Necessary Tension:: Diversity and the future of the SBC

What now? The convention’s annual meeting has ended and I’m sure that many of us are wondering, what now? To be honest, for the bloggers, that answer seems to be a varied one. As I’m sure many of you know by now, some bloggers are choosing to take time away from their blogging, others are changing their focus. Some of us don’t plan on changing much at all. That’s not what I want to talk about, however. Instead I want to propose a general concept, or philosophy, that I believe must be embraced if our convention is to avoid an eventual demise. I am convinced that we must find a place of significant commitment to what Ed Stetzer so ably alliterated, in what should be considered as one of the best convention messages in recent memory; and that is that we must contend, contextualize and cooperate. For the purposes of this post, I want to focus on the final of those three points, that being that we must cooperate. Cooperation is a funny thing. It only works when both sides choose to work together for the pursuit of a given task/goal. In the case of the convention, I am afraid that individuals on both sides of this divide have seemingly chosen to move away from cooperating as a result of ideological, theological and/or methodological differences. That division, whether intentional or otherwise, is moving us along the path of cooperation failure unless we choose to put aside differences and work together with the alternative being to elevate these differences and separate because of them. The answer, I believe, lies in our commitment to diversity and the reality that a greater commitment to diversity then is evident today, will only work to enhance our ability to be effective in ministry. I believe the diversity must be seen in a multitude of areas, but for the sake of this discussion I will deal with three areas only. Those areas will be geographic diversity, racial diversity and finally theological diversity.

Geographic Diversity

Over the past year or so I have consistently heard the refrain from some to move away from our historic affiliations which center around geographic locations, whether that means state conventions or local associations. The argument is being made that we are better served today to unite around commonalities and as such we will enhance our ministry. The argument, by the way, is not being made solely by younger Southern Baptists, interestingly enough. It is instead being encouraged by many people, including a plethora of older Southern Baptists. This concept, if enacted, would be detrimental in my opinion to the greatness of our work. The benefit of cooperation along lines chosen by affinity is obviously a like minded spirit that is not necessarily available through other methods. The detriment, I believe, is that we lose the accountability that is found in a diversity of opinion. We lose that necessity to have a coherent, easily repeatable statement on our position. When we forfeit geographic diversity (and through that, a diversity in form of churches) we more easily succumb to something that I call methocentrism; that is the understanding that one vein of methodology is simply superior to the others. We need diversity to remind us of the many incredible ways in which God operates as He endeavors to establish His kingdom and redeem fallen humanity.

Racial Diversity

While this is not new for probably anyone on this blog, the relative “whiteness” of our convention this year reminded me of the rainbow that is God’s creation. It is incumbent on us that we move to make our convention more representative of the coming Kingdom of heaven than its current vanilla flavor state. Diversity through the promotion of racial inclusion points us to a couple of important things. First it reminds us that God is simply color blind. As Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us in that oratorical classic, “I have a dream,” I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. We have come to a day where we recognize that God is the judge of the heart and not the skin and it is time that we embrace that. Secondly, however, not only does diversity remind us of God’s love for all people but it also reminds us of the fact that we are not alone. As we circulate in our arenas that are devoid of racial inclusion we may often find ourselves beginning to think, subconsciously, that we are all that there is. We begin to think that we have cornered the market, if you will. Our egocentric thinking is only fed and fostered as we limit our interaction to those who are just like us. As we embrace multi-cultural worship amongst our believing brothers and sisters and in and through our churches we will find ourselves much more representative of the throne room of God.

Not only must we be reminded by these issues, however, but we must also make ways to promote this type of thinking. We have begun to do so through items like the official apology of the SBC given at the 1995 meeting in Atlanta. We continued that tradition of written and even spoken affirmation of racial diversity this year through the resolution that was approved which repudiated the racism that was evident in the Dred Scott case some 150 years ago. That is simply not enough, however. There must be an attempt by both white pastors and black pastors and Hispanic pastors to intentionally include persons of other racial backgrounds in the assembling of staff. We must push for our churches to embrace, yes even promote, the integration of our churches. For the sake of the kingdom, we need racial diversity.

Theological Diversity

That title has already sent shivers up and down the spines of some well meaning people. As I begin this section, let me explain what I mean by this. I mean that we have minimal expectations within SBC life; these expectations are non-negotiable. We have chosen to express those through the Baptist Faith and Message. This document has provided for us a place to gather and call ourselves Southern Baptists. So, while I am calling for theological and doctrinal diversity, I am doing so within the framework of Baptist tradition and in a way which will uphold the most important of our beliefs, chief among them the inerrancy of scripture. We have given ourselves a theological and doctrinal "fence" if you will, and it's imperative that we play within that yard. So, having settled the fact that I am not encouraging the promotion of liberalism, let me elaborate on my point. In his message tonight, Dr. Ed Stetzer made a tremendous point when he said that in his opinion, the fact that Southern Baptist’s are arguing over theology is a good thing. His point, I believe, is that he would rather we argue over it then to merely dismiss it. As I have said in a previous post, I believe that there are two areas in which we derive our guidelines for faith and practice. The first would be the area of biblical command, and the second would be that of biblical conviction. Biblical command is the easy one. We see God’s Word, it clearly states a command, and we follow it. A good example would be “Thou shalt not commit adultery.” It’s clear, it’s inarguable, and it’s to be followed without reservation. The second area, however, is much more difficult, and that is the area where scripture may seem to point, or guide us, in a specific direction, but where that biblical guidance is unclear, and therefore debatable. An example of that would be the conviction to not use birth control or to keep your children out of public schools. Both of these are areas in which the one holding the conviction has drawn their conviction from biblical principles but the principles are not clearly stated in the Word of God. As such, the person holding the conviction has an obligation to obey the conviction but does NOT have the freedom to force their conviction upon others.

In convention life today we are threatened as a body with the desires of some who appear to want to take their debatable convictions and elevate them to the level of command. We must resist that, and promote some level of theological diversity, for a number of reasons. First we need a difference of opinion. My mom used to say to me that if two of us have the same opinion, one of us is unnecessary. Such is true in SBC life. Even closer to the truth is the reality that our diversity makes us necessary for each other. For many of the same reasons that I mentioned under the previous points, we need diversity to keep us sharp in areas that are debatable. The existence of theological diversity makes us better students of God’s Word. Secondly, however, we need theological diversity because, although God’s Word is infallible, we are not. The potential is very real for us to make horrific judgment calls in our exposition of a text. I mistrust myself enough, as a result of my sin nature, to know that I may make a mistake. To eliminate the existence of theological diversity smacks of an extreme attitude of theological arrogance. We must, in all humility, be very cautious in our debatable convictions. Third, and maybe most important, the Kingdom of God is at stake and our division over issues of theological import that really aren’t important at all moves our claims of “evangelical fervor” into the realm of mockery. Until we recognize that the souls of unbelieving humanity must take precedent over meaningless, insignificant theological “battles” we will continue to displease God.

So, in conclusion, this post is a plea for diversity. Whether it be geographic, racial or theological in nature, there is a significant need or us to promote diversity. We must come to a place where we recognize our need for each other and our inability to effectively reach our world for Christ on our own. It is time that we recognize that when we agree on the essential issues of our faith and practice, as evidenced in the Baptist Faith and Message, we must celebrate our diversity and embrace the necessary tension that has historically made our convention great. Finally, let me remind you in case you missed this in my post, diversity is not the end game. Diversity is, I believe, a necessary reality in this pursuit of the nations. While I want, and believe God wants, diversity, the point is glorifying God and leading people to Christ; nothing more, nothing less.