One of the groups aiming to take the Southern Baptist Convention in a more conservative direction continues to sound the alarm about liberalism in the nation’s largest non-Catholic Christian denomination and now has attacked one of the icons of the last “conservative resurgence” in the SBC because his son is gay.
The latest perceived evidence of the SBC losing its way is that James Merritt, a longtime Georgia pastor and a former president of the SBC, used social media to share a link to a sermon preached by his son, Jonathan Merritt, a nationally known author and columnist for Religion News Service.
Offense was taken not because the elder Merritt spoke in favor of LGBTQ inclusion in the church or made a biblical case for inclusion but because he shared a link to a sermon preached by his adult son, who was outed in 2012 by another evangelical writer. The younger Merritt has remained circumspect about his personal life and views on same-sex relations. He is best known for writing and speaking about social justice issues and modern faith, not about sexuality.
James Merritt currently serves as a visiting professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the six SBC seminaries. He maintains, by all accounts, a genuinely conservative theology. (Note: Since original publication of this article, James Merritt has tendered his resignation as visiting professor at Southeastern, “not wanting to be a distraction to the school.”)
On Nov. 22, he tweeted a link to a sermon his son had preached the previous day at Good Shepherd Church, an interdenominational congregation in New York City. The elder Merritt wrote: “I don’t agree with my loved son @JonathanMerritt on everything to be sure. But I encourage you to listen to his message on Mark 13. It is both brilliant and faithful to the gospel and the coming of Jesus!”
That one tweet quickly became another arrow in the quiver of the Conservative Baptist Network, which believes the SBC has slid into a new bout of liberalism, even after being purged of most moderates, progressives and liberals through the “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s and 1990s.
The next day, the Conservative Baptist Network posted a statement to its website calling on Southeastern Seminary to break ties with the elder Merritt as a “dangerous” person. The CBN statement was amplified on social media, where words like “Sodomite” were used as condemnation.
The CBN statement said: “Scripture is clear that homosexuality is a grave sin (1 Cor. 6:9-10, Rom. 1:24-28), and that sin separates mankind from God (Isaiah 59:2, Rom. 6:23). To present to Southern Baptists a man living in unrepentant sin as someone to whom they should listen for a sermon that is ‘faithful to the gospel,’ as the elder Merritt tweeted, is wholly illogical and demonstrably dangerous. For one who is employed by a Southern Baptist seminary receiving Cooperative Program tithe dollars to promote an unrepentant sinner — no matter whose son he is — as a trustworthy preaching source is a betrayal of trusting Southern Baptists.”
Leadership of the conservative network publicly opposes not only LGBTQ Christians but also women in church leadership.
The statement called on Southeastern’s president and trustees “to give sincere attention to this grievous situation, which counters Southern Baptists’ commitment to Scripture as inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative and opposes the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”
In response to the CBN broadside launched three days before Thanksgiving, Jonathan Merritt tweeted: “I’m not the only gay child of an SBC pastor who’s home for the holidays. Statements like this make it so much harder for those who are not welcome this time of year. Despite our deep disagreements, I receive kindness and love — not disgust — when I come home. Thanks, Dad.”
To which his father replied via tweet: “Unconditional and eternal.”
The Twitter thread accumulated words of kindness toward both Merritts but others were not so kind.
Jon Touchstone replied: “So … folks should cease stating Christian doctrine so that your Thanksgiving meals are more … comfortable? And the part that makes me uncomfortable. Should we leave that out too? Where does this stop? Will there be a gospel left when we’re done? I’m thinking no.”
Mechelle Baker replied: “This is not about you being accepted at home. The infallible word of God clearly states that same sex is a sin. This is not my opinion, this is God’s word. A pastor and leader of a seminary should know this. He can be proud of you and love you w/o leading others astray.”
The CBN statement called on its followers to pray for Jonathan Merrittt’s “repentance leading to salvation.”
And then it addressed longstanding accusations that CBN itself is a narrow-minded and divisive force within the SBC.
“While some have accused the Conservative Baptist Network of being divisive for suggesting certain SBC leaders have departed from their biblical beliefs, the unbiblical and divisive promotion of Jonathan Merritt by the most recent chairman of the SBC Committee on Resolutions demonstrates the need for the Network all too clearly.”
Then the statement jumped to a reiteration of CBN’s five-month-long campaign against current SBC President Ed Litton, whom CBN leaders have accused of serial plagiarism of sermons. Litton, an Alabama pastor, has admitted using some sermon content with permission but has not acknowledged any serial pattern of lifting sermons from other pastors.
“As in the case of President Ed Litton’s blatant, serial plagiarism of sermons and even personal experiences, many convention leaders stand united in silence when the offender is one of their friends. This growing drift from the guardrails of Scripture and from long-held but increasingly threatened Baptist distinctives demands reform at the top levels of the SBC and demonstrates yet again the necessity of a Conservative Baptist Network.”
On the Saturday prior to Jonathan Merritt’s New York sermon, CBN promoted the screening of a conspiracy-laced film about alleged liberalism within the American evangelical church — including the SBC seminaries. The film was screened on Saturday, Nov. 20, on the campus of Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary in Memphis. Mid-America is not one of the six SBC seminaries but trains SBC pastors.
That screening happened while CBN held its annual gathering on the Mid-America campus. The night before, Friday, Nov. 19, current SBC First Vice President Lee Brand moderated a dialogue with five other men who have been at the forefront of demanding change in the SBC. The panelists were Tom Ascol, leader of the Baptist Calvinists group Founders Ministries; Russell Fuller, former professor at the SBC’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Allen Nelson, an Arkansas pastor; Rod Martin, a businessman who recently resigned in protest from the SBC Executive Committee; and Randy Adams, leader of the Northwest Baptist Convention and an unsuccessful candidate for the SBC presidency last June.
At the SBC annual meeting, Adams ran in a four-way contest that included not only Litton but a CBN-endorsed candidate, Mike Stone, who ultimately lost in a runoff to Litton. Brand, who serves on CBN’s steering committee and is vice president and dean at Mid-America Seminary, was the only one of three CBN-backed candidates to win office. In SBC life, the roles of first and second vice president are primarily ceremonial and come with little authority.
During the Nov. 19 dialogue, Brand said of his five months of experience as SBC first vice president: “In as many ways as possible I have been absolutely ignored. More and more it becomes very apparent to me that I’m just the wrong kind of Black guy.”
Ascol, who has been outspoken in his opposition to and disdain for Litton, used the panel discussion to raise the issue again, lamenting “what happened to Mike Stone and the way he had his reputation assassinated by leftist tactics that are godless and unrighteous.” The reference was to pre-convention accusations that Stone, a Georgia pastor, had tried to block or minimize an investigation of a cover-up of sexual abuse claims in SBC churches.
Also, Ascol — speaking to a group that has aligned itself politically with former President Donald Trump — called Litton a liar, “a man who has lied repeatedly in preaching sermons that are not his own. The silence from our leaders is deafening. We are accountable to God.”
Others on the panel said the SBC is in “serious trouble,” spoke of a “leadership crisis” and “theological compromise” and “corruption” and a “lack of biblical courage” in the denomination. Some called for replacing leadership and trustees of SBC seminaries and agencies.
At the end of the two-hour dialogue, Brand told the group that although the issues discussed are serious, “this conversation is a conversation rooted in the love of Christ.”
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