PHOENIX (BP) — Pastors and entity leaders discussed church unity in a divisive age and the statistical decline of the denomination during two 9Marks conversations held in conjunction with the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Phoenix.
9Marks, a church health ministry based in Washington, D.C., sponsored the late-evening panel discussions in partnership with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission June 12 and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary June 13.
In the June 12 session, 9Marks and ERLC leaders provided guidance on addressing differences within churches and the culture regarding secondary issues.
Mark Dever warned pastors that Satan “is going to continue to put increasing pressure on our churches to fall out with each other over different answers to debatable questions.” Dever — the senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington and president of 9Marks — distinguished such essentials as the deity of Christ and the inerrancy of Scripture from “debatable” issues.
“[W]e just need to understand Satan is going to exploit these new conversations to cause people to feel very confident and self-righteous on one side or the other in what are debatable matters,” he told the audience. “And it’s a different thing debating the rightness or wrongness of their position and whether or not the whole church has to affirm that position. ”
Dever urged pastors “to be vigilant watchers over that freedom and liberty of Christians in your local church to disagree with each other calmly and kindly and with respect.”
Looking back at what was a “very difficult election” for his church, Dever said one of the things he learned in 2016 is “as confused as I may be over some things, I know we are to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. And that means I need to listen and inculcate listening and be empathetic to people who are disagreeing with me on important but secondary issues. And I need to teach the people how to not divide over those issues, and that’s very delicate, difficult work, but it’s work that I think as a pastor it’s good work for me to do.”
ERLC President Russell Moore expressed his concern about the way “politics has become a religion in American society.”
Americans are seeking to identify with “my people,” he said. “And that means my people are right, and the other people are completely wrong and are to be opposed with the sort of zeal that comes with a heresy trial and the sort of longing for community that God has given to us for a church and for a kingdom.”
In this climate, Moore said, “one of the most counter-cultural things the church has to give to the rest of the world is to say, ‘Politics isn’t as important as you think it is. Your motives, your conscience, your integrity, those things are more important than you think they are.'”
Dever and Moore, along with ERLC Executive Vice President Phillip Bethancourt, also responded to a series of questions posed by moderator Jonathan Leeman, 9Marks editorial director, on hypothetical cases of church discipline and membership, as well as such issues as transgenderism and pornography.
On June 13, Dever moderated a panel that assessed the state of the SBC and commented on the deliberations during the annual meeting regarding a resolution on “alt-right white supremacy.” Panel members were Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin; Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr.; H.B. Charles, newly elected president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference and pastor of Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla.; and Leeman.
Multiple issues have come into play in the decline in baptisms and church membership in the SBC, Mohler said.
“It’s not just [one thing],” he told the audience. “It’s everything.”
Mohler noted the change in how Christianity is viewed in the United States.
“We should expect it’s going to get harder and people aren’t going to be joining our churches in order to be cool, because by joining our churches they’re going to be looked at as uncool,” Mohler said. “That’s going to change the statistics.”
The session came immediately after messengers approved a motion to permit the Resolutions Committee to return the next day with a resolution on “alt-right white supremacy,” even though its report was completed earlier June 13. The committee’s request came after some messengers sought to bring such a proposal to the floor and the failure to do so earlier had generated criticism on social media. The messengers approved in a nearly unanimous vote June 14 the resolution denouncing “alt-right white supremacy.”
Dever asked Charles how the issue affected him and other African American Christians.
“How these moments are interpreted make big statements,” said Charles, who said he would be in a position to have conversations surrounding this topic when he returned home.
Akin said fellow Christians are to humble themselves and seek forgiveness.
“We don’t have any problem humbling ourselves, acknowledging that we made a mistake, asking forgiveness and trying to move forward and do the right thing,” Akin said.
Mohler saw God’s provision in the situation and was thankful the SBC still had time to make a clear statement on the issue.
“Thank goodness the Resolutions Committee brought its report on Tuesday and not Wednesday at 2:45, which would be no case to recover,” Mohler said.
The underlying motive for doing the right thing is not because of publicity but conscience, Akin said.
“We don’t do the right thing because of the media,” he noted. “We do the right thing because it’s the right thing.”
Akin pointed to the importance of staying for the full length of the convention to vote on important matters such as the “alt-right” resolution.
“I would say to all of us coming to the convention: Be there when it begins; stay until it ends,” Akin said, “because you never know that something like what took place tonight will arise and your presence and your vote is desperately needed.”