SBC President Fred Luter preaches during the 2013 SBC Pastors Conference. He was elected unopposed during the SBC annual convention in Houston this week. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)
SBC President Fred Luter preaches during the 2013 SBC Pastors Conference. He was elected unopposed during the SBC annual convention in Houston this week. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)

SBC messengers learn to get along

Richard Land suggests that SBC convention unity resulted from Baptists taking on cultural issues instead of themselves.

By Jeff Brumley

Southern Baptists experienced little antagonism during their annual convention in Houston this week – a phenomenon that surprised some and delighted most SBC officials and messengers.

There were plenty of opportunities for controversy. Debates ensued – but remained cordial – during consideration of high-profile resolutions combating child sexual abuse, promoting mental health and responding to the Boy Scouts’ new policy on gay members.

Some thought the report on Calvinism in the convention would ignite simmering tensions.

But none of that happened. Internally and externally, there are different theories as to why.

‘Not mad at each other’

Richard Land proposed that SBC President Fred Luter’s unopposed run for a second term dampened potential discord.

“The only concern for me was the low attendance, which surprises me in Houston,” the outgoing president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission told ABPnews.

The unofficial attendance for the Tuesday and Wednesday gathering was just under 5,200 messengers, which is down from around 7,800 last year in New Orleans. But it’s still more than about 4,800 in Phoenix in 2011, according to Baptist Press figures.

A possible explanation for low attendance in Houston may also explain why the convention went so smoothly this year, Land said: Southern Baptists are united in fighting cultural trends instead of each other.

“Southern Baptists weren’t upset with fellow Southern Baptists about anything,” he said.

Easing Calvinist tensions

If that’s the case, some rank-and-file messengers said, Executive Committee President Frank Page has to get the credit for that.

“He had a very big hand in keeping everybody together,” said messenger Robert Anderson, pastor of Colonial Baptist Church near Baltimore.

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He did that by appointing an advisory group of leading Calvinist and non-Calvinist Southern Baptists to find ways to bridge that theological gap.

Their ensuing report, “Finding a Way Forward” was presented and discussed in a question-and-answer session during Monday’s Pastors Conference.

That report and presentation were “brilliant,” Anderson said, because it models an agree-to-disagree approach that puts the focus on the gospel and evangelism, Anderson said.

The process “reminded us what our common purpose is,” he said. “Otherwise, Calvinism can be one more thing to divide us.”

Speaking to the culture

That unity enabled the convention to speak to the SBC’s roughly 45,000 churches, and to the wider society, with a unified and compassionate voice on some of the most pressing issues of the day, said Russell Moore, the new president of the ERLC.

The Scouting resolution took “a balanced, middle way” that offers support to churches that want to quit Scouts, and those that want to stay, Moore said during a Wednesday press conference.

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It did not, he added, “call fire down from heaven” on the BSA, as some had probably expected.

“Many in our culture were expecting a caustic response” to the Scouts’ decision to permit boys with homosexual orientations to join the organization, Moore said.

Through other resolutions, the convention decided to stand with prisoners, the mentally ill and victims of human trafficking, he said.

“I think it was a signal to the culture, and a reminder to ourselves, of what’s important,” Moore said.

'It's about time'

Baptist historian Bill Leonard said he was struck by the language of unity emanating from the 2013 convention -- especially regarding the potentially divisive Calvinism issue. 

bill-leonardThe Wake Forest Divinity School theologian said Southern Baptists have become accustomed to fighting -- first during battles with moderates over biblical inerrancy and then among themselves over politics, sexuality, Jews and Disney -- but now messengers have good reason to get along.

"One reason for the effort at easing conflict is the reality of the times for the SBC," Leonard told ABPnews in an e-mail. That reality, he said, includes declining memberships and baptisms, shrinking finances, an aging constituency, churches dropping the Baptist name and distancing themselves from the convention structure and the impact of the "nones." 

"These are soul searching days for the denomination, and they need all the unity they can muster in order to try and recapture energy, vision and promise for their approach to the gospel," Leonard said. "It's about time."

‘A moral force’

Even some who were initially skeptical that messengers would do the right thing left Houston feeling otherwise.

Peter Lumpkins, author of the resolution urging Southern Baptists to take child sexual abuse more seriously, said he thought the measure would never make it out of committee.

Lumpkins, a pastor and messenger from Georgia, said he was disappointed when the resolution emerged from the committee without an original provision asking denominational leaders to distance themselves from outside figures implicated in sexual abuse scandals.

It was a reference to Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, lending public support to a Calvinist leader accused in a lawsuit of covering up child sexual abuse.

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But Lumpkins successfully proposed an amendment re-inserting the language.

“We have been pounded as Southern Baptists on this issue, saying we are unconcerned or that we protect child molesters,” Lumpkins said Wednesday. “I don’t think that’s who Southern Baptists are.”

Approval of the resolution, he added, “expresses what Southern Baptist’s believe about this and it carries a moral force with it.”