Two Servings of Moonshine. QED*
July 10, 2023
Back in the spring, I wrote a piece warning of rhetorical moonshine served up at our annual SBC meetings, and I thought that would take care of it. (Kidding.) Alas, at the 2022 gathering in New Orleans, some hooch made its way into the hall, and a fair amount was served from the platform. In that column, I spoke of filibustrous bloviation, heavily spiced with “magic” words designed to bedazzle or bully the hearers into agreement. It’s the realm of ad populum rhetoric (shallow emotional appeal), question-begging epithets (rigging the game by frontend-loading disputed tags, e.g., gospel issue), and “special pleading” (only mentioning items favorable to your case, ignoring things that might be problematic, needing attention). ‘Great Commission’ and ‘cooperation’ are wonderful expressions, but perhaps we could ask each speaker to limit their usage to no more than five times, and also to shorten their remarks by three minutes, making room each time for another messenger to speak from the floor. On that model, we’d be less rushed to hear, “Time for discussion has expired.” Of course, some of those at the mics could make their comments and inquiries less mysterious and more compelling, but fielding all sorts of utterances is the price you pay when you assemble a convention of potentially discursive “priests.” Besides, by shortchanging (and, disparaging) feedback, you might well miss out on wisdom you could have used during deliberation. Of course, time for this is limited, but not at severely as it is at present, especially when messengers face a tsunami of advocacy from the platform. (As one friend observed, it’s as though the board of directors is on the platform and the shareholders present are necessary but irritating components of the show.)
That being said, let me focus on two presentations that deserve special attention.
Some Kudos for the Convention Sermon
Though I found the Convention Sermon on Wednesday morning gratuitously harsh and muddled, Todd Unzicker said some fine things. Let me mention three in particular:
1. After giving us a twelve-minute account of his spiritual journey, of all the ways that the SBC had touched his life, he asked those of us who’d been reached by Southern Baptists to raise our ballots, and, of course, we saw a sea of paper. Sweet reminder of our effectual heritage.
2. He noted that God not only calls for our prayers; he “savors” and “delights” in them.
3. He asked us pointedly and convictingly, “If God miraculously saved today everyone you’ve prayed for by name in the last seven days, how many people would be in the Kingdom of God?”
That being said, let me move to some not-so-admirable aspects of his address. I’m not trying to be churlish, though it may come off that way. For one thing, I’m glad Todd delivered it as he did, for it revealed a convictional subtext that is usually masked in smooth ways. It showed us the raw contempt he and his pals hold for the deplorables not on board with their “upgrades” to our denomination. Yes, of course, there’s good room for prophetic edge. We do need some more Amos and John the Baptist and a little less Barnabas in our preaching. And all of us need some sobering, sermonic cat scans. I’m reminded of the compliment I heard one pastor pay a preacher after a tough sermon: “It’s hard to say ‘Sick ‘em!’ when the dog’s got you by the ankle.’” But I think Todd charged out beyond John the Baptist to use the text as a pretext to whack a largely- imagined “brood of vipers” in the hall.
Todd let it be known in a number of ways that he looked down on the spiritually addled messengers who impertinently ventured to question, criticize, or supplant the offerings of the platform. I’ve seen this sort of thing before, back in the late 70s, 80s, and early 90s, when entity heads such as Russell Dilday (SWBTS), Roy Honeycutt (SBTS), Randall Lolley (SEBTS), Foy Valentine (CLC/now ERLC), Lloyd Elder (BSSB/now LifeWay), Paul Powell (Annuity Board/now Guidestone), Keith Parks (FMB/now IMB), Carolyn Weatherford (WMU), and Rudy Fagan (Stewardship) signaled in a host of ways, whether at the annual meeting or elsewhere, that barbarians were at the gate—a horde of fundamentalist deplorables, marinated in bibliolatry, generating one “public relations disaster” after another with their stands.
