Saying the pandemic didn’t cause the crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but revealed “a deeper, more insidious crisis,” SBC President J.D. Greear challenged members of the SBC Executive Committee (EC) to “repudiate” a pharisaical spirit and unite for the sake of the gospel.
“The last year has revealed areas of weakness in our beloved convention of churches,” Greear said Feb. 22, during the president’s address to the EC at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. “Fissures and failures and fleshly idolatries. COVID didn’t produce these crises. It only exposed them.”
Greear, senior pastor of The Summit Church in Durham, N.C., continued as SBC president for a third year because of the cancellation of the 2020 SBC Annual Meeting. He said his desire as president was never to change the SBC’s doctrine or mission.
“The change we needed was cultural,” Greear said. “Gospel doctrine and gospel mission without gospel culture is sterile, weak and even, according to scripture, deadly.”
But he decried division, which he said comes from a small but vocal minority, because it hinders the SBC’s cooperative mission of getting the gospel to the nations. He described false accusations as “demonic.”
Greear said the Pharisees possessed correct doctrinal beliefs, but resisted the ministry of Jesus more than any other group because “they were more concerned with preserving the purity of the nation than they were bringing in the outsider.”
Noting the convention’s success, during the Conservative Resurgence, of repudiating “the leaven of the liberals,” he asked: “Are we now going to repudiate the leaven of the Pharisees?”
“Do we … need reform? Absolutely,” Greear said. “Is doctrine important? Of course. These are not idle words; this is our life. Is eternal vigilance the price of doctrinal integrity? Of course. Should we ever forget the painful battles won on our behalf in the 1980s and 1990s? Oh, may it never be.
“The problem is that many of our divisions are based on 90% misunderstandings, distortions and often outright lies. And it has grieved me more than you can imagine.”
Greear cited charges hurled against him and other SBC leaders of drifting leftward, either theologically or politically, as examples. He said the controversy over Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become a significant obstacle to cooperation.
The issue has been a lightning rod since the adoption of Resolution 9 at the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting, with heated debate playing out largely on social media. Last November, the Council of Seminary Presidents issued a statement declaring CRT and any other form of Critical Theory as “incompatible” with the Baptist Faith and Message.
Greear affirmed the seminary presidents’ statement, which drew a response from various ethnic groups and leaders, but said he understands how the issue has contributed to heightened racial tensions within the SBC.
“Let me state clearly,” Greear said. “CRT is an important discussion, and I’m all for robust theological discussion about it. For something as important as ‘what biblical justice looks like,’ we need careful, robust, Bibles-open-on-our-knees discussion. But we should mourn when closet racists and neo-Confederates feel more at home in our churches than do many of our people of color.”
In calling for unity, Greear said he would not water down doctrine.
“I’m not talking about communicating ambiguity on things the scriptures speak clearly on – the sanctity of life and marriage, the sinfulness of homosexuality – these are things that faithful Christians cannot disagree on and our consciences are captive in these to the Word of God.”
But he asked: “Do we want to be a gospel people or a Southern culture people? Which is the more important part of our name, Southern or Baptist? Are the scriptures sufficient in laying out for us the non-negotiables for fellowship? If so, why do we have a set of secondary criteria, a hedge about the law, that we use to determine who is in and who is out?”
Heading into the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, scheduled for June 15-16 in Nashville, Greear asked Baptists to consider committing to being a Great Commission Baptist, committing to being a “Gospel Above All” leader and committing to being people of truth and integrity. He said the convention’s ultimate goal is becoming a gospel people with churches that engage people of all different backgrounds, cultures and ethnicities.
Citing Acts 15, when the early church was divided over whether Gentile believers should adopt Jewish religious practices including circumcision, Greear noted James’ judgment that Gentiles should avoid sexual immorality and to avoid food polluted by idols and the meat of animals that had died by strangulation. He quoted James’ reasoning from Acts 15:19: “We ought not make it hard for Gentiles who are coming to God.”
“Brothers and sisters, I wish I could write some version of that statement over the door of every Southern Baptist church in America,” Greear said. “We ought not make it hard for Democrats to come to Jesus. We shouldn’t make it hard for Republicans to come to Jesus. Or Blacks. Or Latinos. Or northerners. Or southerners.
“At the end of the day, if we’re a people who puts the gospel above all … our gospel is too precious and our mission is too urgent to let anything stand in our way.”