Years ago, as I was leaving the Christian publishing industry to begin serving at the North American Mission Board, my dad shared with me a rare, personal caution. “I just hope you don’t get chewed up in those national SBC politics.” And though I didn’t take his caution too seriously at the time, my understanding of what he meant has grown over the years.
The 2021 Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville featured four candidates for SBC President, some highly public disagreements between national leaders, and volatile issues ranging from racial justice to sex abuse prevention to financial transparency and accountability. Add to that the largest number of messengers in more than 25 years, and a full 32 motions from the floor (the most since 2010), and it’s not surprising that the politics of our convention were on full display this year.
There has already been plenty of reporting and analysis of the meeting itself. Let me simply list here three takeaways from this year’s SBC that I think can strengthen our work together here in Illinois.
1. We would do well to remain focused on the Bible and the Great Commission. Even here in our Midwestern culture, churches are diverse, with a variety of worship and leadership styles, ministries, and traditions. It wouldn’t take long to identify clear differences between any two or three churches! But the primary and enduring reasons that we choose to work together are our shared commitments: to the Bible as expressed in The Baptist Faith and Message, and to proclaiming the gospel here and around the world, through missionaries and multiplying churches. Whenever we see other, autonomous churches choosing different styles or traditions than ours, we should ask how much that really matters to our cooperation.
2. We would do well to remain focused on our unity and agreement on primary issues, and not the disunity and distraction that can come with secondary issues. Some of the deeper disagreements I heard at this year’s SBC were related to resolutions. Resolutions can be important (though there was a motion this year to do away with them entirely), but it is also important to remember that they are not binding on any church or any Baptist entity. A resolution is simply a statement of conviction by a majority of the messengers voting at a moment in time. For that reason, this year’s motions to rescind past resolutions – whether from 2019 or from the 1840’s – were ruled out of order. You can’t change a past opinion expressed by a different group of messengers at a moment in time. Motions for future action are far more important than moment-in-time resolutions. We should resist the temptation to pull away from one another, and from our top priorities, over secondary issues.
3. We would do well to remain focused on trusting relationships and open communication. As I listened to people in the hallways of the annual SBC meeting, I heard concerns that were simply rooted in misunderstanding or inaccurate information. Often a concern began with, “I heard…” and then continued with hearsay information from second- or third-hand sources. I found myself wondering how significant the disagreements would be if everyone were able to know each other personally and communicate more directly.
In our Illinois Baptist annual meetings each year, divided votes are rare. In fact, non-unanimous votes are rare. I know we don’t have to navigate the size and complexity of the national SBC, nor the tendency for debate over doctrinal, financial, or even procedural issues. But I hope our unity also comes from a commitment to know and trust one another, to have open and transparent communication, and to keep our focus on the priorities of the Bible and the Great Commission. With God’s help, we can continue to protect and preserve that unity.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.