And now you get a good dose of that from Todd:
Maybe we should tell the Committee on Order of Business and our president that instead of doing more business and more resolutions that don’t mean anything a month from now, maybe what we should do as 16,000 people is to cry out to God together. Maybe that the microphones weren’t working yesterday was a sign from the Lord that the last thing on earth that the world needs is for us to air our opinions, but we need to hear from God Almighty.
Well, we have the conviction that we do in fact hear from God Almighty in our business sessions, whether to honor, neglect, or repudiate the opinion of people at the floor mics as we try to steward our Convention. Some bring “jeremiads” that we ignore at our own peril. Numbers don’t determine righteous wisdom, but we’ve chosen to tie our denomination’s “sacred fortunes and honor” to a vote of the people gathered each year, ballots in hand. And what we do democratically is quite often impactful well beyond “a month from now.” For instance, I’m delighted that, once the conservative resurgence got under way, our resolutions switched from praising Roe v. Wade to condemning it.
Speaking of condescension, Todd also served up a doozy when he asked rhetorically, “Are we going to continue to be shaped by divisive groups on social media, tweets and blogs and videos and podcasts and cheaply made cinedocs? They have the sole purpose of stirring dissension and [mistrust] and discouragement.” It sounds like he’s saying that anybody who disagrees publicly with current leadership at any point is willfully toxic. Nice. And why in the world did he have to say the cinedocs were “cheaply made”? Most likely he was talking about the two-hour video, By What Standard? posted here. Of course, he’s free to disagree with its content, by why the snotty dismissal of its production values? Looks really good to me.
Why the Lame Whizbang?
Short, verbal whizbangs can pack a punch. I think for instance of Malcolm X’s declaration,
“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; Plymouth Rock landed on us.” And then there’s Ambrose Bierce’s take on the lecturer, a role I’ve played from time to time: “One with his hand in your pocket, his tongue in your ear, and his faith in your patience.” Ouch. But when our convention preacher tried it, things didn’t fly so well, as when he zinged people who “tweet more than they tithe.” Huh? If you give your tithe check to the church once a month and tweet just once a week, are you guilty? (He might have ventured more reasonably, “. . . who tweet but don’t tithe.”) Whatever, it really doesn’t matter to his cohort and to the good-hearted people who like to roll with rhyming rant, in this instance enlisted to hack on those who gainsay something he and his enthusiasts were doing. On this pattern, he could scald people “who sleep more than they sing hymns” or “who spend more time commuting than facilitating small-group discussions of Colossians,” and still get an “Amen.”
When he said we shouldn’t give weight in the Convention to “people who give nothing” and who “sue the saints” rather than “sow seeds of the gospel,” I imagine he was hacking on Mike Stone. Of course, Stone wouldn’t have been a messenger if his church had given nothing. Rather they gave $36,000 to an SBC agency (the IMB) rather than send a previously-larger sum without designation to the Cooperative Program. And yes, Stone had initiated but then withdrawn a defamation suit against former ERLC head, Russell Moore, no longer a Southern Baptist. (Under Moore’s leadership, the CP-funded ERLC helped to dampen the enthusiasm Mike’s church once felt for the undesignated approach of CP-giving.) Or maybe Todd was taking a shot at former MD/DE state exec, Will McRaney, who’d gone to court to take NAMB to task for their high-handed ways.
But wasn’t Todd on board with the #MeToo reforms of the task force paving the way for “survivors” to sue the socks off the convention? Or maybe he was objecting to non-SBC bloggers who fault the denomination from outside. But doesn’t he himself draw heavily on CRT/I writers as he uses their “analytical tools” to navigate the cultural waters? And I think we can give thanks for some outsiders. I remember with gratitude, the way that Zondervan in 1977 published The Battle for the Bible when our own house press, Broadman, wouldn’t touch with a stick its revelations and calls to action. Truth is truth wherever you find it.
Oh, and what’s with, “Some of you who like to shout soli Deo gloria will never know that God’s glory is truly experienced when it comes from every nation and every tribe and tongue on earth.” Who’s he talking about? Calvinists I guess, though I hope he’s on board enthusiastically with soli Deo gloria (and sola fide, sola scriptura, and solus Christus, if not sola gratia). And to put a finer point on it, I think he’s dissing Founders Ministries.
