They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love: Some Thoughts on the GCR

In the summer of 2008, B&H Academic published an excellent book by David Dockery titled Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal. There is much to commend about this book, but one thing I especially appreciate is how Dockery demonstrates that conservative Southern Baptists are not monolithic. This is an idea that Dockery has advanced for years in a variety of forums, and one I’ve emphasized in my own teaching, conference speaking, and writing. We are quite diverse, which in a democratic denomination is to be expected, though it often leads to tensions in our efforts to cooperate with one other.

Dockery argues that there are at least seven different subgroups among conservative Southern Baptists, with both internal variety within those subgroups and periodic overlap between subgroups. I have reproduced his list below from page 11 of Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal:

  1. Fundamentalists
  2. Revivalists
  3. Traditionalists
  4. Orthodox Evangelicals
  5. Calvinists
  6. Contemporary church practitioners
  7. Culture Warriors

I think Dockery does a fine job of pointing out some of the key stakeholders in the SBC. The point he was trying to make with his list is this: if the SBC is to have a viable future, each of these groups must commit to a basic theological consensus around which they can all cooperate for the sake of renewal, despite honest differences in many secondary and tertiary matters. The remainder of Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal is devoted to suggesting a consensus that would, Lord willing, result in renewal. I highly recommend you read the book.

I deeply resonate with Dockery’s vision for the future of the SBC. In many ways, it complements the vision articulated by Great Commission Resurgence advocates over the past three years (at least this GCR advocate). But I confess I’m afraid that this vision is imperiled right now because some SBC conservatives aren’t getting along very well with each other. Some don’t seem to want consensus.

The debate over the GCR, especially the Task Force’s interim report, has magnified some of the differences among various conservatives. In particular, there is considerable tension between those who primarily identify with the state conventions (a subgroup I would add to Dockery’s list) and those who identify more with the “national” SBC. Some remarkably mean things have been said by those on both side. Much of the invective has been spewed in private forums and through personal communication (which, naturally, almost never remains private). Others have made public accusations about their fellow Southern Baptists in blogs or even traditional media like Baptist Press.

Social media like Twitter and Facebook sometimes exacerbate the tensions. I have read some pretty nasty comments-by folks on both sides-over the past few weeks. This is not counting the rude (and often sophomoric) comments by those wannabe prophets who take the “a pox on both your houses” approach to the whole debate. I cannot help but think that there are some Southern Baptists, including some relatively well-known ones, who will one day grow up a bit and regret the foolish things they’ve said on Twitter and/or Facebook.

We have some real differences of opinions, to be sure. There are some folks out there who want us to do very little besides urban church planting. There are also some who think we don’t need to streamline much of anything, and perhaps add even more layers of bureaucracy. There are some who almost exclusively talk about engaging unreached people groups, and others who question the entire strategy of focusing on unreached people groups. There are some who fear the Task Force is really a political movement that is mostly concerned with getting some of their own members in the vacant agency presidencies. Others complain that state convention leaders only care about perpetuating the present status quo at all costs. There are some Southern Baptists who clearly don’t care a great deal for the Cooperative Program, others who come close to arguing the CP = cooperation, and others who aren’t sure what they think about it. This is just scratching the surface of some of the opinions I’ve heard with my own ears or read with my own eyes.

I think every Southern Baptist who cares strongly one way or other about the Great Commission Resurgence needs to step back and take a deep breath. Despite our differing opinions, we are all on the same team. We all care about the health of our denomination. We all care about reaching the lost, both here and abroad. We all care about defending and commending sound doctrine, including traditional Baptist distinctives. We all want Southern Baptists to be characterized by thousands upon thousands of healthy local churches that are marked by gospel faithfulness and gospel urgency. We all say we love the Lord Jesus Christ above all things and we all claim a desire to follow his lordship in all things. So why do we sound so much like the world as we debate the relative merits and pitfalls of the GCR?

I can’t remember where I first read it, but I’ve seen some bloggers argue that we will not have a Great Commission Resurgence without a Great Commandment Resurgence. Ronnie Floyd said something very similar in the Task Force’s interim report. No matter what you may think about the relative merits of the interim report’s suggestions, surely we can all agree that we need to do a better job of cultivating Christian love among the brethren in the midst of denominational debate.

Southern Baptists must stop questioning each other’s motives and assuming the worst about those with whom we differ. We must stop painting the “other side” in a bad light, be it through intemperate language or through faulty assumptions. We must stop trying to score points with “our side” by dropping snarky sound bites that elicit “amens” and “attaboys” from those who already agree with us. We must honor God in our words and actions, even as we carry on a real debate about important issues that affect the future health of our denomination.

There’s an old hymn that says “they’ll know we are Christians by our love.” What do our words and deeds communicate about our love for one another and our love for Christ? I think this is a crucial question at this time in SBC history. It is my hope and prayer that every engaged Southern Baptist, whether they are for the GCR or against it, will guard their tongues and check their actions in the coming months before Orlando. Southern Baptists are a family, and we must love one another in the midst of this important family discussion. To do anything less would bring shame upon the name of Christ, regardless of who “wins” the Great GCR Debate of 2010.

On The GCR Declaration, Part 2

Lord willing, over the next few days I will be blogging through the GCR Declaration in anticipation of next week’s SBC Annual Meeting in Louisville, Kentucky. This is the second article in what I hope will be a series. As you read, please remember that while Between the Time is a group blog that includes a number of Southeastern Seminary professors, these articles (and every article I write) represent my own personal opinions. I speak only for myself, so please avoid imputing my views to any of my fellow contributors unless they have publicly spoken/written about these matters and you can cite their agreement. The comments are open, but because of the large volume of blogging I will be engaging in this week you will understand if I choose not to interact with many comments.

