We Don’t Like Theology, Do We? Three Reflections from the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention

2021 Nashville-1500 x 500-Final BWe destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.
— 2 Corinthians 10:5–6 —

It has been six years since I attended a Southern Baptist Convention, and seven since I wrote about it. But re-reading my reflections on the 2014 convention, I can only begin to describe the difference between those comparatively halcyon conventions and this one. While some reports may focus on the unifying leadership, the conventional conservatism, or the most diverse convention stage to date, as a pastor and theologian I find a host of reasons for concern. These concerns swirl around the refusal to engage theology for the sake of the gospel and the church. To be brief (and Baptist), let me make three points.

Three Reasons for Conventional Concern

First, the unwillingness clarify the language of Resolution 1 evidences an aversion to the task of doing theology.  

In the first resolution, which calls Southern Baptists to pursue unity and maintain our public witness, two calls were made to amend the resolution. Both of these recommendations centered on the need for greater theological precision when it comes to the way theology intersects with unity and cooperation. The statement at issue reads: “RESOLVED, That we will not permit personal, social, theological, or political interests to supersede the urgency of evangelism and distract us from the task of the gospel’s advancement through the whole world.” And the two recommendations sought to add clarity to the word “theological.”

In one recommendation, the word “secondary” was proffered, suggesting that theological issues of a secondary nature should not divide us, but theological issues of a primary nature should (e.g., the deity of Christ or salvation by grace alone through faith alone). In the other recommendation, the language of charity was used, suggesting that when non-primary doctrines are at issue, we should offer charity, not divisiveness.

Though it was not stated explicitly, both of these recommendations stand on the theological triage that Albert Mohler has called for and that Gavin Ortlund has written on. (I have also put forward my take on this matter; see here, here, and here). In other words, these suggestions were not esoteric and technical; they were and are basic for Christian maturity. They are also essential for protecting faithful disciples from legalism (by making all doctrines first-tier) and liberalism (by making all doctrines third-tier). In short, these recommendations would have easily improved this resolution.

Yet, from the committee on resolutions and from a vote on the floor of the convention, these amendments were struck down convincingly. Even more, the spirit in the room seemed exasperated by the need to clarify this resolution. And that spirit was evidenced in the overwhelming vote against the amendment. Sadly, this exasperation and vote offered insight into the place of doctrinal precision in the SBC. Though we cannot determine everything from a single vote, or a single resolution, the overwhelming sense is that Baptist unity is more important than careful theology.

Thankfully, men like Athanasius, Martin Luther, and J. Gresham Machen did not feel that way about theology. Theology is necessary for rightly uniting God’s people and dividing God’s sheep from the world’s goats. Unless we recover a theological vision for our unity, it will not be long before we are uniting where we need to divide and dividing where we need to unite. In this way, the refusal to improve the language of Resolution 1 evidences an aversion to doing theological triage, an aversion that threatens to undermine the clear preaching of the gospel in days to come.

Second, the unwillingness to name CRT highlights a commitment to superficial unity over biblical truth.

The Southern Baptist Convention gathered nearly 16,000 messengers in Nashville, and many of them—most of them?—expected that the convention would clarify the problem with Resolution 9. With the infamous words “analytical tools” driving Southern Baptists to discern what Critical Race Theory is, Southern Baptists waited two years in order to rescind Resolution 9 (2019) or at least to give clarity to what we do and do not believe. Affirming this anticipation were the many discussions leading up the convention and even the motion to increase time for Southern Baptists to talk at the convention.

Unfortunately, that never happened.

Instead of addressing CRT with any resolution, all the resolutions addressing the matter (at least 9 listed in the convention bulletin), including the petition signed by 1300 messengers, were shoehorned into Resolution 2, a resolution titled, “On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation.” In this resolution, we have solid affirmations of Scripture and sufficient denunciations of unbiblical theories and worldviews—but only if Resolution 9, titled ‘On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality,’ did not exist and did not directly name Critical Race Theory.

