By David Waters
It’s a shame that this year’s Southern Baptist Convention didn’t get more attention from the news media. True, there were no controversial challenges to Mormons or Jews or Disney. There was no inward doctrinal cleansing or outward political consternation.
But while the annual meeting of America’s largest body of Protestants avoided culture clashes and church fights, delegates (messengers, they call them) didn’t ignore difficult issues, choosing to “wrestle” — as religion journalist Terry Mattingly put it — with corporate and personal sin, and denominational salvation.
As I noted last week, the SBC meeting in Orlando adopted a surprisingly strongly worded resolution expressing its collective dismay about the gulf oil spill and urging the government “to ensure full corporate accountability for damages, clean-up, and restoration.” It added that people and industries “are accountable to higher standards than to profit alone.”
The convention also made a statement about the “scandal of Southern Baptist divorce,” noting that despite the convention’s regular defense of the sanctity of marriage, studies indicate that conservative Protestants divorce at rates equal to or higher than the general population. The resolution “acknowledged the complicity of many among us for too often failing to show the world the meaning of the gospel through marital fidelity.”
In interviews with Mattingly and other journalists, resolutions committee chairman Russell Moore, dean of the theology school at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, explained that Baptists need to broaden and deepen their definitions of sin.
On the gulf oil spill and corporate sin:
“A solid doctrine of sin is what has kept most evangelicals from sliding into a utopian view of government,” Moore told Mattingly. “We understand the sin nature of human beings. We understand that checks and balances are needed, when you are dealing with human institutions. Well, now we need to understand that corporations must be watched carefully. Planned Parenthood is a corporation. Playboy is a corporation. British Petroleum is a corporation, too.”
On Southern Baptist divorce and personal sin:
“We have to speak just as clearly and with just as much force and alarm, indeed with more so, to the sins that are rampant among ourselves as we do to the things that are on the outside,” Moore said. “Unfortunately, I think sometimes things seem obvious to us when they are not near to us. And so we’re able to speak to those things prophetically, but when something is very close to us we tend to lose perspective and not to speak to those things.”
“One of the things that the committee wished to do is to speak first to ourselves and to call ourselves to repentance and accountability, so that with credibility we can speak to the outside world and say, ‘Here is redemption that is found in the Gospel, and here is the justice of God.’”
Mark Silk at Spiritual Politics wonders if these are signs of a denomination “desperate to attract young people to stem its ebbing numbers.”
Southern Baptist baptisms and membership have been declining for years, after decades of theological and political purification. “We are a denomination in decline,” Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, wrote on the “Between the Times” blog sponsored by Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Some don’t like to admit it. But, the decline of SBC membership is not a matter of debate. It is a matter of math.”
The most heated debate at this year’s convention was over a plan (which was approved) to redistribute denominational funds from old-line Southern states to less-evangelized parts of the United States and Canada. “We cannot keep the majority of our resources in a church-saturated land while billions of people go to a Christ-less eternity,” Jonathan Woodward, a messenger from Indiana, said during lengthy debate over the plan.
The debate over the SBC’s future was summed up by two of its most respected leaders:
“(The plan) is about moving the chairs on the deck of the Titanic while the ship goes down into an icy, watery grave,” executive committee chairman Morris Chapman told the convention.
On the contrary, said former SBC president James Merritt. “We’ve been sitting on our deck-side lounges watching the ship sail into the iceberg of declining baptisms, diminishing missions and what has become a dead orthodoxy.”
The Southern Baptist Convention is far from dead, and never dull.ormer
shift NAMB funding away from old-line Southern states to less-evangelized parts of the United States and Canada.1 percent of the Cooperative Program, the SBC’s unified budget, from the Executive Committee to the International Mission Board. One percent of the IMB budget translates into 46 missionaries, who will present the gospel to people all around the world who never have heard of Jesus, he said.
“That represents more than dollars on a spreadsheet,” he added. “It represents the heart” of Southern Baptists’ passion for the gospel.