Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reflections on the 2012 SBC in NOLA

The 2012 Southern Baptist Convention that ended yesterday was a bit of a whirlwind for me. I arrived with little sleep in the bank and left with even less. All in all, I am very encouraged by the spirit of the meeting and what it hopefully signals about the future of the SBC. It is great to have elected our first African-American president, Fred Luter. It was also great to have some good (and no embarrassing) resolutions passed. As always, it was great to be with friends: renewing personal fellowship with old ones,  meeting new ones and shaking hands with here-to-fore virtual ones.

Following are more specific thoughts about several aspects of the convention, in no particular order.
  • The election of Fred Luter, obviously, was historic. Due to parliamentary procedures, however, technically, the convention secretary cast the only vote for Pastor Luter because he ran unopposed for the office. President Bryant Wright, who led the sessions with grace and humility, did allow all the messengers to stand in a show of support. It was a touching moment for me personally as I could not help but reflect on the significances of this event in light of the racial bigotry and violence that marred much of my youth
  • The resolutions committee did a fine job, from what I could tell, in bringing recommendations to the convention that were pertinent and reflective of most of the concerns of those who submitted them. As is true every year, not every resolution made it out of committee and some (maybe all) were revised to be made better. That was most notably true of the so-called "sinner's prayer" resolution. Last week Eric Hankins published the resolution by that name that he submitted to the committee. Many people, including me, had real problems with some of his wording. Wisely, the committee took his concerns, completely rewrote it in language that more consistently reflects biblical teaching on conversion and evangelism. The resolution was adopted by vote of approximately 80%-20%. The debate that surrounded it was healthy. I strongly agreed and sympathized with those pastors, especially Jared Moore, who spoke against it on the grounds of all of the false conversions that they must deal with in typical churches and communities where there has been a longstanding evangelical witness. "I prayed the prayer" or "I walked the aisle" are common responses to questions about one's relationship to Christ in such settings. Superficial evangelism is one of the greatest blights on our churches today and I fear has sent untold millions of people to hell with a "decision card" in their pockets. However, the resolution that was adopted recognizes that and plainly states in the third "resolved" that "a 'sinner's prayer' is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel (Matthew 6:7; 15:7-9)." This was so good that one brother who is from a strongly confessional church and who came prepared to speak against the Hankin's resolution went to a mic and spoke for the one that came out of committee. Again, all of the resolutions that were adopted are a testimony to the wisdom of the resolutions committee under the leadership of chairman Jimmy Scroggins and those who served with him.
  • The vote on the descriptor, "Great Commission Baptists," was approved. Micah Fries gave a well-reasoned apologetic for this from the floor. I personally had no strong feelings about this motion. Autonomous churches will describe themselves in whatever ways they see fit. But if this helps church planters and churches outside the southern United States, then I'm grateful it passed.
  • The election of Dave Miller as 2nd VP may have been the most significant vote of the whole convention (given that only the secretary technically got to vote for Luter). Neo-traditionalists had long-ago announced that Eric Hankins would be nominated for this position. My guess is that he would have been elected in a landslide or perhaps even without opposition had he not written and promoted the "Statement of Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God's Plan of Salvation." This document has proved to be divisive at a time when many, perhaps most, Southern Baptists want to unite around the gospel. A few days before the convention, Alan Cross announced that he would nominate Dave Miller as an alternate candidate for 2nd VP. After a first ballot did not result in any of the 3 candidates receiving 50% of the vote, the runoff resulted in Miller defeating Hankins with 59.5% of the vote. I do not think this was a personal slam against Eric Hankins. Although I do not know him, everyone I know who does know him speaks highly of him. I think this vote is a clear indication that Southern Baptists are sick and tired of the polarizing antics of those among us who seem unwilling to unite around the gospel and things we have in common rather than trying to marginalize those with whom we do not agree on every point. If I am correct, then this vote is a harbinger of better days ahead for the SBC.
  • The sermons by Bryant Wright and David Uth were both biblical and made some very searching points of application. Neither of them ignored the "elephant in the room" but addressed the tensions between Cavinists and neo-traditionalists sparked by the latter's release of the above-mentioned statement. I was especially rebuked by this line from Wright: "To our Calvinist friends, a bit of humility would be most welcome." That is a good and timely word. Spiritual pride is always lurking at the door of our hearts and, if left unmortified, will ruin any good we may seek to accomplish. I need to be constantly reminded of this.
  •  Frank Page, president of the Executive Committee, also addressed the theological tension in the convention. I found myself agreeing with his assessment of how this tension is being unhelpfully fueled. He announced his intention to assemble a group of advisers to help chart a path forward in light of the tensions that exist. I hope that it is successful.
  • The Founders Breakfast was outstanding. Tom Nettles presented his "chiastic" view of Southern Baptist history, showing that throughout our history our focus has followed this pattern: soteriology—>inspiration of Scripture—>denominational identity—>denominational identity—>inspiration of Scripture—>soteriology (where we are currently). I think he has analyzed the situation well and can already see how we will need to reexamine our denominational identity in the not-too-distant future. Nettles also addressed some of the current debate over soteriology with incisive biblical, theological and historical analysis. The audio of his talk will be available soon on the Founders website. 
  • Private conversations with pastors and denominational servants are always enlightening and often encouraging. This year was no exception. 
    • I was delighted to make new friends and meet new brothers who are working to be faithful in the trenches of pastoral ministry. It was gratifying to hear from many who have been encouraged in some way by this blog or other resources produced by Founders. 
    • I was particularly encouraged by a conversation with a friend with whom I've disagreed for years over aspects of soteriology. He wanted to warn me about a man on his "side of the aisle" who is intent on getting rid of all the Calvinists in the SBC. I was humbled and tremendously encouraged that he would take the time and initiative speak to me so plainly. He and I do not agree on some important things. But we do agree on the most important things and we agree that those who entertain extreme agendas for the SBC should not be allowed to execute them without strong resistance. I will have more to say about this in a future post about how I have formulated my own assessment of the current SBC.
    •  I was also mildly amused to discover that much of the angst that both my non-Calvinist and Calvinist friends have about the SBC stems from what I think is a lack of appreciation for Baptist polity. The Southern Baptist Convention can be a wonderful organization through which autonomous Baptist churches can find ways to cooperate in missions, evangelism, ministry and education. But the SBC is not a church. Consequently, if you have problems with some of your gifts going to plant churches that are not as fully confessional as yours, or if you have problems with some of your gifts going to plant churches that are more fully confessional than yours, then the SBC probably isn't for you. Rather than hanging around and sniping at those of us who are willing to link arms as we stand on the gospel (without giving up our convictions, which may differ at points, of how that gospel works), I would kindly suggest that the naysayers try to find bodies of fellowship that more narrowly suit their tastes. 
  • I was even more amused by one report from the platform that appeared to be highly scripted to appear spontaneous. I felt like I was watching a B movie. The information communicated was good. The mechanism chosen to communicate it was almost entertaining. 
  • The Baptist 21 luncheon and panel discussion was very good. Jonathan Akin and the B21 team consistently do good work. Jonathan moderated the discussion between, Paige Patterson, Al Mohler, Fred Luter, JD Greear, David Platt and Danny Akin. He didn't pitch many softballs to them and brought up the Calvinist-anti-Calvinist tensions without apology. Some of the comments by the participants were very encouraging (Greear said that he tells new members that Calvinism will not become an issue for him until it becomes an issue for them--wise words) and some were not so much. But the conversation was cordial and respectful, as it should be among brothers in Christ. 
There are many other positive things that I experienced this week in New Orleans, from fellowship to being updated on the work of the gospel around the world. And there were several things that I wanted to do but simply could not, such as attend the 9Marks sessions at night, the NAMB luncheon and report and the final sessions of the convention. I have heard wonderfully encouraging reports from all of those events, however. Yes, there were some less-than-stellar moments, as well. Parliamentarian Barry McCarty earned his pay this week and during one report I felt like I was watching community theater. But those things do not detract from the overall goodwill and positive outlook on the future that permeated the convention.

