Common Conviction, Cooperative Commitment, and Common Sense — The Southern Baptist Convention and the Future

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.
May 26, 2021

Southern Baptists will soon meet in Nashville for the 2021 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. The annual meeting is expected to draw thousands of messengers from our churches and an abundance of national attention. Serious issues will be addressed even as the Convention finds itself facing external headwinds and internal tensions. But, more than anything else, the annual meeting will be a great test of the basic commitments of the Convention and its churches.

Some people predict that the Convention will fail this test. What remains of the old “moderate” movement from the last century has awakened from its decline, just in time to predict the SBC’s collapse into fratricide and self-destruction. The challenges faced by the SBC are real, but the strengths of the SBC are formidable, and my prayer and hope is that the SBC in Nashville will lean into those fundamental strengths.


Common Conviction

Southern Baptists are a people of deep beliefs and biblical conviction. This is our greatest strength, and we must lean into those convictions without compromise. The biblical worldview makes clear that truth is foremost and foundational. If the truth is subverted, compromised, or forgotten, all will be lost — and quickly. God’s people are a people of truth, and Southern Baptists are a people of passionate love for biblical truth.

In the modern age, the very idea of truth is contested. But Southern Baptists believe in what Francis Schaeffer called “true truth,” objective, absolute truth — revealed truth. The “Battle for the Bible” in the Conservative Resurgence was essential for the integrity and survival of the SBC as a gospel movement. The Convention affirmed loudly, clearly, and at great cost that the Bible is God’s verbally inspired, inerrant, infallible, sufficient, trustworthy, and living Word. If you want to see what inevitably happens when that conviction is compromised, just look at the ruins of mainline Protestantism. Closer to home, look at the ruins of the moderate movement that left the SBC behind. It is a morass of doctrinal porridge, outright heresy, and the embrace of the LGBTQ agenda.

The SBC made its convictional commitments clear with the Baptist Faith & Message revision of 2000. That confession of faith is foundational for us. It is central to our self-definition and it is the essential instrument of our doctrinal accountability. Without fidelity to that confession, the SBC will just slide more slowly into confusion and compromise. Fidelity means that Southern Baptists must actually believe those truths, teach those truths, cherish those truths, and defend those truths. The Baptist Faith & Message is not an aspirational statement. It does not merely state what we hope Southern Baptists might believe. It is a statement of doctrinal belief that expresses in words the truths that lead us to cooperate in world missions, evangelism, and theological education.

Over the years, Southern Baptists have had to respond to new challenges to biblical faithfulness and doctrine. The Baptist Faith & Message now includes a biblical definition of marriage, for example, that previous generations of Baptists would not have considered necessary. Well, it is necessary now.

A further example is complementarianism, the belief that God has revealed a different pattern of roles for men and women in the home and in the church. The Baptist Faith & Message makes clear that both men and women are gifted for service in the church, and “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” I am confident that the great convictional heart of the SBC is really clear on this issue. Southern Baptists believe that both men and women are to be honored and deployed in the service of Christ, but that pastors are biblically defined as men and that men, qualified by Scripture, are to do the preaching and teaching before the congregation. This is not a new debate, and Southern Baptists must not be tempted to return to old controversies on this issue. Biblical faithfulness means embracing with joy what God has revealed about all things — and that includes the roles of men and women in the home and in the church. The world around us is at war over these things. The people of God must not be. Those who are calling upon the SBC to qualify or compromise this conviction are asking the SBC to deny the doctrinal clarity it won at great price a generation ago. That must not happen.

The SBC is often described as the nation’s largest evangelical denomination. But we are not the Southern Evangelical Convention, we are unapologetically the Southern Baptist Convention. That is a statement of conviction, not just a label of identity.

The SBC faces future tests on any number of truth issues, and this is to be expected in a cultural epoch that denies the very existence of truth. We will not win the world’s applause by holding to biblical conviction, but I believe that Southern Baptists will hold fast in common conviction.


Cooperative Commitment

A commitment to gospel cooperation is at the core of the Southern Baptist Convention’s reason for existence. We did not begin with the Cooperative Program, but we got there in 1925 by force of the logic of our cooperation. The secret of the SBC’s cooperation in missions and evangelism is the truth that every SBC church, wherever it may be, large or small, rural or urban, old and established or newly planted, has a real part in everything that Southern Baptists do together. Every church has a part in sending every missionary, planting every church, educating every minister in our seminaries — every good thing the SBC does, together.

That cooperation finds its structural form in the Cooperative Program that combines the strengths of our churches, associations, state conventions, and national work into one great conduit of faithfulness. I learned as a young boy that my offering envelope with its coins made its way, combined in one sacred effort, to mission fields I would never see, churches I would never know, and gospel work beyond my imagination. Decades later, I can explain it better, but the thrill of knowing how Southern Baptists cooperate together is still as real as when I was a child.

But why do we do this? Our passion is not for the Cooperative Program. Our passion is not for the Southern Baptist Convention. Our passion is to see Christ made famous among the nations, to see sinners hear the gospel of Jesus Christ, believe, and be saved. Our passion is to see more gospel churches — Baptist churches — planted across our own continent. Our passion is to see our churches taught by faithful preachers, who rightly divide the Word of Truth. Our passion is to see a convention of churches that reveals the truth of God’s design for his glory — men and women from different tongues, races, peoples, nations, and ethnicities drawn by Christ into this one sacred effort, together.

I believe that Southern Baptists really are committed to this cooperative work, and that we can see the rise of an even deeper passion for missions and evangelism and all we are called to do. Our call is the Great Commission. Heaven and hell hang in the balance. We must lean into this passion. I believe this generation of Southern Baptists will be faithful. What other option do we have?


Common Sense

You may be surprised to find common sense in this argument, but I concluded long ago that I would trust Southern Baptists, given enough time, to get to the right decision and do the right thing. Over and over again, I have seen Southern Baptists face difficult days, hard decisions, and complicated challenges, only to see Southern Baptists rise to the occasion.

If you want elegance in denominational decision-making, the SBC is not for you. If you want a tightly-scripted show, the SBC annual meeting will be a disappointment. If you want a denomination with a hierarchy and priesthood to make all the decisions, the SBC will frustrate you to death.

At every level, the Southern Baptist Convention, our state conventions, and our local associations, are nothing more, humanly speaking, than the sum total of Baptists who get into a room to get a job done in order that lost people may hear the gospel and be saved. If you are looking for aesthetics, join the Episcopalians. If you are looking for consecrated common sense, come to the Southern Baptist Convention. If Southern Baptists don’t get to the right place immediately, by God’s grace we often do get there eventually. Look around: I would not trade the Southern Baptist Convention for anything.

The SBC is based on our common convictions and our cooperative passion for the gospel, but also upon common sense. That means that I trust Southern Baptists, under the leadership of Jesus Christ, upon the authority of Holy Scripture, to get to the right place. I trust the average Southern Baptist church member more than all the bishops any other denomination may offer. I really do.

We are called to be gracious toward one another. We must meet with respect for one another. We must see ourselves as charged with an assignment we will one day pass on to generations beyond, if Jesus tarries.

Until he comes, we have work to do. Together.

Lord willing, we will meet soon in Nashville. In Christ, we can face anything together — and we must hold ourselves to truth and dedicate ourselves to work through whatever challenges will come.  Together.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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