The Southern Baptist Convention’s Defining Moment: The Law Amendment and The Great Commission Resurgence

Every year at the SBC it seems like we hear talk about this being “the most important Convention in our lifetime.” After a while, admittedly, it starts to feel a little bit like cable news political pundits every October, always telling us that some mayoral election in North Dakota will determine whether America continues to exist as a country or not. It all starts to seem like white noise.

In some ways, this is a very normal Convention. That said, there are some key decisions before us with rather serious implications.

Four issues specifically are at the forefront of my mind—(1) the controversial Law Amendment, (2) the report on the “Great Commission Resurgence Task Force,” (3) sexual abuse reform, and (4) the need to stay focused on disciple-making and world-evangelization.

1. The ‘Law’ Amendment: Cooperation and Complementarianism in the SBC

Last year I publicly said that the Law Amendment would have deleterious—even if unintended—consequences. (If you want to read my full piece, it is still available here.)

Since that time, I’ve had a lot of great conversations with godly men and women about this amendment, and I appreciate and greatly respect the heart of many of those eager to see the Law Amendment passed. They want us to be clear on a contested issue in our culture, not to compromise, cave, or drift leftward. They want to see us unified about what God’s Word says. 

I understand that and respect their sincere dedication, and share all these same concerns.

That said, I am more convinced than ever that the Law Amendment is unwise, unnecessary, and will have significant negative ramifications. For most of us who oppose it, the issue has nothing to do with complementarianism, but historic Baptist principles of cooperation

Dr. Al Mohler pointed out in his recent video statement that the Law Amendment puts forward nothing new in terms of content. We aren’t debating a change in the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM2K). 

Since 2000, our Convention has been clear on complementarianism, and must continue to be. I would happily join Al Mohler and my friends at the CBMW in exploring ways we can renew and promote this doctrine for a rising generation. Complementarianism isn’t just an ecclesiastical box we must check; it’s a beautiful truth that God wove into creation, one that brings him glory and leads to our flourishing. The church I pastor practices and celebrates complementarianism—in this context this means that as we believe pastor, elder, and overseer are the same office, every person called “pastor” in our church is, and always will be, a man.

My objection is that it rewrites the rules of our cooperation and attempts to fix, with a sledge hammer, something that isn’t really broken. It assumes that what we have in place now—that is, the BFM and our principles for defining cooperation—are insufficient in dealing with doctrinal deterioration among our churches.

But is that assumption justified? Didn’t we pull off (and successfully maintain) the Conservative Resurgence with these very instruments? And just a year ago, didn’t the messengers overwhelmingly vote to remove two churches—Saddleback (by 94 percent!) and Fern Creek—that were not closely identified with our faith and practice in this area? 

Furthermore, egalitarianism is not seeping into our institutions. All of our agencies and state conventions embrace and practice complementarianism. And no significant contingent in the SBC has mounted a challenge to our clear and uncompromising affirmation of complementarianism in the BFM. 

The question is who we agree, a priori, to kick out. 

We all recognize, of course, that there are different kinds of theological and ecclesiastical errors. Some errors are so substantive that ending cooperative fellowship is in order. But it’s also possible to say another brother or sister is wrong about something even as we have no desire to break fellowship with them. The BFM says, for example, that Sunday is the “Lord’s Day” and the appropriate day for corporate worship. Some say that means weekly corporate worship should only happen on Sunday. Others believe hosting additional services on Saturday, or even Thursday, Friday, and Monday are okay. Or to take another: The BFM states that communion is only for baptized believers, and thus many Baptist churches will not allow any paedobaptists, such as Presbyterians, to partake. Others, however, do allow visiting Presbyterians to partake in the ordinance, believing that we can allow someone with irregularities in their “baptism” to celebrate the Lord’s table while maintaining that the normative order for the ordinance is subsequent to believer’s baptism. For decades, we have left space for varied applications of the BFM, even applications we believe are in error, as we stand united around its normativity in Baptist life.

So, here’s the million dollar question: Who maintains the list of which ‘deviations’ are tolerated and which should lead to disfellowship? 

Well, historically, it’s been the Southern Baptist messengers.

