Is Unity in the Southern Baptist Convention Possible?


I think Southern Baptists can grow in our unity around the gospel of Christ for the sake of kingdom mission without pretending that our differences don’t matter. The Calvinism Advisory Committee has already beautifully shown that we can talk to each other in a spirit of love and grace, recognizing our serious and substantial disagreements without minimizing them. There are a number of important theological and practical questions that we still need to discuss and debate with urgency and fervor.  And I believe it’s possible to do that while remaining lovingly unified. Satan, however, will do everything in his power to keep that from happening.
In Precious Remedies Against Satan’s Devicesone of the most important of the Puritan “diagnostic casebooks,” Thomas Brooks says that Satan plots to divide God’s people “by working them first to be strange, and then to divide, and then to be bitter and jealous, and then to ‘bite and devour one another’ (Gal 5:15)” (198). First, Satan tempts us to see some sort of “strangeness” in other Christians, which creates feelings of separation and difference. Second, outward “division” develops, leading believers into opposing tribes and identities. Third, inward and unchecked “bitterness” leads to deep resentment of one another. Fourth, the bitterness grows until it finally results in biting and devouring one another.
Brooks offers no less than twelve “remedies” against Satan’s divisive scheme, but I’ll only touch on four of them.  If we want to be unified: 
1. We need to dwell on God’s graces in fellow believers more than their sins, weaknesses, and doctrinal imperfections (198).
When we differ with brothers and sisters, there is often a temptation to dwell on our differences. If a brother’s remaining sin offends us, Satan tempts us to dwell on the offense more than anything else. But we should discipline ourselves to think on the godly qualities of all our brothers and sisters in Christ.
That’s what Paul tells us to do: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).
We should be thinking about those things in other Christians. We need to dwell on the excellent qualities of Christ’s beloved people. The Christlike qualities of our brothers and sisters are their true nature. The part of them that’s holy is the redeemed part. One day, all of their sins and imperfections will be stripped away, and they will be like Jesus. So, shouldn’t we dwell on the part of them that will last into eternity, even now?
That’s what God does. Brooks says, “Tell me, saints, doesn’t God look more upon His people’s graces than upon their weaknesses” (199)?  Doesn’t that give you comfort and joy? Knowing that God sets His eyes on the part of you that is already changed, however small that may be, is a reason to rejoice! On the basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness, God delights in whatever Spirit-wrought holiness is present in one of His beloved children. Since God dwells on our graces, shouldn’t we do the same when looking at other believers who are deeply flawed, just like we are?
2. We should remember and celebrate areas of doctrinal agreement (201).
Though we should never minimize or gloss-over areas of substantial and important difference (such as Calvinism), we can and must rejoice in the things on which we agree.
Southern Baptists have many significant differences, but don’t we agree on the weightiest matters of theology? We agree substantially on the absolute authority and inerrancy of the Bible, the nature of God, the gospel of Jesus Christ, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the need of conversion, Christian ethics, the doctrine of the church, baptism, the necessity of cooperation for evangelism, cultural engagement, and global missions. For the most part, we “differ only in those points that have long been disputable amongst men of greatest piety” (202). This is a reason to celebrate.
3. We need to remember the commands of God that require us to love one another (200).

“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another” (Jn 13:34); “This is my commandment, that you love on another as I have loved you . . . These things I command you so that you will love one another” (Jn 15:12, 17); “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:4-7); “speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Eph 4:15); “Let brotherly love continue” (Heb 13:1); “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:10-11).

Our sovereign Lord absolutely requires us to love one another. Love is the mark of a true believer. “By this it is evident who are the children of God and the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother” (1 Jn 3:10). That’s because we will love our brothers if we believe His Son and His love for us. “We love because he first loved us” (1 Jn 4:19).
4. Above all else, we must work to be clothed with humility (209).
Thomas Brooks says:

“Humility makes a man peaceable among brethren, fruitful in well-doing, cheerful in suffering, and constant in holy walking (1 Pet 5:5). . . . Humility will make a man bless him that curses him, and pray for those that persecute him. . . . Humility can weep over other men’s weaknesses, and joy and rejoice over their graces. . . . Ah, Christian! Though faith is the champion of grace, and love the nurse of grace, humility is the beautifier of grace; it casts a general glory upon all the graces in the soul. Ah! Did Christians more abound in humility, they would be less bitter, forward, and sour, and they would be more gentle, meek, and sweet in their spirits and practices. . . . Humility will make a man excellent at covering others’ infirmities, and at recording their gracious services, and at delighting in their graces; it makes a man joy in every light that outshines his own, and every wind that blows others good. . . . Were Christians more humble, there would be less fire and more love among them than now is” (210-211).

May the Lord grant unity to Southern Baptists, and may He help us strive for unity in the truth with a spirit of humble love and grace toward one another.
Tom Hicks
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9 Responses to “Is Unity in the Southern Baptist Convention Possible?”

  1. Great article. Although I am not a Calvinist, I greatly appreciate many of the thoughtful insights of the Puritans — and the ones reflected here certainly apply to those of us in the SBC today. Thanks!

