The Goal: Real Unity

To my surprise, Brad Reynolds (professor and Vice President of Academic Services at Truett-McConnell University) and I (a rural Texas pastor) have engaged in public discourse for nearly a month now. The exchange of ideas has likely been more interesting to some and less to others, but I have certainly benefitted from the interaction. In this, my third contribution to the discussion, I’d like to attempt a significant movement towards my own end-goal.

In his most recent article, Mr. Reynolds offered our exchange as a teaching tool for the interested reader. He believes, it seems, we have been exemplary. I am not entirely sure, however, if he thinks my example has been one to follow or one to avoid. At any rate, my hopeful posture is the same as his in regard to the benefit our exchange may provide other Southern Baptists.

Cutting to the chase, I want to argue that the disagreement we should be focusing on is not the one Mr. Reynolds seems intent on highlighting. Instead of continually bantering back and forth about our distinct perspectives on political engagement or community involvement, I believe the more important disagreement is over the real inclusion of a different voice in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and its various entities.

First, Mr. Reynolds’ article that began this whole discussion insisted on the removal of Russell Moore from the ERLC. The basis of Dr. Moore’s removal, in the mind of Mr. Reynolds, is that he does not “represent us” (the “us” referring to the average member of the SBC). In my response, I argued that the “us” Mr. Reynolds tried to describe was a much broader group than he initially postulated.

I presented a perspective that I believe exemplifies a significant group of SBC members who agree with and are encouraged by many of Dr. Moore’s words and actions. The point of my response to Mr. Reynolds was not to argue against his views, but instead to argue that his views do not fully represent the SBC. He has but one perspective, and there are indeed others.

Second, Mr. Reynolds’ response to my initial contribution was a doubling down on his previously articulated perspective. It seemed to me that Mr. Reynolds felt as though I was mischaracterizing his position, and his chief purpose appeared to be further clarity. This is an admirable goal, no doubt, but it is not what I believe is the most important matter at hand.

I responded to his second article with another of my own. Unable to resist the urge to punch a couple of holes in what I believed to be an obfuscation of some major concerns, I engaged Mr. Reynolds’ views on political and social matters before I reaffirmed my basic desire for agreement on the deeper issue. I now regret the first half of my second article, not because I would pull away from the substance, but because the banter is beside (and a distraction from) the more important point.

Third, and finally, the more important point is our disagreement concerning the very existence of different views inside of the SBC. I say this is a good and necessary thing, Mr. Reynolds says something different. He asserts that Russel Moore should remove himself (or be removed) from the ERLC since he does not represent those in the SBC like Mr. Reynolds.

Mr. Reynolds says that he does allow for different views and he gladly welcomes such variant perspectives from his own among the SBC. However, he is simultaneously calling for the removal of an SBC leader who represents a different view. It appears that Mr. Reynolds does not understand that he is denying and affirming the same thing at the same time. I am no seminary professor, but that sounds like a contradiction to me.

Mr. Reynolds seems to demand that Dr. Moore represent a perspective he does not have, but a double-minded man is unstable in all his ways. This is a ridiculous expectation, and it is the primary reason for my entering this discussion in the first place. If Mr. Reynolds is only willing to allow a different voice in the SBC when it has no real influence or platform, then this is no real allowance.

Either Mr. Reynolds (and others like him) will abide the voice of those like me in the SBC (including when those voices are in leadership positions), or he (and they) will not. If there is a willingness to coalesce around more important things (such as the Gospel and several Southern Baptist distinctives), then we shall see great days ahead. If there is only the desire for an echo-chamber regarding a full range of practical issues, then the SBC will continue to slowly drift into irrelevance and obscurity.

Once again, my hope and prayer is for genuine unity among the SBC.

May God grant us the kind of lasting unity that is strong enough to allow disagreement on lesser things.

