For several years I have been asking myself a question that has not been easy to answer. "Why is it that some in the Southern Baptist Convention treat those who disagree with them in what often seems to be such a mean and uncivil fashion?"
It's not like we Southern Baptists are not Christians. It's not as if the Spirit of God has not done a work of grace in our hearts. We are all part of the family of Christ. We know Him our as Savior and Lord. Why, then, do we often treat each other with so little civility? That's been the question I've contemplated these past few years.
Something happened this past week that caused me to see a possible answer to my question.
During a meeting with six prominent SBC pastors and leaders, one of the pastors, a friend whom I highly respect, made a statement about another Southern Baptist leader in our state. My friend said this of another SBC leader in the state, "When he prayed at the Oklahoma Governor's Inauguration, he didn't use the name of Jesus in his prayer. I don't know about you guys, but I would never do that in a similar situation."
The SBC leader who prayed at the inauguration holds an earned doctorate from a Southern Baptist seminary, has taught seminary and college level courses in the languages, and has served as interim pastor of several large SBC churches in Oklahoma--his only fault is that he's often identified with the SBC "moderates" in our state, though he himself is very conservative in his theology and his views of Scripture. This man, like the man who mentioned him in the meeting, is a friend to me and also highly respected by me.
As I reflected on the statement about my friend--a statement made by another friend of mine--it began to dawn on me why it is we Southern Baptists often are unkind toward those who do things different than us. It is summarized in the second sentence of my friend.
"I would never do that in a similar situation."
There sometimes seems to be a sense of spiritual superiority within Southern Baptists--a superiority which is the tell-tale sign that God's grace, though preached, is not really understood. Nobody can ever "feel" superior when we believe that everything we are and everything we have are gifts of God's grace. When an understanding of God's grace so fills our hearts, we unconditionally love people who are not like us. We refuse to judge people who act differently than us because we don't feel superior when we honestly believe anything good we possess (i.e. "wisdom, character, fidelity, courage, etc...) is a result of God's grace in us. Graced people find it very, very difficult to condemn somebody for doing something in a manner different than what they would do it.
When Paul wrote to the church at Corinth he described the Christianity in terms of love by saying, "love it patient and kind... love does not boast and is not arrogant."
It seems to me that we Southern Baptists often lack real love for our brothers and sisters in Christ because we misapprehend God's grace. This misapprehension of grace leads to feelings of superiority and a boasting to others of our ability to not err as our brothers do. Rather than just accepting people as they are and where they are, we look at those in the Southern Baptist Convention (or Christianity as a whole) who are different than us as 'inferior' Christians. It's almost as if we think Christianity is not a walk of grace, but a walk of works, and unless people start working and acting like us, then they need to be "corrected" rather than loved.
I discussed this subject with one of our Sunday School classes yesterday and told them the story of the Vietnam veteran who came to Christ a few years ago in Enid. He faithfully attends Emmanuel, rarely leaving his own house except to attend our church. One of the first services he attended at Emmanuel (shortly after coming to faith in Christ) was a very moving worship time. As I was greeting people at the front of the sanctuary after the service, this man, overcome with emotion because of the worship service and message he had just heard , reached out to shake my hand, tears filling his eyes, and said to me in the hearing of several of our senior adults, "Pastor, that was one hell of a message." I didn't correct him. I didn't instruct him that he shouldn't say that in church. I simply hugged him and thanked him and told him how much his compliment meant to me. I don't know that I did anything different than what any other SBC pastor would have done in my shoes--it just seemed to me to be totally demeaning to "correct" a man who was simply expressing the spiritual fulness he felt in a manner with which he was most comfortable.
What does this story have to do with my post? Well, I tell it to make a point. When a new convert is overwhelmed with grace--and that grace spills over to us--we are often patient and kind. But when we get "professional" in our Christianity we sometimes start making statements that belie any understanding of grace.
In short, the problem we face in the SBC often comes from within us.
Hopefully, in the very near future, my two friends and I can get together for lunch and we can rejoice in how God has made us different--and love each other in spite of our differences.
In His Grace,