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.

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…