Article II: A Commitment to Gospel-Centeredness

First of all, let me say I love the fact that the GCR Declaration takes a moment to offer a simple definition of the gospel rather than simply assuming that everyone knows what it is. This is one reason so many American churches (and not a few SBC churches) are in danger of losing the gospel. It’s not a matter of denial, but rather a matter of assumption. And assumption today leads to unbelief tomorrow.

I also like that the GCR Declaration doesn’t speak of the gospel as if it were just a list of truths that must be affirmed to “get in the family”. Instead, it understands the gospel to be the good news that animates every moment of our existence from new birth to resurrected glory. Southern Baptists need to hear more of this type of preaching and teaching. Until they do, the I-Podders among us will continue to spend five times as much time listening to non-Southern Baptist preachers as they do pastors in their own denomination.

I also like that the document speaks to the possible offense of some of our “styles, traditions, legalisms, moralisms, personal preferences, or unhelpful attitudes”. All of our churches have their own unique problems (even the best of them), and I strongly suspect there are certain “styles, traditions, legalisms, moralisms, personal preferences, or unhelpful attitudes” that characterize Southern Baptists in general. We can and will debate what those are, but this much I know-we better root them out and destroy them when we find them. In our public discourse we are often far more obnoxious than we think we are and too often just self-centered enough to think the problem lies with others.

I also think the GCR Declaration helpfully reminds us that all of our programs need to be closely tied to the gospel. This means more than a simple “plan of salvation” printed in the flyleaf of all our curricula. It means making the precious truths of all that God has accomplished through Christ explicit in everything. How do we read every passage of Scripture in light of the gospel? How do we do youth, children’s, men’s, and women’s ministry in light of the gospel? How do we evangelize in light of the gospel? How do we disciple in light of the gospel? How do we engage culture in light of the gospel? How do we plant churches in light of the gospel? This is the question that we must ask of everything that we do, in our churches and in our wider denominational life.

I am going to say something that some of you will think is too provocative, but it needs to be said. The number one complaint I hear about the SBC is that the Convention doesn’t take the gospel seriously enough. Numero uno. And let me assure you that I am talking about Southern Baptists from a variety of backgrounds and ages and a variety of theological persuasions. They argue that we hear a lot about programs. And we hear about the culture war. And we hear about Baptist distinctives. And we hear about our statistics. But we don’t hear nearly enough about the gospel.

I have a prediction: David Platt is going to rock some peoples’ worlds when he preaches at the Convention. That’s all I’ll say about that right now. Pray for David-he’s not what we’re used to, in a good way.

Article III: A Commitment to the Great Commandments

I will not say much here about the Great Commandment because much of what I could write would overlap with the things I said about the lordship of Christ. So let me just say this: if we love the Lord as we ought, we will love our fellow Christians and unbelievers as we ought.

I want to focus more attention on the Second Greatest Commandment because I think Southern Baptists have a conspicuous problem here, and not just in matters of racism and ethnic diversity (to which the GCR Declaration does a fine job of speaking). I just want to add that the more we love the Lord and faithfully preach and live-out his gospel the more our churches will reflect the ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic diversity of their respective regions. To the degree we focus on ourselves and assume the gospel, most of our churches will continue to look like little colonies of Dixie in an increasingly cosmopolitan culture.

But it’s the part about getting along in our intra-Convention relationships that I want to talk about. The moderates used to say that after the conservatives got rid of all the progressives, we would turn on each other because it is in the nature of fundamentalism to have to have bad guys to fight against. Now I think moderates were (and are) wrong about many things, but they were dead right about this one. And it is to our shame.

It is appalling how badly we treat each other. Some of the nastiest, most petty, most untrustworthy people I know are Southern Baptist ministers and denominational servants. I’m dead serious. Now don’t misunderstand me-most of the folks I know are not like this. But the fact that any are like this is a disgrace to Southern Baptists and a disgrace to the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. I have seen “leaders” speak out of both sides of their mouth without batting an eye. I have seen pastors strut when they are sitting down. I have heard gossip and even vitriol couched in the language of concern and piety. I have seen people lie on weblogs, and then seen others lie when they responded to the first liars. I have heard backhanded compliments and seen daggered smiles. I have seen well-meaning men too chicken to confront other men who were sinning in their actions and speech. And I have seen some who were confronted (some by me) dismiss it with a “well, that’s not what I meant brother”. Indeed.

I already mentioned why most of the folks I talk to complain about the SBC. Now let me tell you what most bothers me about the SBC-the way we treat each other. By God’s grace I have a fantastic job, doing exactly what I want to do for exactly whom I want to be doing it. I work for godly men, and I mean that with utter sincerity. But when I see how some folks in the SBC treat each other, it makes me want to walk away from this whole thing and join another group. And I teach Southern Baptist history and identity for a living.

Friends, we have got to treat each other Christianly and we’ve got to be honest enough to admit that much of the time we don’t. I’m sick and tired of gossip, slander, character assassinations, and dog and pony shows. I want to see more integrity and hear more gospel.

I’m sorry for being so pointed (I’m on the verge of weeping while I write this-I’ve been holding this in for years), but this is a serious problem and everyone reading this article knows it is a serious problem. So what are we going to do about it?