If you prayed for the SBC meeting, thank you. If you have any interest in the future of the SBC, please do pray for Fred Luter and others who are giving leadership to the convention and its various entities. These are challenging and exciting days.


ReformTheSBC said...

Thank you for the summary. I really wanted to be in NOLA, but as I observed and followed things from a "virtual" distance, I also was encouraged and am now anxious to see what lies ahead for our convention.

B Nettles said...

Is there any hope that someone has a video of Tom N's talk?

Tom said...


There is not video though we will have the audio available soon.


Joel for Governor said...

Thank you for this report. It was especially enouraging to hear of the expressed desire for unity, and the hope of "better days to come for the SBC." With the soteriological divide that has been widened on the blogosphere over the past few weeks, a hope for a rational discussion of how to retain unity is especially blessed to hear.

Wes Kenney said...

Good seeing you, Tom, as always.

Tom said...

I enjoyed seeing you, too, Wes. Thanks!

Darrin said...

Pastor Ascol,

Thank you for your updates. When I read this post, some things stood out to me, and I wanted to just mention a few here. I honestly don't know your time constraints or your interest in this, nor whether you'd dismiss me as a "sniper", but I submit it anyway.

Regarding the new President, I trust that you are more concerned with his qualifications, convictions, doctrine and such character qualities than with his race. Those things of course are much more significant.

