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FIRST-PERSON: Off the deep end in Charlotte

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP)–Jerry Vines again stunned pluralistic America with an exclusive claim about the Gospel of Jesus Christ during the SBC Pastors’ Conference in Phoenix last month. Southern Baptists were waiting to hear what he would say, and he was more than ready to say it.

“All religions are not the same. All religions are not equally true. There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved except the name of Jesus,” Vines said.

Imagine reporters querying SBC President Jack Graham about Vines’ comments on the truthfulness and exclusivity of the Gospel. Would they have been dumbfounded had he deliberately but eloquently said, “The opinions and views of speakers at the Pastors’ Conference are those of the speakers and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of, or endorsement by, the Pastors’ Conference or its participants?” I think so.

A similar event actually took place last week, but not in Phoenix and not with Graham. I went to Charlotte, N.C., to cover the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship as a Southern Baptist historian and journalist with a conservative Christian worldview. I returned disillusioned, but not about my conservative Christian worldview or Southern Baptist identity. I was dismayed by the CBF’s refusal to take a firm stand on the most important Christian doctrines.

While I was obtaining my media credentials, I was directed to a statement in the CBF press kit. The statement said that those who spoke in ministry workshops at the fellowship’s general assembly did not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of the leaders or members of the CBF. The views expressed at auxiliary meetings, as well as “materials displayed and/or sold at the General Assembly Resource Fair,” were also said to be the same; that is, not necessarily the viewpoint of the fellowship or its members.

I reported on the address of Tony Campolo, which at times seemed more like a Democratic party platform speech than a sermon.

I heard David Currie of Texas Baptists Committed once again reveal his disdain for the “uneducated” majority in the Southern Baptist Convention. After listening to his several negative statemants about Southern Baptists I remembered that Paul admonished Titus to have nothing to do with a contentious man.

I listened on several occasions to comments on how Southern Baptists had “gone astray,” “been misled” or were “adrift from their traditional and spiritual moorings.” I heard talk of acceptance, tolerance, the possibility of more than one plan of salvation and the evil nature of exclusive claims in Christianity.

Mind you, these views may or may not have been the viewpoints of the CBF’s leadership. We will never know because the organization said it would not respond to questionable comments made during breakout sessions held at the CBF. I suspect that last year’s fiasco with Reba Cobb’s plagiarized sermon and the discovery of radical feminist literature on book tables at the general assembly resource fair birthed the statement.

What the CBF thought a clever response to the journalistic inquiries of conservative Southern Baptists reveals the organization’s tragically inconsistent approach to defining itself. In fact, they purposefully avoid verbally defining themselves in order to be as inclusive as possible and make a home for a hodgepodge of theological viewpoints, some of them simply heretical in relationship to classical Christianity.

From an academic perspective, not all was bad. I heard an intelligent, cogent discussion on the relationship of fundamentalists and moderate Baptists by Fisher Humphreys and Philip Wise. I disagreed with their assessment of the motivating factors in the fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century but at least appreciated the scholarly presentation and absence of conservative-bashing banter.

In the end, however, I was grieved that the CBF expends so much energy upholding “soul freedom” and “church freedom,” that is, attempting to be Baptist, that they appear to have forgotten how to uphold Christianity. Individualism is a key facet of Baptist life, but our Baptist forefathers never meant for their seminal concepts of liberty of conscience and autonomy to subvert sound doctrine or the declaration of it.

Yet, on repeated occasions unbiblical ideas inadvertently have received the nod of the CBF because the group is unwilling to draw even the faintest doctrinal parameters around itself.

Worse, they say that the great Baptists of the past would never have excluded anyone from fellowship on the basis of differences in doctrine. That is simply wrong. While Baptists have affirmed the right of all people to determine their own beliefs, and even form confessions of their own, they never have condoned the absence of sound doctrine or failed to champion the Gospel of Christ if given the chance.

The framers of the Second London Confession, printed in 1677, wrote that they hoped the “profession of truth may be accompanied with the sound belief, and diligent practice of it by us.” I have yet to see a firm stand in this respect by the CBF.

If the leadership of the CBF cannot endorse the viewpoints of those presenting lectures or materials at their conferences, they should not invite such persons to speak. I would expect no less from any leader in the SBC.

The SBC is not a perfect organization, as is no organization conceived by human beings. But I applaud the courage of preachers who will, with clarity, preach the exclusivity of the Christian Gospel for the whole world. I applaud the fact that the SBC prizes verbal witness. I applaud their adherence to sound doctrine about the person and work of Christ. I applaud the SBC’s willingness to say what it believes and rule out of bounds what is obviously unbiblical.

Otherwise, the SBC would go off the deep end just like the CBF did in Charlotte. By the way, thank you, Dr. Vines.
Gregory Tomlin is news director at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

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