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Andrew WalkerJune 21, 2012
With the 2012 meeting of The Southern Baptist Convention now complete, observers of America’s largest Protestant denomination will be treated to viewing a religious body begin the process of re-shaping its identity in an increasingly pluralistic society while maintaining its conservative theology.
The most important and symbolic act of the 2012 convention was the election of Fred Luter, Jr., as the first African-American president of the Southern Baptist Convention. With Southern Baptists on the wrong side of the race debates during much of America’s civil rights struggle, the denomination has long been considered by media foes as an unwelcoming environment for minorities. Despite formal resolutions of apology to African-Americans, Southern Baptists have been on a painful public relations tour. According to Baptist Press, the journalism arm of the SBC, “The 2009 SBC Annual Church Profile report showed that 6.5 percent of SBC congregations were predominantly African American while an additional 12.5 percent reflected other ethnic identities.” In Luter, who is pastor of the predominantly African-American Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, Southern Baptists have formally inscribed their denomination as one fully-embracing of African-Americans in top brass positions. The election of Luter, according to one pastor, sends the message that “that the Southern Baptist Convention is serious about racial reconciliation.” “I think this will speak not only to our convention,” said Luter, “but to our country and throughout the world that this convention is serious about reaching all people.”
Aware that “Southern Baptist” has often negative connotations in larger society and in attempts to break out of their predominantly Southern locale, messengers voted to approve “Great Commission Baptists” as a voluntary and optional descriptor while retaining “Southern Baptist” as its legal name. In a contentious 53%-46% vote, messengers approved the recommendation which had come from the Nashville-based Executive Committee which approved the initial task-force report in February. New church plants will be free to abandon “Southern Baptist” in exchange for “Great Commission Baptist” if such a decision is considered missiologically appropriate. According to Jimmy Draper, a long-time figurehead within the Convention, “The name ‘Southern,’ is a barrier to the Gospel in some regions of the country.” "We also recognize the need that some may have to use a name that is not associated with a national region as indicated by the word 'Southern,'” said Draper. “We want to do everything we can to encourage those who do feel a name change would be beneficial without recommending a legal name change for the convention. We believe we have found a way to do that." Leaders contended that changing the official name of the Southern Baptist Convention would have been fraught with immense legal difficulties and great cost.
Resolutions adopted by messengers included support for “the sinners prayer,” Cooperation in the Doctrine of Salvation, and concern over same-sex relations and civil rights language.
“The Sinners’s Prayer” is a method that evangelists have used is bringing people to Christ. Some within the convention have expressed concern over the prayer, fearing that its use is often stripped of repentance and too much of an “incantation.” Messengers approved a resolution re-committing their belief in “The Sinner’s Prayer.” The resolution read, in part, as follows:
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 19–20, 2012, reaffirm our Gospel conviction that repentance from sin and personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are necessary for salvation (Acts 20:20–21); and be it further
RESOLVED, That we affirm that repentance and faith involve a crying out for mercy and a calling on the Lord (Romans 10:13), often identified as a "sinner's prayer," as a biblical expression of repentance and faith; and be it further
RESOLVED, That a "sinner's prayer" is not an incantation that results in salvation merely by its recitation and should never be manipulatively employed or utilized apart from a clear articulation of the Gospel (Matthew 6:7; 15:7–9); and be it further
RESOLVED, That we promote any and all biblical means of urging sinners to call on the name of the Lord in a prayer of repentance and faith; and be it finally
RESOLVED, That we call on Southern Baptists everywhere to continue to carry out the Great Commission in North America and around the world, so that sinners everywhere, of every tribe, tongue, and language, may cry out, "God be merciful to me a sinner" (Luke 18:13).
Prior to the convention, denominational leaders released a document titled “A Statement of the Traditional Southern Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation” which explicitly decried resurgent Calvinism within the denomination. Its release has sparked clatter across the denomination, inciting both responses and clarifications from both critics and authors. Calvinistic leaders within the denomination have concern over the document being implicitly semi-Pelagian in nature. In response, a resolution was passed which intended to bypass the controversy and re-affirm support for The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 as the guiding document for Southern Baptists to rally around in discussing soteriology. It read, in part:
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 19–20, 2012, do without reservation reaffirm as our confession of faith The Baptist Faith and Message; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we affirm that The Baptist Faith and Message provides sufficient parameters for understanding the doctrine of salvation, so that Southern Baptists may joyfully and enthusiastically partner together in obedience to the Great Commission; and be it finally
RESOLVED, That we encourage all Southern Baptist churches to continue in faithful cooperation as we deepen our commitment to equip the saints and reach the lost with the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ.
With continued momentum for same-sex relationships and President Obama’s expressed support for same-sex marriage, messengers passed a resolution decrying the advancement of the gay rights agenda. The resolution stipulated that the convention does not regard sexual orientation as deserving of special protections such as race and gender and goes on to “acknowledge the unique struggles experienced by homosexuals in some parts of society.” It also read “That we express our love to those who struggle with same-sex attraction and who are engaged in the homosexual lifestyle.” The resolution goes on to read:
RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, June 19–20, 2012, oppose any attempt to frame "same-sex marriage" as a civil rights issue; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we deny that the effort to legalize "same-sex marriage" qualifies as a civil rights issue since homosexuality does not qualify as a class meriting special protections, like race and gender; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we encourage Southern Baptists everywhere to fight for the civil rights of all people where such rights are consistent with the righteousness of God; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we express our love to those who struggle with same-sex attraction and who are engaged in the homosexual lifestyle; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we stand against any form of gay-bashing, whether disrespectful attitudes, hateful rhetoric, or hate-incited actions toward persons who engage in acts of homosexuality; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we affirm that pastors should preach the truth of God's word on human sexuality, marriage, purity, and love with all boldness and without fear of reprisal; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we proclaim that Christ offers forgiveness of sin for those who turn from their sins and believe on Christ for the forgiveness of sin.
The 2012 Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans will be regarded as historic for the election of Fred Luter alone. With the denomination doubling down on its theological commitments--especially regarding same-sex marriage--Southern Baptists are entering a new era of denominational history as it navigates an increasingly religiously complex America with a mode and tone that is more inviting. Sociologists and onlookers alike will look to the Southern Baptist Convention to see whether racial reconciliation and improved public relations can withstand the onslaught of secularism.
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