“In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty” – that was Ken Whitten’s closing statement and the overall theme of the Gospel Above All panel June 12 at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting.
Photo by Adam Covington
J.D. Greear, far left, president of the SBC, leads a panel discussion titled “Gospel Above All: Keeping Secondary Issues Secondary,” June 12 during the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham, Ala. Other panelists included Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Fla.; Juan Sanchez, pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas; Kathy Litton, director of planter spouse development for the North American Mission Board; Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Ken Whitten, pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla.
The panel was one of three during the meeting in Birmingham, Ala., “designed to spotlight some conversations already taking place,” SBC President J.D. Greear said. Other panels addressed racial reconciliation and the value of women in God’s mission.
For Wednesday morning’s Gospel Above All conversation, Greear interviewed panelists Willy Rice, senior pastor of Calvary Church in Clearwater, Fla.; Juan Sanchez, senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, Texas; Kathy Litton, newly elected SBC registration secretary and director of planter spouse development for the North American Mission Board (NAMB); Jason Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.; and Whitten, senior pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Fla.
“One of our most cherished values (as Southern Baptists) is disagreement,” Greear said as he opened the panel, noting that the panelists held some different viewpoints than each other. He asked panelists to talk about how to “establish a grid” for how to disagree well – which topics demand unity, which ones offer space to disagree, and how to handle both with love.
Sanchez said for him, there are three concentric circles – core beliefs at the center, characteristic beliefs next, then charity beliefs.
Core beliefs are those necessary for salvation, he said. “If you remove one of those, you are not a Christian.”
Characteristic beliefs are those that make each church the type of Christian church it is, such as baptism making Baptists who they are, Sanchez said. Charity beliefs are tertiary issues like views on the end times, entertainment or education.
“We tend to fight at those charity beliefs,” he said, noting that political topics tend to be in the charity category except in matters such as the sanctity of life.
Allen said Southern Baptists have gotten themselves in trouble by conflating two categories – what they fight over and what they merely advocate for.
“I’m willing to fight over anything that goes outside our confession,” he said. “I’m willing to merely advocate for things inside of it.”
Allowing people room to advocate for different things “takes charity and grace and believing the best about each other,” Allen said. He mentioned that eschatology was a hot topic of division in the 1980s, and a decade ago the issue of Calvinism versus Arminianism at more of a “fever pitch,” but both have died down.
Now gender issues have become a bit of a flashpoint, with people talking over each other on the topic, he said. Especially on the internet “some of it is intentional misrepresentation of one another, which is disgusting and sub-Christian.”
Litton asked Allen if there was space within complementarianism to allow charity for shades of nuance in interpretation. Allen, who said he is firmly complementarian, responded, “Emphatically yes.” He noted there is room for that in the Baptist Faith & Message, which is what unites Southern Baptists.
Sanchez said “unity does not mean unanimity” and that Southern Baptists should fight for unity of the spirit and the bond of peace. “The church is to display gospel unity,” he said.
Whitten said the church has got to be above the fray of the negative world and negative media. “We ought to be a good ‘twitness,’” said Whitten, addressing how Christians represent themselves on Twitter and other social media platforms. “We’ve got to be the most gracious, loving, kind people we can be.”
Litton noted that Satan “is actively working to divide us on the smallest or greatest issues.”
In her work with NAMB, Litton sees church planters launched all across the country “from the reddest of the red states into the bluest of the blue states.” It would be counter to their mission to repel the people they are trying to reach by offending them on tertiary issues, she said.
“Do you think these people are going to take that big, personal risk and sacrifice to post things that are inflammatory to the people that they work among? If the gospel is above all, you would set those aside,” Litton said.
Whitten said “no party owns us” as Southern Baptists. “We ought to be close enough to both parties to tell them both to repent,” he said. “We belong to one person – the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Rice said the convention needs “a rebirth of humility and kindness with one another.”
He said for him, the greatest moment of the convention was Tuesday afternoon’s sending service for new International Mission Board missionaries. He thanked leaders for “elevating that in the program so that it becomes the primary reason we’re here.”
Watching the commissioning service with “a full heart and moist eyes,” he wasn’t thinking about each missionary’s soteriological position – he was “confident they were taking the gospel to the nations,” Rice said. Their focus on getting the gospel “to the neighbors and the nations” is what makes him know his church can partner with them, he said – not their agreement on tertiary issues.
Greear said Southern Baptists shouldn’t downplay important issues “but we want to know the gospel is above all.”
He closed the panel by asking messengers to gather in groups of two or three and pray for unity in the convention for the sake of the gospel. Kneeling on stage, Greear prayed for God to do something supernatural in Southern Baptists and for “petty divisions” to fade away.
“We want to pray a prayer of repentance and say, ‘God, forgive us for where we have not held one another with the esteem we would want to be held,’” Greear said. “We want for the world to see Jesus.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Grace Thornton is a writer based in Birmingham, Ala. Reprinted from Baptist Press, baptistpress.com, news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)