Reflections on the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention, Part 2

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On Monday, I published the first half of my reflections on the Houston Convention. This is my second and final post on this topic.

4. The ERLC Transition. One of the most important happenings at the Convention this year was the leadership transition at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Richard Land has led that ministry for a quarter-century. Over those years, Land became a key leader among the so-called Religious Right, taking a clear stand on such matters as the sanctity of human life and the importance of biblical/traditional views on sexuality and marriage. He was also a leading proponent of an “accommodationist” understanding of church-state separation. I would argue that Richard Land was the public face of Southern Baptists, particularly to non-religious people who only know us through the media. Of course, Land retired a few weeks ago and Russ Moore of Southern Seminary became the new president of ERLC.

There is little doubt that Russ Moore and Richard Land have far more in common than they do different. In fact, I would suspect that the left-wing journalists who seem elated at Land’s retirement and Moore’s appointment will become less enamored with Moore once they find out that he, too, is pro-life and affirms biblical sexuality and traditional marriage. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Moore has less of an “edge” than Land. Moore is also a champion of several issues that younger Southern Baptists identify with such as adoption and orphan care and combating human sex trafficking. As an added bonus, Moore is one of the best preachers in the SBC. My students were more excited about hearing Moore’s vision for ERLC than they were anything else at the Annual Meeting besides Danny Akin’s Convention sermon.

5. The Resolutions. Messengers passed several interesting resolutions at the Houston Convention. You can read them all at the SBC website. Many of them have attracted attention, and understandably so. For the purposes of this post, I will only mention two resolutions. First, our resolution related to the Boy Scouts, which has garnered the most attention from the press, strikes a good balance by criticizing the BSA’s new membership policy, but without calling for a universal exodus from the Scouts. Though I’ve been vocal in my opposition to the Boy Scouts’ new policy, I believe it would be premature to urge all Southern Baptist churches to pull back from sponsoring Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops.

Second, the resolution recognizing the 125th anniversary of Woman’s Missionary Union, though unmentioned in the press, is noteworthy. No organization has done more to raise missions awareness among Southern Baptist churches than the WMU. We should be thankful for the WMU and their contribution to our Great Commission efforts over the years. Thank you, ladies, for all that you do.

6. The Calvinism Discussion. There was a tremendous spirit of unity in Houston among Southern Baptists with varying views of the “doctrines of grace.” The Executive Committee hosted well-attended panel discussion with members of the Calvinism Advisory Committee on Monday. By all accounts, the Committee’s published statement has been well-received by almost everyone. The comments made from the Convention platform were uniformly gracious and helpful. (This has not always been the case at previous Conventions.) We should be grateful to EC president Frank Page for his statesmanlike leadership in this discussion and to David Dockery and the rest of the Calvinism Advisory Committee for their willingness to lead by example on this issue.

Perhaps more remarkable, the “chatter” about Calvinism in the Convention hall, the exhibit booths, and in various meetings was generally very encouraging. Virtually everyone seems eager to move forward in a spirit of Great Commission cooperation. The only unfortunate moment was the surreal Baptist 21 interview with Louisiana College president Joe Aguillard. By and large, however, it seems that most engaged Southern Baptists agree with my argument that Calvinism is, and should remain, a tertiary matter in the wider denomination. Join me in praying that this sense of unity and good will becomes more pervasive among all of our state conventions as well.

7. SEBTS Students. For the second year, I taught the Southern Baptist Convention course for Southeastern Seminary. Over thirty SEBTS students enrolled in the course and attended the Convention; for almost all of them, it was their first SBC Annual Meeting. They had the chance to hear from new ERLC president Russ Moore on Tuesday night and meet with IMB vice president Clyde Meador on Wednesday afternoon. Many of the students told me they enjoyed being at the Convention, learning more about our various ministries and emphases, and meeting other Southern Baptists from hither and yon. They are excited to be Southern Baptists. And if they are our future, then I’m even more excited than they are to be a part of the people of God called Southern Baptist.

What to Expect at the Houston Convention

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Next week, the Southern Baptist Convention will gather for its annual meeting in Houston. We will conduct business, hear reports from our various ministries, adopt resolutions about various topics, and listen to sermons and “preachy addresses” from some of the better-known preachers among us. I’m particularly excited about that last point, since my friend and boss, Danny Akin, is preaching the Convention sermon this year. We’ll also spend time hanging out with friends that we rarely see outside of the Annual Meeting. (Don’t let anyone fool you–this is the highlight for almost everyone in attendance.) I this post, I want to offer my thoughts about what to expect at the Houston Convention.

First, there is Calvinism. Over the past year, much of the chatter in the SBC has focused on this issue, especially on the internet. (This is all some blogs seem to talk about.) SBC president Fred Luter has offered his thoughts on the debate. Other SBC leaders chimed in from time to time, including Dr. Akin. Frank Page, president and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee, formed an advisory committee to help him think about how Southern Baptists on all sides of the Calvinism discussion can better cooperate together to advance the gospel. Late last week, the committee released their report, titled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.”

