I am deeply distressed that, just as the Southern Baptist Convention is poised to take a big step forward in New Orleans by electing our first African-American president, another of our long-simmering disagreements is erupting into a full-blown argument. Instead of a badly needed witness to racial reconciliation, the world may watch us in New Orleans as we do what they think we do best — argue about doctrine.
This time the issue is how salvation works. One side insists our founders were convictional Calvinists: lost souls are incapable of responding to God’s grace on their own. The other side argues Southern Baptists have traditionally believed individuals must make a personal and free response to the Gospel. That the argument is coming to a head in the run-up to the annual meeting in New Orleans cannot be a coincidence.
We spent the better part of the past century disassociating ourselves from doctrinal error. When we finally purged our ranks of those who had drunk too deeply at the well of theological liberalism, we turned our sights on each other. Had we become so accustomed to focusing on how “they” differed from “us” that we no longer knew how brothers dwell together in unity? Have we been fighting civil wars so long that we cannot credibly take a message of peace to a lost world?
That lost world doubts any of us still authentically represents the Kingdom of Peace.
Jude exhorts us to “earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints,” and that we certainly ought to do. But Jude was warning about false teachers who had wormed their way into the churches, preaching a heresy that because of God’s grace, believers could live in immorality. Is that kind of heresy being taught in our midst today? Of course not! We are going to divide the house over which theory of salvation represents “what Southern Baptists have always believed,” as if that were possible.
Does anyone think a 1,600-year-old disagreement is suddenly going to be resolved by another argument?
Go ahead. Lock and load. Mount up. Do battle. Don’t stop to wonder whether the war you wage against your brother has anything to do with the fact that so many of our churches have dropped out of the denominational scene. It’s probably just a coincidence that while we have been arguing a younger generation has decided it wants nothing to do with the church. Why would our bickering make people think we can’t offer any solutions for the problems destroying their lives?
If only you would lay aside your heavy books for a moment and get involved with the hurting people huddled in the alleyways and under the overpasses of your city. If only you would consider that the “sheep” Jesus will welcome into the kingdom will be those who personally helped “the least of these,” not those who scored the most points in a debate, or racked up the most page views on their blog, or got the most votes at the annual meeting.
I’m brought close to tears by the irony of Jude’s letter. You believe you are earnestly contending for the true faith, as he exhorted, but Jude’s real desire, he said, was to write about the great salvation we share in Christ. How ironic — how sad, how pathetic — that salvation is what you now feel compelled to argue about with each other.
Stop, brothers, I beg you. Don’t be drawn into controversial questions and disputes about words. Return to your first love and do the deeds you did at first. Rediscover the kingdom. Focus your best energies on loving God and your neighbor. Take good news to the poor and proclaim release for the captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed.
I’m not as much worried about embarrassing our good brother, Fred Luter, in what should be a moment of celebration for our great convention of churches — though that embarrassment is bad enough. I’m more concerned that we are in danger of the Lord removing our candlestick from among the churches. I am concerned he will finally grow weary of our arguing and cast us aside in disgust, like salt that has lost its saltiness. I am concerned he will decide to take the talents entrusted to us and give them to servants who will multiply them.
Will we take this argument to New Orleans? I hope not. Lord willing, that gathering might get us so passionate about the Kingdom that we completely forget we were arguing at all.
— Mark Kelly