Open Letter to Southern Baptists
Dear fellow Southern Baptists
Thank you for reading this letter.
As a Southern Baptist pastor with multi-generations of pastors in my family, my life has been shaped and nurtured by the SBC. You can read about that at the bottom of this letter.
I’m writing this open letter for two reasons: first, I’m deeply concerned about our denomination’s 17 years of decline and the loss of a half million members just last year. No denomination can sustain that kind of loss. Secondly, many have asked me to explain why Saddleback Church is appealing an Executive Committee ruling at our Annual Meeting in New Orleans in two weeks.
The Southern Baptist Convention is a mosaic of many kinds of Baptist “tribes” who came together to cooperate on the Great Commission. We are general Baptists (the original founding Baptists of 1609), revival Baptists, fundamentalist Baptists, Calvinist Baptists, and many other varieties of Baptists. From the start, our unity has always been based on a common mission, not a common confession. For the first 80 years of the SBC, we did not even have a confession because the founders were adamantly opposed to having one! (You can read the founding documents at www.sbcstand.com). They knew that we could never get 100% of Baptists to agree 100% on 100% of every interpretation of Scripture.
That’s why every version of The Baptist Faith & Message has called itself a “consensus of opinion,” and it repeatedly warns us that it is not a creed to be used to enforce doctrinal uniformity or exclude members of our denominational family. Your own family members often hold opposing opinions, but you don’t disown them for that. You still love them in spite of disagreements.
“Consensus” means “generally agreed on.” It doesn’t mean “universally or unanimously agreed on.” For example, NONE of the messengers from our churches who voted against the changes made in the revised Baptist Faith & Message 2000 have been kicked out, even though they disagreed with some of the statements. That’s the Baptist way. We have never demanded that every Baptist agree on every interpretation. In fact, for 178 years, Southern Baptists have AGREED TO DISAGREE on dozens and dozens of doctrinal differences so we could cooperate for the Gospel.
The current ruling of the Executive Committee (EC) will open a Pandora’s box of unintended consequences unless we reject it. It will fundamentally destroy FOUR historic Southern Baptist distinctives upon which the Convention was organized by our founders. It will: 1) change the basis of our cooperation 2) change the basis of our identity 3) centralize power in the Executive Committee and take away autonomy from the churches, and 4) turn our confession into a creed, which Baptists have always opposed. We all grew up with the slogan “We have no book but the Bible, and we have no creed but Christ!”
Our appeal to reverse the Executive Committee ruling is NOT asking any Baptist to change their theology. Not at all. The overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists are complementarian. But we reject the idea that Southern Baptists who disagree are an existential threat to our Convention, and not true Baptists. We want to cooperate on the Great Commission. All we’re asking is that Southern Baptists ACT like Southern Baptists, as we have for 178 years, and continue to be a fellowship of independent churches who agree to disagree on many things in order to AGREE to fulfill our mission together!
This could be Southern Baptists’ finest moment. It should be the moment where we say NO to becoming a creedal denomination (like some Presbyterians who have 11 creeds & confessions) and instead reaffirm that it is the Great Commission that draws us together, not doctrinal uniformity in every jot and tittle.
This should be the moment where 47,000+ autonomous, independent, freedom-loving churches say NO to turning the Executive Committee into a theological Magisterium that controls a perpetual inquisition of churches and makes the EC a centralized hierarchy that tells our congregations who to hire and what to call them.
This is a vote to affirm the God-given freedom of every Baptist to interpret Scripture AS A BAPTIST – by saying NO to those who deny that freedom. This is a vote to affirm evangelism by saying NO to factionalism. This is a vote to refocus on the Great Commission and say NO to a Great Inquisition, which will waste enormous time, money & energy that we should be investing in revitalizing our churches.
This is a vote to continue being the denomination of Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong – two strong, godly women who fearlessly spoke to men and challenged them everywhere about the priority of missions, and to say NO to those who would have silenced these Southern Baptist women.
