The Tennessee Baptist and Reflector recently published an article in which Bobby Whelch reflected on his two-year Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) presidency. Despite the following remarks, I must commend Pastor Whelch for his enthusiasm and commitment to evangelism. He spared no expense as an unabashed gospel preacher. God be praised for such a feisty champion for and example to us all.
I was, however, taken aback by the following comment by Whelch quoted in the article:
“I have considered all other options and there is nothing in existence today – all of us will die and our children will die, before we will ever again see any organization or organism [such] as the SBC with its potential to change the world. There is nothing to compare with it.”
I’m not sure if Whelch was misquoted, misguided or mistaken. Perhaps he was caught up in a flood of exuberance that overflowed into exaggeration. Nevertheless, it appears to be a careless overstatement of the role of the SBC in God’s Kingdom.
In Matthew 16.18 Jesus promised only one indestructible gospel institution: the church. According to Jesus there is nothing to compare with her. And since the SBC is not a church it cannot be considered a superior institution to her. Perhaps when considering “all other options” Whelch overlooked the local church. The SBC will eventually die along with us and our children, but the church of the Lord Jesus will remain as the foremost and most powerful agent of change in the world. Add “parachurch” before “organization” in the above quote and I slither back into my hole.
Our town does not have a local SBC office from which all gospel ministry is coordinated. It has local churches (some of them SBC), from which gospel ministry (hopefully) explodes. And our town is not better off necessarily because the SBC exists, but because the gospel of the Lord Jesus exists in various local church expressions. To claim that the SBC is the heretofore unprecedented organization for gospel progress is to deflate the reason why I pastor a local church. Why labor to preach each week if all we need is LifeWay? Why fund seminaries to train pastors if we undercut pastoral ministry with such elitism?
I’m confident it offends the other local non-SBC pastors who faithfully labor to preach Christ’s gospel. Are their efforts inferior simply because they are not affiliated with the SBC? Might the local independent Baptist church or Bible church or Presbyterian church be doing just as much to effect equitorial New Guinea for Christ as the SBC? How did the church even survive before 1845? We boast of preaching Christ alone we are really saying, “Repent and believe in Jesus: it’s the Southern Baptist way.”
Generally speaking, the SBC suffers from an addiction to numbers. As long as we have more, raise more and spend more we must be better at gospel ministry than anyone else. That’s why SBC publications broadcast those numbers that are impressive and avoid those statistics that smudge the record. See my cocky May 16th post for an example.
I thank God for those who gathered in Memphis recently to issue the Memphis Declaration on behalf of concerned Southern Baptists. I commend to you declaration #2:
“We publicly repent of an arrogant spirit that has infected our partnership with fellow Christians in the advance of the gospel of Jesus Christ, without the hearing of which men are incapable of conversion.
“Therefore, we commit ourselves to a renewed pledge to partner with Great Commission Christians for the glory of Jesus Christ, who is proclaimed with power when his disciples are at peace with one another.”
I wonder if the greater rumbling in the SBC is less along Calvinist/Arminian faultline and more on an elitist/non-elitist front. The latter is what most effects the perspective toward Southern Baptist’s in mainstream culture. The latter is what fosters local skiddishness toward our local church. Folks don’t immediately associate “Southern Baptist” with Calvinism or Arminianism; they think of arrogance and intolerance. And Pastor Whelch’s comment doesn’t help relieve that image.
Like many SBC churches, our church is committed to the doctrines of grace and is willing to risk that reputation in the community. However, we suffer from the “executive” decisions that make the SBC appear anything but winsome in our witness. To risk an SBC reputation (rather than a Calvinist one) more often hinders our efforts than helps them.
The SBC exists to strengthen local church ministry (or missions, more specifically), not vice versa. And it should be willing to simplify, diversify, or say goodbye for the sake of local church ministry. But, then again, I’m just a local small church pastor. Perhaps I’ll call the home office to see what I really think.