The comments about the process of electing the president of the Southern Baptist Convention (as well as the suggestions about who would make good candidates) have been very informative. After reflecting on them I want to set out some further thoughts in hopes of extending the dialogue.
Some have asked, “Is this even worth thinking about?” If you are serving Christ in a church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention it is. It is part of who we are and how we operate. Now, having said that, let me try to put it into perspective. Who does or does not become president of the SBC is not ultimately very important at all when compared to what does or does not happen in local Southern Baptist churches. In other words, the local church is “where it is at” in the Kingdom of God. Denominational structures might perhaps be useful, but their usefulness should be measured only in terms of service to local churches. In that sense a denomination (comprised of free churches, at least) is a parachurch organization and the person who leads that organization is not nearly as important as the people who lead the local churches. Our polity demands that perspective but our politics tend to invert it in the minds of some.
I speak as one who is grateful for the conservative resurgence and supported it. But the reason that we needed a course-correction is because at too many points denominational leadership and servants had lost touch with the churches and were poorly serving us by propogating neo-orthodox and liberal ideas in publications, policies and programs. By God’s grace, this deadly service was arrested and corrected. The office of president played a crucial role in that process. But in our most critical days that office was not more important than the office of pastor in a local church. Southern Baptists need to remember this, or relearn it, or perhaps learn it for the first time.
If we want to encourage healthy Christianity within our SBC family then we should seek to encourage pastors and church leaders in that direction. From an insider’s perspective I can assure you that most pastors need fellowship and welcome it when it does not come with a hidden agenda. It would be nice to see someone in the office of president of the SBC who shared this kind of perspective; who didn’t see the office as the culmination of a lifelong dream, as the capstone of a long, faithful ministry or as a political reward for time served in a cause, but rather, viewed it as a great opportunity to lead the denominational entities to become more useful to local churches.
Some comments betray a full-orbed pessimism about seeing anyone but a high-profile, highly-touted, popular pastor of a large, well-known church. I am not among them. Some who heard the announcement by Jerry Vines that he hoped Johnny Hunt would be the next SBC president indicated that the response of those at that conference was overwhelmingly affirmative. I would expect that. I would expect a similar response if someone were to say something similar about Mark Dever in two weeks at the Shepherd’s Conference. Context. It makes all the difference in the world.
I have no idea if more than one person will be nominated in Greensboro. But I believe this: if a respected, legitimate conservative is nominated in addition to Pastor Hunt, that person will garner a significant percentage of the votes and could well win. Let me explain. A few people have reminded us of the gentleman who was nominated at the last minute two years ago in Indianapolis along with Bobby Welch. He received 20% of the votes cast. I do not think that this fact has been considered seriously enough. Stop and think what that means. Most of those who voted for him did not know him or know of him. Were they voting against Bobby Welch? Maybe some were, but I would surmise that most were not. Rather, my take on it is that most of those votes came from conservative Southern Baptists who are growing weary of the perceived manipulation of the system by some of our leaders.
Conservative Southern Baptists didn’t like the idea that there were “kingmakers” (that’s James Hefley’s word, not mine) in the 1960s-70s and I suspect that such is still the case. In fact, I suspect that this weariness has only increased over the last two years. That is why I believe that a viable “alternative candidate” will garner 25-30% of the vote simply because he is not the one being promoted.
In addition, think of who will likely attend this year’s convention in Greensboro. The Pastors’ Conference has been designed with special sensitivity to “younger leaders.” Though I have read that some in this target group are disappointed in the overall lineup, I would anticipate that McManus, Dever and the prospect of hearing Drs. Patterson and Mohler discuss their differing views on election would bring more than the usual number of younger crowd to the convention.
The controversy surrounding Wade Burleson and the IMB needs to be added to this mix as another unusual providence that will draw people to Greensboro who desire to have legitimate conservative options when selecting their leaders.
All of these factors make me believe that we may well be approaching a historic moment in the life of the SBC. It could be that conservatives will be galvanized to elect a legitimate alternative candidate to the office of president, not as a rejection of inerrancy or conservative theology, but as an expression that it is time to recognize the authority of local churches and their desire to keep moving forward in our pursuit of spiritual health and vitality. Remember, it is the messengers of churches that cast the votes.
Notice that I have not used the words “Calvinism” or “Arminianism” one time in what I have written above. The reason is that I do not see this as a Calvinist-Arminian issue. I believe those who want to turn it into one–regardless of which side they are on–are not seeing things as clearly as they ought. I would hate to see that dividing line become the focal point of anyone’s candidacy. As we used to say back in Southeast Texas, we have bigger fish to fry. There are issues that are confronting Southern Baptists that everyone who loves God’s Word ought to be concerned about. One of the foremost of these is the unavoidable reality of huge numbers of unregenerate church members that bloat our rolls. This is something that leaders on both sides of the theological divide have addressed in various forums. It needs to be taken off the backburner and made a prominent issue because it is at the heart of many local church problems. Related to that is the vitally important issue of evangelism. The sad fact is that many of our churches have not done a very good job at making evangelism a priority. We need a reformation in both our theology and practice of evangelism. Some who have a better theology of it must confess that they are not very consistent practitioners and some who are warmly devoted practitioners must admit that the vast majority of their converts don’t stick. Related to both of these is the need to recover the priority of the local church in the purposes of God. Church is not optional in the plan of salvation.
Who knows what the Lord will do? I have prayed and will continue to pray that the Lord will grant us leadership in the SBC who will see these issues and address them in ways that will help our churches confront them redemptively. For what it is worth, if such a man is nominated for the office of president, he will have my support whether he is young or old, politically connected or isolated, or Calvinistic or Arminianistic.