Reflections on the SBC Annual Meeting, Tuesday, June 14, 2016
Today was the first of two days that make up the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting. It’s sort of a formal family reunion where we talk about issues that are most important to us, review our progress in cooperating together for the gospel, plan for future ministry and mission efforts, and, of course, where we vote on all the stuff related to that. After all that transpired today, I was left with appreciation for our denominational systems, some lingering questions about our theology and practice, and hopefulness in the area of racial unity.
First, in reflecting on today’s events, I’m reminded of how much I appreciate many of our denominational systems. One of the most interesting and entertaining parts of SBC meetings are the voting times. We vote on recommendations and resolutions. We vote on officers and policies. During all this, any SBC messenger (an official representative of an SBC church) can make any motion he or she wants.
Let’s just say there’s a lot of potential for chaos. But that’s where our systems save the day. Sometimes people complain about systems, but with a group as large as the SBC, and with a denominational structure that allows for any messenger’s voice to be heard, systems become really important for retaining a sense of organization and sanity. They have a way of keeping things fair and leveling the playing field. This showed itself on multiple occasions today as resolutions and motions were debated on the floor.
But as I said, some lingering questions about Southern Baptist theology and practice remain. For example, a large portion of our morning opening session was given to a patriotic, God-and-country series of activities. I found this odd. Don’t get me wrong, as an American citizen I’m a patriotic person, profoundly grateful to live in the United States of America. I enjoy the freedoms we hold dear.
But when I gather with my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, I expect the focus to be on the gospel and our collective mission of lifting high the name of Jesus among all the nations of the world. I don’t gather to pledge my allegiance to the American flag; I gather to pledge my allegiance to the kingdom of Christ. There is a time and place for patriotism; I just have a hard time seeing how a gathering like the SBC is that proper time and place.
Related to this in some ways is a lingering question I have about how Baptists view the nation of Israel. Today, a resolution was passed that, in my view, effectively gave a blanket endorsement of Israel as a nation, and then rooted this blanket endorsement in (among other things) the promises made to the Old Testament patriarchs. There are several hermeneutical problems I have with linking the promises made to Abraham to the current nation of Israel, but there are also political problems with giving a blanket endorsement to any nation. To be sure, we should pray for the salvation of the Jews. I believe Paul is clear in Romans 11 that one day many ethnic Jews will recognize Jesus as the true Messiah. But I do not think this means we must support what the current state of Israel does. It’s one of the theological idiosyncrasies of our denomination that leaves me scratching my head.
What’s more, I couldn’t help but wonder how this emphasis on Israel would affect our evangelism to Muslims and in the surrounding Muslim states. Would it present to them an unnecessary stumbling block?
Third, the steps taken throughout today’s meetings in the area of racial reconciliation filled me with hope for the future. Dr. Ronnie Floyd, the current SBC president, has done an excellent job in leading us toward unity in this regard. What a blessing it was to see leaders from the National Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention on the same stage, preaching the same gospel, and leading us all in a commitment to tear down walls of racism and hostility that threaten to divide the one new man God has formed in Christ.
The highlight of the day came when we overwhelmingly voted to pass a resolution that discouraged Southern Baptists from displaying the confederate flag. Dr. James Merritt amended the original resolution to make it even stronger, and if you have not seen his motion and it’s explanation you should watch it now.
No doubt, some people will say this is a political issue and that Southern Baptists shouldn’t address it. What an overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist messengers showed today, however, is that we believe the confederate flag is not just a political issue, but a gospel issue. Whether people like it or not, the confederate flag sends a racist statement to our African American neighbors and brothers and sisters in Christ. The racial unity of the church is a testimony to the gospel that unites us (Ephesians 2:11-22). When we prefer symbols of Southern heritage over unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ, it contradicts the gospel. For these reasons, this is absolutely an appropriate issue for the SBC to address, and I’m so glad we addressed it how we did. We made progress toward racial reconciliation tonight.
Tomorrow will consist of many more meetings. We’ll find out who our next president will be (hopefully!). We’ll hear reports from our missions sending agencies, seminaries, and other entities. I’m sure we’ll all be encouraged, frustrated, stirred, and left with questions. But when it’s all said and done and we go back to our homes and places of ministry, I know this pastor will be thankful for the family called the SBC, and all the ways God is using our cooperative efforts for the cause of Christ.