By Chris Turner
Director of Communications, TBC
Steve Gaines, pastor of iconic Bellevue Baptist Church, Cordova, sat at the table in the pressroom at the annual Southern Baptist Convention meeting and waited for questions. Gaines had just been elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention by a historic vote of acclamation.
“Any questions,” the moderator asked the media.
Silence. Stunned silence. Finally someone spoke up and said, “I think we’re all in shock.”
The shock was the result of North Carolina Pastor J.D. Greear stepping to the microphone prior to a scheduled third vote for the presidency and telling the thousands of messengers gathered in Saint Louis that he was withdrawing from the election process. He then encouraged messengers to join him in electing Gaines president by acclamation.
It was indeed a shocking turn of events, and along with the resolution on the Confederate Battle Flag, gave — in my opinion — Southern Baptists possibly two of the most poignant moments at an annual meeting in the past 40 years.
The election of Gaines had a jolting finality to it. Leading into this convention there seemed to be a crescendo of political division between “older” Southern Baptists and “younger,” between one philosophy of Cooperative Program giving and another. To some degree, Gaines represented one direction and Greear the other. After two votes, the house was divided and heading for a third vote which probably would have made little difference in determining the outcome. That’s when the spiritual moment trumped the political agenda and shocked a convention.
Along with Louisiana Pastor David Crosby, Southern Baptists were blessed to have three incredibly godly men in the running for the position. So why were we so surprised when these godly leaders responded to one another in such a biblical way? Gaines and Greear couldn’t get out of each other’s way fast enough as both offered to withdraw, giving evidence of being “filled with the Spirit” and “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:18, 21). With their actions, these two men were a visual sermon preached from Philippians 2: “… being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.”
Both men stressed a desire for convention unity that resulted in the exaltation of Christ, and neither was willing to settle for anything less. Many may have looked for a political victory, but what we got was a lesson in spiritual leadership and a spiritual victory.
The other moment of import was the amended resolution regarding the Confederate Battle Flag. The original resolution called for Southern Baptists to “prayerfully consider” putting aside the flag for the purpose of racial harmony. The Confederate Battle Flag has become a political football kicked from one side of America to the other. It evokes divisive emotion. One group finds it highly offensive connoting an era of racial oppression. Another side sees it as representing a Southern heritage increasingly under attack.
However, when James Merritt, a Georgia pastor and former SBC president, stepped to the microphone as a messenger representing his church and eloquently obliterated both those positions, he elevated the conversation from political to spiritual.
“This is not a matter of political correctness,” he said. “It is a matter of spiritual conviction and biblical compassion. We have a golden opportunity to say to every person of every race, ethnicity, and nationality that Southern Baptists are not a people of any flag. We march under the banner of the cross of Jesus and the grace of God … All the Confederate flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race.”
His words were like a lightning bolt striking my heart, searing upon it Romans 14:13 and 19. “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. … So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
There is a massive difference between liberty and responsibility and that is what both the Apostle Paul and Merritt are saying. I’ll say it with less eloquence: If you claim to be a Christian and your ethnic distinction and/or your nationalism incites your passions more so than does your identity in Christ and your heavenly citizenship, your priorities are distorted and you are categorically wrong on every count. Period.
Too often I leave the SBC annual meeting feeling as if political jockeying determined a “spiritual” outcome. Not this year. I witnessed men of God exercising spiritual leadership under the direction of the Holy Spirit to be examples of biblical Christianity.
It was inspiring, and I confess, shocking.