SBC annual meeting promises to be spirited
June 6, 2006
Like most of the denominational press and the ubiquitous inquisitors of the blogosphere, I have been scrambling to determine whether the Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) annual meeting June 13-14 in Greensboro, N.C., will be like a loving family gathering or a series of drive-by shootings. I have faith that everyone will check their guns at the door. (Before you hit the “send” button on that letter to the editor, please realize I’m just kidding!)
Foremost in many a Southern Baptist mind is who will be the next president of America’s largest evangelical denomination? I know, politics is distasteful, but we’re Southern Baptists and this is the way we do business. Our democratic way is not perfect, but it affords everyone the opportunity to be heard.
We know there will be one candidate for SBC president, Ronnie Floyd, the charismatic super-preacher who pastors the mammoth First Baptist Church of Springdale, Ark. Yet for all his flair in the pulpit and as a leader, Floyd has raised the ire of those who would champion the SBC’s Cooperative Program (CP). First Springdale in 2005 gave a paltry .27 percent of its gazillion-dollar budget to the CP. It could not have come at a worse time. Earlier this year an ad hoc committee of state executive directors undertook a study of the CP and determined that support is declining. They called on churches to up their CP giving, suggesting that 10 percent be the goal and a standard for anyone serving on denominational boards and offices.
Floyd supporters have been quick to defend First Springdale, pointing out how the church gives millions of dollars to missions, while reminding critics they risk violating a sacred Southern Baptist tenet: autonomy of the local church. After all, who are you or me to question what God would have any Southern Baptist congregation do? They also remind us that CP giving has never been an issue in a presidential race and that we need not agree on everything in order to cooperate in worldwide ministry.
Now here is where this year’s annual meeting starts getting complicated.
Enter Frank Page, the respected pastor of First Baptist Church, Taylors, S.C., and a native son to Greensboro. The articulate Page is the epitome of a CP supporter. The congregation of about 2,000 that he shepherds gives 12 percent to the CP, making him a champion among those who see CP as the most important thing that keeps Southern Baptists together. It is argued that the CP is the machine that powers the greatest foreign missionary force assembled since Pentecost and allows even the smallest of churches to actively support The Great Commission in a way that would otherwise be impossible. This will be trumpeted in Greensboro.
While Floyd is criticized for his church’s dismal support of the CP, Page has been an outspoken critic of Calvinists, which comprise a significant constituency in the SBC. Page also raised eyebrows by granting a recent interview to the theologically moderate Associated Baptist Press, which is funded by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). See the stories on page 10 and 11 for more on the views of Floyd and Page.
Added to all of this is the possibility of a third or perhaps even a fourth candidate. Lots of names have been floated among Southern Baptists interested in such things and their names may become known after this column has gone to press. Adding to the pre-meeting angst is the possibility of at least one candidate being nominated at the last minute from the convention floor.
In addition to the contested presidential election, messengers will be asked to make decisions on a variety of motions and resolutions. The recent controversies at the International Mission Board (IMB) and the North American Mission Board (NAMB) are sure to trigger considerable debate. Is it okay for IMB staff or missionaries to privately pray in tongues? Is such a thing allowable in view of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000? If not, are we narrowing the parameters of cooperation in SBC life so qualified conservatives are excluded from serving on SBC boards and as officers?
Then there’s the bungled Burleson controversy. Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church, Enid, Okla., a two-time president of the Oklahoma Baptist Convention, embattled IMB trustee and the most popular figure among SBC bloggers, has become a martyr of sorts for those in the denomination who feel disenfranchised. The IMB board originally recommended that Burleson be dismissed (something only messengers to Greensboro could do by vote) for expressing his opinion about IMB issues on his Internet blog site, particularly over what he perceived as the narrowing of parameters for anyone wanting to participate in SBC life. The board action created such an outrage – especially among younger pastors, bloggers and a horde of rank-and-file – that the trustees reversed their decision.
The fire and the fury have yet to subside on this matter. It will be addressed directly in Greensboro (rumors persist that a motion may be made to dismiss the entire IMB trustee board – except for Burleson) or indirectly through what some see as parallel issues: accountability for SBC agency leaders and trustee boards, and the freedom to express dissent without being marginalized. The days of a trustee board being nothing but cheerleaders may be kaput.
Meanwhile, the smoke has not cleared from the NAMB fiasco that prompted the resignation of President Robert Reccord and several lieutenants. It has triggered an internal investigation that will likely take several months before the blue-ribbon panel from NAMB’s board undertaking the probe presents its report.
