Will the SBC Survive This? Southern Baptists Have Been Here Before

“Two are better than one because they have a good reward for their efforts.”
Ecclesiastes 4:9 (CSB)

The messenger-elected Southern Baptist board, having prayerfully deliberated and contentiously maneuvered through one of the most trying seasons of denominational life, reflected upon its work with humility and somberness:

“The new Board had but little more than organized and started out with its year’s work when it found itself face to face with a colossal disaster… How wisely and well we have met the responsibilities of this situation must remain for the future to tell. It is utterly inconceivable that such a difficult situation, with an almost infinite number of angles to it, should have been handled without the making of some mistakes. We lay claim to no considerable measure of infallibility and we earnestly hope that our brethren will keep in mind both our limitations and the surpassing difficulties under which this extraordinary task had to be done… if in anything we have failed, we earnestly hope that our brethren will be as charitable in their judgment of us as they would wish us to have been to them, if they had been burdened with the responsibility which we have had to carry through this eventful year.”[1]

Those words were written 92 years ago on behalf of the Home Mission Board’s trustees and published in their annual report to the Southern Baptist Convention in 1929, the year after the CS Carnes defalcation thrust the SBC into a financial and public-relations nightmare that threatened the viability of the entire Convention’s ongoing cooperative ministry.

“We did our best to serve in this critical hour,” they continued.

“We indulge the hope that the disagreeable and ghastly affair which has oppressed us through these wretched months may be put behind us, and be no further allowed to disturb our fellowship and to destroy our great constructive programs. It will not be easy to do this, but we feel it behooves every man of us who is deeply concerned about the ongoing of the kingdom of God to encourage the effort, as far as it is possible to do so. Furthermore, if we are wise, we will capitalize this disaster, and profit by all the mistakes that led up to it, in such a way as to make our future program more thoroughly intelligent and efficient.”


“If we are wise, we will capitalize this disaster, and profit by all the mistakes that led up to it, in such a way as to make our future program more thoroughly intelligent and efficient.” – #SBC HMB Annual Report, 1929

Leaders left office.

Friendships were severed.

Finances were dreadful.

Distrust was high.

Morale was low.

The future was unclear.

For the next ten years Southern Baptists prayed fervently, gave sacrificially, and gathered hopefully. In the late 1930’s, after a decade of continued cooperation through the most disastrous of circumstances, the Holy Spirit saw fit to breathe on the denomination again: the 40’s and 50’s saw the greatest evangelistic growth the Convention had ever known.

Great Commission Baptists, we have been here before. Not in the exact same scenario, of course. But in the same state of mind: divided, distrusted, disheartened. God does not, and never did, need this Convention of churches to accomplish his Great Commission. But despite ourselves, he saw fit to invite us into his plan for worldwide gospel advance. And he saw fit to breathe on our method of missiological cooperation so that the nations might know and worship the one true God through repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.

“Great Commission Baptists, we have been here before… divided, distrusted, disheartened.” #SBC

Here’s what got our grandfathers and grandmothers through their season of refinement and revision in their generation and, by extension, what we will need to get us through ours:

Prayer. We must regain a posture of prayerful humility before God as individuals, as churches, and as a Convention. No one has the answers for the unique trials we face in this season. There are no experts. No proven strategies. No methodological assurances. What is to be uncovered in the current investigation is yet unknown, as is the future of EC leadership. If in a private and corporate posture of prayer we meet those disclosures in their appointed time, the hardened soil of our hearts may well be plowed just enough for a God-honoring solution to take root and bear fruit. We are at our best, as we always have been, when we are a praying people.  

Humility. Our hearts are stained with sin and pride. The world watches and Satan laughs while we are filled with anger, gossip, manipulation, division, unforgiveness, arrogance, and selfish pride. Social media is a tool we could have used for the advancement of the gospel. Instead, we have used it for the tearing down of one another. Both the carelessly indifferent and the maliciously critical are called to account. Repentance is in order. God will not despise a broken and contrite spirit. Rather, he will resist the proud and give grace to the humble. We will neither seek God nor serve one another until biblical humility is reclaimed within us and among us.

