I won’t lie to you. It’s a rough time to be a Southern Baptist. It started a few years ago when a church member asked me the question in the title. He had heard a radio show that said the SBC was becoming “liberal,” based on some statements made by the President of the SBC, JD Grear, and the head of SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore. In the coming weeks, I heard similar questions from two other church members (who apparently listened to the same radio show). I answered them all by pointing out that the radio host had taken some quotes out of context and made some assumptions that weren’t true. And, even if these men had said things which were unbiblical–which they hadn’t–the way the SBC is structured means they have no authority over me or our church (more on that later).
This past November, the presidents of the six SBC seminaries released a statement condemning Critical Race Theory (CRT) as “incompatible with the Gospel.” In response, several prominent black pastors announced they were pulling their churches out of the SBC. Interestingly, none of them endorsed CRT, an academic theory that (whatever else you think of it) has dubious origins. Ralph West, pastor of Church Without Walls in Houston, explained his decision this way: “Instead of reaching out to fellow brothers and sisters who have lived with the reality of racism in formulating their view, these six men took it upon themselves to dictate how we should think about racism.” West called the decision “Tone deaf.” In the aftermath, plenty of talking heads and blog writers piled on, reminding the world that the SBC started out as a pro-slavery denomination (unfortunately, that part is true), and using these recent events to allege that we had never really left those hateful roots behind. As a lifelong Southern Baptist, I felt a bit like a ping-pong ball. My denomination was being called liberal by some and racist by others.
In between those two moments, there was an even more heartbreaking event. In February of 2019, the Houston Chronicle released a series of three articles entitled Abuse of Faith, which detailed 380 cases of sexual abuse in SBC churches over the past 20 years. Many of the instances were tragic cases of churches simply being too trusting, unknowingly allowing predators to volunteer in children or youth ministries because they hadn’t set up adequate screening processes. Other groups that work with children, such as the Boy Scouts, are facing a similar reckoning. But some of the cases in the Chronicle’s series were even darker: Ministers who abused young women or men, then simply moved to another church, escaping any consequences while continuing to serve as spiritual leaders. It was a truly heartbreaking read.
In the past month, we’ve had two more very different bombshells. The first came March 9, when Bible teacher Beth Moore told Religion News Service that she is “no longer a Southern Baptist.” Moore grew up in an SBC church in Arkansas, rose to prominence at Houston’s First Baptist, and has long supported historic Baptist doctrine and celebrated SBC mission efforts. But, as she explained, “I am still a Baptist, but I can no longer identify with Southern Baptists. I love so many Southern Baptist people, so many Southern Baptist churches, but I don’t identify with some of the things in our heritage that haven’t remained in the past.” She hasn’t offered any other details about her decision, so I won’t speculate as to her exact reasons. I just know I’m sad that a woman whose writing and speaking ministry has drawn millions of women (and–I suspect–plenty of men, too) closer to Christ no longer feels welcome in my denomination.
And then two weeks ago came the news that a young man in Atlanta had shot and killed 8 people at three different massage parlors. Not long afterward, we found out that this man was an active member of an SBC Church, whose video testimony was on the church’s website until the shooting. Authorities said the man told them he had been in treatment for sex addiction, and that he shot those women “to eliminate temptation.” This has lead numerous people to blame evangelical “purity culture” for these awful events.
So, back to the question at hand. Are we leaving the SBC? Absolutely not. I say that for a number of reasons. First, because this denomination is bigger than one person. For instance, most people don’t seem to understand that the president of the Southern Baptist Convention is nothing like the Pope, or even bishops in other denominations. The SBC president serves a term of two years, during which time his main functions are to chair meetings, sit for media interviews, and appoint people to the boards of various seminaries, hospitals and missions agencies. He has no authority over me or my church; therefore his public statements are completely his own. If the day comes when an SBC official–the president, or someone whose position is more impactful, such as the leader of a seminary or missions board–says something that amounts to rank heresy, I will speak out against it. But even if that happens, it won’t change the mission, preaching and purpose of First Baptist, Conroe. We are truly autonomous. Our membership in the SBC simply means that we are able to cooperate with other churches in ministry. Together with other congregations, we can do more than we could separately.
Second, because of what that cooperation produces. This denomination is missionaries around the globe doing God’s work in difficult places; it’s schools training up the next generation of leaders; it’s church planters starting new work in cities where there is little Gospel witness; it’s men and women serving people in need in a thousand ways in the name of Jesus, and if I pull out my support of the SBC, I am failing to support them.