This is a vote to affirm our founding documents which insist that our unity is to be based on giving total submission to Christ in our deeds and NOT based on mental submission to man-made creeds. Hand me a Bible and I’ll sign that as my authority. The Bible is Baptist’s sole authority.
This is a vote to prioritize Baptists working together to heal the hurts of the world in Jesus’ name, instead of nitpicking at each other over our many differences.
For Southern Baptists, the independence and freedom of our churches has been a great strength. Our rejection of a centralized hierarchy has been a strength. And our rejection of an enforceable creed has been a strength! It was only in the last 17 years, as we moved away from these historic strengths, that our denomination started rapidly declining.
The SBC grew for 80 years… 80 years! ... without ANY statement of faith – because our unity was never based on a confession. Then we grew for 90 more years – with a consensus confession that was never used to exclude people on the basis of interpretation.
In our 178-year history, it has only been in the last 8 years that the Baptist Faith & Message has been weaponized and turned into a creed for exclusion. That happened through a misguided amendment to the SBC Constitution passed in 2015. Today, our founders are rolling over in their graves.
In U.S. history, when people have realized that a constitutional amendment was wrong, the citizens have had the right and responsibility to repeal it. In the same way, Southern Baptists need to take back their denomination by repealing the 2015 un-Baptist amendment, so we can be true Baptists again.
Southern Baptists know how to humbly correct wrongs. Recently we’ve just started to do that with victims of sexual abuse in our churches. In 1995, at the 150 Annual Meeting in Atlanta, there was another historic, Christ-honoring moment when Southern Baptists corrected a grievous historic evil by adopting the Resolution on Racial Reconciliation. In that humble resolution Southern Baptists lamented, and repented, of the sin of slavery, repudiated racism, apologized to our African American brothers and sisters, and humbly asked for the process of reconciliation to begin. I remember Kay and I sitting next to a Black pastor and his wife who wept as that resolution passed. Since then, thousands of non-white churches have found a home in our Convention. That growth resulted from a correction! We can do it again.
If we don’t correct the direction we’ve been heading for eight years by saying NO to the Executive Committee’s misguided ruling, and then repealing the un-Baptist 2015 amendment – our Convention will continue to grow weaker and smaller. We’ll keep having infighting and friction between tribes and factions; un-Christlike name-calling; wasted convention time, money & energy; loss of trust and credibility; continued membership decline; and the death of the basis for cooperation upon which this body was founded. That basis – a common mission, not a confession – was the founding genius that made the SBC great.
This is why our church is challenging the ruling: not for ourselves, but for the FUTURE AND NATURE of the SBC, which hangs in the balance. The implications of this precedent cannot be overstated. So, I urge you friends to GO AND VOTE NO! at the Annual Meeting in New Orleans.
May God continue to bless you!
My father was awarded the first Southern Baptist Heritage Award in California for over 50 years of service as a pastor, seminary staff, Associational Director of Mission, and builder of 109 Baptist church buildings across America and around the world. My mother managed a Baptist Book Store. I came to Christin a Southern Baptist Church and was licensed to preach at age 16 by Trinity Baptist Church, and I had preached 121 revivals and city crusades in Southern Baptist churches before I turned 20.
Evangelist Billy Graham took an interest in me when I was 18 and became my mentor for the next 44 years. In my 53 years of Southern Baptist ministry, I served with two State Convention Evangelism Departments (California & Texas), with the International Mission Board (IMB) in Japan, and with the North American Mission Board (NAMB) as a church planter.
After an encounter with W.A. Criswell where he laid hands on me as a young man, I committed my life to pastoring a single Southern Baptist congregation for life. God graciously allowed me to serve 43 years at Saddleback Church. I now lead Finishing The Task, a global coalition of more than 900 mission agencies and denominations collaborating to complete the Great Commission by 2033, the 2000 anniversary of the Church.