"To our Calvinist friends, a bit of humility would be most welcome." As it would among Wesleyans and all of us, no? I haven't seen more of a need for that in one particular camp. It also seems odd that similar caveats are so often given by Reformed SBC men before they make any points whatsoever, sometimes at such length that they don't get much past the caveats. Of course humility is important. Of course unity, in truth, is too. But why is this always pointed at Calvinists, and why does it need to be restated every time?

You mentioned Frank Page assessing how the Calvinism-related tension is being "unhelpfully fueled". The source seems strange here: This isn't unhelpfully fueled by the doctrinal error and misrepresentation distributed amongst the SBC in a book such as "Trouble with the TULIP"? Is he possibly planning on reconsidering some of the statements he has made and avoiding such claims in the future?

"Rather than hanging around and sniping at those of us who are willing to link arms as we stand on the gospel (without giving up our convictions, which may differ at points, of how that gospel works), I would kindly suggest that the naysayers try to find bodies of fellowship that more narrowly suit their tastes." The statement as a whole belies your use of the word "kindly". This does not seem very gracious toward brothers who might differ from you in their convictions in these matters, and I know you are a strong advocate for being gracious. Are all naysayers with narrow views who have concerns in such areas? Not that narrow-mindedness is always truly negative - Christians are accused of it all the time, and rightly so, since the way is such. But I'm concerned about an arrogance which assumes that, because one can "link arms" despite such differences, he is more belonging and needed than someone who thinks that "how the gospel works" is critically important, and has some sincere concerns in that area.

Just some issues, and I mean no disrespect. God's grace and guidance to you.


Tom said...


Your thoughts and expressions are welcome and well-received. Thank you for your expressed trust in my greater concerns about Fred Luter's character and convictions than his color. You are correct, of course, and I did not feel the need to list every qualification that is more important than the fact that he is African-American. Had I done so, my comments would have been much longer than the space I wanted to devote to it.

Bryant Wright also specifically admonished the neo-traditionalists in equally strong language. I chose not to include it, hoping that those who among us who profess most strongly our belief in grace would exude it by taking the appropriate charge to heart without resorting to, "Yeah, but what about them?"

Frank Page is clearly not a Calvinist but I believe that he is a real friend to those within the SBC who are reformed in soteriology. I found his book unhelpful and have published my evaluation of it. Though I don't it for a fact, I have reason to believe that if Page were publishing that book today it's language would be much more careful. At any rate, His leadership as the Pres of the XCom is proving to be a real help, not a hindrance to efforts to address our doctrinal tensions redemptively.

Your last full paragraph makes me wonder if you have read much of what I have written. Rather than recounting my views, I would simply appeal to my public track record which, while far from perfect or without blemish, does reveal a pretty consisten posture of addressing doctrinal concerns within the SBC for the last 30+ years. Forgive me if that comes across as arrogance. I am simply disinclined to rehash what I have written numerous times in various contexts over multiple decades.

My point about those who cannot abide the direction or efforts underway to see the SBC become even more useful and healthy in the future is simply this: If anyone is dispositionally or doctrinally or emotionally (or in any other way) so disposed that he or she cannot abide the kind of relationships and engagement that the current SBC situation requires, then it may be best for that person to find a group with whom he or she can more appropriately unite.

I mean not slight by this. I have some dear friends who simply cannot tolerate the kind of engagement that I regularly participate in due to my SBC connections. That does not make them lesser men or inferior in any way. It just makes them different from me in that area.

Hope this clarifies my views.


Darrin said...

Thanks, Tom. Your clarification was very helpful. And I do realize you have been a voice in the SBC for the doctrines of grace over the years, having read some of your work and heard of more, and I'm thankful for God's work through your ministry.

I suppose I'm more like the friends you mention, who find it difficult to operate with such diversity in a denomination's soteriology. In fact, I really think it becomes for us more a matter of conscience and conviction. Yet I do appreciate men like you who are led to stay and advance the truth from within. I just desire that you who strive for unity will continue to reach out to those who may have also been granted gifts in polemics, although their approach may be different. God can surely use them as well.

My wording wasn't the best, in that I didn't mean to imply that you were being arrogant. I guess I'm just putting a word of caution out there that pride is a danger for all: Calvinists in our Calvinism, Wesleyans in their Wesleyanism, and the tolerant in their tolerance, if that makes sense. I have heard some adopt an air of "I understand both sides, thus I am better than either," and such things. But you get my point.

I'm concerned that the difference on "who chose whom", even with a polity as you well-explained is in the SBC, may continue to cause issues. In my understanding, the Lord won't compromise on that, so I'm not sure how a denomination can, nor just how ecumenical we are called to be in this arena. But I hope and pray for the best for the SBC. May she come to know the glorious truth of "grace alone".

Thanks for your patience. May He continue to strengthen and guide you.

Yours in Christ,