I was Southern Baptist before I was a Christian. In my South Alabama context, to be a Bible-believing Christian was almost synonymous with being a Southern Baptist, and a few of us slipped in prematurely. Once I was genuinely converted, I remained a committed Southern Baptist, and I now pastor a Southern Baptist church.
I’m proud of the Southern Baptist Convention’s commitment to biblical fidelity, missions, and theological education. I love seeing the yellow SBC disaster relief vests on TV when news crews cover natural disasters. I love knowing that I get to be a part of the largest missionary-sending organization in the world. I love the time I’ve spend training at an SBC seminary. I love spending time with the people in the pews of Southern Baptist churches—folks who genuinely love Jesus and want to see as many people as possible know him, too.
While I love the SBC, I’m not proud of everything about its history. I’m not proud of the circumstances of its origins when it formed in 1845 in response to northern Baptists refusing to commission southern missionaries who owned slaves. I’m not proud of its racism. Most recently, I’m not proud of the recent findings from the Guidepost investigation into sexual abuse within the SBC.
There’s never been a perfect human institution. There’s never even been a perfect church. From the very beginning, churches have been gathered of individuals who are simultaneously sinners and justified in Christ. In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus wisely foresaw the impact of sin in his church and left us a method for dealing with it. The church has been entrusted by the Lord to call erring brothers and sisters to repentance and renewed faith in Christ. Sin in the church will never surprise me; churches who refuse to deal with the sin within should shock us all.
It’s important to remember that the SBC is not the church. It is a meeting of cooperating churches that partner together to accomplish shared missional goals. We are like-minded churches who freely choose to cooperate to accomplish shared goals like missions, theological education, and biblical ethics. Nevertheless, one wonders how differently the Guidepost report would have read if more local churches were committed to Matthew 18. The SBC is not equipped or called to deal with the personal sins of church members; the local church is. The SBC would not need a Sexual Abuse Task Force if its nearly 50,000 local churches were practicing what Jesus commands in Matthew 18:15-20.
Nevertheless, I was thrilled the other week when, in the spirit of Matthew 18, SBC messengers representing the nearly 50,000 SBC churches met in Anaheim and overwhelmingly voted to affirm a resolution in support of consistent state laws to hold leaders in ministry accountable and another resolution to voice lament and repentance for the SBC’s past failures in the area of sexual abuse response. Additionally, positive steps were taken in passing the Sexual Abuse Task Force’s recommended reforms to set up support for survivors of sexual abuse, to provide sexual abuse prevention training for all SBC entities and committees, and to begin working on a shared database to prevent sexual abusers from moving from church to church.
These are just first steps, but they are righteous steps. And once again, I was proud to be a Southern Baptist last week in Anaheim.
What does the future hold for the SBC? That’s a hard question to answer. The other week, we commissioned fifty-two new missionaries through the International Mission Board. Southern Baptist seminaries continue to educate more ministers than any other denomination in the world. New churches are being planted throughout the United States by the hundreds each year through the North American Mission Board. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has worked tirelessly to advocate for religious liberty and to end abortion for decades, and we now must adjust our pro-life commitment for a post-Roe world.
God does amazing work through his humble and repentant people. Thankfully, he doesn’t require sinlessness as a prerequisite for his favor. If he did, we would all be useless. As Jesus once taught us when he was criticized for hanging out with sinners, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matthew 9:12).
The SBC’s success depends on the faithfulness of its churches. If churches continue to ignore Matthew 18 in the name of growing bigger budgets and membership rolls, we should not expect God’s favor. If pragmatism rules instead of faithfulness to Christ’s clear instructions, we should not expect God’s favor. If abusers are given safe cover to prey on victims in our churches, we should not expect God’s favor. I pray that the decisions made in Anaheim indicate that our churches are committed to faithfulness.