Unity in the SBC: A Visionary Theme or Pipe Dream?


The theme for the 2013 Southern Baptist Convention has been announced: unity.

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this will upset some, because there are still a few Southern Baptists who think our fighting needs to continue. However, most Southern Baptists have decided they are ready to end the fighting and move forward together on mission. The desire for unity has been evident in the last few annual meetings, so don’t be fooled by a few loud bloggers. We’ve had several opportunities to choose division (real or perceived) in our recent conventions, and we have chosen unity. So the theme of this year’s convention is right and timely.

As such, here are a few thoughts on unity as we look ahead to the SBC annual meeting.

Unity in Our Theological Essentials

Theology matters in the SBC.

This is precisely why we had the conservative resurgence. Historically, Baptists have not only been a missions’ people but also a confessional people. Baptist’s have rightly desired to agree upon doctrinal beliefs and commitments before moving forward on mission together. Now, most Southern Baptists are content with the BFM 2000 as a sufficient doctrinal statement as we seek to be obedient to Jesus call in Matthew 28:18-20.

Nevertheless, there have been some cases where entities have drawn smaller doctrinal circles. I don’t think that’s helpful, but I think that message is being received. So, we move on—together.

We are aiming for unity around our shared central doctrines, not uniformity on non-essential theological issues. Let us prayerfully recognize the potential of division and the place of dialogue and disagreement within the confines of our confession, but prayerfully and eagerly fight to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3).

Unity in Our Missional Focus

Hopefully, we can come to terms with the condition we are in. The SBC will always be methodologically diverse. Sadly, ignorant stereotyping and prideful dismissal comes from all angles within the camp. We can either build bridges to the field or build walls around our troops.

Perhaps a brief history lesson is helpful here.

The initial agenda of the SBC was simple: to combine the efforts of autonomous churches for “one sacred effort” – the propagation of the gospel. Baptists have always placed a priority on missions. The original constitution of the SBC clearly reflects this: “It shall be the design of this convention to promote foreign and domestic missions, and other important objects connected with the Redeemer’s Kingdom.”

Let us do whatever it takes to refocus our missional aim for the glory of God.

Unity in Our Representational Body

The SBC is struggling with generational transition and multiethnic representation. First, we have a crisis of younger leaders–still.

Those of us who pointed out (before we were ready to make friends with the demographic facts) were criticized for daring to question the involvement and existence of our younger leaders. But then, people began actually looking around during the convention and saw that it wasn’t “graying” – overwhelmingly, it was gray.

Secondly, we also have a convention that is primarily white in a country that is increasingly more diverse. Simple math shows where we are headed if those two problems are not corrected.

Reality should inspire us to greater diversity. Not everyone is going to go with us on this journey. In fact, we have already preached out many of our visionary, but non-conformist leaders and pastors. With the people who have stayed, we need to step forward as a unified coalition for healthy transition.

The election of Fred Luter, Frank Page’s work with the ethnic advisory council, the platforming of younger SBC leaders last year, and more are good steps. But the change our convention needs must grow out of our local churches.

We need to begin making intentional decisions to train the younger generations and attract/reach and welcome ethnic diversity to our church families.

Finally, we need the leaders from previous generations to share their wisdom and experience with the up-and-coming leaders and for our primarily white churches to reach out to their increasingly diverse communities.

Only then can we build a physically diverse but spiritually unified community that presses forward together for a common mission.

Concluding Thoughts

Unity is a good theme for our annual meeting, and an even better vision for our convention as a whole.

It is a vision we can, by the grace of God, achieve if we take a posture of humility and understanding towards one another. Here’s the thing, the Lord of the harvest is, and will be, sending out workers (Matt. 9:38). We are all in unified agreement with God’s Word here. But my fear is that we are spending too much time in the shed arguing about the harvesting process, advocating for our harvesting methods, and fighting over the right tools for the harvest.

