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SBC DISCUSSION: Will SBC ‘fault lines’ lead to division or unity?

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Steve Lemke, provost at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, examined various points of divergence among Southern Baptists in a recent four-part series for the blog SBC Today (http://sbctoday.com). He then offered two possible solutions for fostering increased unity in the convention.

Using the term “fault lines,” Lemke wrote that the SBC landscape includes such points of contention as greater Baptist identity vs. lesser Baptist identity; smaller churches vs. larger churches; anti-Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) vs. pro-GCR; majority Baptist theology vs. Reformed theology; association and convention advocates vs. association and convention detractors; and those who place a higher value on the Cooperative Program (CP) vs. those who place a lower value on the CP.

“These fault lines are not identical, though they may parallel and converge at times,” Lemke wrote. “But an eruption in one of the fault lines sets off shockwaves in each of these other fault lines, and hence a great deal of disagreement within the larger Southern Baptist fellowship.”

Lemke pointed to the recent blog “Young, Southern Baptist, … and Irrelevant?” as an example of the Baptist identity fault line. Brad Whitt, pastor of a traditional SBC church in South Carolina, expressed concern that traditional churches are being labeled “irrelevant” in some SBC circles. The blog created a stir on the Internet, with many comments on both sides of the issue. Some thanked him for voicing their common concerns; others criticized his concerns as unfounded. Eventually Whitt’s article was published by seven state Baptist papers and in a Baptist Press point-counterpoint-type setting.

In light of the tensions stemming from the various SBC fault lines, Lemke offered two ways to resolve the issues and find unity.

One way to achieve unity is through division, Lemke wrote. In this option, the arguing continues until the SBC experiences multiple splinters or a major split. Lemke called this the “in Adam” option because it reflects “our only partially sanctified natural human nature and fallenness.”

Lemke also likened this option to a “Baptist Babel” in which persons within each faction are speaking their own language and defining terms differently, thus producing confusion and frustration. Between these various groups, Baptists sometimes are speaking more at each other than to each other.

This “in Adam” option would be necessary if the fractures are too deep to heal, Lemke wrote. Winning the other side over is not an option, he wrote, yet continuing on the current path will logically lead to division.

“In fact, the truth is that if one side ‘wins’ (even ‘my’ side), we all lose,” Lemke wrote. “Sometimes we must take a courageous and unpopular stand on a matter of conscience or principle, but normally only a ‘win/win’ victory is a true victory in a Christian fellowship. One side ‘winning’ in the SBC will almost inevitably produce splinters or a split.”

A split would be regrettable, Lemke wrote, but he acknowledged that it could create greater unity in each of the resulting fellowships. Rather than struggling to maintain unity over a widening chasm, each group would achieve unity with likeminded believers.

“Although I believe God might allow this option, I obviously do not regard this as God’s ideal,” Lemke wrote.

Lemke then offered a second way, the “in Christ” option, to deal with the fault lines. This option seeks unity through cooperation.

“The other possible future for the SBC is one of greater tolerance and cooperation,” Lemke wrote. “In this possible future, all these fissures and fault lines would still exist and be recognized, but they would be downplayed in the interest of the greater good.”

A key prerequisite for this option is “a mighty work of God,” a revival that leads Baptists to be unified in the Spirit, Lemke wrote, noting, “If we are all truly one in Christ we will be one with each other.”

The “in Christ” option calls for less judgment and more understanding as individual churches seek to offer a contextualized witness in their communities, Lemke wrote, suggesting that some churches will choose a contemporary approach while others remain traditional. Some theological and ethical parameters are needed to remain in fellowship with each other, but the key idea is freedom to follow God’s leading in “doing church” within each congregation, Lemke wrote.

Lemke suggested the need for a meeting somewhat like the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15. Two factions -– Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians -– with two opposing visions for church practice came together to discuss their differences. In the end, James called on the Jewish Christians to allow the Gentiles to have more freedom in their church experience. James asked the Gentile Christians to avoid a number of social practices and adhere to a set of theological and ethical non-negotiables. The result was greater unity among the believers.

“If this cooperation were to take place, we will have to move toward each other rather than away from each other,” Lemke wrote. “We are going to have to tone down our rhetoric and respect each other more as fellow believers.”

For this option to work, Lemke wrote, the mission of the Great Commission must come before personal preferences.

“I call this the ‘in Christ’ option because only God can do it,” Lemke wrote. “No human or group of humans can accomplish it without divine intervention. But God won’t do it without our cooperation.”

For such a spirit of unity to prevail, Lemke wrote that “we’re all going to have to speak with and about each other more respectfully…. We must learn to celebrate God’s work in ways that we would not have done ourselves. And we are going to have to acknowledge that our own preferred way of ‘doing church’ may not be the only legitimate way of ‘doing church.’

“We would have to put the mission of the Great Commission above our preferences. But we would also have to abide by some non-negotiables with which we might not resonate personally.”
Gary D. Myers is director of public relations at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. The series, “The Shot Heard ‘Round the SBC” by Steve Lemke, can be accessed online at www.sbctoday.com. Links to each of the four parts are: Part A) http://sbctoday.com/2011/04/05/the-shot-heard-%e2%80%98round-the-sbc-part-a; Part B) http://sbctoday.com/2011/04/07/the-shot-heard-%e2%80%98round-the-sbc-part-b; Part C) http://sbctoday.com/2011/04/08/the-shot-heard-%e2%80%98round-the-sbc-part-c; and Part D) http://sbctoday.com/2011/04/09/the-shot-heard-%e2%80%98round-the-sbc-part-d. Join Baptist Press’ Facebook page or Twitter feed to comment on this and other articles. Visit facebook.com/baptistpress or Twitter.com/Baptist Press.