Third, because when the Church is struggling, the proper response is NOT to leave. I have plenty of criticisms of the Southern Baptist Convention, but I would rather stay and work for change than try to find greener pastures. I don’t mean that as a criticism of Beth Moore, Ralph West, or anyone else who has left the SBC. I cannot judge them without knowing all the ideas, experiences and emotions that went into their decisions. I just know what I will do. And I will stay. Not only that, I am thrilled to stay and to serve God alongside people who trust in Jesus alone for salvation, who have the Bible as their sole authority, and who believe in taking the Gospel to the ends of the earth. Certainly, we Baptists aren’t the only ones who have those values, but as long as we do, I plan to be a Southern Baptist. Besides, I actually LIKE these people. Despite what you may have heard, the people I am pleased to serve alongside are some of the humblest, most gracious, generous, joyful people on earth.
So, what do I hope Southern Baptists will do in this crucial time? First, I hope we will reject sources of division. I’m not saying we should put our heads in the sand and ignore the problems in our midst (I’ll address that in my next point). But let’s be careful who we’re listening to, which sources we allow to shape our thoughts. This might seem like a tangent, but go with me: Recently, Tucker Carlson, the popular right-wing talk show host, was sued for defamation. The suit was dismissed because Carlson’s lawyer successfully argued that “given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer ‘arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism’ about the statements he makes.” In other words, “Who cares if he said things that hurt someone’s reputation? No one thinks he’s sharing facts, anyway.” In case you think I’m picking on conservative media. the same thing happened to liberal talk show host Rachel Maddow, and her case came down to a similar argument: “The point of Maddow’s show is for her to provide the news but also to offer her opinions as to that news,” a judge wrote. “Therefore, the Court finds that the medium of the alleged defamatory statement makes it more likely that a reasonable viewer would not conclude that the contested statement implies an assertion of objective fact.” So legally speaking, these sorts of shows aren’t even considered factual. They are entertainment, period. Carlson, Maddow and the many others like them realize that they won’t get viewers by telling the whole truth about an issue. Instead, they get viewers (and make money from sponsors) by skewing the truth in order to ramp up our fear and anger. It’s why I think that these sorts of shows, along with political opinion blogs and social media sites, are one of the tools the Devil is using most effectively against the Lord’s people today. He is able to distract us from the centrality of the Gospel by focusing our fear and anger against the very people we should be seeking to reach for Christ. Here’s how all that relates to the SBC: The same tactics are at play with religious bloggers and talk show hosts who accuse the SBC of “turning liberal,” being “captive to racism,” or any number of other issues. There is legitimate criticism that our denomination must face. But most of the rhetoric I am hearing and reading is not meant to hold leaders accountable or produce actual repentance; it’s simply meant to inflame fear and anger, making its authors more famous, and dividing the flock. Reject it, unequivocally.
Second, and more importantly, pray for renewal. Make no mistake, our denomination is failing right now on multiple levels. Over the past several years, the SBC has seen declines in virtually every statistic, including overall membership, weekly attendance, and most importantly, baptisms. In 2020, there was only one baptism per sixty-two Southern Baptists. That’s an unacceptable number that indicates we aren’t reaching our neighbors with the Gospel. We’re failing black leaders and their churches, by making them feel as though we don’t care about their struggles. We certainly failed the hundreds of victims of sexual abuse over the past few decades. And, let’s be clear: We failed that young man in Atlanta, and the people whose lives he took. I was relieved to read this article, written by an Asian former member of the church where this young man was a member, defending the church against allegations of racism or toxic purity culture. But one of two things is true: Either he somehow internalized a demonically warped version of what it takes to be a follower of Christ, or he was profoundly mentally ill, and didn’t get the help he needed. Either way, it’s the job of His fellow Christians to answer that call, and we didn’t. How often is that happening at churches across our country? How many times are we failing to be the Body of Christ, instead of simply a place that puts on a religious show once a week, and competes with other churches for market share? Pray, my friends. Pray with all your hearts, that God would send His Holy Spirit to renew and remake us. We need revival. Nothing less will be sufficient.
Third, we put our hands to the plow and serve the Lord by loving others. Some might be saying, “Our denomination is under attack!” That’s nothing new. When I was in seminary, the larger political machinations of our denomination came home to roost, as our school president was fired by the trustees. The trustee chairman, who was praising and joking with the president in chapel the day before, was the one who led the charge to fire him. That same chairman subsequently had to resign his church a few years later because of sexual misconduct. At the time, I was upset at the hypocrisy I saw. But I didn’t quit the school in protest. I did what I came to do: I finished my education and focused on preparing my mind, heart and soul for a lifetime of ministry. I’ve never regretted that decision. Friends, we have important work to do. You have neighbors, co-workers and friends who are struggling. They don’t care about our inter-denominational controversies; chances are, they haven’t even heard of them. They need to experience the love of a saving God, and that won’t happen until they see it embodied in the life of an ordinary person. Be that person. Answer that call.