Reflections on the 2012 SBC in NOLA

The 2012 Southern Baptist Convention that ended yesterday was a bit of a whirlwind for me. I arrived with little sleep in the bank and left with even less. All in all, I am very encouraged by the spirit of the meeting and what it hopefully signals about the future of the SBC. It is great to have elected our first African-American president, Fred Luter. It was also great to have some good (and no embarrassing) resolutions passed. As always, it was great to be with friends: renewing personal fellowship with old ones,  meeting new ones and shaking hands with here-to-fore virtual ones.

Following are more specific thoughts about several aspects of the convention, in no particular order.

  • The election of Fred Luter, obviously, was historic. Due to parliamentary procedures, however, technically, the convention secretary cast the only vote for Pastor Luter because he ran unopposed for the office. President Bryant Wright, who led the sessions with grace and humility, did allow all the messengers to stand in a show of support. It was a touching moment for me personally as I could not help but reflect on the significances of this event in light of the racial bigotry and violence that marred much of my youth
  • The resolutions committee did a fine job, from what I could tell, in bringing recommendations to the convention that were pertinent and reflective of most of the concerns of those who submitted them. As is true every year, not every resolution made it out of committee and some (maybe all) were revised to be made better. That was most notably true of the so-called “sinner’s prayer” resolution. Last week Eric Hankins published the resolution by that name that he submitted to the committee. Many people, including me, had real problems with some of his wording. Wisely, the committee took his concerns, completely rewrote it in language that more consistently reflects biblical teaching on conversion and evangelism. The resolution was adopted by vote of approximately 80%-20%. The debate that surrounded it was healthy. I strongly agreed and sympathized with those pastors, especially Jared Moore, who spoke against it on the grounds of all of the false conversions that they must deal with in typical churches and communities where there has been a longstanding evangelical witness. “I prayed the prayer” or “I walked the aisle” are common responses to questions about one’s relationship to Christ in such settings. Superficial evangelism is one of the greatest blights on our churches today and I fear has sent untold millions of people to hell with a “decision card” in their pockets. However, the resolution that was adopted recognizes that and plainly states in the third “resolved” that “a ‘sinner’s prayer’ is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel (Matthew 6:7; 15:7-9).” This was so good that one brother who is from a strongly confessional church and who came prepared to speak against the Hankin’s resolution went to a mic and spoke for the one that came out of committee. Again, all of the resolutions that were adopted are a testimony to the wisdom of the resolutions committee under the leadership of chairman Jimmy Scroggins and those who served with him.
  • The vote on the descriptor, “Great Commission Baptists,” was approved. Micah Fries gave a well-reasoned apologetic for this from the floor. I personally had no strong feelings about this motion. Autonomous churches will describe themselves in whatever ways they see fit. But if this helps church planters and churches outside the southern United States, then I’m grateful it passed.
  • The election of Dave Miller as 2nd VP may have been the most significant vote of the whole convention (given that only the secretary technically got to vote for Luter). Neo-traditionalists had long-ago announced that Eric Hankins would be nominated for this position. My guess is that he would have been elected in a landslide or perhaps even without opposition had he not written and promoted the “Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” This document has proved to be divisive at a time when many, perhaps most, Southern Baptists want to unite around the gospel. A few days before the convention, Alan Cross announced that he would nominate Dave Miller as an alternate candidate for 2nd VP. After a first ballot did not result in any of the 3 candidates receiving 50% of the vote, the runoff resulted in Miller defeating Hankins with 59.5% of the vote. I do not think this was a personal slam against Eric Hankins. Although I do not know him, everyone I know who does know him speaks highly of him. I think this vote is a clear indication that Southern Baptists are sick and tired of the polarizing antics of those among us who seem unwilling to unite around the gospel and things we have in common rather than trying to marginalize those with whom we do not agree on every point. If I am correct, then this vote is a harbinger of better days ahead for the SBC.
  • The sermons by Bryant Wright and David Uth were both biblical and made some very searching points of application. Neither of them ignored the “elephant in the room” but addressed the tensions between Cavinists and neo-traditionalists sparked by the latter’s release of the above-mentioned statement. I was especially rebuked by this line from Wright: “To our Calvinist friends, a bit of humility would be most welcome.” That is a good and timely word. Spiritual pride is always lurking at the door of our hearts and, if left unmortified, will ruin any good we may seek to accomplish. I need to be constantly reminded of this.
