By Bob Allen
A two-day preaching conference held each year prior to the Southern Baptist Convention once criticized as too narrow is now being scrutinized for inviting speakers who are non-Baptists.
Recent Baptist blogs have questioned an invitation to this year’s SBC Pastors Conference to Dr. Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon and political analyst expected to announce May 5 he is running for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.
Carson, a best-selling author who became a popular spokesman in conservative media after criticizing President Obama to his face at the National Prayer Breakfast at the White House in 2013, is a Seventh-day Adventist, a group that shares much theology with orthodox Christianity but worships on Saturday instead of Sunday and has its own distinctive views concerning the Second Coming of Christ.
Baptist 21, a group blog that sponsors a panel discussion at the SBC annual meeting, recently raised concerns not only about those differences with Southern Baptist theology, but also because, on Easter Sunday, Carson posted on Facebook: “Let us also remember that Jews, Christians and Muslims all believe in God, and while there are ideological differences in who Jesus was, we should find peace in the fact that we are all God’s children.”
“Certainly, we do not all worship the same God — we worship the Trinity whom Muslims and Jews would deny,” said the blog dedicated to biblical fidelity in ministry geared for the 21st century. “And, the idea that we are all God’s children is at best the type of liberalism the Conservative Resurgence sought to address, and at worst, it is universalism.”
Texas pastor Bart Barber also wrote a blog in March critical of the invitation. “Let’s face it: He’s being invited because he’s a popular presidential candidate,” Barber said on another group blog called SBC Voices.
“If I were Ted Cruz (Southern Baptist, member of FBC Houston, Texas), I’d be jumping-up-and-down mad,” Barber wrote. “If I were Mike Huckabee (Southern Baptist, former president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention), I’d write a protest song for the Little Rockers and play it on national TV.”
“The Southern Baptist Pastors Conference has passed over Southern Baptist presidential candidates and potential candidates and has yielded the convention pulpit to a Seventh-day Adventist therewith to court the electorate,” Barber opined.
Seventh-day Adventist doctrine derives from teachings of William Miller, a Baptist lay preacher who in 1833 first shared publicly his belief that the Second Advent of Jesus Christ would occur in roughly the year 1843. After Oct. 22, 1844, the day Jesus was expected to return, came and went, Miller’s followers, known as the Millerites, differed about how to understand what came to be called The Great Disappointment.
Seventh-day Adventist co-founder Ellen G. White, whom church members believe spoke authoritatively because God gave her the gift of prophecy, said she had received a vision that the 1844 date marked not the Second Coming but a heavenly event, where Christ’s atonement entered a new phase of “investigative judgment” before Christ returns to redeem a remnant found faithful to following his commands.
The North American Mission Board says because Seventh-day Adventists “are in basic agreement with historic, biblical Christianity,” the religion is not by definition a cult. NAMB regards the SDA “a Christian sect,” because “it has a number of distinctive doctrines not in accord with the mainstream of historic Christian faith.”
“Members of the SDA Church may be genuinely saved Christians based on personal faith in Jesus Christ,” NAMB says in a belief bulletin contrasting Adventist and Southern Baptist doctrine. “The SDA Church, however, has some teachings that deviate from historic Christian doctrine. Baptists adhere to sound biblical teachings and reject extra-biblical revelations or interpretations.”
Organizers of the Pastors Conference issued a statement saying Carson, who is scheduled to speak Sunday night, June 14, immediately following Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission head Russell Moore, was invited “not as a pastor or theologian, but as a courageous voice calling for spiritual and moral renewal in America.”
“Dr. Carson has been outspoken in support of biblical values on numerous issues facing our culture,” the statement said. “Neither the Southern Baptist Convention nor the Pastors’ Conference endorses candidates for office.”
“Obviously Dr. Carson’s viewpoints may not necessarily represent those of SBC leaders or all Southern Baptists,” conference organizers continued. “Dr. Carson is a committed Christ follower and a man whose highly distinguished career and compelling life story, of which faith is a central component, warrant our attention and respect. The Pastors’ Conference believes SBC leaders will benefit from hearing Dr. Carson, and we are pleased to provide the unique opportunity to hear from one of America’s leading voices.”
Once a showcase for the denomination’s premier pulpiteers, during the 1980s the Pastors Conference provided a platform to champion the view that the Bible is inerrant and to display the favored candidate running for SBC president. It became so politicized that in 1984 moderates moved offsite to hold a separate meeting called the SBC Forum.
Attempting to appeal to younger preachers, in recent years the Pastors Conference program has drawn speakers from the broader evangelical world. Some, like a worship leader from T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House Church of Dallas invited in 2011, have been controversial because they hold what some Southern Baptists regard to be heretical beliefs.
In February Robert Hutchinson, a pastor in Missouri, wrote a blog objecting to the Pastors Conference inviting James MacDonald to speak at the closing Pastors Conference session on Monday night, June 15. That is because MacDonald, founder and senior pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, once wrote a blog titled Congregational Government is from Satan.
“Do Southern Baptists still believe that congregational governance is both biblical and God-ordained?” Hutchison asked. “If we do, why would we invite to the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors Conference a speaker who has come to the irreversible conclusion that ‘congregational government is an invention and tool of the enemy of our souls to destroy the church of Jesus Christ?’”
Beyond theology, the Baptist 21 blog criticized Carson’s invitation for perpetuating the perception “that the SBC is in bed with the Republican Party” and ignoring interests of younger ministers turned off by America’s culture wars.
The B-21 bloggers said they are also concerned “because in our evangelical climate it is often easy to confuse what it means to be a follower of Christ with what it means to be a patriotic American.” While Southern Baptists should be engaged politically, they said, the focus should be shaped by “scriptural convictions” instead of “generic American values” of patriotism and piety.