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SBC PREVIEW: After two years, decisions await SBC messengers

NASHVILLE (BP) – As the SBC prepares to hold its first annual meeting in two years – and perhaps its largest in a quarter century – several Southern Baptist leaders and others are pushing back on questions about its trajectory, saying the Convention remains aligned with Scripture, with the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, and to its cooperative mission.

More than 17,000 have preregistered as messengers to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, which begins Tuesday (June 15) and runs through Wednesday (June 16) at the Music City Center in Nashville. The 2020 Annual Meeting was canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, postponing and perhaps intensifying debate on several issues including race relations, the role of women in ministry, the departure of former ERLC president Russell Moore and recent accusations against the SBC Executive Committee.

The theme of the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting, chosen by SBC President J.D. Greear, is “We are Great Commission Baptists.” Messengers will consider agenda items including Vision 2025, a set of five proposed strategic actions to unite the denomination around the Great Commission. The actions include new goals in church planting, evangelism and cooperative giving, to be achieved by 2025.

Other business items being considered include a revised Business and Financial Plan for the Convention as well as a host of ministry assignment changes and the approval of a Cooperative Program Allocation Budget for the next fiscal year.

Ahead of the business sessions, discussions in various online forums have centered more on perceptions of the trajectory of the Convention than its mission. But is social media chatter an accurate reflection of the SBC’s collective heart?

Steve Gaines, the pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in the Memphis area who served as SBC president from 2016-18, said he “believe[s] the vast majority of Southern Baptists are focused on loving and worshiping the Lord Jesus and serving Him through their local churches.”

“Most all Southern Baptists that I know believe in and adhere to the doctrinal statements in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000,” Gaines continued. “We believe the Bible is the inspired, inerrant Word of God. We believe Jesus is the only Savior for all mankind.”

Gaines said most Southern Baptists love the SBC because of its “emphasis on missions,” including supporting almost 4,000 missionaries through the International Mission Board and hundreds of churches being planted by the North American Mission Board. Vision 2025 calls for 500 more missionaries and 5,000 new congregations.

“Personally, I believe great days are ahead for Southern Baptists,” Gaines said. “I’m very optimistic about our convention.”

Gregory A. Wills, research professor of church history and Baptist heritage director of the B.H. Carroll Center for Baptist Heritage and Mission at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said while the SBC may include debate over doctrine, it shouldn’t be over whether the Convention is moving to a liberal position.

“Our doctrine of inspiration is, ‘What the Bible says, God says.’ And God neither lies nor is deceived,” Wills said. “That’s where all the faculties of all six seminaries are now. I don’t know of any leaders or pastors in our convention who hold a different view.

“I see no evidence of anything that can remotely be called liberalism. We have our disagreements, but it’s not over that.”

In the waning days before the annual meeting, with several candidates vying to lead the SBC as president, some have charged that the Convention has drifted leftward theologically.

But Bryant Wright, president of Send Relief, who served as SBC president from 2010-12 while he was pastor of Johnson Ferry Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., said his experience as a seminary student in the 1970s gave him a clear perspective on theological liberalism.

“I went to Southern Seminary and [at that time] it was spiritually dead. It was the most miserable experience of my life,” Wright said. “Now, when I look at all six of our seminaries I continue to be inspired and thankful at the commitment to biblical truth and the fulfillment of Christ’s Great Commission. To say that we’ve had a liberal drift with the six presidents of our six seminaries is just not true.

“As I serve closely with godly men like Paul Chitwood, Kevin Ezell, J.D. Greear and Ronnie Floyd, I know that they are totally committed to following Christ, carrying out Christ’s Great Commission and upholding the Bible as God’s perfectly true, inerrant Word of God. It’s time to pray for them without slandering them.”