The Year of the Messenger
Updated: Jun 24, 2021
Nashville is an interesting crossroads of American ideals. Situated on the Cumberland River in the heart of the South, it’s a conundrum of juxtapositions. The steeple of the historic First Baptist Church quietly overlooks one of the most well-known strips of honky-tonks in the world. Across the alley from the Union Gospel Tabernacle is the famous Tootsie’s where Hank Williams played. If you stand on the street corner for a couple of minutes you’ll run into a wanna-be Country star, a Mormon, a group of people drinking and riding a cycle-powered party cart, a millennial bourgeois woman going for a run through downtown, and last week…a lot of Southern Baptists. Over 17,000 actually.
To be fair, there is a high likelihood of running into a Southern Baptist anyday of the week in Nashville. It’s the home of LifeWay and the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention. But this week, there was a convergence of differing corners of the largest Protestant denomination in America. The largest of such gatherings in 25 years.
It’s the largest deliberative body in the world, and it is a unique gathering because any messenger can go to the microphone to make motions or ask questions. It is a body that has gathered every year since 1845 except during WWII and COVID-19 in 2020. It is the ultimate display of our Baptist conviction of congregationalism - the corporate body coming together to pray, worship, and make decisions. I want to take a few moments and discuss some of the details of this momentous annual meeting for the benefit of my congregation and anyone else who may be reading.
I have entitled this analysis, "The Year of the Messenger." The main reason for this is I may not have agreed with everything that was decided this year, but it was certainly a year in which many regular Southern Baptists sought to be heard. In fact, I believe that was a critical reason for the increase in attendance - many Southern Baptists have felt that they have not been heard for quite some time. Our issues as a convention are multi-faceted and complicated, but I want to mention a few thoughts about some of the major issues that were discussed during the annual meeting.
1. The Election for President of the Southern Baptist Convention
I want to be upfront concerning this - I voted for Pastor Mike Stone as president, and he did not win. Rather, Ed Litton was elected president of the SBC for this coming year. Presidents in the SBC have limited authority, but their presence is well-known, and he is usually the person who seeks to represent Southern Baptists as a whole.
I believe this was a major reason many people were driven to come to this year's convention. Mike Stone gained the most votes in the first round, but because there wasn't a winner (the vote was split four ways) the race continued with a runoff between Ed Litton and Mike Stone. Ed Litton won the runoff 53% to 47%. The issues these two men represent have not been resolved.
For one, there were some pretty underhanded moves that sought to discredit Mike Stone and persuade people to vote for Litton. Russell Moore "leaked" letters and audio that called into question Stone's responsiveness to handing sex abuse in the convention. Moore did this on his way out the door as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. He set the house on fire as he was leaving. Stone has stated publicly that he is himself a victim of child sex abuse. Nothing that was leaked showed that Stone didn't want to address issues of sex abuse in our convention. What they sought to do was to hang a black cloud over Stone and his candidacy. Then, when the runoff was announced there were denominational employees who advocated for people to oppose Stone and vote for Litton. Make no mistake, there are thousands of Southern Baptists who will not forget the way Stone was mischaracterized and accused.
We are still divided on issues like Critical Race Theory, women preachers and pastors, and the emphasis we should place on certain social issues. For example, I have been concerned with Litton's stance on the role Critical Race Theory should play or should not play in our seminaries and whether he agrees with some in our convention that churches are in line with the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM 2000) when they have women on staff as associate pastors or when they have women preach in their Sunday morning services. Some issues concerning CRT were addressed at this annual meeting, but many leaders in the SBC are sending mixed signals, as I will mention shortly. The issue of women preaching and pastoring wasn't addressed at all in this convention. To me, this is a clear dividing line that has the possibility of splitting the SBC right down the middle. Ed Litton said that we are going to have to work through this issue. I don't think there is much to work through, however. We need to simply state clearly - if churches allow women preachers and pastors on staff then they are not in line with the BFM 2000. This must be addressed as a convention because the terms of missional cooperation are at stake. We can't simply agree to disagree on this issue.