Well, sure enough, Founders’ next annual conference doesn’t have a Cantonese speaker, Francophone Haitian, or Esperanto user on the program, but Tom Ascol and his crew are making a brave start. The messages are in English, with Spanish translation provided. Voddie Baucham and Conrad Mbewe are flying in from Zambia, where they may have picked up on the country’s two leading languages, Bemba and Chewa. So, they’ve got that going for them, with as many as four of the world’s 7,100 languages in play. And perhaps Joel Beeke can manage some Greek, Hebrew, and Dutch, bringing them up to seven.
Of course, not all the innuendos are so puzzling. When Todd jabs those with the “urge to purge,” it’s pretty obvious he’s referring to the 88% of messengers who disfellowshipped Saddleback and her sisters. And, then, to turn the knife, he quotes Trevin Wax to say (in another context, I trust), “Short-lived will be the movement more passionate about hunting heretics than making converts”—as if, with that vote, we were saying that all churches with women pastors are damnably apostate.
The other day, the Babylon Bee ran a piece entitled “Cute Baby Does Satan’s Work by Distracting Churchgoers in Pew Behind Him.” Maybe Todd was being similarly lighthearted when he took a shot at those beset with the “spirit of fear” over some SBC developments toward which he and his allies are congenial. But I don’t think so. Reminding us that the “spirit of fear doesn’t come from God,” he led us rhetorically to consider, “If somebody is peddling fear, where does that come from?” Hmm, let me see.
Well, sure, there are ungodly cowerings—instances of betrayal, silence, compromise, and flight where the moment calls for a sacrificial stand. But we need to be careful about following the world in slapping the ‘phobia’ suffix on what is really a matter of righteous indignation, warranted alarm, and well-earned rebuke. We ought to take it easy in suggesting that troubled gainsayers are all cat’s paws of the Prince of Darkness.
And surely, there’s a place for the right sort of fear, the sort reflected in Acts 20:31, where Paul says, regarding the threat of false teachers and unfaithful leaders, “So be on your guard! Remember that for three years I never stopped warning each of you night and day with tears.” And let’s not forget Athanasius, who feared that Arianism would wreck the church, so he stood contra mundum at Nicea in the Fourth Century. Probably some bishops asked him derisively, “What are you so afraid of, Athanasius?”
The Doofus Voice in Service to Stunning Non-Sequiturs
As former NOBTS president Chuck Kelley amply illustrates in his book, The Best Intentions, the SBC has been declining in membership, baptisms, church plants, etc. for the last decade. To such concerns, Todd responded, “Some Baptists want to dwell on decline. Some say in this room, ‘Things aren’t the way they used to be.’ I say that’s fantastic. With 3,500 unreached people groups, our best days are ahead, Baptists, because God’s Word says it. In Revelation 5, we see the end of the story.”
To put critics of current leadership in their place, Todd casts the italicized words in a hick/doofus voice, implying that their reservations are pathetic, issuing from knuckle-draggers nervously, and even pridefully, clinging to the “good ole days.” But, “Not to worry,” he says to comfort us. We need to exult in where we are, for there are thousands of “tribes” needing the gospel! Say what? The size of the mission field means we shouldn’t be concerned about our loss of effectiveness in reaching it? And, to boot, are we to understand that the promise of a good outcome in the end times means that we needn’t fault ourselves for missteps and downturns in our day? Well, sweet! We now have the universal solvent to wash away critiques. Whatever we’re up to, it’s going to work out. So, chill.
Inevitably, he turns to race, observing that “our African-American brothers and sisters have known [true suffering] for hundreds of years, great persecution right here,” that God’s “going to destroy racial pride,” and that there will be “no more racial pride, no more systemic injustice” in heaven. And to deflect criticism, he offers this: “Some of you are saying, [Cue the doofus voice] ‘There he goes, getting all woke.’” [Then, holding up the Bible] “Y’all, this isn’t woke. This is wonderful.”
