Two recent articles from Trevin Wax and Brad Whitt highlight a growing divide in Southern Baptist Life. Trevin writes on the importance of Being Southern Baptist Among and For Evangelicals. Whitt, on the other hand writes representing the branch of Southern Baptists who seem very intent of late on establishing a stronger and more isolated Southern Baptist identity in an article titled, What Makes Us “Southern Baptist?”
I’ve been accused many times over the past few years of trying to oversimplify issues, and I suspect that this article will result in much of the same kinds of oversimplification. However, it seems to me that the two articles listed above do a great job of defining the line between camps that currently exist within the SBC.
Both camps are concerned with spreading the gospel and with seeing the kingdom of God built up. One camp believes that the best way to enlarge the Kingdom is to cooperate with believers of other denominations for the sake of the gospel. The other camp seems to believe that the SBC is the answer to the spread of the gospel. Trevin argues that the SBC is the last great hope for evangelicals in the 21st Century, Brad and his camp seem to suggest that the SBC is the last great hope for the gospel in the 21st.
Whitt and those in his camp are very concerned with maintaining the Southern Baptist Convention and see change as a bad word:
Some denominational leaders, conferences and even our literature are now pushing us to overlook drastic differences in theology and ecclesiology for the sake of “new church starts” (but only of a CERTAIN kind). And on top of that there are rumblings from these same agents of CHANGE to alter the very title of the SBC. Make no mistake, if the trend continues, we will see the end of the Southern Baptist Convention in both name and nature.
On the other hand, Trevin writes the following,
So let’s be convictional, confessional Southern Baptists with a heart to get the gospel to our neighbors and to the nations. Now is not the time to close our fists and cast aspersion on Baptists willing to stand with those outside our denominational borders. The situation is too dire for infighting and turf wars. Let’s be Southern Baptist – not against other evangelicals, but for the good of evangelicals.
Interestingly, Trevin also argues that our Baptist identity should be strengthened and not dropped, but that a strong SBC need not isolate itself from other denominations. The isolationist camp clings hard to the “way things have always been” in the SBC and suggest that any cooperation outside of the SBC (ie. ACTS29) is a direct threat to the Southern Baptist Way of Life.
One camp seems intent on pulling Southern Baptists together for the sake of the denomination (which, I believe they would argue is good for the Kingdom) by distancing ourselves from other evangelical groups. Others seem intent on pulling Christians together for the sake of the gospel without sacrificing our baptist distinctives. We can disagree on the alcohol issue or others issues–In previous generations, issues such as playing cards or women wearing pants or men wearing ties were hot button issues–and still agree that the gospel is more important than anything else.
Of course many in the isolationist camp neglect to realize that networks like ACTS29 are cooperating with Southern Baptist Churches to help fund Southern Baptist church plants and not the other way around. Acts29 supports church planters, some of whom are SBC. Of course, NAMB funded church planters are required by NAMB to maintain baptist identity. However, for NAMB to dictate who these churches can or cannot cooperate with infringes on the Baptist understanding of church autonomy.
A similar case study can be made about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. A large number of Southern Baptists are not sympathetic to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, yet we are not pushing churches out who are dually aligned because our polity leads us to believe that those decisions are best left up to the church. Certainly it is a small percentage of churches who are dually aligned, but the number dually aligned with CBF–if some estimates of up to 1600 such churches are correct (see discussion here)–dwarf the number of ACTS29 aligned churches. Though no census exists to tell us the exact number of SBC churches who are currently networking with ACTS29, remember, the entire ACTS29 network only numbers around 300 churches source.
Southern Baptists have a long history of partnerships with ethnic denominations and denominations overseas for church planting efforts. We need to embrace opportunities to partner together for the sake of the gospel on this side of the Atlantic with ethnic and non-ethnic churches as well.
About a year ago, in a post titled Missional: From Isolation to Multiplication I wrote the following,
To be missional, first and foremost, means to understand one’s place in the big scheme of God’s mission. Churches exist to fulfill the missio Dei (mission of God), not to fulfill the mission of the SBC or the mission of the local church. The local church and denomination are true to the call of God only in as much as they are committed to the mission of God over and above their own mission or comfort level. Unfortunately, many of our churches have transitioned from a gospel center to a community center. Rather than rallying around the Great Commission, we are rallying around fellowship and community. There is opposition, not to global missions so much, but to local missions such as church planting because “a new missional community might hurt my church.”
The purpose of the SBC is not to preserve itself or even it’s identity. The SBC is merely a means to an end, God’s end which is the spread of the gospel. God works through means, and thus the SBC can and has been an effective tool for the spread of the gospel, but God doesn’t need the SBC. We, as Southern Baptists, would do well to remind ourselves often that we exist to bring glory to God and to bring others to God, not to preserve ourselves.
As a Southern Baptist, I affirm the BF&M 2000 readily, and with Spurgeon I can say, “I am never ashamed to avow myself a Calvinist; I do not hesitate to take the name of Baptist; but if I am asked what is my creed, I reply, ‘It is Jesus Christ.’” However, as I conceive of the mission of God to evangelize the whole world, I recognize that we cannot do it alone as Southern Baptists. For that reason, I feel confident that we will be a stronger denomination (Convention) by partnering with others even as we affirm our own Baptist distinctives. The SBC has been willing to do this on the abortion issue and in politics for many years. The gospel is infinitely more important than anything else, and for this reason we must find ways to partner with gospel centered churches, networks, and denominations to plant Baptist Churches and reach the world for Christ.