No election of officers in the Southern Baptist Convention will be able to address the systemic and profound theological ignorance of the average messenger to the annual meeting. Somehow, along the way, the conservative resurgence has done a disservice to the churches of our convention through the use of simplistic theological buzzwords that are fraught with complicated exegetical nuance. Inerrancy, in its truest form, speaks only to Southern Baptists’ firm commitment to the full and final accuracy of scripture. Implicit, but not as often affirmed, in this theological affirmation is the doctrine of scriptural sufficiency, or the belief that the Word of God is not only without error, it is without equal. The Bible, and only the Bible, therefore, is the exclusive well from which Southern Baptists must draw their confession of faith or their standard of holy living.
During the last twenty-seven years, many different voices have arisen to denigrate the doctrine of biblical authority. Again and again Southern Baptists have withstood the challenges to inerrancy so that today no person may reasonably fear that inerrancy is under assault from the left. But while Southern Baptists have reinforced the front of biblical authority on the left, there has crept in a threat, almost unrecognizable, from the right. Indeed, there is more than one enemy of truth. While theological liberalism is in full retreat and conservatives are celebrating a hard-won victory, theological fundamentalism has outflanked Southern Baptists from the right, now threatening the sufficiency of Scripture and the Reformation dictum of sola scriptura. While the Sadducees of liberalism are licking their wounds, the Pharisees of fundamentalism are on the move. This was never more evident that Wednesday morning during the first report of the Resolutions Committee.
Resolution on Alcohol Consumption: A Case Study in Absurdity
Late Tuesday evening I met with a group of friends and fellow messengers in the Presidential Suite VII at the Greensboro Sheraton Hotel. Essentially, it was a two bedroom suite divided in the middle by a huge conference room, sitting room, kitchen and foyer. I would guess the total space was about 1500 square feet. For years I’ve been able to get a suite at the Southern Baptist Convention, not because I’m somebody important but because I manage a block of rooms for convention messengers. This year, along with my associate, I secured 152 rooms at the Four Seasons Hotel, all but two of which were solid votes for Frank Page. After the elections were over about forty of us gathered in the suite – which was shared with Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson and his wife Rachelle – to talk about the elections and fellowship. Wade emceed the whole evening while his wife served up drinks of the non-alcoholic kind. After a healthy time of fraternization, everybody found a place to sit and I shared some thoughts about the convention to that point.
The first thought I shared was my perspective on the election of Frank Page, which I will discuss below. The second thought I shared concerned my appreciation for the bloggers who had done more than anybody can estimate to effect a seismic shift whose degree is known only in the mind of God. The third thought concerned my expectations for the next day.
The hour was late, and I assured my friends that we were not the only ones staying up. Those who were angered by the election of Frank Page, the defeat of Mark Dever, and the victory of Wiley Drake on the first ballot were surely regrouping. I predicted to the group that we could expect a response, straight out of the shoots, the next morning during the report of the Resolutions Committee. I was not sure how it would come, but I was certain in my gut that it would.
The next morning when I saw the resolution on alcohol I felt like a prophet. Quickly, I determined that I would not allow that resolution to pass without dissent, especially since the committee declined my resolution on dissent. My associate pastor cautioned me not to speak, afraid as he was that my comments would be misconstrued to the disadvantage of Frank Page. Nevertheless, I went to microphone number one and voiced my concern that the resolution was not only careless, it was silly. First, I do not know of “religious leaders” who are advocating the consumption of alcohol, but I know a considerable number who recognize the latitude of the biblical admonitions concerning imbibing. Second, my support for Frank Page was built on my intense disdain for the narrowing trends of doctrinal and social rigidity and a desire to see those concerns addressed. My opposition to the alcohol resolution is built upon the same goal: to end the days when Southern Baptists draw lines in the sand on doctrines and traditions that are not essential to Christian unity, witness, or the proclamation of the Gospel. I tried to speak with candor and care. I have reviewed my remarks via webfeed and I am convinced that I succeeded.
Of course, a stirring began at microphone number two while I was speaking. Jim Richards, the executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention prepared to offer an amendment to insert language into the resolution that would further marginalize conservative Southern Baptists who differ on minor points of doctrine or practice. It should surprise nobody that the messenger offering the amendment was sent to Greensboro by the First Baptist Church of Fort Worth, the church whose reputation and practice continues to be colored by its former pastor, none other than the Rev. Dr. J. Frank Norris of Fundamentalist fame.