So, is he saying the Bible, particularly Revelation 5, is wonderfully woke, so you’re criticizing the Bible if you hack on wokeness? Or, maybe he’s saying that woke is a bad thing, but you can’t pin that unsavory label on the Scripture? It really doesn’t matter: The point is to make light of Southern Baptists who were alarmed at the Resolution 9-mindset on display in Birmingham (2019), and who were frustrated by the Resolution Committee’s blockage of a widely-endorsed counter-resolution in Nashville (2021). Better for us that we tip our hats to those cherishing the counsel and company of the “woke” crowd, advancing a spirit of perpetual victimhood/grievance/recrimination; the assessments of intersectionality and standpoint epistemology; the fool’s gold of equity; and the blinders of presentism.
Oh, and he didn’t talk doofus when he referred to “Southern-Fried Pharisees,” but he gave us a nasty picture of the sort of parishioner who’d put tradition over Jesus. For one thing, what’s with the “Southern-Fried” dig? You can just as well find Lobster-Boiled Pharisees in Boston, Deep-Dish Pharisees in Chicago, Barbequed Pharisees in Kansas City, Refried Pharisees in El Paso, Sushied Pharisees in Los Angeles, and Arabica Pharisees in Seattle, especially in a day when woke pecksniffs all across the land are apt to cancel you if you hazard to “trigger” them.
The saying goes that a fellow was so oblivious to the source of the blessings he’d enjoyed that he was like a hog eating acorns under an oak tree with no idea of where they came from. There’s an element of that in this sermon. Todd began it with rehearsing the many ways that God used the work of Southern Baptists to bring him to the Lord in September of 2004 and also disciple him. But he might have said a word of appreciation for the superintendence of Ed Young, Jim Henry, Tom Elliff, Paige Patterson, James Merritt, Jack Graham, and Bobby Welch, who served as our presidents in the decade before his conversion.
These were guys who led us in dramatic efforts to evangelize and consecrate ourselves. You’ve heard of Crossover on the Saturday before the Convention. That began when Jerry Vines was president, back in 1989 in Las Vegas, when we knocked on over a hundred thousand doors, saw 2,000 professions of faith, and heard the testimony of a couple who’d been on the brink of divorce that Saturday and had been reconciled to both God and each other thanks to our witness. And I recall similar, door-to-door efforts with my wife in the following years when we teamed up with local churches to canvas and share the gospel in Metairie, Louisiana, Ogden, Utah, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Columbus, Ohio. (Crossover has a different feel these days, but the Saturday tradition continues.) Also, under Tom Elliff’s leadership, a Convention evening was given over to “prayer for spiritual awakening,” an initiative connected to “solemn assemblies,” held throughout the land. The old guys were keen on these matters even as they were respectful of Convention business.
Todd is merciless in his disparagement of those who tweet, of those who speak critically or divisively on social media, but I’m told that our newly re-elected SBC president is an energetic tweeter, as are many of his followers. Well, yes, social media is not an unmixed blessing. I think we can resonate with Ambrose Bierce’s definition of the telescope: “A device having a relation to the eye similar to that of the telephone to the ear, enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details. Luckily it is unprovided with a bell summoning us to the sacrifice.”
In this connection, I closed out my Twitter and Facebook accounts four years ago. Not gainsaying those who continue strong with them. I was just personally overwhelmed. So, I’m not in a position to say who’s big in that realm. I’d simply ask whether Todd objects to tweeting itself or to tweets at variance with his enthusiasms. There’s a big difference.
And then there’s his slam on “the guys who forget what Ephesians 4 says.” But doesn’t that chapter urge us to “[outdo] one another in showing honor.” I have to say I don’t think Todd outdid himself in honoring the folks who didn’t vote with him. On the other hand, I read that Daniel Darling of Southwestern Seminary (he, formerly the vp for communications under Russell Moore in the ERLC) certainly outdid me in showing Todd’s sermon honor. On social media, he asked accusingly, “You are mad because a preacher said we should pray more than post? That sober warning applied to all of us, on all sides of things. I was convicted by it.” Well, as my kudos show, I wasn’t mad at Todd’s prayer prescriptions. Rather, I was captivated by Todd’s scattergun blast at a host of decent people.
