Reflections on My First SBC Annual Meeting

I did not grow up a Southern Baptist.  In fact, I only stumbled into the denomination 12 years ago.  But every year I become happier and happier to be associated with this great tradition and organization.  And this year’s Convention in St. Louis, MO, made me more pleased than ever before to be a Baptist.

 

Maybe I am set up for future disappointment.  I hear that these meetings are not always as eventful.  Attendance was up.  Emotions were high.  We gathered in the immediate wake of the worst mass shooting in our country’s history in Orlando.  We remembered the tragic shooting in Charleston one year earlier and acknowledged the racially charged atmosphere reflected in nearby Ferguson, MO.  Racism was explicitly addressed in a panel and in the controversial resolution on the Confederate battle flag.  ‘Election’ also loomed large.  The theological understanding of the term was a subtext for the hotly contested SBC presidential election.  And the upcoming U.S. presidential election was in everyone’s mind.

 

Yet it was not just the drama that made this meeting significant for me.  There was one critical theological concept lurking behind many of the memorable moments.  It lies at the heart of what it means to be Baptist.  I am referring to Religious Liberty – the belief that no religion should be established by the state, but all faiths should be free to win adherents through the power of persuasion and not the sword.

 

Amid the flurry of motions, one brother from Arkansas requested the removal of Southern Baptist officials or officers who support a right for Muslims in America to build mosques.  The next day after the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission Report, the same brother pressed Russell Moore on the issue, likening the defense of the right to construct mosques to Jesus endorsing the erection of temples for Baal in ancient Israel.

 

Dr. Moore’s response was sharp and received by the majority of messengers with applause.  He defended the principle of soul freedom for everyone and declared, “The answer to Islam is not government power.  The answer is the gospel of Jesus Christ and the new birth that comes from that.”

 

In our history, Baptists have been persecuted by the government for non-conformity.  We have seen the damage done by state churches to true religion.  We do not baptize babies, in part, because we believe you cannot be born a Christian.  Everyone must be genuinely converted without coercion.  This should compel us to a radical witness to our Muslim neighbors and refugees, not to seek political action against them.

 

In the New Testament era the church is an altogether different institution than the state, with distinct ends and means.  The two cannot be confused.  So today the proper analog to Baal altars in Israel is not Islamic Centers in Wheaton.  It is idolatry in the corporate worship of the Church.

 

Patriotism definitely has its place, but perhaps one appropriate application would be to examine whether nationalism has crept into our Christianity.  There are many forms of syncretism.  As James Merritt eloquently stated when he spoke to his amendment to the Confederate battle flag resolution – “Southern Baptists are not a people of any flag.  We march under the banner of the cross of Jesus and the grace of God.”  This is why I felt uneasy about the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag followed by praise and worship… but had no problem singing the national anthem at the Cardinals game later on.

 

As our culture continues to unravel and even the Bible Belt unbuckles, we must remember that our hope is in Christ, not country.  His kingdom is unshakeable.  And in many ways the dismantling of cultural Christianity that fused God and country is a good thing for the cause of the gospel.  We Baptists want real believers that worship Christ alone, even if they are persecuted by a secular state or Islamic State.

 

A version of this appeared in the Illinois Baptist newspaper and can be seen here.

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