As I write this, the Southern Baptist Convention is winding up its annual meeting in Houston and one of the voices raised was that of Fred Luter, convention president. Divisions among Southern Baptists must end, Luter said. As reported by Baptist Press, portions of his message follow.
“Because of our love for the Scriptures, we’ve had some strong discussion among us. Because of our love for the Scriptures, about our beliefs or what we believe in, we’ve had some certain things that we’ve had different opinions about. However, my brothers and sisters, the problem is while we’re debating these topics, while we’re discussing these topics, while we’re arguing about these topics, lost men, women, boys and girls are dying and going to hell every single day.
“Our world needs to know that Jesus saves from the guttermost to the uttermost. So let’s acknowledge the fact that there are some topics, let’s acknowledge the fact that there are some issues that we just will never see eye to eye on.
“In other words, Southern Baptists, let’s make the main thing the main thing. And the main thing is that all of us must carry out the Great Commission of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ by going into all the world and sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Luter’s words are not only appealing, they are familiar! They sound like the words of convention president James L. Sullivan, who served 1976-1977, and other SBC leaders of that era. Before the “conservative resurgence,” leaders were talking about the lost on a global scale through Bold Mission Thrust. But conservative control was more important than the lost in the years that followed. That’s why Luter’s words are so refreshing now to hear.
Perhaps — just perhaps — the SBC has learned a painful but valuable lesson: That the main thing should always be the main thing, and that differences among brothers and sisters are not necessarily a bad thing!
To a degree, Luter’s words are practical and theoretical. Practical in the sense that SBC leaders are attempting to prevent a splintering over Calvinism, and theoretical in the sense that they do not apply to those of us who adhere to the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message. At least they haven’t in the past and, despite Luter’s best intentions, I see no evidence that the SBC is willing to cooperate with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship even in winning the lost.
Years from now perhaps the holy war will have been forgotten and a new generation will arise who knew not Adrian. Perhaps then CBF and SBC brothers and sisters will have cause to embrace in humility and missionary zeal. But for now the CBF and SBC are on somewhat parallel but often divergent missionary journeys. It has come time for us to wish each other well and pray for God’s blessings on our mutual journeys.
As we proceed with our journeys, I have a few suggestions to make about what to pack. These apply to the CBF and SBC, but also apply to any level of conflict.
First, I suggest that we remember our contact lists, and primary among our contacts is our relationship with the Lord Jesus. It is that relationship that enables us even to interpret Scripture. That relationship is the North Star that keeps us oriented. I naturally assume the Bible is already stowed in our gear.
Our primary relationships with family and colleagues will also help keep us grounded. But other relationships are important as well — even relationships with those sisters and brothers who see things differently.
Second, I think we’ll need a big eraser. We need to delete a lot in life. Paul wrote, “Forgetting those things which are behind ….” In his case, he was thinking about his successes. As our journey continues, all current and former SBCers will need to forget the past. Perhaps this is the greatest single argument for bringing young Baptists into leadership positions. Baptists of my generation find it hard to forget. But hanging on to the past only impedes our progress. Both the CBF and the SBC need to erase the past. We are two separate Baptist bodies who need to be able to wish each other every spiritual success without the bitterness of the past poisoning our intentions.
Third, I suggest we take a mirror. Mirrors can be used, of course, to admire ourselves, but I have in mind self-reflection. The real value of a mirror is that in reflecting our image, it tells us the truth about what is there. Only when we know the truth can we comb that hair into place or touch up those blemishes. We need to develop (or continue) the habit of honestly evaluating our own attitudes and actions. Then, having observed, we need to correct what shouldn’t be.
Fourth, we’ll need a needle and thread, because we will need to make repairs. Sometimes our dreams and sense of call will be ripped to shreds and we will need to stitch them together again. At other times our relationships will be torn apart and rather than discard those people and ministries that have been important to us, we need to suture them while they heal. This kind of repair work often begins with two important words: “I’m sorry.”
I suggest that we also take balance scales. Using the discernment God has given us, we will be called upon again and again to judge between the good and the best. Using our scales of discernment, we can keep the main thing the main thing, as Luter encourages. And we’ll keep in mind this simple truth: “Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and all these other things will be added to your life.” Hopefully, when I (or others) feel compelled to become a crusader and go galloping toward windmills, the balance scales will enable me to see the difference between what I want to do for God and what God wants me to do for him.
Finally, we’ll use a GPS on our journey. If you set your ultimate destination now, your GPS will guide you. No doubt, we will experience road blocks and traffic jams, detours and rough terrain. At times we may hear the familiar, “Re-calculating …,” indicating that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere.
But the Holy Spirit recalculates where we are then, and how to get us back on the right road. I think Luter’s words to the SBC are God’s way of saying, “Recalculating ….” He is not finished with the SBC or the CBF, at least I hope not. The harvest fields are so big we are all needed.
Jim White ([email protected]) is executive editor of the Religious Herald.