Let’s be a convention united around our shared theology, joint mission and coming King to go into the fields together for His glory. My prayer is that unity becomes not just our theme, but our reality.

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  1. Emerson   •  

    Dr. Stetzer,

    While I understand and appreciate the concern that you and other SBC leaders have for unity among SBCers, I think you and others are mistaken in a critical belief you stated above: “Now, most Southern Baptists are content with the BFM 2000 as a sufficient doctrinal statement as we seek to be obedient to Jesus call in Matthew 28:18-20.”

    Much evidence suggests this is not the case. The very fact that you have written this post suggests that it isn’t true. If most SBCers felt that the theological convictions laid out in the BFM2000 were a sufficient ground to be unified in mission, then you wouldn’t have to write this article insisting that there is a sufficient doctrinal unity to partner in mission.

    It seems to me that the reason why there is so much conflict in the SBC is because pastors and laymen throughout the convention are concerned about the doctrine of others within the SBC precisely because they fear it will negatively impact the mission that their joined money is invested in promoting.

    And here is where I think you and other SBC leaders make another mistake. I believe that you have mistakenly confused Christian unity with institutional unity. I think the best way to maintain unity among SBCers would be to encourage churches to form other partnerships such that the SBC as an institution/convention would be divided. However, I think all current SBCers can remain united in their common confession in the theological essentials such that there is mutual respect, love, and prayer for one another. In other words, SBCers ought to pursue unity with one another in the same way they pursue unity with Presbyterians or Lutherans. There may be a reduction in shared mission, but a growth in unity as everyone comes to pray for and support one another in the various approaches others take toward polity, doctrine, and mission.

    The reason I suspect that this option does not appeal to you and others is because this would reduce the influence and significance of the SBC. Additionally, many would fight over who gets to maintain control over the assets of the SBC as it currently exists. At the end of the day, it seems this is the root of the current conflict. Everyone fears that others with significantly different approaches to mission because of doctrine will control the resources.

    In my opinion, unity would involve finding a way to resolve this concern and allow everyone to pursue mission in accordance with their differences rather than pretending that the theological differences don’t impact the mission.

    Grace and peace to you.

  2. Clint Wagnon   •  

    Unity and unanimity are not the same things. If we insist on unanimity in non-essentials, methodologies, etc., not only will continue to see our shared strength diminish in our goal of accomplishing the Great Commission, we will betray the realities that exist even within our local churches. There are closed-handed issues that we must defend to death. And there are open-handed issues (eschatology, election, methodologies, etc.) that, when elevated to cardinal issues, cause us to diminish the critical cardinals (inspiration, Christology, salvation by faith alone, etc.) and miss the forrest for the trees.

    Any church that is effectively reaching people for Christ knows that there are a number of secondary and tertiary issues that must be handled with humility, grace and unity. This seems to be the overarching message Ed is making as he is parroting Paul’s message to the church in Ephesus. Unity and unanimity are two very different thresholds.

  3. Tom Fillinger   •  

    Unity is most assuredly a worthy goal. The major question is this –

    Edgar Schein correctly states:

    What you do not define you cannot measure. He is correct.

    This raises the following quesitons:

    1. What is the operative definition of unity?

    2. Who drafts this definition?

    3. How will we measure our adherence to this definition?

    4. What Metric will we apply to discover our adherence or lack thereof?

    Until there is a substantive and theologically accurate answer to each and every one of these questions Unity will simply be a “Rodney King” can’t we all just get along tragedy.

    Unity most definitely but not at any price!

    In Grace,

  4. Ed Stetzer   •     Author


    The Apostle Paul and those that planned the SBC this year did not use all those caveats, but I think their goal is still valid.

    I have written about 50,000 words on the subject addressing just about all those questions, which tells you I am a lot less godly than Paul or the SBC planners, but my views are well known. ;-)

    Until then, I celebrate the theme of unity. I hope you will join me.


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