SBC

I had the privilege this week of attending the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve been a Southern Baptist for my entire life and have been to denominational meetings since childhood. My education came from Southern Baptist schools, and my vocational ministry has been at Southern Baptist churches.

The 2021 annual meeting in Nashville, TN was memorable and important. Here are some of my reflections on the annual meeting.

Cooperation is vital to Southern Baptists. Southern Baptists are the largest evangelical denomination in the U.S. with 47,000 churches and 15 million members. The beauty of the denomination has been its commitment to cooperate together for the purpose of sending missionaries across the world and spreading the gospel to unbelievers. We can do more together than we can separately. In 1925, the denomination developed the Cooperative Program whereby churches can give through their Baptist State Conventions to the work of Southern Baptist entities in order to send missionaries (International Mission Board), plant churches (North American Mission Board), and support theological education and cultural engagement (6 Southern Baptist Seminaries and other denominational entities). The annual meeting this week reaffirmed the commitment of Southern Baptists to cooperate for the purpose of spreading the gospel.

SBC messengers demand transparency from its leaders. This year’s meeting was one of the largest of the denomination’s largest. In previous convention meetings, the SBC overwhelmingly affirmed measures to address sexual abuse among Southern Baptist churches. For example, churches that hire sexual abusers or cover up sexual abuse can be removed from the denomination. In recent weeks, critiques arose concerning how allegations of misconduct among churches have been handled. Going into the meeting, a plan had been put forward by the SBC Executive Committee to hire a firm for an independent investigation. While this move was welcomed by many, it carried an apparent conflict of interest (the Executive Committee would be hiring a firm to investigate itself). But in the meeting this week, a motion was presented to have the newly elected SBC president select a task force who would oversee how the independent investigation is to be handled. Overcoming a number of procedural hurdles, convention messengers overwhelmingly affirmed this motion to place the responsibility for the investigation outside the Executive Committee. This action by the messengers was a clear statement that rank and file Southern Baptists decry sexual abuse and demand transparency in how leadership will handle any and all allegations.

Southern Baptists are better in a room than some are on social media. The media and social media lead up to this annual meeting was considerable. Search media sites like The Washington Post for national media coverage on the meeting. If you are on twitter, you can search #sbc21 for more social commentary on the convention. One of the inherent problems with social media in general is that it is far easier to make an accusation or to post something vitriolic from a distance than it is to say something to someone’s face. As I read through twitter leading up to the convention, there was accusation, argument, and mischaracterization by individuals on different sides of the issues. This was disheartening. But that vitriol largely stayed on social media. The messengers in the room behaved themselves cordially, and there were no major divisive outbursts even though there were areas of stark disagreement. The lesson going forward is that Southern Baptists need to have more face to face conversations and guard their social media interactions with a demeanor of gentleness and respect.

Because Southern Baptists have great diversity, we don’t agree on every theological issue. The Baptist Faith and Message represents what Southern Baptists believe on key theological issues. But inside the framework of the Baptist Faith and Message, there is room for diversity of theological opinion. SBC ’21 in Nashville reflected this diversity through resolutions, motions, amendments, and various reports by denominational leaders. One issue that received a great amount of attention is CRT or Critical Race Theory due in part to a resolution made in the Birmingham meeting in 2019. At the 2021 convention, the messengers overwhelmingly affirmed resolution 2 on “The Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation,” albeit after considerable discussion and amendment recommendations (see page 7 of the Tuesday daily bulletin ). The diversity of Southern Baptists precludes agreement on every issue. What I took away from the meeting, and what we need more of, is willingness to disagree agreeably when the issues are tertiary and not primary.

Southern Baptists remain theologically conservative. Another reason for the high attendance this year was election of the SBC president to follow J. D. Greear. The SBC President represents the denomination as a spokesperson, is responsible for appointing individuals to serve on committees that appoint entity trustees, and moderates the business sessions at the annual meeting. Four men were nominated, Albert Mohler, Mike Stone, Ed Litton, and Randy Adams. After the first vote did not see a candidate with more than 50% of the vote, Ed Litton was elected to serve as SBC president in a runoff with Mike Stone. Ed Litton is the pastor of Redemption Church in Mobile, Alabama. Mike Stone was the preferred candidate of a recently formed Conservative Baptist Network. While each of these candidates differ on theological issues, they each hold to the inerrancy, sufficiency, and authority of Scripture, the exclusivity of Christ for salvation, and the Baptist Faith and Message. Differences of application for handling racial, political, and interpersonal issues remain among Southern Baptists, but it is unfair and unhelpful to critique nuanced differences of theological application as liberal or moderate. After leaving the meeting, I’m convinced that our denomination remains theologically conservative. Some of you reading this may have preferred a different candidate or may think differently about some of the outcomes at the annual meeting. That’s ok. Reach out in the comments below. We’ll make time to talk.

The local church is the primary change agent for our denomination. Southern Baptist polity is congregational. Denominatioal leaders don’t dictate to the convention churches as in a hierarchical polity. Southern Baptists believe in the autonomy of local congregations. This is a blessing and was evident in the events of the business sessions. While Southern Baptists, like many other denominations are experiencing a decline, hope for change does not rest in denominational entities or leadership. Hope for change rests in the power of God working through local churches. Each local congregation is the body of Christ for its community and to the world. Denominatioal change begins with our local churches.