“Both the carelessly indifferent and the maliciously critical are called to account. Repentance is in order… We will neither seek God nor serve one another until biblical humility is reclaimed within us and among us.” #SBC

Leadership. In this season we need servant-hearted leading voices who are bridge-builders and peacemakers—such are blessed of God and will be called his sons. Those denominational servants who excelled in their calling have always been those who lived with integrity while undergirding the work of the churches with diligence. They have inspired evangelistic fervor, championed local churches, lived above the world, and voiced the convictions of the Convention with distinction and grace. They hold together the cooperative fellowship under the anointing of the Holy Spirit and within the parameters of the churches’ confessional agreement. They build bridges. They keep peace. And they do it all with an attitude of gratitude that God would consider them worthy in Christ to descend to a denominational office, washing the feet of Christ’s Bride across tens of thousands of her local expression.

Time. To move through conflict and turmoil toward an even brighter day, we must afford each other, and our Convention as a whole, the grace of time. Southern Baptists have made some reprehensible mistakes through the decades. However, given the grace of time, the prayer and humility of the saints, and the longsuffering of servant-hearted leaders, God has seen fit to restore and reignite our Great Commission cooperation again and again. What is tangled takes time to straighten. What is broken takes time to repair. What is divided takes time to heal. In many good ways, Southern Baptists are not today who they were in 1845. We all thank God that this is true. Should the God of the Ages see fit to preserve us through our current crises and breathe on us again, we will not be in decades ahead who we are today. Together with the mercies of our great God, what stands between our present difficulties and our future possibilities is the grace of time. Stay together. Press forward. And we will, over time and under God’s mercy, become the people God is molding and shaping us to be.  

“What stands between our present difficulties and our future possibilities is the grace of time. Stay together. Press forward. And we will, over time and under God’s mercy, become the people God is molding and shaping us to be.” 

Sacrifice. “We must not lose the things we have already wrought through the mercies and power of God… we must do our best to bring them to a full reward,”[2] LR Scarborough, the great champion of Southern Baptist denominational cooperation, urged the Convention in 1925 to faithfully and sacrificially give toward the missional endeavors to which they had already committed themselves. Missionaries were promised salaries. Seminary students were promised scholarships. Churches were promised assistance. Humanitarian organizations were promised funding. Even through many years of recovery after the Carnes defalcation, he remained a steady voice for the cooperative funding that undergirded their missional strategy. Reform. Engage. Advocate. Pray. Attend. Vote. And by all means, give. The First-Century Macedonian churches call to us still with a reminder that when God’s people are in their most desperate hours, they are in their most sacrificial disposition.

In a single word… Cooperation. Southern Baptist cooperation, especially through seasons of crisis, is evidence of that “spiritual harmony” by which the churches endeavor to secure “the great objects of the Kingdom of God.”[3] Perhaps one thing we need, through the refinement of our day, is a resurgence of Great Commission cooperation: hearts and minds attuned anew to God’s world-wide will, arms locked together for the advancement of the gospel, and feet in rhythmic union marching forward to advance upon on the gates of hell.

“Perhaps one thing we need, through the refinement of our day, is a resurgence of Great Commission cooperation.” #SBC

Now looking back across the bridge of time, let us acknowledge with our brothers and sisters of a previous generation’s cooperative faithfulness: “If we are wise, we will capitalize this disaster, and profit by all the mistakes that led up to it, in such a way as to make our future program more thoroughly intelligent and efficient.” Let’s follow their lead. Let’s pray fervently, give sacrificially, and gather hopefully while we work to become the Convention God intends us to be.

I still believe the best days of our denominational cooperation could be ahead of us. But I believe with everything inside of me that our future Great Commission success will depend on our present return to a repentant, humble, prayerful, servant-hearted, enduring, sacrificial commitment to God and to one another. 

Grace and Peace,
Tony


[1] Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention Nineteen-Hundred and Twenty-Nine, accessed October 22, 2021 (Nashville: Southern Baptist Convention, http://media2.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/annuals/SBC_Annual _1929.pdf), 269-270.

[2] Annual of the Southern Baptist Convention Nineteen Hundred Twenty-Five, accessed October 22, 2021 (Nashville: Southern Baptist Convention, http://media2.sbhla.org.s3.amazonaws.com/annuals/SBC_Annual_1925. pdf), 25.

[3] Baptist Faith and Message 2000, accessed October 22, 2021 (Nashville: Southern Baptist Convention, https://bfm.sbc.net/bfm2000/#xiv-cooperation).

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