In his remarks, Jim made comments that linked “holiness” and “purity” with a position of abstinence. Of course, I noticed that Jim had recently visited his barber, which confounded my ability to esteem his apparent Nazarite vow with any degree of credibility. “Holiness,” to some in denominational life, seems much more closely associated with what one eats or drinks, and this in spite of clear New Testament teachings to the contrary. I respect Jim’s position, and while I believe he is a victim of his own myopia, I do not think his position is unbiblical. It is perfectly biblical for him to abstain, and commendable. It is not, however, a matter of holiness. Jim Richards is not holier because he abstains, and any suggestion to the contrary exposes a serious failure to comprehend the Pauline teaching, especially to the churches of Galatia, that one’s sanctification in holiness is not perfected according to the flesh. But the resolution passed overwhelmingly, and we move on. My only regret is that Wiley Drake called the question before the convention was able to hear the behatted “First Lady” of Southwestern Seminary from microphone number two, where she had marshaled the fortitude to join the debate. I wish I knew what she was going to say, but providence silenced her.
And all God’s people said…..
What frustrated me is not that the resolution mischaracterized the position of those who acknowledge the whole counsel of God in formulating their position on alcohol. Neither was I upset that the convention messengers, having just elected Frank Page on a platform of ending the narrowing trends, chose to adopt a very narrow and poorly worded resolution. What angered me was that a reasonable discussion about the nature and extent of Christian liberty in the Gospel seems impossible among brethren who affirm the inerrancy of biblical authority. We do not seem to understand what Christian liberty is all about, and we certainly do not seem willing to recognize or appropriate the scriptural latitude for the sake of fellowship and peace. When presented with an option to affirm Christian liberty in the Gospel, four-fifths of the messengers raised there ballots to refuse a hearing.
The incredulity I was experiencing at that moment was compounded within the next hour. I stood at the back of the convention floor listening to Condoleeza Rice, a woman who drinks alcohol and approves of abortion and was praised and prayed for as a true Christian sister by the SBC President. Every time Condi struck a note of political liberty or patriotic freedom, the crowd thundered in applause and rose to their feet in ovation upon ovations.
The Southern Baptist Convention has relegated Christian liberty in Christ to confessional oblivion and those who are willing to engage seriously in a discussion of its meaning and limit are characterized as an ungodly, immoral, unholy, and impure bunch of bootleggers peddling liquid licentiousness. Yet when the stars and stripes are waved, or “God Bless America” is sung, tears roll down cheeks and hands are lifted high.
We are, it seems, no different that the German Church at the close of the Weimar Republic. Nationalism is our religion. The Gospel is now emptied of its power to set the captives free. This disturbs me more than the resolution itself. In fact, I could have stomached two years of the runner-up much easier than to stand in the convention hall and watch my fellow messengers rise to their feet when the death of Al-Zarquawi is announced. A soul is sent to hell, and we do not grieve. We cheer.
The Election of Officers
A few moments after Frank Page was elected, I received a phonecall from a former friend who has severed our relationship because he “cannot fellowship” with me because of the positions I’ve taken about nepotism, cronyism, and favoritism and their compromising effect on our convention. His words were quite succinct: “I guess you’re proud of yourself.” The call ended.
I’m not sure what I should be “proud” about, but I suppose that some people assume that Wade Burleson and I are responsible, in some way, for his election. I did not write his nomination speech; that credit belongs to Forrest Pollock who gave it with firm resolve and convincing appeal in a masterful manner. I did encourage every person I knew to vote for Frank Page for no other reason that his concerns resonated with my own. I have explained to Frank that I will not be calling him or writing him to tell him my two-cents about what he should do as convention president. I do not have an agenda to submit. I do not have a vision to promote. I have merely asked him, in the presence of many others, to honor his word and follow through on his promises.
For weeks Wade has been telling me that Frank Page would win on the first ballot. I was not as certain. Somehow in the providence of God that is what happened, and I cannot explain it.
I do want to say a word, however, about the sovereignty of God and the election of officers.