Here are a few of my favorite moments at the meeting. (1) I was greatly encouraged by the times of special prayer, especially seeing 13k messengers on their knees in prayer. (2) On Monday afternoon 64 missionaries were commissioned to the nations. One missionary left his dream job at NASA to take the gospel to the nations. May his example motivate each of us. (3) During extra sessions on Monday night and Tuesday night, I gathered at First Baptist Nashville for the 9 Marks at Nine Events. Before beginning the event, attenders sang congregational hymns acapella. The boisterous sound of a thousand Baptists singing praise to God was inspirational and worshipful.

In recent posts, we’ve worked through terms related to special revelation: canon, inspiration, and manuscripts. These terms relate to the all important subject of inerrancy.

Inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible in its original autographs is without error. Inerrancy is a logical doctrine that flows from the doctrine of inspiration. If God is the Author of Scripture (albeit through human writers), then the original writings must be without error. God is incapable of flaw or falsity (Hebrews 6:18). If the Scriptures are authored by God, then they are inerrant and infallible (not capable of being wrong).

It is important to recognize, that those who hold the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture do so with regard to the original autographs. Copyists and translators may have made mistakes in translations. One blatant example is the 1631 reprint of the King James Bible where the all important negative not was committed from the sixth of the ten commandments reading “Thou shalt commit adultery,” as opposed to “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” The previous posts on the canon and manuscripts detail that while a copy and translation may not be inerrant, they do clearly affirm the Biblical intentions from the original autographs. We can trust the Bible we do have.

As early as the fourth century, Augustine reflected on the importance of inerrancy.

For it seems to me that most disastrous consequence must follow upon our believing that anything false is found in the sacred books: that is to say, that the men by whom Scripture has been given to us, and committed to writing, did put down in these books anything false… For if you once admit into such a high sanctuary of authority one false statement as made in the way of duty, there will not be left a single sentence of those books which, if appearing to any one difficult in practice or hard to believe, may not by the same fatal rule be explained away, as a statement in which, intentionally, and under a sense of duty, the author declared what was not true.

Augustine, Letter 28 quoted by Robert Letham in Systematic Theology, 191. 

Augustine is absolutely correct. When one comes to the Scripture believing it can be in error, then the interpreter stands in judgment of Scripture. Potential errors will arise in biblical texts where the teaching of the Bible runs contrary to cultural and social norms.

To use a contemporary example of the importance of inerrancy, the Southern Baptist Convention turned back theological liberalism in its seminaries and entities using the dividing line of inerrancy.

Theological liberalism of the 18th century arose as an attempt to explain away the supernaturalism found in Scripture. Authority and truth post-Enlightenment came from what could be ascertained with historical or scientific certainty. The supernatural claims of Scripture (creation, miracles, Jesus’ resurrection), could not be verified by science or history. So many secular philosophers simply denied them outright. The theological liberalism that rose post-Enlightenment attempted to remake Christianity into religious system that could coexist without its supernatural claims. One way that liberalism attempted this move was to use textual, literary, and source criticism to explain away the supernatural claims of Scripture (particularly the Gospels and miracles of Jesus). Theological liberalism could not do this without rejecting the doctrine of inerrancy. This type of theological liberalism spread through Europe and then the United States in seminaries and universities. By the middle of the twentieth century, the six Southern Baptist Seminaries had some faculty members that were teaching from a theologically liberal point of view.

While there are other contrasting perspectives, the baseline for theological liberalism is inerrancy. The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. Denominational leaders recognized the trend toward theological liberalism at the seminaries and moved to secure leadership that held inerrancy. Known as the conservative resurgence, it is one of the only examples of a denomination turning back theological liberalism.

As an aside, the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting will occur next week (June 15-16, 2021 in Nashville, TN). Divisions and debates still exist in SBC life. Some claim that the convention is returning to liberalism. I don’t believe that to be true. By and large, we are theologically conservative and believe the Bible to be inerrant. Our divides and divisions result from interpretive nuances and power struggles. If you are interested in reading more about the current divisions, Trevin Wax has written an insightful piece at the Gospel Coalition blog entitled, “What are Southern Baptists Really Fighting About?”

One of my mentors and heroes, Dr. Kenneth Ridings used to say, “I believe in the Bible from Genesis to maps.” His point was that if the Bible is not God’s inerrant Word, then it can be rejected and reinvented. If the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, and God is the Author, then we must submit to it.

I believe in the doctrine of inerrancy. I have staked my ministry on the authority of God’s Word. If you believe the Bible is God’s inerrant Word, then accepting it and obeying it are not up for debate. While it is appropriate to work through differences of interpretation (we’ll get there in these posts), we do so in a spirit of humility.

If we lose the doctrine of inerrancy, we will eventually lose the importance and simplicity of gospel truths:

Jesus loves me,
Yes I know,
For the Bible tells me so.

If we are not certain that God is the author of Scripture, and we believe the Bible is in error, how can we be certain about the truths we desperately need from Scripture?

Jesus loves me. This I do know. And I know it because God’s inerrant and infallible Word tells me so.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash