Moving Beyond a ‘Plain’ Reading of Scripture

In theological debate, a plain and straightforward reading of Scripture is often adduced as a compelling “biblical” argument.  However, a straightforward reading of Scripture is often in danger of reading the Bible out of context, by truncating or removing texts from their original contexts.  In this way, many “biblical” arguments turn out to be exercises in theological redaction and atomistic hermeneutics.

This is the point that Lee Gattis makes in his recent book on the extent of the atonement.  He writes,

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Reflections on the SBC

[This is the report that I shared with our church upon my return from the Southern Baptist Convention].

This year’s Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix, Arizona was the smallest gathering of Southern Baptists since World War II (1944).  However, its diminutive size (approx. 4,800 messengers) should not discount the importance of the two-day convention (June 14-15).  As Bryant Wright, this year’s president, put it, “I do believe it could prove to be the most spiritually significant convention over the last 50 years.”

Why?  Why would an off-year convention invite such a statement?

In one sentence, it is because the spirit of the convention was filled with unity to complete the task of the Great Commission here and abroad.  Whereas the 2005 convention in Greensboro, NC began with a two-hour debate between on the merits and demerits of  Calvinism.  This year’s convention was marked by unity around the gospel and reaching the 3,800 unengaged, unreached people groups. Again Wright puts it succinctly, “This was the most unified convention around the Great Commission that I have experienced.  People came here with anticipation of that unity.”

Some of those people were three new presidents of Southern Baptist entities.  Each of these men are newly appointed presidents of the NAMB, IMB, and the Executive Committee, and each man energized discussion with striking calls for church planting, missions, and unity.

The Executive Committee

First, Frank Page addressed the convention with more than 20 entity leaders on the platform.  He introduced a resolution affirming unity and cooperation among Southern Baptists.  The last decade has seen a great deal of misunderstanding and name calling at the convention and on blogs, so Page and others have called Southern Baptists to greater unity.  In his address, he said,

“Our convention is fracturing into various groups, some theological, most methodological…Sometimes there is an honest difference of opinion, but often there is self-centeredness that frequently mirrors our own culture… Christ-like selflessness is our only hope.”

With those sentiments he introduced five pledges for Southern Baptists to embrace.

  1. We pledge to maintain a relationship of mutual trust …
  2. We pledge to attribute the highest motives to those engaged in local church ministries and those engaged in denominational service in any level of Convention life …
  3. We pledge to affirm the value of cooperative ministry as the most effective and efficient means of reaching a lost world …
  4. We pledge to embrace our brothers and sisters of every ethnicity, race, and language as equal partners in our collective ministries to engage all people groups with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
  5. We pledge to continue to honor and affirm proportional giving through the Cooperative Program as the most effective means of mobilizing our churches and extending our outreach as Southern Baptists ….”

I believe these pledges, if kept, will go along way to including all kinds of gospel-minded Southern Baptists, while challenging each Southern Baptist to love, learn, and listen to others who may approach ministry from a different point of view.  My prayer is that this commitment does not reduce biblical precision and doctrinal distinctives, but that maturing Southern Baptists will uphold a spirit of gospel peace even when they disagree on doctrines not spelled out in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.

The North American Mission Board

Second, Kevin Ezell called Southern Baptists to be honest about numbers.  Boldly, he declared that Southern Baptists like numbers.  We like big numbers.  However, this has led to unqualified and inflated numbers for the convention. This has been a statistical concern for the millions of missing Southern Baptists each Sunday, but Ezell pointed out that it is not just individuals but churches that are missing.  In the words of Jesus, he reported…

”You have heard it said” that NAMB plants close to 1500 church plants a year, “but I say unto you” that NAMB planted 769 churches last year.

You have heard it said that NAMB has over 5100 missionaries, “but I say unto you” that 3480 of those are jointly funded with state conventions, 1839 are missionary spouses, some of whom have ministry assignments and some of whom do not.  He also pointed out that that 1616 are Mission Service Corps volunteers who receive no NAMB funding at all.  Thus the numbers are not as high as we might first think.

Likewise, on the topic of numbers.  Ezell pointed out that through retirement incentives and other compensations, he has reduced the total number of employees at the NAMB head quarters in Alpharetta.  He stressed a desire to do more with less people.  And while this at first sounds cold-hearted or anti-missional.  Here is the payoff.  By reducing the overhead 38%, NAMB will be able to put $8 million dollars into church planting.  Moreover, he pointed out that less than 4% of SBC churches are directly involved in church planting.  Ezell’s challenge: “We must do better.  We are going to do better.”

This leads to the final point.  In addition to improving reporting and oversight of Southern Baptist church plants, he also intends to lead in an initiative to plant more successful church plants.  Thus, he introduced a new initiative to “SEND” church planters into 25 urban centers around the country.

The International Missions Board

Third, Tom Elliff called for Southern Baptists to be more involved in reaching the unreached.   Following the powerful missions message of David Platt, Elliff said,

“This convention has been one long sermon…. There is not one thing I could say” that messengers have not already heard. A lost world, Elliff said, needs churches who consider it unacceptable that there are people groups “who do not have somebody deliberately” trying to engage them with the Gospel.

This call for greater outreach to the unreached was championed by David Platt, whose message from gospel of Matthew reminded Southern Baptists that Jesus will not come until all the nations have heard (Matt 24:14).  And since Jesus has not come, there are still peoples awaiting the Good News.  In fact, current statistics say that 3,800 peoples are awaiting the Good News.

As Platt put it, “”This is not a problem for the International Mission Board to address. This is a problem for every pastor and every local church to address.”

Indeed, it is something that I hope our church will address very shortly.  At the convention, more than 1,000 messengers responded to the call to reach the unengaged, unreached people groups.  I pray that we will too.

The church that shines the farthest shines brightest at home. 

I was tremendously encouraged by the unity of the messengers around the centrality of the gospel.  The divergence of speakers at the pastors’ conference was a good reminder that God is at work among many people, and that even when there are disagreements on things like the order of regeneration and faith, and what the doctrine of election fully means, there can be unity in reaching the lost for Christ.  This was also evident in the conversation between Mark Dever and Paige Patterson.  Again, I am encouraged by the evangelistic unity developing among Southern Baptists who in the past have argued over God’s sovereignty in salvation.

I hope that our church will follow suit.  Satan would love for us to wrangle over lesser points of doctrine, and to miss out on the fact that a lost and dying world is still lost and dying.  It is my hope and prayer and mission to lead our church to be more missions-minded and missional in our own community, even as we continue to grow into a greater understanding of God’s word and a love for one another.  Satan would love for us to question the motives and intents of others, but Christ is raising up an army of gospel-witnessing warriors, and I pray Calvary will be a bastion for such life-saving truth.

I want to thank you for letting me go to the convention this year.  I was motivated and encouraged by the things I saw and heard.  And I pray that all that was planned and promised will come to fruition as the Lord supplies the growth to the seeds that were sown and the plants that were watered.

Other SBC Reviews Consulted For This Report

SBC Annual Convention Videos

Baptist Press

SBC Voices

Trevin Wax