The 2021 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention convened at the Music City Center in Nashville, TN on June 15-16. I was delighted to have 12 other members of Graefenburg Baptist Church attend the meeting with me. For a variety of reasons, this year’s Annual Meeting was poised to be one of the most important gatherings of Southern Baptists in the history of our Convention. It turned out to be exactly that.
Below I have summarized a few key moments from this year’s meeting and have provided a brief commentary from my perspective.
The first point to make is that I am exhausted! This meeting was unlike any other I have attended because of the frequency at which important issues were being discussed. Normally there is time to visit with other messengers, take several strolls through the exhibit hall, and grab a snack. But not so much this year – this year the messengers had to remain focused on every word from the platform and every messenger from the floor. It was a draining, but exhilarating two days.
There is a vocal group of Southern Baptists who have publically expressed great concern over what they consider to be a “liberal drift” in the SBC. This concern was elevated with the passing of Resolution 9 at the 2019 meeting in Birmingham AL. That resolution, although clearly affirming the absolute and unwavering supremacy of Scripture over any other teaching, was seen as an embrace of something called Critical Race Theory. Since then, the SBC has experienced increasing tensions not only in race-related issues but also in areas such as how to care for sexual abuse survivors and the application of our complementarian beliefs within the local church. This, unfortunately, led to the idea that if a Southern Baptist is passionate about issues related to race, sexual abuse, and other social issues, then that person must be on a leftward drift theologically. Even the media has used similar language, calling SBC leaders who have a passion for racial reconciliation as the more “moderate” group of the SBC.
The consequences of the outrage against Resolution 9 and the war enacted against the make-believe “liberal drift” have been harmful. People of color in the SBC have, understandably, interpreted our actions to represent a disinterest at best and disbelief at worst in the reality of ongoing racism in our churches and our country. Survivors of sexual abuse have felt alone in the one place they should feel safe. Southern Baptists who have warned against the dangers of Christian nationalism and the idolization of political parties have been disparaged as troublemakers.
The truth is that the Southern Baptist Convention is not a theologically moderate Convention. I know moderate Christianity very well and this isn’t it. There is no liberal drift. There are no warning signs of theological liberalism. Concern for people of color, concern for sexual abuse survivors, concern for the treatment of women, and concern for the worship of Christ over the worship of country does not entail a drift toward liberalism. Those things entail a commitment to Christ and his Word.
Although I strongly disagree with their evaluation of the SBC and their approach, I believe that most, if not all, of the brothers and sisters who are concerned about the direction of the SBC are followers of Jesus who love him and his church. Differences of opinion can be healthy and essential. We are Baptists, and although our decision-making methods can be messy at times, it is a beautiful process that I wouldn’t change for the world. I grieve the harsh criticism and accusations on social media and other platforms, but I’m thankful for the Convention and the means by which we move together as a body of believers.
The First Time I Held My Breath
In my opinion, the key moment for charting the course through the remainder of the Convention came near the beginning when the Executive Committee brought their recommendations to the messengers. Recommendation 5 was the proposed Cooperative Program allocation budget, which is simply the way the Convention will spend CP dollars that are given by the churches. Pastor Tom Ascol (FL) made a motion to amend the recommendation to say, “to prohibit any funds being allocated to any institution, agency, or entity that in any way supports, promotes, or advocates any tenants of Critical Theory, Critical Race Theory, or Intersectionality.”
President Greear correctly ruled the motion out of order for a variety of reasons, including the presence of the trustee system that has been in place for ages, as well as the impossibility to monitor the amendment. Who governs such a thing as CRT oversight? Which tenants of CRT are considered a violation? Those kinds of questions are why we have trustees for our institutions and entities.
Tom Ascol appealed the decision of President Greear. So, now the messengers would have the opportunity to overturn President Greear’s ruling that the motion was out of order. That, in my opinion, would have been a poor decision by the messengers with potentially disastrous results. I held my breath as the votes were cast. Thankfully, the majority voted to uphold President Greear’s ruling, setting the path for the remainder of the Convention. It was an important moment of clarity and direction.
With the limited amount I know about the nuances of CRT, I certainly do not agree with its assertions. But I am deeply committed to the Bible’s command to love all people well in the name of Christ regardless of skin color. The Committee on Resolutions brought Resolution 2 – “On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation” – and it is a beautifully worded resolution. Once again, the SBC is acknowledging that Scripture is sufficient for our understanding of race and loving one another well. The resolution condemns racism in all forms. The resolution rejects any worldview that locates the “ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic.” The resolution reaffirms our 1995 resolution that says, “We genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, either consciously (Psalm 119:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27), applying this disposition to every instance of racism.”
A messenger spoke from the floor against the resolution because it did not specifically name CRT among the worldviews it rejects (even though the resolution rejected “any theory or worldview” in contradiction with Scripture). In response to the messenger’s opposition, Pastor James Merritt, the Chair of the Resolutions Committee, spoke from the platform and offered a passionate plea for messengers to consider what our words and actions say to our brothers and sisters of color. Are we more passionate about CRT or the Great Commission? After Merritt’s response, a messenger called for the question (that means he wants to stop the discussion and go straight to a vote on the resolution). To call the question requires a 2/3 majority vote of the messengers. President Greear called for the vote and it passed. The vote was then taken for the resolution which overwhelmingly passed. This was another wonderful moment for the Convention.
Sexual Abuse and the Executive Committee
Perhaps the most important moment during the convention was the overwhelming support for the motion made by Grant Gaines concerning a third-party investigation of the SBC Executive Committee due to allegations of sexual abuse cover-up. A more detailed account of the story can be found here, but after a series of leaked letters and audio files, the Executive Committee (EC) became the focus of great concern due to their handling of sexual abuse survivors in the SBC. In response to the allegations, the EC hired a third-party firm to investigate their handling of the issues. Although this was a step in the right direction, messengers were uncomfortable with the EC having control over an investigation that involved their own committee being investigated! Grant Gaines made a motion that the newly elected SBC President create a task force to provide oversight for the third-party investigation, taking the oversight out of the hands of the EC.
The Committee on the Order of Business, as is protocol, ended up referring the motion to the Executive Committee since it involved internal dealings with that committee. But, of course, that did not sit well with messengers. Grant Gaines spoke and asked the EC to quickly convene in order to consider the motion and put it into practice.
But then something amazing happened. Messenger Todd Benkert, several minutes later, spoke from the floor and asked for a vote to overrule the Committee on the Order of Business. If they were overruled, which requires a 2/3 vote, the motion by Grant Gaines to create a task force would be debated and voted on right there at the Convention by the messengers instead of being referred to the EC. To my delight, the Convention voted overwhelmingly to overrule the Committee on the Order of Business.
Later in the day the time came to debate the motion. It passed with ease and one of the first responsibilities of new incoming President Ed Litton will be to create this task force to oversee the third-party investigation. This was a huge win for the Convention and a sign of how messengers are ultimately in control of the SBC. Todd Benkert was the unsung hero of this moment.
Speaking of the New President
I was grateful for the messengers choosing Ed Litton to be our new SBC President. Pastor Litton has a heart for missions, a commitment to the BFM2000, and a passionate love for Jesus. He is gentle, well-spoken, and will serve Southern Baptists well.
Pastor Litton has experienced some push-back due to two things:
1. The “What We Believe” portion of his church website described God in problematic, and yes, even heretical, terms. God was correctly described as being three in one (Trinity), but the three persons were described as co-equal “parts” of the One God. That is definitely a problem, but once the wording problem was made known, the church corrected the wording. Doctrinal precision is of the utmost importance, and if I thought Pastor Litton held to a heretical belief in the doctrine of God, I would never support him for our President. But I don’t believe that and I know from experience how things on church websites can be expressed incorrectly.
2. Pastor Litton has on occasion had his wife alongside him during the preaching time on Sunday morning. His wife is not ordained, is not called a pastor, and does not understand herself to be carrying elder authority in the church. Pastor Litton is a committed complementarian. Just last Sunday, I asked a husband and wife missionary team to speak from the pulpit concerning the work the Lord was doing in their lives. Not a single person in my congregation considered her comments to carry authority over the church as a pastor or in any way a violation of our commitment to the Scripture’s teaching concerning pastors and authority.
With those two things behind us, Pastor Litton is a fantastic leader for the SBC and I welcome his arrival as President.
What Makes Us Baptist
If you are still reading, then you are probably a committed Southern Baptist. And as you know, at the heart of our convention is a desire to cooperate for the fulfillment of the Great Commission. That work continues through the able leadership of Paul Chitwood and the IMB. In addition, the Executive Committee launched an initiative called Vision 2025 with 6 strategic actions:
- Increase our total number of fully-funded missionaries by 500.
- Add 5,000 new churches to our Southern Baptist family.
- Increase the total number of workers in the field by “calling out the called.”
- Turn around our ongoing decline by reaching, baptizing, and discipling those under 18.
- Increase our annual giving and surpass 500 million given through the Cooperative Program.
- Eliminate all instances of sexual abuse and racial discrimination in our churches.
Why I Am Thankful For This Year’s Convention
I have many reasons to give thanks to God for the two days we spent in Nashville. Here are just a few of them:
- Although there are strong disagreements on important issues, the messengers voted in a way that showed great love and concern for minorities and for survivors of abuse. That demonstration of love was not accompanied by any compromise toward our commitment to the authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of the Word of God.
- Every year is a great joy to watch good people who love the Lord and serve in faithful churches all over our country approach a microphone in front of thousands of people and voice their opinion. Not only does the SBC allow such a thing, but it is also at the heart of our Convention. Not only do those messengers get to speak, but their voice matters. This year’s Convention was shaped by the voices of pastors and laypeople who love the Lord and love Southern Baptists. The SBC really does belong to the churches, not the other way around.
- I was able to see several friends and former colleagues during my time in Nashville. There were many more I wanted to see but was not able to due to the time constraints this year. Nevertheless, it was so good to catch up with friends and fellow pastors.
- I was with my wife, which makes anything a hundred times better.
- I was grateful for the interest and participation of 12 other Graefenburg Baptist Church members who attended the Convention with me.
- It was a pleasure to watch President JD Greear navigate the meeting with humor, intelligence, grace, and confidence. He is nothing short of amazing and a great leader in the SBC.
- Nashville brings back many memories of many wonderful things. I attended Belmont University from 1994-1998, but more important, Nashville is where I met and proposed to my wife. We drove to the place of our first date and I took her to the exact parking place where we said our first “goodbye.” I remember wanting to kiss her right there on our first date, but I of course didn’t. I got my kiss this time.
We will be in Anaheim, California next year. I think we will probably be taking the kids with us for the first time. Until then, we will continue to do the work of a follower of Jesus Christ and boldly contend for the faith once delivered to the saints. May God be glorified.