  •  Frank Page, president of the Executive Committee, also addressed the theological tension in the convention. I found myself agreeing with his assessment of how this tension is being unhelpfully fueled. He announced his intention to assemble a group of advisers to help chart a path forward in light of the tensions that exist. I hope that it is successful.
  • The Founders Breakfast was outstanding. Tom Nettles presented his “chiastic” view of Southern Baptist history, showing that throughout our history our focus has followed this pattern: soteriology—>inspiration of Scripture—>denominational identity—>denominational identity—>inspiration of Scripture—>soteriology (where we are currently). I think he has analyzed the situation well and can already see how we will need to reexamine our denominational identity in the not-too-distant future. Nettles also addressed some of the current debate over soteriology with incisive biblical, theological and historical analysis. The audio of his talk will be available soon on the Founders website. 
  • Private conversations with pastors and denominational servants are always enlightening and often encouraging. This year was no exception. 
    • I was delighted to make new friends and meet new brothers who are working to be faithful in the trenches of pastoral ministry. It was gratifying to hear from many who have been encouraged in some way by this blog or other resources produced by Founders. 
    • I was particularly encouraged by a conversation with a friend with whom I’ve disagreed for years over aspects of soteriology. He wanted to warn me about a man on his “side of the aisle” who is intent on getting rid of all the Calvinists in the SBC. I was humbled and tremendousl
      y encouraged that he would take the time and initiative speak to me so plainly. He and I do not agree on some important things. But we do agree on the most important things and we agree that those who entertain extreme agendas for the SBC should not be allowed to execute them without strong resistance. I will have more to say about this in a future post about how I have formulated my own assessment of the current SBC.
    •  I was also mildly amused to discover that much of the angst that both my non-Calvinist and Calvinist friends have about the SBC stems from what I think is a lack of appreciation for Baptist polity. The Southern Baptist Convention can be a wonderful organization through which autonomous Baptist churches can find ways to cooperate in missions, evangelism, ministry and education. But the SBC is not a church. Consequently, if you have problems with some of your gifts going to plant churches that are not as fully confessional as yours, or if you have problems with some of your gifts going to plant churches that are more fully confessional than yours, then the SBC probably isn’t for you. Rather than hanging around and sniping at those of us who are willing to link arms as we stand on the gospel (without giving up our convictions, which may differ at points, of how that gospel works), I would kindly suggest that the naysayers try to find bodies of fellowship that more narrowly suit their tastes. 
  • I was even more amused by one report from the platform that appeared to be highly scripted to appear spontaneous. I felt like I was watching a B movie. The information communicated was good. The mechanism chosen to communicate it was almost entertaining. 
  • The Baptist 21 luncheon and panel discussion was very good. Jonathan Akin and the B21 team consistently do good work. Jonathan moderated the discussion between, Paige Patterson, Al Mohler, Fred Luter, JD Greear, David Platt and Danny Akin. He didn’t pitch many softballs to them and brought up the Calvinist-anti-Calvinist tensions without apology. Some of the comments by the participants were very encouraging (Greear said that he tells new members that Calvinism will not become an issue for him until it becomes an issue for them–wise words) and some were not so much. But the conversation was cordial and respectful, as it should be among brothers in Christ. 

There are many other positive things that I experienced this week in New Orleans, from fellowship to being updated on the work of the gospel around the world. And there were several things that I wanted to do but simply could not, such as attend the 9Marks sessions at night, the NAMB luncheon and report and the final sessions of the convention. I have heard wonderfully encouraging reports from all of those events, however. Yes, there were some less-than-stellar moments, as well. Parliamentarian Barry McCarty earned his pay this week and during one report I felt like I was watching community theater. But those things do not detract from the overall goodwill and positive outlook on the future that permeated the convention.

If you prayed for the SBC meeting, thank you. If you have any interest in the future of the SBC, please do pray for Fred Luter and others who are giving leadership to the convention and its various entities. These are challenging and exciting days.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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