On Southern Baptist Rivalries and the Need for Revival

[C]omplete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves (Phil. 2:2–3 ESV).

[Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared on May 7, 2014.]

I have decided to blog about a topic that has frustrated me for many years. My friends—and not a few seminary students—will testify that I talk about this subject fairly regularly. This issue is the reason I mentally disengage from the SBC every July 1 and reengage around April 1, just in time to prepare for the SBC annual meeting. It is the reason I hardly ever read any blog posts related to the SBC and completely avoid several websites that seem to exist for the sole purpose of fostering controversy (my tolerance level for trolls is pretty low). To me, and I think to many others, Southern Baptists seem plagued with a spirit of unhealthy rivalry.


Let me give you some real-life case studies that exemplify the sort of rivalries which concern me. The names have been omitted to protect the guilty.

Case Study 1: A particular gentleman is the finalist to be the new president of a SBC agency. He is widely respected by everyone who knows him. The president of another agency seeks to undermine the process behind the scenes because the new president-to-be is not a close personal ally of his. This has happened a lot, not only in national agencies, but also in state conventions.

Case Study 2: An associational director of missions is meeting with a group of pastors in a Deep South state. He tells all the pastors that they need to go the SBC Annual Meeting and vote against the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force’s Report. When asked by a pastor what the GCR is all about, the DOM tells them that the seminary presidents are trying to take over the SBC and that it is up to the pastors to save the convention from the “fat cats” at the seminaries. In this case, religious politics mirror secular politics: alleged centralized control by suspicious elites at the expense of the virtuous ordinary citizens.

Case Study 3: A group of younger ministers are discussing the Great Commission Resurgence. Almost all of them voice their desire that state Baptist conventions be significantly downsized and send nearly all of their Cooperative Program receipts to the Executive Committee. Some express a desire to “blow up” the state conventions completely. Interestingly, the “fat cat” reference is used again, but this time is directed at state convention employees who want to control the dollars while promulgating outdated programs and not realizing that the real influence is in the national agencies. Of course, since most of these younger ministers have never been to a state convention meeting, they aren’t exactly experts on the work of state conventions.

Case Study 4: A leading pastor in the SBC is having a conversation with another pastor. The leading pastor signed the “Traditional Statement” and he thinks the other pastor should as well. The second pastor, though not a Calvinist, raises concerns about the potential political ramifications of the Traditional Statement. The first pastor responds that the Traditional Statement is necessary because the Calvinists control half the seminaries, LifeWay, and the mission boards. He further suggests the Calvinists must be silenced or “we” will lose the convention. Based upon the wide sweep of agencies mentioned, the leading pastor obviously has a pretty expansive definition of Calvinism.

Case Study 5: A group of Calvinists are involved in a group email discussion. They are complaining about some unkind public comments that certain non-Calvinists have made recently. One of the participants in the discussion suggests that the non-Calvinists are just mad because the Calvinists are winning. He has no doubt that orthodoxy—by which he means Calvinism—will be ultimately be vindicated when spiritual renewal comes to the SBC. This fellow represents at least one Calvinist who is thinking in terms of a denominational competition with winners and losers.

These case studies are just a smattering of stories I could tell, but I really don’t want to be too specific. Frankly, I don’t think that would be helpful. Instead, I want to point out an issue that I think most engaged Southern Baptists are aware of and, hopefully, concerned about—the selfish rivalries in the convention. Almost every debate, discussion, or controversy among us ultimately boils down to matters of power and influence. Everyone wants to see “their people” positioned so that they can be in the proverbial driver’s seat. They also want to see the “other guys” have a limited voice in convention affairs. You cannot convince me that this attitude glorifies the Lord Jesus Christ.

I am thankful for President Fred Luter, Ronnie Floyd, and others who have been calling upon Southern Baptists to pray for revival. We sure need it! But make no mistake, my friends: authentic revival is accompanied by repentance and results in transformation. To be clear, revival probably doesn’t mean all of our divisions and rivalries will disappear completely. As a friend pointed out to me recently, there is a fine line between sinful rivalry and the sort of brotherly competition that is centered upon vision for the future. In a mostly democratic denomination, some competition is inevitable. However, should the Lord grant us spiritual awakening, my hope is that our competitions would be kept in perspective rather than devolving into the selfish rivalries that so often seem to be present in our denominational life.

The question facing Southern Baptists today is whether or not we are willing to repent of our carnal rivalries. Do we really want to see things change? Do we really want to work together for the sake of gospel advance? Or, do we really just want “our side” to win and have more power and influence? Sometimes I wonder. Yet, I choose to remain hopeful. My prayer for this year’s SBC is that we really will see the beginnings of a spiritual awakening among our people. One sure sign of authentic revival will be the waning of the sinful rivalries among us. Join me in praying that the Lord will bring us to repentance, renew in us a genuine love for one another, and allow us to be more faithful in proclaiming Christ here, there, and everywhere.

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