Barny B: Unveiled & Hopeful

When I wrote my public reaction to Brad Reynolds’ debut of “Bobby and Bonnie Baptist” I was not thinking about an ongoing public dialogue with a university professor. I merely hoped to exemplify what I believe is an often unheard voice in the conversation Mr. Reynolds and others are having about the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). But as Mr. Reynolds said in his recent response to me, this conversation may indeed be a valuable addition to the ongoing discussion. With that in mind, I offer the following as another contribution to this exchange.

The interested reader would profit from reading each of the previous articles, providing background for the topic at hand. First, Mr. Reynolds wrote “Bobby Baptist and the ERLC” then I wrote “Barnabas Baptist & Bobby Baptist” and then Mr. Reynolds responded by writing “Bobby Meets Barnabas Baptist

In Mr. Reynolds’ response to my article, he claimed to assume well of me, and he said my pastoral role should grant me some respect. For both I am grateful, and I aim for a respectful dialogue on my part as well. However, Mr. Reynolds does appear to understand (as do I) that respect does not exclude one from criticism.

As much as I enjoyed creatively inventing “Barnabas and Beatrice Baptist,” and as much as speaking through a fictitious character would allow me some distance through which I might relieve myself of full responsibility for my words, I am not clever enough to continue with the caricatures. Please allow me to proceed with this discussion straightforwardly (as Marc, rather than Barny).

I believe Mr. Reynolds has exemplified the kind of unhelpful response that guys like me perceive from those who more closely align with “Bobby Baptist.” Rather than interacting with my attempts to convey an alternate viewpoint, he has merely repeated his previous assertions in a slightly different format.

For example, Mr. Reynolds did not engage with my desire to address the problem of abortion on a local and individual level. He simply restated and expanded his position regarding a vote for pro-life candidates. God help us if casting a vote for someone with a “pro-life” platform is the only way (or even the primary way) a Southern Baptist can demonstrate pro-life conviction.

Furthermore, unless a president is willing and able to utterly abolish abortion (two giant assumptions), then Mr. Reynolds’ argument is much less potent than he seems to think it is. We both agree that abortion is a horrendous evil, so the repetition is a non-engagement of the real conversation. Can Mr. Reynolds and I agree that there are many ways the faithful Christian can address the issue of abortion? I hope so.

Another example of simple dismissal was Mr. Reynolds’ refusal to acknowledge any excuses concerning Donald Trump’s immorality. Mr. Reynolds said he did not know of “any Christian with [his] views who offers excuses [for Donald Trump].” My observation of Donald Trump as a perverse and pompous man was “dismissed” and, according to Mr. Reynolds, it has “no place in our discussion.”

Such a dismissal is both frustrating and disheartening. The citations I have provided below took less than 5 minutes to discover through a few Google searches. What is recorded in these citations is just a brief introduction to the kind of rhetoric that was common during the months leading up to the presidential election last year.

Jerry Falwell Jr. and Franklin Graham both made solid efforts to draw any focus away from then-candidate Trump’s repulsive behavior (see evidence HERE and HERE). Falwell went so far as to suggest an anti-Trump conspiracy to draw attention away from the reality that there was glaring evidence of unacceptable conduct. Graham defended Trump by claiming that he has a “very good family.” Donald Trump has a good family? Whatever standard of measurement Graham used, we can know it is not a biblical one.

Beth Moore, Trillia Newbell, Thabiti Anyabwile, and Dr. Albert Mohler Jr. all saw the same excuses I did among some of those who endorsed Donald Trump as a candidate for President of the United States (see evidence HERE). As with Dr. Russell Moore, my concern is not particularly focused on the many Southern Baptists could ‘hold their nose’ and vote for Trump. Not everyone who voted for Trump excused him, but some (even some evangelical public figures) did. The Southern Baptists I tried to represent in my article (as Barny) are flabbergasted that any Christian (SBC or otherwise) could excuse Trump’s despicable character.

Mr. Reynolds said he “would never speak of the President (Obama or Trump) as a despicable man.” He said he tries not to use “such terminology about any person created in God’s image.” But this is exactly the kind of thing that troubles people like me. If Trump’s antics are not despicable (appalling, shameful, disgraceful), then when do we use this term?