However, because Critical Race Theory is mentioned in Resolution 9, because it was what the messengers wanted to address in their resolutions, and because it was discussed repeatedly from the floor and the platform, it is beyond unfortunate that the language of Resolution 2 did not include direct mention of CRT, which is raging across our country and razing schools, homes, businesses, etc. in its wake. As Denny Burk observed,

These statements [from Resolution 2] are all to the good, and the rejection they enjoin certainly applies to CRT. The only drawback is that this resolution doesn’t mention CRT explicitly (even though the resolutions that Southern Baptists offered did mention it explicitly). That doesn’t mean that Resolution 2 says something wrong. I think its assertions are fine, . . . Nevertheless it does omit explicit mention of the one item that was explicitly mentioned in the proposed resolutions—CRT.

Indeed. Resolution 2 was put forward as a catch-all resolution that could speak to every unbiblical ideology, and that is fine in itself. But in the context of the convention, Resolution 2 did not match the sentiment of those who submitted resolutions. Instead, with Procrustean force, it made their concerns fit the will of the Resolution Committee. And how do we know the will of the messengers was forced into the mold of the Resolution Committee? There are two ways.

First, when James Merritt responded to the concerns raised from the floor, he told the messengers that the committee resolved to go in a different direction and not address CRT head on. Again, this might be fine, if Resolution 9 didn’t exist and if CRT was not on the news every week, as public school teachers and college students are being canceled by this pernicious worldview. Unfortunately, however, instead of addressing the subject, equipping the messengers, and rejecting the falsehoods of CRT, Resolution 2 employs vague language that fails to address the needs of the hour.

Even worse, when the truncated conversation about CRT was had at the convention, James Merritt chided those who are making a big deal of CRT. (Later conference speaker Willie Rice would the same, as he insinuated that opponents of CRT are “jerks.”) Pitting preaching the gospel against rejecting CRT, Merritt explained dismissively that the CRT he found in his Bible was this: Christ Returns Triumphantly. With such rhetoric, he ignored the  genuine, gospel-driven concerns of the messengers and effectively shut down any conversation about the matter. In fact, repeatedly during the convention, motions were made attempting to address the issue. And repeatedly, the convention platform successfully shut down that conversation.

This leads to the second way concerns about CRT were forced into the mold of Resolution 2. Immediately after James Merritt gave his defense of the resolution, the conversation ended. Todd Benkert was called on to speak to the resolution, and he called for the question (i.e., for the resolution to be voted on) and the vote was taken. In short, there was no engagement on this subject because as soon as the resolution was presented it was brought to a vote. And with the overwhelming majority of the convention’s support it was adopted.

The travesty in all of this is that the language of Resolution 2 is insufficient to deal with CRT. Because the SBC affirmed the use of CRT in Resolution 9 (2019) and has not rejected CRT since, professors at SBC seminaries will still have cover they need to selectively use the analytic tools of CRT. Like the brother I overheard walking into the convention, who argued that using CRT is like Paul quoting the Epicurean philosophers, Southern Baptists continue to have space to teach CRT if they think that its tenets, or at least some of them, are not unbiblical. The trouble with this is that others, myself included, see the whole system as errant, anti-Christian, and in need of rejection. Yet, because the SBC refused to deal with this head on, it will continue to be a theological point of tension in the convention—next year and for many years to come.

And why? Because we chose to avoid the conversation, employ vague language, and applaud ourselves for being more diverse than ever. Unfortunately, such a veneer of unity will not suffice. We need to do the theological legwork of showing why this system is errant or conversely, we need to define in what ways CRT’s “analytical tools” serve the purposes of Christ and his kingdom. Either way, we need to do theology. And this week, the unwillingness to name CRT gave further proof that we do not want to do theology. That spells trouble.

Third, the unwillingness to engage matters theologically reveals an ongoing malady in the health of the convention.

Mainline denominations, including the SBC, did not go liberal at the turn of the twentieth century because they denied doctrine. They went liberal because their epistemology went from Scripture to experience; experience and emotions, as well as social conditions drove denominations to emphasize love over truth and compassion over orthodoxy. In time, this life over doctrine approach to Christianity, resulted in denials of doctrine. If you don’t see, read J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism.

