Reflecting on what happened in Greensboro
July 4, 2006
GREENSBORO, N.C. – It is a cliché, but for Southern Baptists it bares truth: The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In a convention where more than 11,000 messengers confirmed that presidential candidate resumes must no longer include pastoring a gazillion-member megachurch, authoring best-selling books and having the star power associated with a nationwide television ministry, they resoundingly affirmed their conservative instincts and strongly suggested they compose a convention that is maturing theologically.
Southern Baptists now have a president most have probably never heard of, unless you have sat under his preaching or attended Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary during the tumultuous 1970s. For the election of Frank Page, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Taylors, S.C., to the convention’s top elected post – on a first ballot – surprised many.
Some people have interpreted Page’s election as a signal that the Cooperative Program (CP) is about to see its best days. Others have suggested it reflects how much younger Southern Baptists are beginning to get involved manifested in the explosion of blogs, which allow more people to publicly express their opinions and accelerates the speed with which information flows. Still others, like the liberal drive-by media which often misinterprets anything Southern Baptists say or do, crowed that Page’s election was a sign of moderation despite the conservative direction the SBC has been heading for the past quarter-century.
Clearly the CP-giving issue played a factor, given so much was made of First Baptist Church, Springdale, Ark., pastored by Ronnie Floyd, who finished second to Page. First Springdale gave a paltry .27 percent to the CP. That compared to Page’s congregation which he led to give 12 percent. It is less clear how much a factor younger messengers played in the Greensboro convention and how much influence blogs exerted. There did not seem to be any more young people at this convention than there were in recent ones. The Young Leaders event barely drew 200 – if that – after some people had boasted as many as 5,000 would show. In addition, the number of messengers at the 2005 annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., was slightly higher than the number attending the Greensboro gathering, further suggesting no large influx of younger messengers. This is an issue, in my opinion, that must continue to be addressed. We need to get more young people involved.
So what does Page’s election mean? I think it is the fulfillment of what I first predicted months ago and then again in a column just prior to the Greensboro meeting. Southern Baptists affirmed that the SBC is a bottom-up parachurch organization, not top-down. The so-called “machine” or “establishment” or the “college of cardinals” or whatever people wish to call the group that backed Floyd, generally consisting of megachurch pastors, past presidents and SBC agency heads, should not equate what happened in Greensboro as a show of disrespect to them. Many of those supporting Floyd are heroes to this convention and to me personally. For example, I would not be your state newspaper editor if it were not for leaders like Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who publicly endorsed Floyd. There was a time when the grassroots conservative movement in the SBC needed the notoriety and star power of the megachurch pastors. Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, Ed Young all fit that bill and were critical players in the strategy employed by conservatives to rescue the convention from liberalism.
It is through the leadership and sacrifice of such men that the SBC was saved from going down the destructive path taken by Mainline Protestantism (for example, last week the Presbyterian Church of the USA voted to allow for gender-sensitive language when describing the Trinity, allowing something other than Father, Son and Holy Spirit). R. Albert Mohler, Jr., in his own right a hero to a new generation of Southern Baptists, captured this thought perfectly in the historic discussion he had with Patterson over the doctrine of election at the SBC Pastors’ Conference immediately prior to the Greensboro convention. While affirming his close friendship with Patterson (I am paraphrasing here), Mohler reminded the overflow crowd that had it not been for the conservative resurgence led by Patterson, Judge Paul Pressler and others, the SBC might now be engaged in a debate over whether or not to ordain homosexuals. The “amens,” accompanied by applause, echoed from every corner of that massive jam-packed ballroom.
Mohler further captured the significance of what was occurring, noting that his discussion with Patterson showed how Southern Baptists were taking theology much more seriously. I suggest that Page’s election and the historic Patterson/Mohler discussion on the doctrine of election is evidence that the conservative resurgence – and yes, even the SBC – has matured. Southern Baptists have now turned their attention from whether the Bible is true or not (we decided it is inerrant and infallible) to doctrinal issues. If this can be accomplished in a Christ-like way, just as Patterson and Mohler conducted themselves in their Greensboro moment, then this could mean that the SBC’s best days are ahead.
As for Page, his election signals both change and how things have really not changed. The star power of the megachurch pastors is no longer a requirement to ensure that the SBC continues on its theologically conservative journey. Do not misunderstand, they are still respected and very much key players in SBC life.
Page meanwhile humbly described himself as the epitome of a grassroots conservative Southern Baptist in his post-election press conference (must reading on pages 14 and 20). This is man who talks the talk and walks the walk.He’s backed up his commitment to the CP with 12 percent giving, something many people now know. However, what many may not know is that he’s backed up his theologically conservative views with action as well.
When Kirby Godsey, the former liberal president of Mercer University in Georgia, wrote his controversial book When We Talk About Jesus Let’s Be Honest, in which he questioned the divinity of Jesus, it was Page and former SBC President James Merritt who confronted Godsey on behalf of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC). The GBC based – in large part – its decision to declare Godsey’s book heresy on the findings of Page and Merritt. Page also led the charge for the GBC to affirm the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.
Page has said he wants to broaden the number of Southern Baptists who serve on the convention’s trustee boards and committees. As long as he carefully picks each one, he should be applauded for the effort. Page knows grassroots, conservative Southern Baptists will make the final decisions. After all, they put him in office.