This back-and-forth could continue, but that was not my intention in the beginning, and it is not my intention now. My intention is to show that Mr. Reynolds does not speak for the “average SBC member” as comprehensively as he seems to claim. This is the point we must see in order to proceed healthfully.

In his first article, Mr. Reynolds argued that Russell Moore does not understand or represent the average Southern Baptist (exemplified by his character, Bobby). Mr. Reynolds described Bobby as “a contractor who works 8-10 hours a day, five days a week” and has “four young grandchildren.”

I acknowledged that Mr. Reynolds is right when he says that “Bobby Baptist” is the larger demographic among the SBC today (ages 50-64 make up 33% of the SBC), but I pointed out that the typical Southern Baptist would soon be someone much different than Bobby (see Pew Research HERE and SBC statistics HERE). The reason for my doing this was to show that the “us” Mr. Reynolds sought to describe in his representative (Bobby) is not so neatly defined – even now.

Whether Mr. Reynolds wants to stand by his age demographic or not, the reality is that he sought to present a description of who the SBC is. It was also on that basis that Mr. Reynolds said, “[Dr. Moore should] either represent us or remove himself.”

This is precisely the issue, and this is what I think Mr. Reynolds failed to address. Does Mr. Reynolds stand by this demand concerning Dr. Moore? Will Mr. Reynolds acknowledge with me that the typical Southern Baptist is not an easy thing to define? Can Mr. Reynolds put down the defense of his views and allow for a different voice than his own in the SBC and ERLC? Or must every public and leading SBC voice sound like his?

The character I presented, Barnabas Baptist, was not an attempt to argue for the rightness of one perspective over the other. Instead, my hope (then and now) is that those within the SBC will be able to abide the existence of disagreement on the details.

Mr. Reynolds and I (and our respective caricatures, Barny and Bobby) don’t need to agonize over coming to a full-orbed understanding of one another until we can both agree to assemble and cooperate in the same convention. This will require an acquiescence of differing voices – on both our parts. I already and desire to continue to do just that, and I hope Mr. Reynolds will do the same.

Only after the defenses are put down will Bobby (those like Mr. Reynolds) and Barny (those like me) have any hope of coming to a mutual understanding.

May God grant us unity in the things that matter (such as the Gospel of Christ and core Southern Baptist distinctives), and may God graciously spare us from tearing each other apart in the mean time.

Barnabas Baptist & Bobby Baptist

Russell Moore has been the focus of concern over recent months. His sharp criticism of President Trump before he was elected (during the primaries and the general election) and especially his analysis of fellow Evangelicals has drawn a lot of fire. Dr. Moore repeatedly warned conservative Evangelicals (particularly Southern Baptists) about a moral responsibility to speak and vote honestly and consistently. Whatever one thinks of Russell Moore, and whatever one thinks of his tone, the criticisms and the warnings are at least worth hearing.

I recently read an article by Brad Reynolds that sought to simplify and explain the growing rift between the ERLC and the average Southern Baptist. The author cleverly created a fictitious character named “Bobby Baptist” to tell the story.

“Bobby is a contractor who works 8-10 hours a day, five days a week. He and his wife (Bonnie – an elementary school teacher) have four young grandchildren. Bobby and Bonnie both have Facebook accounts as they endeavor to keep up with their grandkids. This medium is where they get most of their news (not CNN or NY TIMES).”

Bobby is “frustrated” with Dr. Moore and the ERLC because of a misunderstanding, said Reynolds. The misunderstanding is not on the part of Bobby Baptist, however.

According to Reynolds, Bobby “saw the concern of a presidential nominee with a very immoral past, he saw the concern of race relations, and he certainly understands hypocrisy [three concerns Dr. Moore said many people do not see, which he is trying to highlight]. It is not that Bobby Baptist didn’t see these concerns; rather it is that Dr. Moore misunderstands Bobby.”

“What frustrates Bobby,” the author continued, is Dr. Moore’s inability to grasp, affirm, and promote Bobby’s position. Bobby believes it is his “Christian duty” to “trust” and “forgive” a man who is imperfect – like President Trump. Moreover, Bobby believes that the issue of abortion outweighs all others combined, and he thinks other issues are not worthy of discussion until this one is resolved.