Hell on Earth?
Todd closes the message with a picture of heaven, where there will be no more tears, exaggeration, abuse, and a dozen other things. Sweet prospects. But the strong implication is that things not in heaven have no place on earth. Well, right off the bat, you could respond, “There won’t be evangelism, missions, church discipline, marrying, or procreation in heaven. So, no place for those activities on earth?” Well, certainly he’d deny that. But he tosses in “fear mongering, divisive podcasts, systemic injustice, politics, law suits, amendments, and disfellowshipping,” placing them into the worldly, if not hellish, category—and with tendentious, ideological language. (What about plain old ‘justice’? Do you really need to add the disputed, partisan modifier ‘systemic’?) Is it worldly to use a podcast to raise a legitimate alarm? Or to offer a friendly amendment to a poorly worded motion? Or to submit an amicus brief to a religious liberty appeal? Or to honor the biblically-based parameters of your denominational confession? You get my point.
Again, he’s coming close to anathematizing (in contrast to disfellowshipping) honorable disputants whether he knows it or not.
My Own Irony Deficit?
Yes, this is a critical essay, so what business do I have criticizing Todd for being so critical? (“Physician, heal thyself!”) Well, for one thing, his assignment led us to expect an expository sermon. I’m working in a different genre—the essay— and I think a respectable one. For another, not all criticism is equally valid in style or substance. You, gentle reader, will have to make the call on who’s making more sense.
Kudos for the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force
That same Wednesday morning, we hear the ARITF report, led by the chairman Marshall Blalock, assisted by members Kris Buckman and John Nelson. Blalock said he “was so encouraged last year [in Anaheim] when this body said with one heart ‘Let’s work together to stop sexual abuse and minister to the survivors.’” Well, of course, we’re all for that. But as to particulars of their plan of action, there was dissent. Last year, I shuffled to the mic to express reservations over their approach, and, unless my eyes deceived me, there were some folks whose hearts, like mine, were not at one with Bruce Frank’s scheme of attack, he the chairman of the Sexual Abuse Task Force, the ARITF forerunner. Be that as it may, president Bart Barber’s implementation crew got a green light, and we were off to the races.
As I listened to their report, I was pleased to hear they’d
1. Developed a “tool kit” for churches to address the matter of sexual abuse.
2. Provided us a card with an action checklist—Train, Screen, Protect, Report, Care. (Of course, each of these is open to interpretation regarding manner, extent, and thresholds, but the list is prima facie useful.)
3. Set about “vetting every single name that was published in the Guidepost Report” (since several of those named in the report have proven already to be unfairly or questionably slurred, two prompting lawsuits, a point the task force did not mention.)
That being said, I hope you’ll permit me to gainsay elements of the report, as well note big-picture problems.
Reliance on the Chicken Little Narrative
I hope you’ll forgive me for saying so (again), but I’m not on board with the notion that sex abuse is at “crisis” level in the SBC. Of course, even a single instance is a very bad thing, but, given our size, the incidence is surpassingly small and not the substance of an epidemic. Granted, most those who’ve shown up as the past three annual meetings seem to have been persuaded otherwise. But I’ll continue to raise my concern. As an Executive Committee vp, I spent five years (1991-1995) defending the honor of the SBC against what I understood to be specious criticisms, and I’m still giving it a go from the pews when I think I hear the convention slandered.
