By Chris Turner
Director of Communications, TBMB

David Platt

David Platt

“I’m sorry.”

Two words that carry profound meaning and trigger acts of reconciliation. They admit a wrong, communicate humility, express a desire for forgiveness, and move people toward a unified future.

And that’s precisely why David Platt, president of the International Mission Board, needed to say he was sorry to Southern Baptists for the amicus brief the IMB offered last summer in support of the building of a New Jersey mosque.

Platt’s apology was delivered to state convention executives, state paper editors, and a number of other denominational leaders recently gathered in California for meetings. The reaction to a story written by Baptist and Reflector Editor Lonnie Wilkey titled, “Platt Apologizes to Southern Baptists,” has been interesting (see Feb. 22 issue of B&R). One friend of mine categorically stated, “Platt has nothing for which he needs to apologize.” The basis for his argument against apologizing is wrapped in religious liberty; that the defense of the building of the mosque has implications for the rights of all people to worship – or not worship – as they please. My friend and many others cite the Baptist Faith and Message’s Article 17 regarding our position as Southern Baptists related to religious liberty. Many taking this position have either overtly or directly categorized pastors opposed to the IMB’s legal support of the building of the mosque with what they see as a xenophobia driving support for President Donald Trump’s immigration policy and travel ban.

That is a wrong characterization of pastors and here’s why.

Granted, for a number of pastors and other Southern Baptists, the issue does come down to a discomfort with supporting the building of a mosque and what they believe is an “unholy alliance,” as Tennessee pastor and former IMB trustee Dean Haun categorized the support (Haun resigned his trusteeship in November  2016 over the issue).

However, we’ve heard from a significant number of pastors who state their issue has less to do with an opposition to religious liberty and more to do with believing Platt and IMB leadership went beyond the IMB’s denominationally assigned purpose in filing the legal brief, created an unnecessary distraction from its assigned purpose, and that such a significant action was taken without informing trustees until after the action was taken. Some trustees found out about the IMB filing when Southern Baptists contacted them asking why the IMB was supporting the building of a mosque. It made trustees appear uninformed and intentionally bypassed. For a large number of pastors the issue is not religious liberty but a matter of polity and accountability.

These pastors also believe that if the issue was to be addressed at all, then it should (and did) fall within the assigned purview of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, not the International Mission Board which advises its missionaries to avoid political engagement.

As a result of the legal action by the IMB and the ERLC, some churches across the Southern Baptist Convention have chosen to withhold their Cooperative Program support, at least temporarily. First Baptist Church, Morristown, where Haun is pastor, chose to escrow its Cooperative Program monies until the situation could be more thoroughly understood. Many of the pastors leading these churches are being characterized as poor sports. As I heard one individual say, “[They’ve] decided to take their ball and go home.”

Again, I believe it is wrong to characterize our Southern Baptist pastors as “poor sports,” xenophobic, or uninformed related to the religious liberty issue. There is an increasing number of Southern Baptist pastors who for some time have felt unheard, disenfranchised, and condescended to by leaders from our denominational entities – and they point to the IMB leadership’s disregard of the trustee board as evidence. They feel there is an accountability problem, and they believe the only way to be heard is by withholding the Cooperative Program dollars that pay the salaries of those they believe aren’t listening. Whether right or wrong, that is their perception and therefore their reality.

And frankly, my observation is that until Platt’s apology, denominational entity leaders have done virtually nothing to change that perception. Leaders who exude intellectual arrogance and condescension will never endear themselves to the people they are wanting to lead, assuming they are wanting to lead us in Great Commission work.

Randy C. Davis, president of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, published a column last week titled, “A Plea for Unity and Cooperation.” In it, he offers four suggestions for how we can set aside division and discord and get on with Great Commission work. The first of those suggestions was to “Confess, repent, and commit … to giving preference to each other while making sure ‘our love [is] without hypocrisy,’ ”

The column is a road map for all of us. If those of us who make up the Southern Baptist Convention are ever going to reach our Great Commission potential, we must quit being so territorial and defensive and act in humility toward one another.

It’s been said that it is never wrong to do the right thing, and that’s why Platt’s apology to our denomination is so important. It was the right thing to do because it was a humble step toward unity and cooperation.

The question is, which leaders will follow suit and how will the rest of us respond?