Could it be time for Southern Baptists to begin exploring the possibility of merging NAMB and the IMB under one roof? Some people think it makes a lot of sense. Everyone agrees it needs thorough study, open debate and much prayer before undertaking such a massive, strategic project.
One of the more interesting side stories to the NAMB saga is how it came to light. The Christian Index, the official newspaper of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC), broke the news about alleged improprieties. The staff was immediately excoriated in some circles for reporting such a thing. There is an element in Southern Baptist life that would prefer the denominational press (led by the state newspapers) ignore such matters. The work of The Christian Index and the venom spewed at it is an important chapter in this sad story. Granted, I did not – and generally do not – agree with the use of anonymous sources, but there are real questions as to whether the information Southern Baptists now know would have become known without the reporting by The Christian Index. I think Southern Baptists owe The Christian Index staff and Editor Gerald Harris a big “thank you” for the service they provided. The GBC Executive Board is to be commended as well for backing The Christian Index staff, which kept the board abreast of their work prior to their findings being published. The NAMB trustees should be thanked as well for taking decisive action, although an unanswered question begs for an answer: Why did it take The Christian Index to bring the matter to their attention?
The NAMB/Christian Index story may prompt a healthy debate within state conventions over what affiliated churches want their state newspaper to be. Southern Baptists addressed this issue in the 1960s and came to the conclusion that it wanted its newspapers to tell them the whole truth and in a more journalistic way. As a result of declining readership, many newspapers shifted from having pastors as their editors to experienced journalists. Of course Southern Baptists did not realize at the time that those experienced journalists were products of liberal college classrooms and it did not take long before the liberal editors found themselves at odds with most of the SBC, an overwhelmingly conservative denomination. It is only now that experienced journalists – who are conservative like yours truly – are filling editors’ chairs in several state convention newspapers. This most recent development, along with the debate over accountability throughout SBC life, may serve as a catalyst for renewed discussions about our state newspapers. A robust debate over this matter would be most welcomed.
Added to the bevy of expected motions and resolutions that deal with emotionally charged issues –like “an exit strategy from public schools” – and this annual meeting has all the trappings of being as contentious as it could be productively historic. I also believe this annual meeting may be remembered as one where the local church re-established its preeminence and influence in SBC life, reminding us all that the SBC is a “bottom-up” parachurch organization, not one that is “top-down” and that the time is passing for a handful of megachurches to “run” the convention.
It seems to me that within the conservative SBC ranks (there are no longer any moderates of influence) that two familiar views seem to have bubbled to the surface. I characterize Southern Baptists who hold one of the views as “The Big Tenters.” I call the other, “The Doctrinal Purists.” Both groups are theologically conservative, yet diverse on some theological issues. For example, both have Calvinists in their camps as well as inerrantists. They both have highly respected and immensely influential leaders.
“The Big Tenters” want a “big tent” SBC, one that involves more Southern Baptists, particularly ones who have not had the opportunity to serve in SBC life. They perceive a narrowing of parameters that exclude fellow conservatives from serving and they see themselves as promoters of the CP. They feel doctrinal integrity can – and should — be maintained, but should not be abused to the point that legalistic fundamentalism rears its ugly head.
“The Doctrinal Purists” believe theology trumps methodology, though not to the point of legalistic fundamentalism. They despise liberalism and see it as a constant threat. They warn making the “tent” too big will lead the SBC back down a path from which it was just rescued. They are just as missions-minded as “The Big Tenters,” but would guard the entrance of the “big tent” with resolve and according to Scripture.
In my opinion, these two views have always existed in Southern Baptist life. On one hand you have Southern Baptists who want as many as possible to participate in world evangelization. The other is dedicated to ensuring that whatever Southern Baptists do, it is according to the Bible and to the glory of God – and if that means “purging the rolls” from time to time, then so be it. Some would even say “The Big Tenters” represent God’s “grace,” while “The Doctrinal Purists” represent God’s “truth.” The key is that earlier generations of Southern Baptists have always maintained a healthy balance between the two. Greensboro may shed light on whether this generation can do the same.
As Greensboro approaches and difficult issues are addressed, let us all pray that we seek God’s wisdom and that it not become a matter of “grace vs. truth,” but rather “grace and truth” to the glory of God and our Lord Jesus Christ.