Thus far, it seems that most of the responses to the Calvinism report have been positive. For what it’s worth, I was highly encouraged by the balance, clarity, and charity of the document. You can expect Dr. Page to address Calvinism in his Executive Committee report. It could also come up at other points in the program such as resolutions, motions, sermons, or the Q&A following ministry reports. I would expect Calvinism to be directly addressed by several SBC leaders, in the hopes that it doesn’t have to come up as often in future Convention meetings. Most folks seem ready to move on.

Second, there is the transition at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Richard Land retired this past week after a quarter century of leading this ministry and its predecessor, the Christian Life Commission. In the age of 24-hour network news, Dr. Land has been the public face of the SBC for most Americans. His successor is Russ Moore, former vice president and academic dean at Southern Seminary. I expect some sort of formal passing of the baton at the SBC as Southern Baptists honor Dr. Land for his leadership and perhaps hear some initial thoughts from Dr. Moore as he begins to carve out his vision for cultural engagement and advocacy of religious liberty. If you haven’t heard, Dr. Land is now president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC.

Third, there is the re-election of Dr. Luter as Convention president. As most readers know, last year Dr. Luter became the first African American and only the second ethnic minority to be elected as SBC president. He will almost certainly not be opposed as he runs for the traditional second term as president. You don’t mess with history. There will likely already be some chatter in the Convention hallways and at the restaurants about who will run for the Convention presidency in Baltimore in 2014. Feel free to offer your suggestions for the next president in the comments.

Fourth, there are the cultural issues. I’m anticipating Southern Baptists will discuss and, in some cases, directly address several cultural issues via reports and resolutions. One issue that looms large is homosexual marriage, arguably the most hotly debated “social issue” in America right now. Another perennial topic is abortion, which will likely be addressed in light of the Gosnell trial. The potential threat posed by new healthcare laws to religious liberty will almost certainly come up. So will the revised membership policy recently adopted by the Boy Scouts of America, a topic I’ve addressed elsewhere. Other possible topics include immigration reform, the morality of unmanned drone strikes, and the way Southern Baptists and other evangelicals should think of Mormonism.

Fifth, there is the Cooperative Program (CP) and the larger question of missions giving. It is no secret that Cooperative Program giving is in the midst of a steady decline. According to recent reports, the average church now designates 5.9% to the CP. Last year, Frank Page issued a “1% Challenge,” calling upon local churches to increase their giving by one percentage point in their 2013 budgets. The early reports seem positive, but most folks I talk to are still nervous about the future of the Cooperative Program. Southern Baptist entities and state conventions are scrambling to re-educate uninformed Southern Baptists about the CP while assuring others who are concerned about the Cooperative Program that it remains the best strategy for funding our denominational ministries.

The future of the Cooperative Program was, of course, a hotly contested issue within the larger discussion of the Great Commission Resurgence, a movement that some interpreted as being anti-CP or at least tepid toward the Cooperative Program. It would be fair to say that Southern Baptists are still divided about the GCR, especially those in certain state conventions. I expect there to be some candid, but potentially hopeful discussion of the present state and future prospects of the CP at this year’s Annual Meeting. You can read my thoughts on CP giving in a post titled “Is the Cooperative Program Worthy of Sacrifice?” I co-authored that essay with my friend Micah Fries.

Finally, there is the name debate. Last year, Southern Baptists voted by about 53% to approve “Great Commission Baptists” as an alternate designation for the SBC. The idea was that churches, especially those outside of the Deep South and Southwest, could distance themselves from the name Southern Baptist if that name is deemed a hindrance to outreach. It would be difficult for me to exaggerate my own ambivalence about this particular debate. (Just being honest.) Apparently, lots of other folks are also ambivalent, since thus far we haven’t witnessed mass numbers of  churches rushing to change their name to Great Commission Baptists. However, for some folks, this is a REALLY BIG DEAL, so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is an attempt by some messengers to reverse last year’s vote.

If you are at the SBC Annual Meeting, drop by the Southeastern Seminary booth to learn more about how SEBTS is equipping students to serve our churches and fulfill the Great Commission. I will be at the booth off and on throughout the day on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday; I hope to see some of you there. Also, there is still time to sign up for the SEBTS Alumni & Friends Luncheon at the SBC on Wednesday. Our speakers at this year’s luncheon include our own Dr. Akin and Johnny Hunt, a distinguished SEBTS alum and past president of the SBC.

A Statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee

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Next week, SBC Life will publish the official statement from the Calvinism Advisory Committee that was established last summer by Dr. Frank Page. We have made it available for you here at Between the Times. It is also available at the SBC Life website. The full document is titled “Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension.” You may download a copy of it by clicking on the link below.

Truth, Trust, and Testimony in a Time of Tension

It is our prayer that Southern Baptists will read this statement, resonate with its clarity and charity, and take to heart its recommendations. Please join us in praying for unity among us as we labor together to advance the Great Commission among the unreached and underserved peoples of the earth.