The Augusta Vision- “that the world may believe”

John 17:21d

The Southern Baptist Convention is arguably the greatest missionary, evangelistic, church planting, discipleship training and Christian Education enterprise, in the history of Christianity. Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, where I am privileged to serve as pastor, is a product of the missionary zeal and efforts of Southern Baptists, for which I am grateful.

However, in recent years the SBC is experiencing significant and measurable decline. The key questions many Southern Baptists are asking are: Why the decline and what should we do about it? The purpose of this post is to address these valid questions.

Against the backdrop of racism, sexism, and factionalism, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in Augusta, Georgia in May of 1845. These three “isms” are no longer dominant in SBC life, but neither are they dormant. If Southern Baptists are going to win the world to Christ, we must biblically, honestly and redemptively address our history, image and current reality as it relates to these three issues. We simply cannot expect to have a Great Commission Resurgence that God anoints and blesses, until we first have a Great Repentance Resurgence specifically related to these three “isms”.

Reconciliation, healing, and a coming together in the “unity of the spirit” is vitally important if we are to move forward with the Great Commission Resurgence from our current state of affairs. What is our current state of affairs? Imploding from factionalism, rather than explosion from evangelism.

The greatest threat to the fellowship of the SBC, the funding of the Cooperative Program, and the success of the GCR initiative, is not racism or sexism in the life of our convention. Factionalism is the greatest sin and threat that our convention is currently facing. Baptist factionalism is the reason Cooperative Program giving is declining. Six hundred missionaries were not funded recently and baptismal and Sunday school growth is decreasing. The SBC vital signs are trending and tracking in the wrong direction because of factionalism. Factionalism is not inherently a sin. Pride, a party spirit and the desire for preeminence and power that often accompanies factionalism, is what makes it a sin or weight.

When one stripe of Baptist conservatism attempts to dominate, marginalize, disenfranchise or demonize another stripe of Baptist conservatism, the end result is factionalism. Jesus said, “a house divided against itself cannot stand” (Mark 3:25).

The Hebrew writer admonished believers to, “lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us” (Hebrews 12:1b). To the extent that I’ve participated in factions in SBC life, and have contributed to the divide in our convention by actions or attitude beyond God’s perfect will for my life, I openly repent and apologize. We must come together as a convention and rally around one purpose and that is, “Him we preach, warning every man and teaching every man in all wisdom, that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Colossians 1:27). The division and factionalism in the SBC must soon cease and be laid aside for the sake of the Great Commission. I want to set an example.

In August of 2006, I preached a sermon at Southwestern Seminary Chapel that Paige Patterson deemed “harmful to the churches.” In the aftermath of Dr. Patterson’s statement I battled with the emotions of disappointment, hurt, anger, surprise and confusion. I’m sure he experienced similar emotions in response to my message. Neither one of us intended to hurt the other. We simply didn’t fully understand each other’s theology on the subject matter that I addressed. Nevertheless, I deeply hurt Dr. Patterson and because that was not my intention, I publicly apologize to him. Not for the content of my message, but for not being more conciliatory toward him and not seeking to understand his position and response. Rather, I chose to publicly argue and defend my position. In the process, I contributed majorly to factionalism in the life of our convention. Again, to the extent that I’ve played a role toward the division and factionalism in our convention, I apologize. There was “collateral damage” to SWBTS and Conerstone that I’m responsible for as a result of my response to Dr. Patterson’s public statement. Our entire convention is suffering because of the factionalism that’s running rampant. It is extremely difficult to maintain unity in the life of our convention in light of our autonomous church structure, and the fact there are a host of issues that the B, F, M does not address.    

The 1845 Augusta SBC could not have envisioned itself, with Fred Luter as President, Dwight McKissic as a member and women having voting privileges as well as serving on entity boards. Additionally, women serving in all levels of ministry within the parameters of the 2000 B, F, and M and the autonomy of the local church would have been far beyond the mental grasp of the 1845 SBC. Korean fellowships, Hispanic fellowships, Founder’s fellowship, Baptists Convictional Association, African American fellowship, B21 fellowship, Nine Marks and a host of others would have been totally unimaginable to the 1845 SBC.  Is the SBC’s success also the cause for her slide? Is SBC evangelism in part responsible for our current factionalism? How does God want us to move forward from here?

How can we achieve unity in SBC life amid so much diversity? Has the SBC grown and gone beyond the point where unity is even desirable or achievable? Has the missionary and evangelistic success of yesteryears been our undoing, because it brought into our ranks many who are culturally, socially, racially and theologically different from the 1845 Augusta, Georgia core group?

Conservatives in the SBC are made up of a coalition of people who are inerrantist, but have great diversity beyond that. The question that the SBC has to answer is, will we affirm our diversity within the parameters of the Baptist, Faith and Message 2000 or will we continue to politically posture for control by one stripe or ilk of conservatives dominating the others? Each faction or “click” fights for controlling interests, or majority status. Those who oppose the group, who seem to be gaining ground or control, are often called dissidents or the disgruntled.

