We are just weeks away from the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Questions about theological affinities, political loyalties, missiological approaches, Convention structures, the voices and treatment of women, the seriousness of domestic violence, properly reporting abuse, minority representation on committees: all of these add a sense of gravity to this year’s meeting, with the two overlapping cultures of the SBC (which I’ve described here) leading to various perspectives on these matters.

Among the many reasons to be engaged in and troubled by recent developments in the SBC, there are two pitfalls that I fear could damage and dilute both our broader witness and our ability to cooperate in future ministry. I hope Southern Baptists will identify and resist these two worrisome trends, regardless of what sides we take in today’s lively debates.

Pitfall #1: Criticizing Before Caring

It’s possible to see aspects of our Convention that need to be changed, sometimes drastically, and to recommend widespread changes because we believe the risk of breaking some things is far outweighed by the risks of stagnation and denominational inertia. The problematic tendency here is not the rush toward change, but the rush to change something you have yet to love. Perhaps some love the idea of the Southern Baptist Convention, or they love the future they see for the Southern Baptist Convention, but they’ve not yet committed themselves to this Convention in such a way that they love it as it presently is, even with its obvious flaws.

We will miss the best opportunity we have to fix what needs fixing and change what needs changing if we do not love what we’ve inherited. Only those who truly love our Convention will be here for the long haul, ready to work hard for improvement no matter how long it takes. Before criticism must come gratitude, the understanding that this Convention is a gift we want to steward well, something to strengthen and improve before it’s time to hand it off to the next generation of our kids and grandkids.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that we should love the Convention’s cancers, warts, blemishes, and wrongs. We should not minimize the seriousness of our problems. To be a “proud Southern Baptist” doesn’t mean you overlook or downplay aspects of the Convention that are sinful, corrupt, or harmful.

It means, instead, that your love for these churches is deeper than your discontentment over the present state of things. You’re loyal to the Convention when you love it in spite of the flaws you see. It means you work to root out what’s wrong, while never losing sight of what’s right. It means your deepest feeling toward the Convention is affection and appreciation, not disdain or contempt. True and lasting change will come from clear-eyed, biblically faithful courage, grounded in love.

Pitfall #2: Confusing Criticism with Disloyalty

The second tendency we should resist is the idea that calling for improvement, reform, or structural change in the SBC represents a betrayal of loyalty. For some in our Convention, to speak openly in a critical manner about a leader or institution or trend is tantamount to disloyalty, or even treachery. In many cases, the critic is painted as “not sufficiently Southern Baptist” or “divisive.” I see this tendency on all sides of Southern Baptist debates.

Registering a word of dissent, or questioning the efficiency of certain programs or practices, or voicing an opinion about our current trajectory is not a sign of disloyalty to the SBC, but an expression of concern and engagement. To dismiss or condemn criticism as disloyal makes Southern Baptist identity something more cultural than confessional. It casts suspicion on the “patriotism” and “pride” (or even godliness!) of anyone who dares speak a word of criticism regarding the current state of things.

This tendency, if left unchecked, will lead to stagnation and an inability to adapt in innovative ways to new cultural challenges, virtually assuring future fractions and disunity. It confuses Southern Baptist fidelity to structures and systems that may have served us well in the past or may currently be in implementation. It also makes our debates much too personal. Questions regarding efficiency and effectiveness get bracketed out of the conversation because the debate now centers on the loyalty of the constructive critic. When a “How dare you criticize a fruitful ministry!” mindset sets in, conversation is chilled, and bureaucratic inertia and corruption are bound to follow. And again, this danger is real for all sides of our political debates.

Pray and Love 

Whatever happens in Dallas this year, let’s pray for wisdom among our leaders, for a culture that is open to healthy debate, good-faith criticism, honest and hard questions, and structural accountability. We need to lift up leaders who love the church, with all her flaws and foibles, and who see the SBC as a gift and stewardship, who are committed to making it better and stronger.

So, love Jesus. Love your family. Love your church. Love this Convention of churches. In that order.

Let’s maintain faith in God’s plan, which is somehow at work in all of this mess. Let’s continue to hope in the Spirit to conform us more into the image of Jesus. And let’s pray that God would fill us with love for the brothers and sisters we partner with to fulfill the Great Commission.