is not a disinterested question for Texas Baptists.

In the course of trying to do good for the cause of Christ, Texas Baptists will disagree. As long as people work together and Jesus hasn’t returned, there will be disagreements—and sometimes, profound ones. But the way in which we disagree often is a clearer, louder and truer depiction of who we are and what we’re made of.

Texas Baptists ought to pay attention to all of what’s happening in the SBC and ask themselves, “Who do Texas Baptists want to be?”

If Texas Baptists want to be people who spread the gospel and share Jesus’ love, then they need to make sure the ways in which they disagree clearly communicate the gospel and Jesus’ love. Texas Baptist disagreements need to be tableaus of the Great Commission and Great Commandment.

Who do I want to be?

Who Southern Baptists want to be is not a disinterested question for me.

As someone who wants to follow Jesus, all my counsel to Southern Baptists and Texas Baptists applies to me, as well. Who I want to be is better than who I am.

Eric Black is the executive director, publisher and editor of the Baptist Standard. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @EricBlackBSP.

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