I noted in Part 1 a number of encouraging things about the SBC meeting in St. Louis and why I believe the best days of the SBC are still ahead of us. Here I want to note three ways that I think we can grow and improve as a convention in the future.
First, I would like to see us rethink the whole process of voting on resolutions. Resolutions are non-binding affirmations of the messengers to the convention. They do not materially affect the practices of our churches and are, therefore, largely driven by a concern to put ourselves on public record with regard to current issues. In other words, they seem to be driven largely by what we want the media to report about us. Yet, as the history of Southern Baptists resolutions demonstrates, we have a tendency as a denomination to go on public record on issues that we really have no business speaking to as a denomination. The famous Disney boycott comes to mind here, as does the resolution of support for Operation Iraqi Freedom. Regardless of the merits (or lack thereof) of each of these, and numerous other resolutions we have debated and approved over the years, I can’t help but think that taking public stances as a body on so many controversial issues, where Scripture does not clearly bind us one way or the other, has only served to alienate people from us.
But then we come to the 2016 resolution on the Confederate flag, which you can read here. As I mentioned previously, I deeply appreciate and applaud the heart behind this resolution. But I do not support it, because, in its final form, it attempts to impose an absolute obligation where Scripture has not done so (yes, it is non-binding, but it calls for an absolute and universal action for Southern Baptists). Let me put it this way: Is the act of displaying a Confederate flag (which I have never done and don’t intend to do, by the way) an objectively sinful act in and of itself? No, it isn’t. It is not an act like murder, fornication, theft, or idolatry, which Scripture clearly and absolutely prohibits.
Of course, flying the flag could be sinful. But what would make it sinful would be the context, manner, and motivation of the act, not the act itself. In the context where I live my life most of the time, it would indeed be an offensive act to my neighbors were I to put a flag on my property or vehicles, so I don’t do it (not to mention that fact that I’m just not the kind of person who has an inclination to display any kind of flag at any time). But I can’t say the same about absolutely every context where one might be inclined to display a Confederate flag. In other words, this is not a moral issue that can be strictly divided into right and wrong, at least not on any biblical grounds. It is an issue that requires wisdom, much like eating meat sacrificed to idols. As a denomination, we are much more comfortable with making laws than we are with cultivating wisdom. That is what we have done with alcohol, and now it is what we have done with the Confederate flag. I think of the Confederate flag resolution as the latest example of the Southern Baptist “boycott” mentality.
But doesn’t the Confederate flag symbolize racism? Yes, it often does. But it is unfair to suggest that racism exhausts its meaning as a symbol. The cultural elites of our day have told us that it only means racism all the time, but I’m not ready to cede all power to them in the definition of symbols. The truth is, the Confederate flag, just like the American flag, stands for a complex mixture of both good and bad. Yes, the South stubbornly clung to a racist institution, much like we as a nation continue to cling to the murderous institution of abortion today (with a death toll now over 50 million, and a disproportionate number of them being African American victims). But the South also stood for a Southern heritage that valued the local over the centralized, the rights of states over the authority of an overreaching federal government. Of all times, the year 2016 ought to be one in which we recognize the wisdom of our Southern forbears in their suspicion of centralized authority and their devotion to their own states and communities. The trajectory from the growth of federal authority under Lincoln to our age of Supreme Court monstrosities and a White House that uses executive orders to impose progressivism on us all is an easy one to trace. When I see a Confederate flag, I see principled resistance to that kind of tyranny together with all of the other ideas it expresses, both good and bad. It’s easy to cast our Southern ancestors in the role of the villains, since they had no ability to write the history books and are not here to defend themselves, but I would argue that charity requires us not to simplify the moral dimensions of what is a complex moral reality. The Confederate battle flag flew over soldiers who defended a racist institution, to be sure, but I would argue that for the vast majority of them (who owned no slaves, by the way), it stood much more for the defense of their homes against an invading force than it did slavery.
I probably could have voted for the first version of the resolution, which called on Southern Baptists to exercise wisdom and sensitivity on this issue but avoided speaking in absolutes. However, James Merritt’s amendment moved the resolution from the category of wisdom to law, which, in my view, represents an overstepping of bounds on the part of our convention.
I hope in the future we will rethink the practice of voting on resolutions altogether. Yes, we must take public stands for our convictions. Our statement of faith is the primary means by which we do that as a convention, and it may need to be revised from time to time in order to address new pressing issues that arise. Beyond that, we have the leaders of our various Southern Baptist entities who speak to the media regularly to provide a Southern Baptist perspective on the day-to-day issues. Annual non-binding resolutions, many of which end up addressing matters at a level of specificity that no Christian denomination should aspire to, have the potential to do more harm than good, I fear.
Second, I would like to see us rethink our public, corporate displays of American nationalism as a convention. I speak as a patriot who loves my country and proudly honors the American flag. But context matters, and when we gather as Southern Baptists, we do not gather as Americans. We gather as citizens of the kingdom of God, united in the cross, not in the stars and stripes. As James Merritt so eloquently said in his speech defending his proposed amendment to the Confederate flag resolution, “Southern Baptists are not a people of any flag.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I wish we could act consistently with that statement in our public gatherings as a convention.
Finally, I would like to see us articulate more clearly the essential connection between the Great Commission and the task of planting and building up churches. We speak a lot about soul-winning and evangelism, but often this language is disconnected from the ideas of starting new churches and building up existing ones. I would like to see us move in a direction of more holistic language about making disciples (Matthew 28:18-20), which cannot be divorced from the context of local churches. There will be no long-term, multi-generational discipleship where there are no healthy, local churches. The local church is the primary agent in evangelism, and it is the primary context in which the making of disciples occurs. I am thrilled to see that our North American Mission Board has increased dramatically its budget for church planting efforts, but at this year’s meeting the emphasis from NAMB fell entirely on a new ministry initiative that has nothing to do with planting new churches. I hope that, as an organization, NAMB does not spread itself too thin by dividing its resources among too many good causes. As a convention, let’s focus our mission boards on the mission of taking the gospel to the least reached places, gathering disciples of Jesus in those places, and planting new churches where discipleship can happen long-term.
All in all, I remain very encouraged by the St. Louis meeting. It is a great time to be a Southern Baptist. I offer these thoughts as a grateful brother who loves my denominational family and stands together with them as we face the future in very strange times.