1. We need leaders who balance orthodoxy and Christian piety.
As with almost all groups, at times in our history Southern Baptists have had leaders who were committed to sound doctrine but were not always careful to “watch their life” (1 Tim. 4:16). At other times we have had leaders who rejected, or at least questioned, historic orthodoxy, though many of them were seemingly model Christians in terms of their spiritual walk. This is not the way things are meant to be. Doctrine without piety leads to dead orthodoxy, which is in fact unorthodox. Devotion without theology leads to either liberalism, unbridled pragmatism, or both, which is in fact impious.
Healthy Christians, including Christian leaders, think rightly about God and live rightly before God. They affirm and defend the fundamentals of the faith that are revealed in Scripture and have been confirmed by the consensus fidei of the wider body of Christ. They cling to an evangelical gospel that is rooted in the grace of God and grounds our salvation in the person and work of Jesus Christ. They mortify their sins and pursue godliness by the power of that gospel. They live as those who have been redeemed and not like the world from which they have been rescued. Their priorities are godly priorities and their values are biblical values. Their commitment to Christian sanctification is infectious, inspiring others to fight their sin and daily look to the cross of Christ. We need SBC leaders who are diligent to balance theology and practice.
2. We need leaders who are convictionally Baptist.
Though this may sound strange to post-denominational ears, in a Baptist denomination it is necessary for our leaders to be committed to a uniquely Baptist vision of the Christian life. Though I do not believe that our leaders must agree upon every nuanced debate within Baptist thought, there should be a basic consensus concerning what constitutes Baptist Christianity. As convictional Baptists, our leaders must model a commitment to the lordship of Christ in all things, including the nature and ministry of churches that seek to conform to the New Testament.
Southern Baptist leaders must affirm and model regenerate church membership, which entails unambiguous gospel proclamation, a commitment to discipleship, and the practice of redemptive church discipline. They must practice and defend believer’s baptism by immersion alone as the only baptismal practice consistent with the New Testament witness, the nature of the gospel, and a commitment to a believer’s church. They must affirm a pastor-led congregationalism and a cooperative, non-isolationist version of local church autonomy. They must defend liberty of conscious for all people, not for the sake of plurality of conviction (as if that were an end in itself), but for the sake of the freedom of gospel proclamation in a plural society.
3. We need leaders who pray for, evangelize, and lead others in sharing the gospel with non-Christians.
The SBC exists as a Convention of autonomous churches for the sake of preaching the gospel to all people. Southern Baptist leaders need to be the type of people who weep over the souls of men and women who do not yet know Christ. Our leaders need to be people whose lives are characterized by a personal commitment to evangelism. Our leaders need to be people who support our denomination’s foreign and home mission endeavors, preferably in more ways than merely giving financially to the Cooperative Program and other mission causes (though giving is important).
Let me be clear: I am not arguing for uniformity in missional strategies, emphases, or approaches. Not every person or church evangelizes in the same way or even the same “type” of lost people (in terms of worldview, station in life, geographical context, etc.). Our hope is not in more programs, humanly conceived statistical goals, or standardized methodology. It is certainly not in demonizing churches that embrace different programs than yours, baptize fewer new converts, or have differing convictions about how to best engage in evangelism. The vast majority of Southern Baptist churches (and presumably pastors and other leaders) are not concerned enough with reaching lost people, and this is true regardless of their respective traditions, programs, emphases, and theological convictions. To say it bluntly, let’s quit shooting at each other and start sharing the gospel with non-Christians, even as we have family discussions about the best way(s) to do so.
4. We need leaders who know how to contextualize the best of our history in their own setting.
Let me explain. It is popular among many contemporary Baptists to look back to an imagined golden era of Baptist (or at least Free Church) history and wish we could bring it back. Some want us to recover the radical nature of Anabaptism, often overestimating the historical relationship between Anabaptism and the Baptist movement. Some of us want to recover the theology of the founding generation of Southern Baptists, often overestimating the uniformity of consistent (“five-point”) Calvinism in the mid-19th century. Some of us want to recover the ecclesiological emphases, if not always the presuppositions, of postbellum Landmarkers, often overestimating the ability (or willingness) of Landmarkism to tolerate other opinions. Some of our moderate friends want to recover the progressive emphases of the era between World War II and the Reagan Administration, often overestimating the spiritual value of modern or post-modern theological trends.
We need leaders who can take what is good and useful from each of these (and other) baptistic sub-movements and “translate” them for 21st century Southern Baptists. Our hope does not rest in Balthasar Hubmaier or Pilgram Marpeck, but in contemporary Baptists who share their commitment to costly discipleship and a believer’s church while rejecting their cultural separatism. Our hope does not rest in Basil Manly Sr. and John Dagg, but in contemporary Baptists who share their commitment to sound doctrine and cooperative missions while rejecting their captivity to Southern culture. Our hope does not rest in J. R. Graves and J. M. Pendleton, but in contemporary Baptists who share their commitment to distinctively Baptist Christianity while rejecting their sectarian tendencies. Our hope does not rest in Duke McCall and Louie Newton, but in contemporary Baptists who share their commitment to the Convention’s growth and success while rejecting their indifference to theological consensus.
5. We need leaders who inspire and equip future leaders.
Authentic leaders are like rabbits-they multiply. Their character and giftedness is an inspiration to younger men and women who possess leadership potential. Furthermore, real leaders recognize that potential and invest their lives in mentoring future leaders. Healthy leadership is replicated in the rising generation. (So is unhealthy leadership.)
If Southern Baptist leaders do not inspire future leaders, then some of our best and brightest seminarians and pastors will gravitate toward non-Southern Baptists who do inspire them. I would contend this is already happening; ask present and future ministers under age 40 whose sermons they are downloading, whose conferences they are attending, and whose books they are reading. You might be surprised at how disconnected many of our potential future leaders are from many of our current leaders. We will lose a generation to other movements if we do not inspire them to want to exercise their gifts within the Southern Baptist Convention.
But inspiring future leaders is not enough; current leaders must equip young potential leaders so that they will know how to lead well when the opportunity comes. Pastors and other church leaders should spend time mentoring young people, especially those who are wrestling with a call to some form of “vocational” ministry. Seasoned pastors need to spend some time with less experienced ministers, helping them to work through some of the thorny issues and life experiences that cannot be taught in a classroom or read in a book. Seminary and Christian college professors must take the time to pour their lives, and not just their lectures, into students-they are hungry for someone who cares enough to spend time with them outside of class. Agency administrators must figure out which of their subordinates have the potential to eventually assume greater leadership responsibility, give them some opportunities, and then offer some constructive feedback to help sharpen future leaders. Leaders need to prepare others to one day take their place.
These are the type of statesmen Southern Baptists need as we press on, by God’s grace, toward a Great Commission Resurgence in our churches. Join me in thanking God for our past leaders, praying that God would have his way in the lives and ministries of our current leaders, and trusting that God will raise up future statesmen who will honor him and strengthen the people called Southern Baptist.