To recount, in 2021 the Houston Chronicle published a “exposé” of rampant sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, and we’ve been running around with our hair on fire since it appeared. There are major problems with the report and the ripples running from it: 1. As Allen Jordan has shown, the Chronicle’s feature is rife with errors; 2. Even if it were entirely accurate, the numbers (220 abuse convictions) are minimal when it comes to the reference set—a 20-year period in which 28,000,000 people were Southern Baptists, all of them counting, whether clerics or laymen, including van drivers, offering counters, VBS refreshments preparers, church orchestra trombonists, greeters, and ushers ; 3. The humiliation and panic were exploited by some to favor the “hope and change” party, reminiscent of the way that Democrats made the most of COVID to influence the 2020 election; 4. On the wings of this boondoggle, the SBC has wounded its polity, imperiled its resources, and enlisted the expensive counsel of a morally-compromised company, whose work has proven sloppy and tendentious. (Starting in 2021, I’ve written on it here and here and here.)
With the help of various “white knights,” who may or may not have had political reasons nested in their crusade, the proposition that the SBC has been massively derelict in addressing sexual abuse in its ranks took off like a rocket in a well-produced horror show deployed in and around the 2021 Convention in Nashville, and it sent those with reservations reeling. As Winston Churchill observed, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” And maybe it gets all the way round the world when the secular and denominational press speeds it on its way. As Mark Twain cautioned, “Never pick a fight with people who buy ink by the barrel.” Or, in today’s parlance, “. . . with people who have extensive publication staffs, media outlets, hefty budgets, multiple platforms, and an official imprimatur.”
Yes, of course, our churches could be teeming with abusers, but even when you multiply the number of convicted abusers by ten, you still have a ratio around 1:12,000, or one per six megachurches. Everything else is projection, and I choose to project a more optimistic figure, one I’d suggest is more in line with 1 Corinthians 13, which commends a default position of trust. Blalock indeed urged the Reagan principle, “Trust, but verify,” one the president used in nuclear disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. He’d been advised that the Russians would find charming his familiarity with one of their proverbs (doveryai no proveryai), and so he quoted it. Of course, there was little reason to trust the Soviets (or, today, former Soviets like Vladimir Putin). Better to “distrust until verification.” Well, with the leading of the ARITF, we seem to have taken that latter approach, applying it to our own membership and to the denomination as a whole. And that represents a sea change in our regard for one another—one I’m not prepared to applaud.
The Elephant in the Room
As we’ve put the funds of the SBC at the disposal of the “survivors” (real or imagined) and their lawyers, opening our mission dollars up to the skills of attorneys, forcing Church A in Oregon to some extent pay for the missteps of Church B in Georgia, we’ve laid ourselves open to the gutting of our assets. What if one United Way donor had to pay for the missteps of another United Way donor? The donor pool would dry up, the good causes funded by the campaign would go begging. And for the SBC Executive Committee, the math is already (in the auditors’ and CFO’s words) “unsustainable,” as we read here and here. Yet Chairman Blalock made no mention of this.
Why the Patronizing Jab?
Real problems. But as ARITF chairman Marshall Blalock explains,
Sometimes people want to think, “Maybe it’s not that bad; maybe it’s not all that prevalent. It won’t happen in my church we think. Predatory people actually love to hear to those words because they prey on high-trust environments. And churches should be high-trust environments. But abusers go where they think they can hide. We must have the will to make sure there is no place to hide.
So, if you suggest that the reaction is overblown, that the denomination is being slandered, then you’re aiding and abetting monsters. Perhaps he means that gainsayers should simply be pitied rather than despised. (“Bless their hearts; they just don’t know what they’re doing.”) Either way, his form of reasoning is, “Shut up, knucklehead.”
Couldn’t you use that approach on many biblical accounts?—“Shut up, Paul, all this grace talk is going to aid and abet antinomians.” And “Peter, do you really have to use the word, ‘elect’? You’ll kill missionary efforts if people start to think God is sovereign in salvation.”
To bolster the “sky is falling” narrative, the Maryland-Delaware Task Force Member, Kris Buckman, offered up a range of puzzling statistics. She does grant that “the number of reported incidents may appear small, but the reality is that those numbers barely scratch the surface. Just a small fraction of cases are reported and fewer make it to trial and end in conviction.” Maybe so, but how can you know this if a massive number of abuses is not reported? Are you flooded with thousands of anonymous communiques, somehow verified without being identified? And could it be the case that a bunch of unreported reports could not sustain the burden of proof our system requires?
