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SBC President James Merritt tells media ‘what we’re really about’

NEW ORLEANS (BP)–Southern Baptists are not about fighting homosexuality, ranting and raving against the culture, or trying to come up with “a laundry list” of how many things they do not like, the president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination said in a June 12 news conference in New Orleans.

“What we’re really about is that there are millions of Southern Baptists that met Jesus Christ” and, as a result, their lives have been “radically changed,” James Merritt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church of Snellville, said following his election to a second one-year term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Having traveled throughout the world to visit missionaries firsthand, Merritt said he has sought as SBC president to focus on taking the gospel to the world.

“We must — as the largest evangelical denomination on earth — continue to be the vanguard of taking the gospel around the world.”

He praised the efforts of Southern Baptists by reporting more than 414,000 baptisms in America and another 451,000 overseas last year. The 16-million-member denomination also gave $8.4 billion for ministry worldwide. Southern Baptists have started more than 8,200 new churches worldwide in 2000, he said, with a commitment to reach megacities like Boston and Las Vegas with the gospel.

In spite of such advances, Merritt said there is much to be done.

“A significant number of our SBC churches baptized no one last year and 18,000 baptized five or less,” he acknowledged, adding that a significant number of churches are plateaued or declining in attendance. “We must as Southern Baptists more than ever prioritize taking the gospel to the next generation,” he said, noting that 80 percent of Americans under age 25 do not attend any church.

Merritt said his travels abroad have reminded him that “we live in the greatest country in the world,” and he appreciates the freedom to call America back to faith in Jesus Christ. “I am grateful to be a part of a denomination that is willing to face a culture that worships the god of political correctness at the shrine of tolerance and still call sin what the Bible calls sin.”

And yet that confrontational message is couched in compassion for “people who need the Savior and with no malice whatsoever,” Merritt said.

He responded to challenges from Soulforce, a homosexual activist organization led by Mel White, seeking a hearing with Southern Baptist leaders.

“We abhor any physical violence against anyone regardless of his or her race, nationality, political philosophy, religion or sexual preference,” he insisted. “It is our desire as is the God we worship that all people be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth.”

Challenged by a press agent of Soulforce regarding his use of the term sexual preference instead of sexual orientation, Merritt made clear that he intentionally spoke of preference. Noting a “fundamental disagreement and difference” between Soulforce and the SBC, Merritt said he is confident that the group would not change the minds of Southern Baptists and thus declined the invitation to meet.

“Their request was couched in the form of ultimatums and I do not respond to ultimatums,” Merritt also said.

Merritt underscored his conviction that “all sex outside of sex between a man and a woman in the context of marriage is wrong,” referring not only to homosexual acts, but also adultery, promiscuity and other deviations. Much like a doctor diagnosing cancer, Merritt said that a response of “you’re OK, I’m OK” is not helpful.

“The most kind thing is to say you have a tumor and it has to come out. We’re not being unkind and intolerant,” Merritt said of Southern Baptist efforts to present the truth.

Merritt defended his appointments when questioned by a reporter regarding the designation of chairmen to two committees who came from the same church. He stated that 80 percent of his appointments have never served in any capacity for the SBC and 75 percent of those come from churches where no one has ever been nominated to an SBC position. Furthermore, women made up 20 percent of his appointments. He described the appointment of two chairmen from the same church as an oversight.

“It’s not exactly fair to look at the fly speck in the corner,” Merritt said. “If you check you’ll see there is a tremendously high rate of brand new faces.”

He noted that Fred Luter is the first African American in the history of the SBC to preach convention sermon June 12 and that he appointed an African American to head the Tellers Committee that supervises voting.

Merritt praised the emphasis Southern Baptists are giving to the family, noting that “the building block of any civilization is the traditional family.” He said he does not discount the value of single-parent homes, but added, “There is no substitute for a strong mom and a strong dad and we hope to promote that.”

Merritt declined comment on several matters under consideration by the SBC through its boards and agencies, including an objection by one messenger to women serving in a pastoral role as chaplains. “I’ve tried to emphasize what we said in the Baptist Faith and Message,” he said, dealing only with the limitation that men are to serve in the senior pastor role of a local church.

“There’s a greater issue of authority,” Merritt said, noting a scriptural mandate that the leader of a church and the home should be a male. “When a man will love and serve his wife, she’ll follow his leadership anywhere. When the Holy Spirit gets in a marriage and two people are deeply in love with Jesus Christ, you have to scrape and struggle to find things to disagree over.”

One state Baptist paper editor questioned why the Bold Mission Thrust report was “glossed over” while observing that most of the goals of the now-concluded 25-year SBC growth emphasis were not met, according to the convention’s Book of Reports. Merritt disputed claims that the conservative resurgence had impeded the success of Bold Mission Thrust, believing the goals to be “overly ambitious.” As a result, the effort raised the bar for Southern Baptists and motivated them to improve their record in areas such as baptisms and church growth.

Responding to a question asking whether Southern Baptists would have a greater impact under a Republican administration, Merritt made clear his belief that “we cannot find a political solution to spiritual problems.” He acknowledged being encouraged by a president who openly speaks of his faith in God, emphasizes the sanctity of life and models a strong marriage.

“Revival will begin in the church, not in Congress or the White House,” Merritt said.

Merritt responded to a question regarding the defunding of Southern Baptist seminaries and other entities by the Baptist General Convention of Texas, calling it “a tremendous tragedy.” While recalling that he was taught by Southern Seminary professors who “did not believe the Bible was the Word of God” and who condoned abortion and homosexuality, Merritt said, “I didn’t hear a peep out of the convention then.”

He said he prefers to give his attention to those who prefer to be affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.

“If, for whatever reason, they do not wish to be in the Southern Baptist Convention that believes the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God …, a convention that is willing to stand for truth, is unashamed to say Jesus died on the cross for our sins, that he was physically raised from the dead and is coming again, and apart from faith in him you can’t be saved, and that we want to take that message to the entire world — anyone who doesn’t want to be a part of that institution, I think it’s their loss and I wish them well and nothing but God’s blessing.

“But I don’t lead by looking in the rearview mirror, but by looking out of the windshield. And we’re moving forward,” Merritt said.

Merritt also expressed appreciation for the way the media have treated him with courtesy and professionalism while they performed a “what is often a thankless job.” Like pastors, he said the media often find that “people pay no attention when you get it right — they just pay attention when you get it wrong.”
Don Hinkle contributed to this article. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MEDIA QUIZ SBC PRESIDENT.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter