The Southern Baptist Convention averted a catastrophic split at its most recent annual meeting as messengers narrowly voted to elect Ed Litton, an Alabama pastor, as SBC president.
While Litton has been sympathetic to the call for racial tolerance and the convention chose not to completely reject the notion that race is a central force in American life, the pirate imagery used by ultra-conservatives plotting to “take back the ship” and their attacks on Litton as “moderate” or even “liberal” (he is neither), indicate that while Litton wants to be a bridge-builder, large numbers of people in the SBC see the dwindling denomination as having drifted too far to the left, and they intend to take steps to help it dwindle even more.
I have not been Southern Baptist for 40 years, but I care about the SBC. As the largest evangelical denomination in America, what happens in the SBC flavors the cultural and political life of our entire nation. And as our most visible Protestant denomination, for better or worse, the actions of Southern Baptists influence how non-Christians view all American Christians, and even how people of faith view themselves as in agreement with or opposition to the vision the SBC presents.
In a spirit of humility — and out of my love for a tradition that taught me about jello salads, vacation Bible school, and all seven verses of “Just As I Am” — I offer the following heartfelt plea to the convention and perhaps to all of us anywhere who might benefit from these words about communion.
First and foremost, my siblings in Christ, I would implore you to take a giant step back from partisan politics. Support for former President Donald Trump has become a defining element for full inclusion in Southern Baptist life. Russell Moore and Beth Moore, two of the SBC’s most important voices, left the denomination recently at least partly over reservations about the moral example set by the former president. As the Republican Party becomes increasingly a minority national party — no matter how numerous Republicans may be in your neck of the woods — a lockstep identification with the Republican Party (or honestly with any partisan political group) diminishes the witness of the denomination.
One of the metaphors spoken at the SBC meeting was this: “Anytime the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant, and the offspring does not look like our Father in heaven.”
It’s similar to how I’ve spoken of this dynamic over the years: When the church makes its top priority seeking political power, it’s never politics that changes. It’s the church.
“A lopsided reliance on the law and the letters — on Leviticus and Paul, if you will — has put Southern Baptists on the wrong side of biblical interpretation on the issues of slavery and the full inclusion of women.”
To that end, I would also counsel: Please, my friends, step back from this all-hands-on-deck engagement in the culture wars. I would not counsel you not to have moral stances based on your interpretation of Scripture, or that you keep those stances to yourself. But I would encourage you to consider all of Scripture as you discern. A lopsided reliance on the law and the letters — on Leviticus and Paul, if you will — has put Southern Baptists on the wrong side of biblical interpretation on the issues of slavery and the full inclusion of women, and it threatens to continue doing so with other issues that Jesus doesn’t even mention in the Gospels. I believe the Bible is important; I read all of it. But this blindered focus on legalism ignores the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and these attacks on all who disagree with you deform both your faith and your witness.
Why, as David French recently wrote, should anyone believe in God if God is so powerless, if Christians are so afraid of defeat? God existed before the universe was created. Jesus has won the victory over sin and death for all time.
Dear ones, please, as U2’s Bono sings, “Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady.”
All these political and cultural litmus tests for Southern Baptists are meant to build barriers, to contract the tent, when the gospel message is to engage the whole world.
Some ultraconservatives, unchastened by this electoral defeat, continue to push for a smaller SBC cleansed of heretics. Ruth Graham notes in the Times how this “newly empowered ultraconservative faction in the already conservative denomination is pushing back against a national leadership they describe as out-of-touch elitists who have drifted too far to the left on social issues.” They didn’t win this time, but they’ll keep hating, keep fighting, and when they do win, they’ll toss out all those they regard as impure.”
But the SBC this broken world needs is not a steadily shrinking denomination more loyal to Donald Trump, more hardnosed about abortion or gay rights.
“The SBC this broken world needs is not a steadily shrinking denomination more loyal to Donald Trump, more hardnosed about abortion or gay rights.”
What the world needs now is a thriving denomination willing to testify to the life-changing grace of God, the soul-saving love of Jesus, the overwhelming biblical call to justice.
Bigger, not smaller. More faithful, not more pure.
And, of course, it is that loving Jesus who teaches us about setting aside our old ways of thinking and believing, of expanding the circle of grace instead of suffocating within it as it tightens like a noose.
I am constantly drawn to and challenged by the Markan pericope of the Syrophonecian woman who asks Jesus to heal her daughter (Mark 7:24-30). She is a woman, a Gentile, a foreigner — three strikes against her — and Jesus doesn’t even have to think before he responds in the negative.
“It isn’t fair,” Jesus tells her, “to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
These gifts — this rich meal, in the metaphor of the teaching — are reserved for an exclusive group, and you are not a part of it.
But the woman’s wisdom — “even the dogs are granted the crumbs under the table” — and her determined push for grace changes his mind. Jesus from that point on in Mark’s Gospel begins to realize his mission is not exclusively to the Jews, his healing and teaching not exclusively meant for his own people.
God’s grace overflows and overwhelms. It was never meant to be withheld from people who don’t look or believe exactly as we do, although we have often tried to rechannel it in precisely that way.
But no: God’s amazing grace always builds a bigger, better tent.
And that, dear friends, is what I would ask you to prayerfully consider: a Southern Baptist Convention so committed to the good news that it cannot imagine excluding anyone from it, a Southern Baptist Convention that testifies to the risen Christ in all it says and does, a Southern Baptist Convention committed to growth instead of exclusion.
That Southern Baptist Convention would be in the news for all the right reasons, a witness to the world in all the right ways.
We might still have friendly disagreements about doctrine, about worship, about singing all seven verses of “Just as I Am.” But I think I could slip into the back pew of a church like that and at least hum with you a little bit.
Greg Garrett is an award-winning professor at Baylor University. One of America’s leading voices on religion and culture, he is the author of more than two dozen books, most recently In Conversation: Rowan Williams and Greg Garrett and A Long, Long Way: Hollywood’s Unfinished Journey from Racism to Reconciliation. He is currently administering a research grant on racism from the Eula Mae and John Baugh Foundation and writing a book on racial mythologies for Oxford University Press. Greg is a seminary-trained lay preacher in the Episcopal Church and Theologian in Residence at the American Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in Paris. He lives in Austin with his wife, Jeanie, and their two daughters.