What about the statistics on “Potiphar’s Wives”—potential false accusers, clouded in mystery?, Are Paula Hill and Lorena Bobbit (Clinton), Tara Reade (Biden), and E. Jean Caroll (Trump) all indisputable? What are the stats on the Crystal Mangums (Duke), Jackie Coakleys (Virginia), Emily Sulkowiczes (Columbia), and Christine Blasey Fords (vs. Brett Kavanaugh)? Make one mistake and, either through settlement or trial, and there goes funding for, say, two dozen international missionaries, fielded at an average of $60,000 a year.
But then Buckman gets into numbers: “Only 16% of child victims ever disclose their abuse.” Not 15%; not 17%; but 16%. Such precision. So how do we know that the other 83% are out there? And how can we figure that “95%” of the unreported 83% instances could “be prevented through awareness and education”? Again, not 94% and not 96%. I belabor this because statistics are constantly cited because they have the aura of scientific rigor whether deserved or not.
And one more: “Over 90% of children who are abused are abused by people they know and trust.” Well, that seems obvious. That’s a huge category, excluding exactly whom? Guys who snatch kids in a mall or park? When Willie Sutton, a fixture on the FBI’s most-wanted list, was asked why he robbed banks, he replied, “That’s where the money is.” So, yes, of course, kids are susceptible to people they know and trust; no cause for them to scream “Stranger. Danger!” (even when there is danger). But it doesn’t follow that there is an epidemic of abuse following from their knowing and trusting.
As for her closing “statistic,” “Collectively, we can make every SBC church a safe church.” Or to put it into numbers, “By our recommended denominational oversight in this matter, we can insure 100% safety in our 14,000 congregations.” Does this mean they can nullify the Fall?
Are We There Yet?
The chairman opened with a statement of the task force’s end goal, an objective that echoed through their report: “We want to see the Baptist churches across the country to be the safest places on earth for your children, your families, to hear the good news of the gospel and come to know and love Jesus.” Okay, but how do you know that we haven’t reached that goal? For starters, the number of places that presume to proclaim “the good news of the gospel” is relatively small, limited to church and parachurch meeting places (and excluding military motor pools, corporate boardrooms, nursing homes, synagogues, sports venues, garden clubs, etc.) So, when we focus on the locales they specify, we might ask if the Pentecostals, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Mennonites, etc. are fielding safer places. If not, we may have succeeded, having bested the competition.
Chairman Blalock choked up and had to pause as he spoke to their work on behalf of survivors (both real and phony, the latter category not acknowledged whatsoever). Of course, most of us have had to stop to regain our composure from time to time, arrested by admirable emotion. I find myself more inclined to tear up the older I get. But others have learned to make an art of it, part of their rhetorical tool kit, or an affective indulgence they could resist should they care to do so. (Not saying Blalock fits this mold.) Be that as it may, he assures us that he “weeps with survivors” and his “heart is broken.” This sort of language is coinage of the realm today, dispensed by scolders like Todd Unzicker, who shamed those who cheered instead of weeping over votes to exclude churches with women pastors.
But instead of warning against its allure, perhaps we should identify some contrasting speakers much inclined genuinely toward tears. We might scout out some folks who could come to the mic and plead:
When I think of the number souls we could have already reached, people dying in sin without a touch of the gospel (tearful pause) had we not been rushed into diverting millions of dollars to this questionable agenda, I’m heartbroken. If by shepherding precious missionary funds, we could just snatch one soul from an eternal hell, it would be worth it to risk restraint in our expensive program of collectively rooting out every last vomitous creep in our ranks. How many water wells could we dig in regions wracked by typhus and amoebic dysentery because the villagers are drinking from polluted runoffs (deep breath, ten seconds of silence with closed eyes). I’m grief-stricken that we’ve let shabby reporting by a hostile newspaper and a morally-compromised, LBGTQ-celebrating “consultant” drive us to upend our polity over arguably rare offenses used to smear a great denomination as well as godly people among us.
