NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–If elected as the Southern Baptist Convention’s next president, Tennessee pastor Jerry Sutton said he would work to address what he termed “confusion” in and among SBC entities and state conventions over their roles and relationships. Further, he would seek to clarify who Southern Baptists are — another issue where confusion exists within the SBC, he said — and he would help the SBC establish clearly defined mission strategies.
Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville and current SBC first vice president, joined two fellow pastors — Frank Page of South Carolina and Ronnie Floyd of Arkansas as presidential candidates -– on June 6 to create the first three-way race among announced candidates since 1992.
Sutton became pastor at Two Rivers in 1986, succeeding Jim Henry when he moved to the pastorate of First Baptist Church in Orlando, Fla. Sutton is the author of two books: “The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention” (2000) and “The Way Back Home” (2002), a book about spiritual restoration.
In an interview with the Southern Baptist Texan, Sutton said he considered and prayed about an SBC presidential run only after many phones calls from people asking him to run.
“Sometimes you think, ‘Well, it’s just an honor for someone to think of you in those categories,’” he told the newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
After getting calls from Virginia, Texas, California, Florida, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama, “I began to pray about it and really think about it and I told folks, ‘I’ll let you know something next Monday.’ Last Sunday night after church I went home and I spent all night long praying and just really laying out before the Lord saying, ‘Father, what do you want me to do?’
“I have just a really strong conviction that He said, ‘I want you to run.’ And so I finally, I guess it was about 2:30 yesterday [June 5], I told some people who had been waiting for an answer, ‘Will you run or will you not run?’ … I said, ‘OK, I’m willing to run.’”
Sutton will be nominated by Rick Evans, pastor of Dalraida Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala.
“Jerry Sutton is an example to us all. He is a consistent leader and a convictional conservative,” Evans said in an interview with the Texan. “In times of uncertainty, we need a man with a proven track record. Jerry has not sought the position and has made no effort to attain it. He also knows the history of the SBC, especially the recent history of the convention,” Evans added, referring to Sutton’s history of the SBC conservative resurgence between 1979 and 1995.
Sutton said he would address three issues that he believes need clarity among Southern Baptists.
“As far as a primary message, first of all, there’s a lot of confusion among Southern Baptists right now,” Sutton said. “Particularly the IMB, NAMB, some confusion coming out of the Executive Committee. There’s actually some pretty strong confusion with the pull between state conventions and the SBC. I think I have enough context because of my academic training plus being a pastor for almost 30 years to bring some clarity to that.
“Secondly, there are a lot of questions about our identity. Who are we? I think I can bring some clarity to that. Also, I think there’s the appearance that there’s a lack of strategy. You can have great goals, but then the question is, ‘How do you reach those goals?’ So I think I can help in that regard.
“And I can say for myself, I am not a prima donna. Week in and week out I’m consistent. So I can promise consistency.”
Two Rivers averaged 1,836 people in worship services in 2005 among a membership of nearly 7,000, according to the SBC’s Annual Church Profile. Sutton said the church baptized 124 people last year, “an off year,” he said. “We’ve already had over 100 baptisms this year. In the 20 years that I’ve been here, as of today, [we’ve baptized] 3,377. And we can tell you their names and where they went, or if they stayed.”
Sutton described the church’s approach to missions as “multifaceted.”
“First of all, when we talk about missions we’re simply talking about taking the Gospel outside the walls of the church, whether it’s sharing the Gospel through our FAITH (Sunday School evangelism) program or another way. We have an inner-city ministry. We have a food and clothing ministry called LifeLines. We have a ministry called Sight, which helps people trapped in homosexuality come out of homosexuality.
“A lot of Baptist people have a tendency to bash or to react repulsively toward homosexuality. What we try to do is get people out of it. We help them, [saying,] ‘There’s a way we can help you, and Jesus Christ can give you the strength to come out of it.’ And so we start there.”
Additionally, the church this year will send more than 100 members to such places as China, Cuba, Africa and Armenia for short-term work in cooperation with the SBC’s International Mission Board.
Sutton considers a 1999 missions conference the church hosted and funded as one of its greatest endeavors.
“We flew in 164 strategy coordinators; all but four from the 10/40 Window [of unreached people] came. Then we partnered them with about 500 pastors and laymen [from churches not engaged in global outreach]. Because basically, if you’re a strategy coordinator inside the 10/40 Window, your mommy and daddy pray for you, your home church prays for you, and nobody else knows your name. And so we worked very diligently trying to build those strategic relationships.
“I think it really helped Southern Baptist work particularly in involving churches in worldwide evangelism and worldwide missions,” Sutton said.
Over 20 years, Two Rivers has averaged giving 6.37 percent through the Cooperative Program missions funding channel and an additional 7.03 percent to SBC mission causes though offerings and strategic partnerships, Sutton said.
Of late, Two Rivers has sent a portion of funds to the Tennessee Baptist Convention and a sum to the SBC Executive Committee for distribution through the SBC allocation budget, he said.
“There are going to be some zeros in there [in reporting the church’s traditional CP giving], because we have verbalized our discontent with the Tennessee Baptist Convention because it’s weighted heavily with CBF [Cooperative Baptist Fellowship] people. And we told them, ‘If you don’t get that straightened out and Belmont straightened out and Carson-Newman, that instead of sending all of our money through you, we’ll send you a certain amount of money. I think this past year we sent them about $70,000, but then we sent another $110,000 to the [SBC’s] Executive Committee downtown. And then we give to Lottie Moon and other offerings above that. This year the total giving is going to be lower than our average, but that’s just where we are cyclically. It always bounces back.”
