On Peace and Progress in the Southern Baptist Convention

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As Southern Baptists lurch toward our annual meeting next month, we are embattled and embittered, with people on various sides of our current debates experiencing grief and anger, concern and alarm. Last week, I warned of two tendencies that could further fracture our convention and make long-term unity more difficult to achieve.

Today, as many find themselves in a season of profound discouragement and disillusionment, I want to offer a brief word of encouragement to those who might be tempted to dismiss the dream that we could become a healthier family of churches.

“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said in the opening to his Sermon on the Mount. Far too many Christians hear that statement and think of quietness and calm. We think of peace as a warm feeling of goodwill that keeps arguments and disputes from breaking out.

When we interpret Jesus’s saying in this way, we assume that speaking up or speaking out—having hard conversations—means we are breaking the peace or disrupting the stillness. But there’s a wide gulf between “keeping the peace” and “making peace.” They’re not the same.

The best way to “keep the peace” is to avoid tough conversations. Consider the husband and wife who maintain a flow of superficial pleasantries, but who underneath the façade seethe with resentment and suppress substantial issues. They may “keep the peace” by keeping quiet, but this is hardly the kind of peacemaking that Jesus lifts up. Interestingly, as soon as the underlying issues get put on the table and heated disagreement breaks out, the neighbors might assume the raised temperature and the tearful voices represent the breakdown of the marriage. A good counselor, however, would say that this is the first step toward progress. The sins that have long been suppressed and ignored are now being dealt with. And although it may look like things are worse, in truth, the relationship is on the road to recovery.

I hope the same for the Southern Baptist Convention today. We must do away with the unspoken assumption that the eruption of big debates and disagreements signifies a big step backward.

  • In matters related to race, we are having more and better conversations about how to move toward the day when our churches better represent the picture in Revelation of people from various tribes and tongues worshipping King Jesus.
  • In matters related to the dignity and value of women, we are having more conversations about womanhood, ministry opportunities, and how to oppose abuse in all its evil forms.
  • In matters related to theology, we are having more conversations about how our ministries and methods connect to our theological outlook.
  • In matters related to declining baptisms, we are having honest conversations about our lackluster practice of personal evangelism and the challenges of discipleship in a secular age.

Yes, there are disagreements and debates about the way forward in each of these areas. We are all familiar now with the raised temperature, the heated discussions, and tearful voices. Controversy swirls around us.

But why should we assume that progress is painless? Who says the way forward will always be sunny and smooth? The great Christian leaders who came before us navigated through stormy seasons, when the waters were choppy and the skies dark, but they endured. So must we.

The peacemaking of Jesus is not that of the politician who won’t ever “rock the boat.” It’s not settling into a stony silence,—brushing aside big disagreements and avoiding tough conversations. No, the peacemaking of Jesus goes the way of the cross, where we die to our selfishness, where we put people over our preferences, where we are willing to carry the burdens of others as we relentlessly pursue the kingdom of God and his righteousness.

There is no peacemaking without pain-taking. We will not see peace in our convention apart from true repentance, a deep desire for revival, and clear-eyed honesty regarding our sins and failures. We’re in a season in which God is bringing to light sin and selfishness, scandal and sorrow. Our scandals are public. We are being humbled. But humbleness is the right place for the disciple of Jesus. Our heads must be bowed low before Jesus will lift them.

We can either walk away from this convention of churches and dismiss “the drama.” Or we can lean in, answer the calls to pray and fast, engage in conversations no matter how unpleasant, and seek to improve our systems and processes so that the love and grace of God becomes more evident in our fellowship. I pray we will become part of the solution instead of a bigger part of the problem. Let’s open our arms and make peace, following in the way of the Savior who loves us.

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