Sadly, this is the same attitude that is at play today. While no one is denying the Baptist Faith and Message—unless you count the heterodox language of Ed Litton’s church; Redemption Church recently voted to amend the language about the trinity from parts (heresy) to persons (orthodoxy)—there is a decided shift in how we are making arguments. Instead of permitting biblical doctrine to take precedent, we are running to lived experience and personal testimonies. This, of course, is coherent with Critical Race Theory’s standpoint epistemology and narratival argumentation (see Delgado and Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introductionpp. 8-11). It is also why many are questioning how professors and seminaries are upholding the doctrine of Scripture’s sufficiency. But it doesn’t take an investigation into an SBC entity to see the shift. On the floor of the convention, we are watching argument-after-argument put forth by way of experience, more than exposition.

Understandably, the convention is under time constraints to run an orderly business meeting, but that doesn’t change the fact that the arguments that are made—when they are allowed to be made—are theologically vacuous. Add to that the two previously mentioned concerns—rejecting theological precision and the chance to talk about CRT—and it does not bode well. If we cannot ground our convention in biblical doctrine, and if we replace such exegetical theology with pragmatic decision-making and post-modernism lived experience, we will have nothing to stop us from following the errors of our well-intentioned-but-ultimately-liberal predecessors. Unless we return to a willingness to engage matters theologically, we will be left to follow the most charismatic leaders in the room. And at present, that does not give me confidence. But that’s a subject for another day.

Going Forward

In short, I go away from the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention discouraged. But discouraged does not mean defeated. To paraphrase James Merritt’s truism, Christ reigns triumphant, and because he does, I have every conviction that every theory and worldview, CRT included, that does not stand on the solid foundation of God’s Word will be exposed, overturned, and destroyed. With that confidence, I pray Southern Baptists will take up the mantle of 2 Corinthians 10:5–6 and destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.

Today, theology is often seen as an enemy of church unity, multi-ethnic diversity, evangelism, and church growth. This was on full display in Nashville this week, but in truth theology is the real source and catalyst for powerful evangelism and spiritual unity. With that in mind, we should ask God to give Southern Baptists a fresh desire for theology, so that for the sake of Christ and his church, we would “take every thought captive to obey Christ,” and fulfill the mission of preaching Christ to the world and teaching them to obey all he commanded.

Until he comes to reign triumphantly, let that be our aim.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

8 thoughts on “We Don’t Like Theology, Do We? Three Reflections from the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention

  1. Thank you for your thoughts David. This is a very helpful analysis and your discussion of Resolution 1 is the first I have read about that (I didn’t attend or livestream the convention).

  2. In regard to Resolution #1. I felt adding the word “secondary” would have made the theology view even more confusing. How would secondary be interpreted? How would the average lay person understand a secondary layer of theology verses a primary layer. That is why I voted against the amendment.

    • Thanks for the comment, PK. I wouldn’t deny that some folks might wonder what a “secondary” doctrine is, but what a wonderful chance to teach church members, growing disciples of Christ, the difference between first, second, and third tier doctrines. It would take time, but that’s why we teach, right? Better to state precisely what we mean and teach people what it means than water down the language because we don’t think they can understand it.

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  5. David – thank you for your analysis on the SBC. I was heartbroken as I left the convention and felt that we had missed some crucial opportunities to speak truth. I know I heard many times how the world was watching us as if we needed to be careful or they would say bad things about the SBC. Jesus told us that would happen if we followed Him. I sat at the convention wondering if people remembered what was written all through the New Testament concerning false teaching and false teachers and how we had to be on guard. In the letters the Lord had John send to the churches of the Revelation Jesus rebuked a number of those churches because of cultural compromise and weak doctrine. He is not a tolerant Lord when it comes to false doctrine. I did speak to James Merritt by phone and it was a good conversation. I then preached on Sunday and talked to my church about the convention. Thank you for articulating what many people who attended the convention are sensing. May the Lord bless your ministry. Stan Lewis

    • Stan, thanks for your kind note. I am hopeful that many sensing concern will rally to stand for the sufficiency of Scripture and the capital T Truth which is under threat from CRT and our sloppy approach to doctrine and ministry. Blessings brother! If you have a link to your sermon, I’d love to listen.


  6. Very dark day for the SBC. We have allowed the flesh to enter our doctrine which is a cancer for SB . The lack of defining CRT is open door for watered down doctrine. CRT has no place in SBC. It’s time conservative churches get on their knees and pray for Devine intervention. May God forgive us.

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