I think there is some merit to Reynolds’ article, and he should be commended for his honest attempt at clarity. However, I think Reynolds has depicted the confusion and frustration from only one perspective, and this (as I see it) is precisely the problem.

Baptists are an arguing bunch. This has been true from the beginning, and it will remain true as long as there continue to be congregational Christians who believe in the responsibility of each Christ-follower to stand upon his/her biblical convictions. We don’t have a presbytery or a synod or a council to decree from on high what our denominational position is going to be on a given subject. We hold fast the essential confession of faith in the Gospel and the Christ who saves, but on the non-essentials we have much liberty. This means there is going to be disagreement, and such intermural debate does not have to divide us.

That said, “Bobby Baptist” may be the average Southern Baptist, but he will not be 10 or 15 years from now. Those younger (age 18-49) Southern Baptists who are coming up under and alongside “Bobby Baptist” are going to be the average Southern Baptist soon (as they move into the older demographics). They are a large number now (see Pew Research HERE), and they are increasing their activity in the SBC (see 2014 SBC statistics HERE).

For the sake of the simple storyline, let’s call this up-and-coming average SBC member “Barnabas Baptist.”

Barnabas is a married father of three children. He works hard at his job, but he values leisure and family time much more than vocational prestige. Barnabas’s wife, Beatrice, homeschools their young children, and she tries to carve out a night each week to open their home to a few neighborhood families. They are slowly building relationships over dinner, with discipleship intentions. Barny and Bee don’t watch TV, they carefully choose news outlets that will give them a broad perspective on the issues, and they do not like the partisan politics of American culture. They faithfully attend weekly worship services, and they see local time and energy investments in their community as their Christian duty and privilege.

Barny and Bee care very much about the more than 1,800 babies aborted each day in America, but they believe that they can make more of a difference locally than nationally. They have become licensed foster parents, and one of their children was adopted a couple of years ago. They are gracious to those who do not love and serve Christ, and they have high expectations for those who do. Barny and Bee have watched nominal Christianity become a real-life comic strip, and they are ashamed of the reputation Christianity has earned in America. They are doing their part to live as pilgrims, with citizenship in a kingdom that is yet to come.

When Dr. Moore points out the foolish efforts of many evangelicals today, who offer excuses for a despicable man simply because he is a Republican and he says he is against abortion, Barny and Bee hear words that resonate with their own thoughts. They would end abortion today if they could, but they also realize that how you do the right thing will have an impact on the future too. They wonder why “Bobby and Bonnie Baptist” are unwilling to listen to their concerns about the Christian witness of those who associate themselves with pompous political populists for the sake of partisan conquest.

You see Barny and Bee do want many of the same things Bobby and Bonnie want, but Barny and Bee simply do not believe that political power is how to make them happen. In fact, they believe political power is working against their biblical and moral goals at the moment, and they think that opposition is likely to grow. Therefore, they are disheartened by Bobby and Bonnie’s staunch grip on what appears to be a failed idea. Barny and Bee do not hope in the rise of a silent moral majority, they do not await a political rescuer, and they do not think “Republican” is the Christian party.

Therefore, Dr. Moore’s criticisms ring a clear bell that needs to be heard… at least from the perspective of Barnabas and Beatrice Baptist. While Bobby and Bonnie may not like that Dr. Moore is poking at some of their long-held comforts, they would do well to stop shouting down a man who is the public voice of so many Southern Baptists beside them. This is especially disheartening since Bobby and Bonnie should care more about the future of their denomination than the future of their political party.

From my perspective, Barnabas and Beatrice and Bobby and Bonnie all have great points on which they agree. The focus should not be on shutting one side down in favor of the other, but to encourage an ongoing discussion (and even debate) about how the two perspectives can help each other see one another’s blind spots. I think Paul says something about this in Titus 2, but I wonder if Southern Baptists are still “people of the book” as they once were.

Time will tell…