Reflections on the 2014 Southern Baptist Convention

I will add my voice to others who have positively evaluated the 2014 SBC that met last week in Baltimore. The spirit of the meeting was warm and congenial. There seems to be a widespread implicit agreement that if we are going to live together productively within the network of churches that comprise the SBC then we will need to take positive steps to major on the core beliefs that we have in common even as we maintain our distinctive convictions with humility and genuine love. I was not alone in sensing a genuine desire for unity in the midst of acceptable, bordered diversity.

One of the highlights for me was the many conversations I had with fellow SBC pastors with whom I have shared private and sometimes public differences through the years. Without exception each of these conversations was cordial and many of them were very encouraging. Those conversations, when coupled with the spirit of the business deliberations in the convention hall, were very confirming of hopes that I and others have entertained over the last several years as Calvinism has become an increasingly controversial and divisive issue in the the SBC. I believe that “Cooperative Calvinists” and “Cooperative non-Calvinists” are indeed coming together to help set a proper tone for the kinds of inevitable conversations that a convention of free churches must have. With the decrease of acrimony mutual understanding and trust are given opportunity to grow. Those are essential ingredients of any cooperative effort to make disciples of all nations. What I wrote about the SBC in 2008 I believe even more strongly now: “the future belongs to the bridge-builders, not the party-builders.”

Fred Luter once again moderated the proceedings with grace and good humor. The President of the SBC may not wield much executive power when it comes to convention polity, but he is able to influence the spirit of an annual meeting. Pastor Luter once again modeled humility and good will in his deliberations and rulings and that spirit seemed to win the day throughout the two days of meetings.

For the first time Founders Ministries was allowed to have a booth in the Exhibit Hall. We exercised this option instead of hosting a breakfast as we have done for the last many years. In addition to meeting many new friends and renewing fellowship with old ones, we were able to give away nearly 2000 copies of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention (which is available at a discounted price in our Founders Bookstore) to those who came by the booth. The give-away provided for many opportunities for extended conversations with brothers and sisters of various doctrinal convictions.

One scheduled session that many were anticipating before the convention and then talking about afterward was the report by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President, Paige Patterson. Dr. Patterson expressed apologies to the convention, his trustees and faculty for the awkward situation brought about by his admission of a Muslim man to the PhD program at the seminary. He then gave a lengthy, moving explanation of his reasons for doing so. In short, his evangelistic passion trumped his administrative wisdom. I got the impression that Dr. Patterson was trying to explain what motivated him to set aside seminary policy and admit a Muslim as a student. And I, for one, could not fault his motives. The potential problems that his decision has created, however, remain despite his best intentions. It was, therefore, encouraging to hear Steve James, the chairman of Southwestern’s Board of Trustees, stand at the end of Patterson’s report to assure Southern Baptists that their concerns have been heard and this matter will be dealt with when the board meets in its fall session.

The Southern Baptist Convention is an easy target for anyone with a knack for finding fault with religious institutions in this fallen world. We are certainly not without our blemishes and faults. But I am convinced that, despite the many areas that could be cited as in need of spiritual upgrade, we are moving in the right direction and are poised to become even more spiritually healthy in the years to come.