When Frank Page and I visited on the phone before he announced his candidacy, I made one request of him. I asked him to refuse with all his might to presume upon the sovereignty of God in the manner of Ronnie Floyd. I asked him never to say that “God told him to run,” or that he’d “had a Macedonian vision” or that he was “supernaturally drafted.” Frank assured me that he would not say such things, but only that he would tell the convention he had a peace about allowing his name to be placed into nomination.
Southern Baptists had better calm down when it comes to announcing the will of God presumptuously. Ronnie Floyd is probably embarrassed by his defeat. Nobody likes to lose an election, especially when the heavy artillery has been rolled out in his defense. Any person would be disappointed and disheartened at such a loss. But Ronnie was certain he would win, in spite of being told differently by some very astute denominational politicos. I do not have any reservation, therefore, when I suggest that my hope is that Ronnie Floyd & Co., will walk away from Greensboro with a new hesitance to employ the language of holy writ with exaggerated interpretive license.
In the same way, those of us who feel like “victors” must be careful not to start talking about Frank Page like he is God’s choice to lead the convention. He was the choice of the messengers. Whether or not God stuffed the ballot box is beyond our comprehension of his eternal counsel.
And yes, I wrote the nomination speech for Wiley Drake. I believe that Wiley was the best candidate for the post, and I put my full efforts into seeing him elected. Anybody who wonders why I feel this way should watch these videos.
During the debate on the 10% clause, I watched as Jerry Vines and Jack Graham stood behind microphone number two waiting for the moment to speak against the amendment. When the moment came, Vines nodded to Graham who marched to the microphone and gave a calm appeal. Soon thereafter, from the same spot, Jerry Vines lectured the convention some obscure provision of the Peace Committee before moving the previous question and ensuring that he had the last word. A messenger objected by referencing a previous rule that forbade a messenger from speaking to a matter and the ending debate by moving the previous question. The point of order was not well taken, and something terrible happened.
From the bleachers, a man cried out that “Just because your name is Jerry Vines doesn’t mean you get special treatment.” I have to confess that I caught the uncomfortable sneer of Dr. Vines a time or two this week, but I really don’t hold anything against him. He is a faithful preacher and a mighty spokesman for biblical values and personal holiness.
I don’t care who it is, but especially when it is a man who’s done as much for the Southern Baptist Convention as Jerry Vines, such outlashed animosity is completely inappropriate. It is, in fact, downright rude. But the convention was stressful and people were saying and doing things that I’m sure they’ll regret upon subsequent reflection.
I’ve been accused this week of filing lawsuits against Paige Patterson, which is not true. Frank Page has been accused of being a “closet moderate.” Wade Burleson has been attacked in the Greensboro Airport by one of our seminary presidents who told Wade’s minister of music that Wade had “no integrity” after asking him “how he liked having a pastor who drank.” Even I have engaged in some questionable teasing about the peculiar shade of citrus that colored the face of Ronnie Floyd’s nominator. We’re a long way from knowing how to engage in healthy disagreement without attacking character of mocking with snide jabs. I’m guilty as charged, but at least you’ll have a one-year reprieve from my harangues and rants.
When I arrived at the Greensboro Airport to return to Dallas, I was interested to see the diversity of my traveling companions. Not only were all my church’s messengers booked on that flight, but we were joined by convention parliamentarian Barry McCarty, a Lifeway trustee, Cliff Cummings of Oklahoma, a host of tired convention messengers, and the President and First Lady – along with personal attaché – of Southwestern Seminary. As I walked to the gate, at least three people stopped to tell me that Patterson was on my flight. One of my convention messengers had already “found out” where they were seated, and another reported that the First Lady was talking about “satanic attacks” and the “small apartment” where they live at the presidential manse. This, after my discovering that I was “being watched” at the convention this week. All this cloak and dagger nonsense is ridiculous, and I find it quite funny. Why people feel they need to “report” to me, or to anybody, the actions/words/seating assignments of another is beyond my comprehension. But I know that it happens, because I used to report stupid things like that to those who I thought gave a crap.
It was then that it dawned on me.
Most of the problems facing the Southern Baptist Convention could have been resolved with a sudden loss of cabin pressure somewhere over Tennessee. But since we all survived the flight, I guess we’ll have to wait until San Antonio to see what actually happened this week in Greensboro. In the meantime, I plan on attending a few more IMB trustee meetings, beginning with the July meeting in Richmond, Va.