In 2005, the church sent 4.47 percent of the church’s $4.1 million in undesignated offerings to the TBC and SBC, according to a June 6 Baptist Press report. Additionally, Two Rivers gave $86,273 toward the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and $34,357 for the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions.
“To my knowledge, if it’s possible to increase [CP giving], we intend to,” Sutton said. “There’s an assumption the pastor dictates the percentage of CP. That’s an unfounded assumption.”
Sutton acknowledged the recent trends toward lower CP percentages but cautioned against panic.
“I think there’s more than one explanation for it. One thing that I think is a trend is what we just call the graying of the church. A lot of churches are not reaching out and bringing in new people, and as a church gets older it has fewer and fewer resources. I think that’s one reason you have a drop.”
Contending that the Cooperative Program tends to be cyclical, Sutton added: “[P]eople are asking, ‘What benefit is there in giving?’ and we need to give them a good answer.”
Now that conservatives have won the doctrinal battles of the 1980s and ’90s, the SBC must be full of godly pastors and leaders to remain vital, Sutton said.
“The question is, ‘How do you continue that?’ There’s a phrase that I’m not sure is really connected with a lot of our Southern Baptist folks. And that’s what I call integrity of heart. A guy can walk out of seminary with all the skills in the world, but if his heart is not right with God and he’s not walking with God, there’s a flaw.
“Some people say, ‘The key to my spiritual growth is my prayer life or my Bible study, my witnessing or my fellowship with other believers.’ Everything ties right back in to that integrity of heart. Integrity of heart is a tremendously important issue. And I think — if you want to know bottom line -— that’s where a lot of folks are dropping the ball. And that’s where we’ve got to give some sustained attention.”
If elected, Sutton said, he would work to include qualified people to serve on SBC boards who have not served before.
“Basically, you can look to what I would do based on what I have done in the past. When I was president of the [SBC] Pastors’ Conference [in 2000], half of the people who preached on the program had never preached at the Pastors’ Conference before. And I would make it my business to try to bring in people who have not been actively involved.
“Let me say this: You always have to have some people who know what they are doing and have experience. You can’t replace experience with total inexperience. But at the same time, I know some guys who go from one board or agency to another board or agency.”
After serving as a LifeWay trustee for eight years, Sutton said he decided he would decline requests to serve on more boards so others could have the opportunity.
“I think there are lots of good people who have lots of great ability who just need an opportunity,” Sutton said. “You can go back and trace where some people have gone from one board to another to another. And I resist that because I believe Southern Baptists can do better.”
Regarding contention over new IMB policies on baptism and private prayer language, Sutton said trustees have an obligation to safeguard the institution from doctrinal or other error.
“With the tongues issue, I am not a cessationist who believes all the supernatural gifts stopped,” he said. “At the same time, I am extremely uneasy with the subjectivism that comes with ‘I have a prayer language.’ I’m uneasy with that because there’s no way to verify that it’s authentic or synthetic, so to speak.
“Also, I’m uneasy about it in the sense that you have the trustees saying, ‘We don’t want to appoint any missionaries who have a prayer language’ when the president does. That is a pure double standard. And somehow that needs to be addressed.”
Sutton said an addition to the Baptist Faith and Message on tongues and charismatic practices would create a uniform guide for all SBC bodies. He said he believes real problems have existed on the field with missionaries who are “enamored with the charismatic movement. So instead of helping to build and support distinctly Southern Baptist-type churches, they run off and worship at the charismatic church.
“So what happens is that Southern Baptists wind up supporting ministries, churches and organizations by our presence, things we as a corporate entity do not agree with. And I think that what’s happened is that the trustees said, ‘We’ve got to address that.’ But I think it needs to be addressed through the Baptist Faith and Message because there’s that old cliché, ‘What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,’” he said.
On baptism, “If you begin to argue that unless they are baptized in a Southern Baptist church, then they ought to be baptized again, if you begin to project that out, you’re going to go back and be saying, ‘Well, was the pastor of the person who baptized me, was that person, did he believe right?’ It opens up a can of worms. It’s almost a reflection of Landmarkism. I think that it is not necessary. I think we ought to have a biblical definition of baptism, one that says baptism follows salvation by immersion as a testimony [with] no saving significance. And then from that point on we ought to be on the honor system.”
Debate within Southern Baptist circles over whether five-point Calvinists in the SBC are endangering evangelism shows a misunderstanding of the current cultural context, Sutton said. Though not a Calvinist, Sutton said he is sympathetic with Reformed theology.
“I did my dissertation on Spurgeon. As long as you hold your theology where Spurgeon and Whitefield had it, then it’s not going to impinge on your evangelism,” Sutton said.
“Francis Schaeffer said that sooner or later we are going to learn to quit fighting the battles of the 16th century. What happened was that Arminianism was a reaction to Calvinism, and Calvinism was a reaction to Catholicism, and there is a historical context.
“The context has changed today. We’re not fighting Calvinism, we’re not fighting Catholicism. We’re not fighting what I’ll call the overreaction of Calvinism,” Sutton continued. “We’re dealing with secularism and relativism and hedonism, not to even mention or even address the issues involved in Islam. So the context has changed. And because the context has changed, I think the issues have changed with respect to theology.”
Sutton said he is trying to nominate as many people as he can for salvation and let God do the electing.
“I applaud anyone who takes Scripture seriously. I think that is the touchstone. I think anybody who takes Scripture seriously is a Southern Baptist who ought to have a place at the table.”
Jerry Pierce is managing editor of the Southern Baptist Texas, newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, on the Web at www.sbtexas.com.