Here’s how the system has worked: (1) We put forward a clear confession of faith (e.g., the BFM2K rv 2023). (2) Churches decide if they want to self-identify with that and give money to our Convention, knowing that our agencies will abide by and promote the BFM. Even churches who differ in certain applications (as in the examples above) can still say they “closely identify” with the BFM and be seated as full messengers. (3) The SBC reserves the right to decide if their self-assessment is true or not—meaning, they can vote out churches whom they deem not to be “in friendly cooperation,” even if they say they are (as happened with Saddleback and Fern Creek last year).

That’s how we’ve done it, and it’s worked. Why then go to such draconian lengths to fix what isn’t broken? Churches that are clearly not complementarian (Saddleback, Fern Creek) were removed without equivocation. With 94 percent affirmation!

Some say: Won’t it just be easier to pass this and move on? Put it to rest so we can go back to focusing on the Great Commission? 

I’d say “no” for two reasons. First, it’s become clear that this “fix” will yield A LOT of collateral damage. There are churches who genuinely embrace complementarianism even as they differ in some of its applications. Several of our minority leaders (like the National African American Fellowship and California Southern Baptist Convention Executive Director Pete Ramirez) have told us as much. For Hispanics in particular, it really is an issue of nomenclature:

“What worries me is that we make decisions without thinking about the consequences for ethnic churches,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “There are many ethnic churches that, for translation reasons, use the title of pastor for a person. But it’s a matter of translation. It’s not that the person is ordained. It’s not that the person has a [ministry] license.”

“I pastored for 17 years in California,” Ramirez said of his bilingual pastorates. “People would always try to say that my wife was a pastora, which is the female way of saying pastor. They would use this title for her even though she is not ordained, she’s not licensed, she has not once preached from any pulpit.”

“And now we are, as a convention, putting ourselves in the business of churches” and saying, ‘If you don’t change this, you can’t be part of us,’” Ramirez said. This “is a radical change as Southern Baptists that I think we could regret long-term as we fulfill the Great Commission.”

Dr. Ramirez wants us to maintain the freedom to discern if Hispanic Baptist churches are calling ladies in leadership ‘pastora’ because they serve in the office of elder/overseer (and some may indeed fall into that category), or if they call her that (as in the case with his wife) through linguistic tradition. For the former, we may recommend an end to cooperation. For the latter, we likely will not. Enabling that discernment seems wise. This amendment’s phrasing takes it away from us. And those who say we won’t have to abide by the Constitution (i.e., the Credentials Committee can choose not to enforce it on churches they deem to be in process) are not considering how our Constitution works. Legally, we have bound ourselves to honor our governing documents. If a church violates the Constitution, legally all agencies and committees of the Convention have to honor it. 

Second, do we actually think that after putting this issue into the Constitution we’ll just move back to the Great Commission? Some of the most strident voices in this discussion weren’t talking about the Great Commission before this came up, and I am not convinced they will be talking about it afterward. A spirit that delights in majoring on these kinds of things is a spirit that knows no satisfaction until it has cloven us into 100 factions. If we pass this amendment, this issue will likely just be replaced by the next one. Who knows what that one will be? The multi-site model? Closed communion? Extroverted women teaching in a mixed Monday evening Bible study? Women who head the HR department on a church staff?

Dr. Mohler acknowledged in his video statement that this likely won’t be the last issue that we deal with, which means there is good reason to assume that we’ll be doing this again in a couple of years, with some other amendment to Article 3, on some other issue. If we adopt this amendment strategy, it will become the new norm. How many constitutional amendments are we in for? Where will it end? If so, what’s our BFM for?

My fear is that one day we’re going to wake up realizing we never talk about the Great Commission anymore.

Think with me for a moment: Do you really think the Convention of the last couple of years is the kind that will complete the Great Commission and see revival come to America? 

Some have said, “Well, this is not how I would have wanted to address this issue, but since it’s come up, we can’t vote this amendment down because it would be signifying to everyone we’re not really complementarian.” I would suggest that this is not a wise way to think. If I’m out grocery shopping and some guy walks up and says, “If you’re a real man, you’ll fight me right here,” I don’t have to oblige him. I would say to such a man, “I am indeed a real man, and I don’t have to fight you here to prove it. But come to my house and threaten one of my family, and you’ll see just how much of a real man I am.” 

