Is Unity in the Southern Baptist Convention Possible?

I think Southern Baptists can grow in our unity around the gospel of Christ for the sake of kingdom mission without pretending that our differences don’t matter. The Calvinism Advisory Committee has already beautifully shown that we can talk to each other in a spirit of love and grace, recognizing our serious and substantial disagreements without minimizing them. There are a number of important theological and practical questions that we still need to discuss and debate with urgency and fervor.  And I believe it’s possible to do that while remaining lovingly unified. Satan, however, will do everything in his power to keep that from happening.

In Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devicesone of the most important of the Puritan “diagnostic casebooks,” Thomas Brooks says that Satan plots to divide God’s people “by working them first to be strange, and then to divide, and then to be bitter and jealous, and then to ‘bite and devour one another’ (Gal 5:15)” (198). First, Satan tempts us to see some sort of “strangeness” in other Christians, which creates feelings of separation and difference. Second, outward “division” develops, leading believers into opposing tribes and identities. Third, inward and unchecked “bitterness” leads to deep resentment of one another. Fourth, the bitterness grows until it finally results in biting and devouring one another.

Brooks offers no less than twelve “remedies” against Satan’s divisive scheme, but I’ll only touch on four of them.  If we want to be unified:

1. We need to dwell on God’s graces in fellow believers more than their sins, weaknesses, and doctrinal imperfections (198).

When we differ with brothers and sisters, there is often a temptation to dwell on our differences. If a brother’s remaining sin offends us, Satan tempts us to dwell on the offense more than anything else. But we should discipline ourselves to think on the godly qualities of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.

That’s what Paul tells us to do: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).

We should be thinking about those things in other Christians. We need to dwell on the excellent qualities of Christ’s beloved people. The Christlike qualities of our brothers and sisters are their true nature. The part of them that’s holy is the redeemed part. One day, all of their sins and imperfections will be stripped away, and they will be like Jesus. So, shouldn’t we dwell on the part of them that will last into eternity, even now?

That’s what God does. Brooks says, “Tell me, saints, doesn’t God look more upon His people’s graces than upon their weaknesses” (199)?  Doesn’t that give you comfort and joy? Knowing that God sets His eyes on the part of you that is already changed, however small that may be, is a reason to rejoice! On the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness, God delights in whatever Spirit-wrought holiness is present in one of His beloved children. Since God dwells on our graces, shouldn’t we do the same when looking at other believers who are deeply flawed, just like we are?

2. We should remember and celebrate areas of doctrinal agreement (201).

Though we should never minimize or gloss-over areas of substantial and important difference (such as Calvinism), we can and must rejoice in the things on which we agree.

Southern Baptists have many significant differences, but don’t we agree on the weightiest matters of theology? We agree substantially on the absolute authority and inerrancy of the Bible, the nature of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the need of conversion, Christian ethics, the doctrine of the church, baptism, the necessity of cooperation for evangelism, cultural engagement, and global missions. For the most part, we “differ only in those points that have long been disputable amongst men of greatest piety” (202). This is a reason to celebrate.

3. We need to remember the commands of God that require us to love one another (200).

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (Jn 13:34); “This is my commandment, that you love on another as I have loved you . . . These things I command you so that you will love one another” (Jn 15:12, 17); “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7); “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15); “Let brotherly love continue” (Heb 13:1); “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:10-11).

Our sovereign Lord absolutely requires us to love one another. Love is the mark of a true believer. “By this it is evident who are the children of God and the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn 3:10). That’s because we will love our brothers if we believe His Son and His love for us. “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).

4. Above all else, we must work to be clothed with humility (209).

Thomas Brooks says:

“Humility makes a man peaceable among brethren, fruitful in well-doing, cheerful in suffering, and constant in holy walking (1 Pet 5:5). . . . Humility will make a man bless him that curses him, and pray for those that persecute him. . . . Humility can weep over other men’s weaknesses, and joy and rejoice over their graces. . . . Ah, Christian! Though faith is the champion of grace, and love the nurse of grace, humility is the beautifier of grace; it casts a general glory upon all the graces in the soul. Ah! Did Christians more abound in humility, they would be less bitter, forward, and sour, and they would be more gentle, meek, and sweet in their spirits and practices. . . . Humility will make a man excellent at covering others’ infirmities, and at recording their gracious services, and at delighting in their graces; it makes a man joy in every light that outshines his own, and every wind that blows others good. . . . Were Christians more humble, there would be less fire and more love among them than now is” (210-211).

May the Lord grant unity to Southern Baptists, and may He help us strive for unity in the truth with a spirit of humble love and grace toward one another.

Tom serves as the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church of Clinton, LA. He’s married to Joy, and they have four children: Sophie, Karlie, Rebekah, and David. He received his MDiv and PhD degrees from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary with a major in Church History, emphasis on Baptists, and with a minor in Systematic Theology. Tom is the author of The Doctrine of Justification in the Theologies of Richard Baxter and Benjamin Keach (PhD diss, SBTS). He serves on the board of directors for Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary and is an adjunct professor of historical theology for the Institute of Reformed Baptist Studies.
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