How does the SBC handle dissidents or the so-called disgruntled? Dissidents are either marginalized, disenfranchised or demonized, and this I believe is the primary cause why the SBC is in decline. Asking for increased giving from a shrinking number of local churches affiliated with the SBC will not solve the problem. Reconciling with dissidents and the various factions of the SBC who feel as if they have no voice or seat at the table will resolve the funding problem in the SBC. We must remember that Jesus not only commissioned an outreach ministry, He also commissioned an inreach ministry (Luke 15:4). Perhaps, the SBC also needs to launch A Great Inreach Resurgence. I’m absolutely convinced that if the SBC allows God to heal her “tribalism spirit”– her treasure and funding problems would heal simultaneously. How shall we proceed toward healing the tribalism, division and factionalism in SBC life?

We need to formally acknowledge that there are ideological, theological, and preferential differences among us that are not outside of the scope of the Baptist, Faith and Message 2000. We need to formally declare that our goal is unity in achieving the Great Commission, not uniformity in secondary and preferential matters.

Jesus prayed for unity among His followers, because He recognized that evangelism was hindered where there was a lack of unity (John 17:21). Jesus taught that unity was a prerequisite to world evangelism. The day of Pentecost illustrates this truth (Acts 2:1). If unity was absolutely necessary for the original Great Commission Surge – shall we attempt another without first seeking corporate union with God and unity with each other? If God did not allow the early church to succeed with the Great Commission without unity, why would we think we could succeed without unity? Even the group that met in Georgia in 1845 was unified. Unified around some ungodly social beliefs, and sound doctrine, God honored and blessed their spirit of unity with Great Commission success (Psalms 33:1). Agreement is powerful, even when there are some negative and sinful components included. Back to the question: How shall we heal the divide; factionalism and disunity in the life of the SBC? The vision is simple, scriptural and doable.

 THE AUGUSTA VISION

We need to “lay the axe at the root of the trees” (Matthew 3:10). By May 2012, the SBC needs to “go back to her future”, in Augusta, Ga., and “convene a solemn assembly” (Joel 1:14). The vision would be for our convention to come together under God, at the place where God first blessed this convention. We need to corporately repent of our sins, and ask God to restore health, unity and wholeness to our convention.

In Augusta, Ga., we need to fall on our faces before God and repent that our convention was birthed and rooted in racism, sexism and factionalism. We need to ask God to heal the current disunity and factionalism in the SBC. We need to ask God to birth within us a spirit of unity as it was on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). We need to ask God to pour our His Spirit afresh and anew upon our churches and convention. We need to ask God to allow the wind of His Spirit to blow across our land one more time as He did in the first and second great awakenings.

The party spirit in SBC life must cease (1 Corinthians 3:3-9). The unity and praise spirit in SBC life must begin (Ephesians 4:3). Certain people who are part of the SBC today would not have been welcomed in Augusta in 1845. Thank God, we can come now; red, yellow, black and white, male and female, northerners and southerners, as one body in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Quite frankly, Anglo Southern Baptists need to go to Augusta to make peace with their past as it relates to race, sexism and factionalism. People of color in the SBC need to go to Augusta to experience our SBC history and repent of any racist, sexist and factional attitudes and actions towards others that we’ve been party too. What better place to begin with a fresh start than Augusta, Ga.?

In Augusta, the Southern Baptists of the Charlestonian Tradition, would come together in the unity of the Spirit with the Southern Baptists of the Sandy Creek Tradition. The Baptist Identity Southern Baptists would come together in the unity of the spirit with the Baptist Irenic Southern Baptists. The Calvinist Southern Baptists must come together in the unity of the Spirit with the Non Calvinist Southern Baptists. The cessationist/ anti-tongues Southern Baptists must come together in the unity of the Spirit, with the continualist/ little “c” Southern Baptists charismatics, in the Jerry Rankin tradition. The minority people of color Southern Baptists must come together in the unity of the Spirit, with the majority Caucasian Southern Baptists. The complementarian Southern Baptists must come together in the unity of the Spirit, with the “complegalatarian” Southern Baptists in the Sandy Creek Tradition. The contemporary church practioner Southern Baptists must come together with the cultural warrior Southern Baptists. The Fundamentalists Southern Baptists must come together with the Orthodox Evangelical Southern Baptists including moderates who believe in inerrancy.

We must endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). We must allow for disagreements on nonessential matters and allow dissidents to fully function within the life of our convention within the parameters of the B, F, and M 2000.

This must be done for the sake of the Great Commission. I’m not asking that anyone change their belief system, but rather that we respectfully, lovingly and intentionally join together, in spite of our belief systems, for the Kingdom’s sake.

If God breathed on our solemn assembly, we could depart from Augusta, fired up and ready to go. You ask, ready to go where? Ready to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” We could depart from Augusta as “one body”; empowered by “one Spirit”; with only “one hope”; in the soon coming return of “one Lord”; committed to “one faith”; having all received “one baptism”; worshipping “one God”; serving Him with at least “one” gift He’s given us (Ephesians 4:3-7); and filled with His “one” Spirit (Ephesians 5:18); and ready to minister as one people (1 Peter 2:9-10), so “that the world may believe” in our one God and His son, Jesus Christ.

If all SBC entities policies and personnel reflected the spirit of this vision, the Cooperative Program giving and consequently Great Commission sending, would esponentially increase almost immediately. If we come together in a solemn assembly under this vision, we can do in Augusta this time, what should have been done the first time. And that is, let the world know we are Christians by our love.

Lord, let it come to pass, according to your will for the Kingdom’s sake and the Great Commission, in Jesus’ name. Amen.