I don’t have to pass a constitutional amendment just to prove I’m a complementarian. Come look at our church. Listen to our teaching. Observe our team in action. I’m not going to acquiesce to some made-up standard just because someone declared it to be so. I’ve been crystal clear on complementarianism and will continue to be. I don’t have to jump through some hoop to prove it, and neither do you.

In short, I remain convictionally opposed to this amendment, not because of its content but because of its attempt to undermine our historic principles of cooperation. It overturns a system that works. I don’t oppose the Law Amendment because I’m a closet moderate or soft on theological issues. I am concerned that the missional, cooperative balance that has characterized our Convention since the Conservative Resurgence is about to be overturned. History matters. As G. K. Chesterton said, we should inherit the traditions of our past with reverence and respect, even as we continually re-examine them in light of our current situations.

I don’t think our system is broken. I don’t believe that our institutions are led by a bunch of closet spineless moderates. I want the SBC to get back to doing what we have always done at our best—reaching this nation and reaching the world. 

2. The Great Commission Resurgence Task Force

I was one of the members of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force (GCRTF) in 2009–2010. I appreciated the Convention’s decision to take intentional steps in this direction. We were—and indeed, still are—in great need of a Great Commission Resurgence. As I said at the time, our Convention needs to pull back from making secondary distinctives, stylistic preferences, or extra-biblical traditions the identifying mark of who we are. The SBC is not a style or brand of Christianity. We are a collection of churches united in mission. The more we can focus on that shared mission, the healthier we will be.

The GCRTF was meant to unite our Convention in greater efficiency for the sake of the gospel. Our hope was not only to stoke the fires of Baptists to push forward in mission, but to be strategic and wise in the ways we made changes for the sake of that mission. We wanted what most Baptists still want—to see more people come to faith, to see more churches planted, to see a multiplying movement of disciple-making disciples.

A recent report, commissioned at the 2023 Convention, has gone back to ask the ever-important question: Did the Great Commission Resurgence actually do what it set out to do? Have we seen, since 2009, an increase in baptisms, church plants, etc.? 

The short answer is a painful one—not particularly. And there are plenty of reasons why.

One of the most obvious has been the series of revelations of sin among key leaders in the SBC. 

Just as concerning, the stated emphasis of the Great Commission Resurgence was a convictional alliance around the centrality of the Great Commission, a commitment to put secondary things aside and devote ourselves to that. And like I’ve said, can we really say that has characterized our Convention over the last few years? 

We seem more committed than ever to allowing secondary issues to displace our focus on the Great Commission. It is clear there is still a lot of work to be done.

That isn’t to say this report was purely negative. New leaders have arisen since 2009 who have been bringing more and more attention to church planting in the Convention. I hope that I have contributed to this focus myself, and I continue to hope that this new emphasis—even this new report highlighting the ways in which we aren’t yet achieving our goals—will bear fruit in the years to come. 

There’s one other related issue I’ve heard recently that I’ll address: The report indicated that some thought the whole category of “Great Commission giving” was created to make the giving records of megachurch pastors more palatable for when they might seek elected office or entity positions. I can only speak to my own experience, but having sat through every one of those discussions, I do not recall that ever coming up. We did talk a lot about engaging a new, rising generation of younger Southern Baptists, many of whom were not only disengaging with the Convention, but leaving it altogether. Many felt disenfranchised. Some of that was the result of ignorance of how our process worked. Some of it was because of bad, bureaucratic leadership at multiple levels. “Great Commission Giving” was one attempt to widen the gate and invite them into the process. For many that I know, it actually helped to keep them in the Convention.

If that phrase is no longer useful or helpful for the Annual Church Profile, we should be willing to change it. What we should not do is lose sight of the Great Commission in our giving or in our cooperation. And, of course, we should remain aware that rising generations will resist being told exactly how they must give in order to be called faithful churches. We must win them to the Cooperative Program, not just mandate it for them.