2. Critical Race Theory
Two years ago, the resolutions committee recommended Resolution 9 embracing Critical Race Theory as an analytical tool. This year, a different resolutions committee recommended a resolution that denounced any ideology that sought to explain the problems of this world as a clash between races. However, the resolution went short of addressing Critical Race Theory by name. An amendment was rejected by the messengers that sought to address CRT directly.
Let's be honest about what this was - this was an attempt at making both sides happy. It worked for some in our convention, but it didn't work for most. Again, the dividing lines are still there, and these issues will resurface at one point in the future. There are those in the convention that are being dishonest when they say - "We don't have people teaching CRT in our convention." My response is - why was Resolution 9 passed two years ago if there are no adherents to CRT in the convention?
We kicked the can down the road, and it will prove to be problematic in future annual meetings.
3. Sex Abuse
This is another area in which I believe many Southern Baptists wanted to be heard. There are issues of pastors and church leaders in our convention who have committed acts of sex abuse that must be dealt with in the court of law. The question is not - should these issues be dealt with. Rather, the question is - how should we best address the issue of sex abuse in our churches.
We are baptists and committed to the autonomy of the local church. We should remember that when deciding any and all issues. We believe this is the structure the Bible has given to us for missional cooperation and fellowship. However, I believe there are some who want to use the issue of sex abuse to dismantle our system on autonomy. The SBC should disfellowship those churches that do not address issues of sex abuse. But they should not give dictates from the Executive Committee on issues that would hinder our cooperation as independent, autonomous churches.
Messengers from cooperating churches tell the Executive Committee what to do, not the other way around. The possibility of mishandling the role of the Credentials Committee is concerning to me, but I think the messengers in future conventions will right any wrongs that they may see come up in the process. I was encouraged to see messengers speak up about how the Executive Committee was handling its own investigations about sex abuse within their institution. I may not agree with some of the intent behind it, but it is a good thing that the Executive Committee was held accountable by the convention as a whole.
4. Transparency with NAMB
Regardless where you land with the issue, the North American Mission Board has a trust problem. Many in the convention do not trust the leadership of our home mission agency. They are second in line to receiving the most funds out of any other SBC institution, and many people have problems with them. That's not good for the future of the convention and missional cooperation.
There have been accusations of very outlandish salaries, but NAMB will not supply the breakdown of salaries to the convention as a whole. NAMB has been criticized for spending the vast majority of its funds on their SEND City strategy while ripping apart their cooperative agreements with state mission boards. In fact, the relationship between NAMB and many of our state conventions is falling apart. There is no other way to say that, and that is a big problem. Apparently, NAMB also has been buying up very expensive property for missionaries to live in if they move to a SEND City. At the same time they are ending partnerships with state conventions they are building up the largest cash reserves in the institutions history.
Kevin Ezell attempted to answer questions concerning some of these things at the annual meeting, but the answers were just not satisfactory. Then there's the issue of NAMB being sued by a former state executive that said NAMB interfered with his ministry and sought to have him removed. NAMB's response to this has been nothing but problematic, especially in the brief they have filled with the Supreme Court that framed the relationship between NAMB and state conventions as a hierarchy. This is disingenuous at best. Another issue that has been kicked down the road.
There are some things that I was glad to see happen in this annual meeting. I was glad to see so many brothers and sisters gathered for worship, prayer and missional cooperation. I was glad to see so many people eager to discuss issues and let people know where they feel convicted about certain things. I was encouraged as we took special times of prayer and as we sent out dozens of new missionaries all over the world for the glory of God. That is the heart of our gathering and cooperation. Also, I believe elitism in the SBC was rejected as a whole. Messengers from the farthest corners of our network were heard - the new president of the pastor's conference is a pastor of a church with less that 100 people. That's a good thing in a convention that values every cooperating church, no matter the size.
But many other issues were simply not dealt with adequately. I am praying for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. I am not sure what that future looks like, but I pray that it will be a thriving example of Biblical fidelity and faithfulness to the Gospel in the midst of dark times as a nation.