  2. I was raised to believe that we should stand firm on the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith and show charity with secondary disagreements. Here’s where this becomes tricky with this issue. As much focus and attention as there seems to be on this issue, I think there is some confusion. We hear people say let’s not divide over this issue, but understand that differences are real and important. The question left hanging in my mind is how important are these differences to both sides? Is this a secondary disagreement which does not change the heart of the Gospel or is this going to be the next war in the SBC which will result, more than likely, in Calvinists being fired en mass and leaving the SBC?

  3. Hi Joseph,

    I think your questions are very good ones. You ask whether the controversy over Calvinism is about the heart of the gospel. I don’t believe that it is. I’m thinking of Paul’s statement about the things of “first importance.” “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day, in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Cor 15:3-4). That’s the heart of the gospel.

    I would add, however, that the divine decree, providence, predestination, and the doctrines of grace, have a vital systematic importance. If we don’t get these things right, we start to kick the legs out from under the gospel. So, while, I would never say that a non-Calvinist does not believe the gospel, I would say that he has some serious weaknesses in his system that historically have led to compromise. If you haven’t seen it already, check out Tom Nettles’ great article “The Conserving Power of the Doctrines of Grace.”

    Practically speaking, I think the right way through this is by means of teaching and preaching, not by formal acts of political or administrative power. Neither side should try to force the other side out by political action. That won’t work anyway. The resurgence of Calvinism hasn’t happened through denominational politics and it can’t be stopped that way either. Instead, both sides should make their cases from the Word of God and let people decide. Each side should recognize the right of the other side to do this.

  4. Tom I appreciate your article.

    However, I believe that what is known as Evangelical Calvinism gives the best explanation of what the gospel is. The problem that I see most often is that Calvinists are hardly even given an opportunity to explain themselves. Opponents think they understand it because of the simplistic TULIP acronym. But they don’t and if they would just listen and not get hostile every time someone is identified as a Calvinist they would realize that there are quite a bit that they do agree with. But there is this knee-jerk reaction that is highly emotional and controversial. It is important that as brothers and sisters we allow each to represent his position well and substantiate it with scripture than always shutting each other down. Right now a recently ordained evangelist at our church began going through romans and I am so ashamed at his horrible handling of the text. Little explanation, lots of conjecture. Simply because he is too stubborn to consider that his conclusions are no where near scriptural. This is what we are having to deal with. So unless we all learn to listen to each other and not jump to calling each other heretics at the first moment, things will not change.

  5. Hi Gordon,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree that we must work hard to make sure we understand one another. I am hopeful that we’re doing this more and more in the SBC. Though you’re right that we still have a long way to go, and there are some serious problems (Louisiana College, for example), in may ways, I would say things are better now than they have ever been. Blessings to you, brother!

  6. Unity is always possible when people submit to the following:
    1. God
    2. His word
    3. Willingness to change when God speaks clearly on the issue in that word! Change regardless of what repurcussions may occur must be prominent in the persons heart and desires. Tradition, past baggage and teachings have to be held lightly if they are not absolutely Biblical. Unity is possible because the Bible teaches such for the body of Christ. It starts individually, then in the local body as a whole, moving on out into the entire Denominations and from there to the entire visible body of Christ world-wide! Unbelief and pride keeps this from happeing – Not God!

  7. I also believe with Charles Spurgeon, the Doctrines of Grace are the Gospel. They can’t be seperated from the Gospel because that IS the Gospel. And when you consider the five points he is correct. Man is totally fallen; God has to save or no one would come and be saved; His blood was shed for those who are pardoned by it and it wasn’t shed in vain; Only the power of the Holy Spirit and the Word can change a persons heart bringing that person to repent and have faith; and last, God keeps us secure in the faith for we are to weak to do so. Those core understandings are part and parcel of the Gospel. And if so, we side with Paul in Galatians – adding or taking away anything from it brings great judgment. It has no secondary aspects at all. All other matters may fall into that category but NOT the Gospel.

  8. My wife and I were invited by NAMB to come to the SBC. We are a part of the CNBC, the Canadian ‘arm’ of the SBC. Our experience thusfar as Canadian church planters has been a disappointment of massive proportions. We came down to Houston with serious concerns about the direction of our church plant, and whether or not we would continue our partnership with the Southern Baptists. While overall the SBC was a disappointment (I won’t get into the reasons here), the one major highlight was the Founders Breakfast and the message that morning. My wife and I left that breakfast with the first signs of hope for our church and relationship with the CNBC. We do believe that while there are major areas of concern inside the family, there are many good things to celebrate, one of them being the Founders Ministry. Hill Country Church has committed itself to the CNBC and we look forward to working hard to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to help build His Kingdom. Thanks Founders!

  9. Jesus said we were to be one, as He and His Father were One. He also instructed us to be unified elsewhere.

    He also said that if we didn’t come to Him as little children, we’d not even see the Kingdom of God.

    Put those two thoughts together and I conclude that our unity is found in things a little child can understand. Sin, guilt, and faith in Jesus. If we’re united around other things, be it tongues, miracles, predestination, or anything else, we’ve made an idol of something.

    That ought not to be.

    What’s hard to do is what we don’t WANT to do. Those who don’t find unity with their brothers simply don’t want to.


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