The missions challenges before the SBC are great—how to realign our Convention so that it is an effective agency for completing the Great Commission, and how to regain the confidence of a newer generation wondering why giving to the SBC is a wise investment of its resources. But the commitment of our God to spread the gospel is greater. 

3. Sexual Abuse Reform

It was during my time as president of the SBC that the problem of sexual abuse became obvious for our Convention. In truth, this crisis had been festering for years, and it was only recently brought to light. During those long years, countless people, mostly women, suffered in horrific silence. What I said then I repeat now: I am thankful for this painful wakeup call for the SBC, but the need for a “wakeup call” means the Convention was previously asleep. 

Over the past few years, as we have attempted to address this problem—not only the many instances of abuse in our churches, but also the poor handling of those instances—the Convention put forward a Sexual Abuse Advisory Group (one of my first acts as SBC president), then a Sexual Abuse Task Force, and finally an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force, in order to ensure that our churches are safe for survivors and safe from abuse. 

What our churches now need is legitimate reform. Some of it has already happened, but it needs to continue. Churches need to be equipped. Nearly every Southern Baptist pastor I know is horrified to think of an abuser roaming around their congregation. They got into the ministry to protect the vulnerable, not to assist abusers. And yet, most of these pastors also feel ill-equipped to actually do what is necessary to make their churches a safe place for abuse survivors.

When it comes to abuse, it is clear now that many church and Convention leaders failed in many ways—failed to adequately care for survivors, failed to consistently report abuse, and often failed to take abuse disclosures seriously. But at root, our biggest failure was a failure to adequately train our people about the best way to handle issues of abuse. The systemic reform we need should be aimed at resourcing churches to do what only they can—create an environment safe from abusers and safe for survivors.

We recognized, several years ago, that bold resolutions and sweeping statements were not sufficient. Victims didn’t want to hear us making bold declarations against abuse; they wanted to see that we cared enough about this issue to do whatever it takes to make our churches safe for survivors and safe from abuse. They wanted—and most of the SBC wanted—to see a culture shift.

In the intervening years, we have already seen some positive moves in this direction—like the Caring Well Challenge, our first formal abuse training for churches. And just this year, the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force has put forward The Essentials curriculum, further training that is designed to help local churches establish or evaluate their abuse prevention and response plan.

Even just five years ago, training on sexual abuse was incredibly rare in the SBC. Now it is a common practice in most of our institutions, not to mention thousands upon thousands of our SBC churches. That is a positive trend.

Our work to prevent and address abuse might have begun with an advisory group and task forces, but it has to continue through the much more thorough (and un-glamorous) work of equipping our churches. At this year’s Convention, I’m praying that we will keep marching down this road. Because more tangible actions remain to be done—for the sake of our survivors and for the sake of the gospel.

4. We Are a Convention with a Mission

If all you ever knew of the SBC was what existed online, you might think the Convention is filled with angry people yelling about fringe issues. But I’ve found there are two “SBCs,” so to speak. 

The first is the SBC of social media, which is what gets all the media attention. Of course, we have some responsibility to engage in this world. But by and large, it reminds me of Macbeth’s words—“full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

The other SBC is what I consider the real SBC. It is the vast majority of people in our SBC churches, as well as the overwhelming majority of our SBC pastors. These people want to reach their neighbors and reach the nations. They aren’t much affected by the temperature in the Convention, because their main desire is to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples in all the nations of the world. 

When we’re at our best, we are a coalition of churches committed to doing whatever it takes to get the gospel to those who haven’t heard it. This is honestly why I am so concerned over division in our Convention. It’s not merely that division is painful and messy and ungodly. It’s that division distracts us from what we could achieve if we were united—completing the Great Commission. I pray that we lay down our smaller arms so that we can pick up bigger ones, less concerned with turning on one another and more concerned with not turning our faces from a dying world. 

In the lead-up to this year’s Convention, plenty of voices are calling this meeting a “defining moment.” And so it may be. But this is my prayer for the SBC Annual Meeting of 2024—that this would be a defining moment that future generations will look back upon and say, “This is where they determined that the gospel was too precious and the Great Commission too urgent to let anything stand in their way.”