Since the announcement appeared in the Baptist Standard a week ago Friday that I would be nominated for First Vice President of the BGCT, my blog and email traffic increased significantly. Last Saturday, both the number of individual hits, and the page views, reached record highs, and each succeeding day since then the traffic has been higher than the previous records that were set when I was writing about the Baptist Conference on the Holy Spirit last spring. Emails have also increased substantially, to the point where I got way behind in responding to them.
Being an under-the-radar kind of person, I did not know what to expect might result from a nomination announcement combined with the fact that I have a blog that sometimes deals with BGCT and SBC issues. Emails have come from all over Texas, and from outside the state, from pastors, church staff, laypeople, Directors of Missions, retired DOM’s, and even from Baptist Building staff. The support was overwhelming. The advice that was given, in most cases, was right on target. There are people who are genuinely concerned about the future of the BGCT. And that concern is not all related to the abuses of the system which allowed Valleygate to happen. There are people who are concerned about doctrinal drift in the BGCT, into an area where it may have an effect on the ability of many churches to continue to cooperate. I believe that one Baptist’s concerns should be addressed in a cooperative Baptist body. But I perceive that the issues being raised are coming from a much larger constituency than just one Baptist. And I am convinced that they must be addressed, along with the administrative issues, if the BGCT is going to restore the trust from its constituency that has been lost.
I’m not hearing that there is a need to narrow the parameters of cooperation established by the BGCT with its adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message 1963. There is a perception that there has been a drift to the “left” of these parameters, which has been excused or ignored in the interest of “local church autonomy.” The perception is likely the result of a combination of things, including the participation of prominent BGCT leaders in the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant, an event in which the weight of influence of two former US Presidents and a former Vice President has been used to attract a crowd. The presence of Baptist groups like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the ABC-USA, which are considered more theologically moderate to liberal than most Baptists, in the Celebration event has also raised concerns.
The issue of ordaining women to serve in ministerial leadership, particularly as pastors of churches, has also surfaced once again. There is a difference of opinion over whether that is a matter of local church autonomy in the interpretation and application of scripture, or whether it is a sign of a lack of belief in the full authority and inspiration of scripture. I believe that, for the sake of cooperation, there is a way for those who have different positions to still remain in cooperation with each other, but the perception at the moment is that those with the more conservative view on that issue are simply being ignored. That doesn’t contribute to cooperation.
How can the BGCT address these issues, and rebuild the trust of the churches who are disturbed by what they perceive as a leftward drift of the convention?
First of all, the selection of an executive director will be key. We need a Baptist statesman, someone who can define the line between cooperative missions and doctrinal conformity and focus the interests on the benefits of mutual cooperation while, at the same time, respecting those with differences of opinion and convincing them that their position will be respected and not threatened. We need an executive director whose theological and doctrinal positions are well known, well defined, who is committed to a traditional, historic Baptist position on the non-negotiables, particularly the authority of scripture and the exclusivity of Christ. The fact that these issues continue to come up tell me that there is still some problem with perception.
Second, nominees to serve on committees and boards need to represent all constituencies. It would be impossible to make sure that theological and doctrinal positions are represented on each board or committee with a ratio of their occurence in the churches. But the perception that now exists is that the more moderate to liberal churches have much greater representation on the boards and committees than conservatives do. I’ve been told, by several individuals involved in the process of selecting the members of these groups in the past few years, that the selections have heavily favored certain constituencies, while others known to be from a more conservative church, have been turned down. From emails I have received and from my own observation, I could make a list of churches that have multiple members on boards and committees. I have also been pointed to the names of individuals who have served on multiple boards and committees in recent years. Changing those patterns would go a long way toward restoring and rebuilding trust. I believe there is room in the BGCT for the vast majority of theological positions that are represented, acknowledging that those who hold what we would call “conservative” beliefs are likely a significant majority.
We are at the beginning of a new day in the BGCT. Across the country, the paradigms of cooperative ministry in a denominational setting are changing rapidly. In addition to a shift in the relevance of denominational identity, there has been a change in the way communication and cooperation between churches is done. As was so aptly pointed out at the BGCT, the “giving generation” is about 12-14 years from passing off the scene, which will create a genuine resource crisis for both churches and Baptist conventions. It is time to plan for dealing with that now. Communicating and listening are essential practices for survival and for thriving.