Whenever the Southern Baptist Convention gathers in times of trials and turmoil, one thing is certain — someone will preach a sermon that makes a difference.
That’s how Southern Baptists do what they do. These sermons may not produce as many headlines as SBC elections or fiery debates about hot-button social issues. But the sermons matter.
The big sermon during the 2021 convention in Nashville came at a logical moment — when SBC President J.D. Greear gave his farewell address just before tense voting to elect his successor.
In this “defining moment” address, the leader of the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, offered a stinging quote about an elephant that has camped in the SBC fellowship hall.
“We have to decide,” Greear said, “if we want our convention primarily to be a political voting bloc or if we want it to be a Great Commission people. ... Whenever the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant, and the offspring does not look like our Father in heaven.”
America is important, he stressed. But America is not the whole picture for believers striving to build churches around the world. “God has not called us primarily to save America politically. He has called us to make the Gospel known to all,” said Greear.
Southern Baptists can agree that “no compromise should be tolerated” on crucial social issues, he said. And no one wants to stop defending the inerrant truth of the Bible.
“We are not talking about being ambiguous on the sanctity of life and marriage, the sinfulness of homosexuality, God’s design in gender,” he said. “These are things faithful Christians cannot disagree on, and our consciences are captive in these areas to the Word of God.”
The question, he said, is how SBC leaders and pastors handle these issues when working with seekers and unbelievers. And at some point, Southern Baptists need to admit that they will not agree, every time, on what political strategies to use while defending doctrine.
“When we make our political calculus synonymous with Gospel faithfulness, we do a disservice to Christ,” he stressed. Sometimes, “Gospel maturity means knowing which things should divide, and which should not.”
The SBC’s presidential election was tight, with Rev. Ed Litton of Alabama receiving 52% in a runoff with Rev. Mike Stone of Georgia — a 556-vote win. Stone is a leader in the growing Conservative Baptist Network, which has attacked Greear, Litton and other centrists in what remains a very conservative SBC on doctrinal issues.
Nevertheless, this convention took actions that were hard to label, such as:
• Changing the SBC constitution to break “friendly cooperation” with churches that fail to act in a manner consistent “with the Convention’s beliefs” on sexual abuse and those that “affirm, approve or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.”
• Overwhelmingly approving — after leaked recordings raised questions about some SBC leaders downplaying sexual abuse accusations — a third-party investigation of 20 years of work by its own Executive Committee.
• Passing a resolution condemning China’s campaign of “genocide” against Uyghurs and other ethnic Muslims, while asking U.S. leaders to “prioritize the admission of Uyghurs to this country as refugees.”
• Approving a resolution condemning the “Capitol insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021 ... as inconsistent with faithful Christian citizenship.”
While refusing to condemn or endorse critical race theory, the convention rejected “any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic,” as well as repudiating “any theory or worldview that denies that racism, oppression or discrimination is rooted, ultimately, in anything other than sin.”
It’s crucial, Greear stressed, for Southern Baptists to listen to the concerns of Black Southern Baptists — engaging in “robust, careful, Bibles-open, on-our-knees discussions” about CRT and racism.
“Justice is a major theme in our Bibles,” he added, and “of course Satan, the angel of light, is going to produce counterfeits for it, and on this issue we need to ensure that we are more shaped by the Scriptures than we are by the world.” But the SBC must make it “clear that we stand with our brothers and sisters of color in their suffering, lamenting the pain of their past and pledging to work tirelessly for justice in our present.”
Terry Mattingly leads GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.