Again, there’s a place for the lachrymosity, but fair is fair. And when the emotionally disabled gainsayer takes to the mic, perhaps we could add whatever time the messenger needs to get it back together to the three minutes given for response.
Also, the choked-up messenger at floor mic #11 might devote his or her appeal to the case of the falsely-accused fellow whose life was ruined by a modern day, doubtful “survivor.” Yes, of course, the claim may be true and horrible, but it may be just anecdotal, not representing a vast trend. But anecdotes are rhetorically powerful, and Blalock shared one concerning the Louisiana associational missionary charged with first degree rape and who is being investigated in three other states. Awful, but we have over a thousand local associations. And this bad one didn’t need the ARITF machine to expose him.
Grateful to Todd and Committee
So no, I wasn’t pleased with these two presentations. But, in a way, I’m grateful for them. The sermon showed the snarl behind the smile the progressives display as they assure us that we’re on the right track under their stewardship of our denominational fortunes. And as much as I regret the upending, costly machinations of the centralized hunt for slimeballs in our ranks, I see that it’s proceeding, however recklessly, despite presumptuous disclaimers that, as ARITF member, John Nelson, assured us, their accusatory postings will be “absolutely correct” and “absolutely solid.” Otherwise, “the thing that will tear this whole thing down is that we put somebody up there who is merely accused and there is no evidence behind it.” Of course, the standard is higher than that. They’ll need to shoot for “sufficient evidence beyond a reasonable doubt.” So, it’ll take just a balloon prick to wreck this program.
It’ll be hard to watch, but we voted it in. As H. L. Mencken said, “Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want and deserve to get it good and hard.” To be sure, I’m with the “common people” of our denominational polity, averse to centralized bishops, many of whom have shown themselves derelict in other religious groups. So yes, I’m afraid that we’re going to continue to get it good and hard, but I’m warily confident that we’ll come to our senses once this happens.
And one more thing: I think Todd’s rant against “purgers” and “amendments” encouraged the success of the first-of-two votes on the Law amendment to the bylaws, a balloting which soon followed his message. Thank you, Todd.
* From the Latin, Quod Erat Demonstrandum (“that which was to be demonstrated”), a notation in logical argument.
APPENDIX: Edgy Samplings from Previous Convention Sermons
Please understand that there is good room for tough, edgy talk. I’m afraid that in our fear that Amos-and-John-the-Baptist talk with turn off our culture and empty the pews, we’ve made Barnabas rather than Peter, Paul, and James our “patron saints.” But not all harangues are responsible, and I think we just heard one that falls short of admirable.
Thanks to the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, we have the texts of virtually all of convention sermons, from W. B. Johnson in 1846 to Stephen Rummage in 2019. I’ve begun reading through them, and I’ve found a range of “edgy” materials, some more compelling than others. Here’s an early selection, with more to follow.
Addressed to Threats from Outside
Roger Spradlin (2017): “[T]he prosperity gospel has taken a toll on evangelicals.”
David Platt (2011) “People are asking, “Is hell real? Is hell forever?” Did God really say that sinners would perish in eternal torment for ever and ever? Oh, readers of Rob Bell and others like him, listen very carefully. I would be very cautious when anyone says, “Did God really say this? Would God really do that?” This is the question that ushered sin into the world in Genesis 3?”
Fred Luter (2001): “Young people, when it comes to creation, I know you may be hearing something else in school. I know you may be hearing something else in your classrooms. And I understand you must put an answer on your test to pass the course—but don’t let anyone convince you that you came from a monkey.”
Ramsey Pollard (1952): “Recently, I read of a man who wanted to start a ‘preachers’ union.’ He advocated shorter hours, better pay, fewer telephone calls about nothing, no Sunday funerals. To these, I would add another suggestion—double time for wedding rehearsals and wedding receptions. Of course, in some cases, this double time would mean exactly nothing. However, I doubt that Paul would have been interested in joining such a union.”
On the Range of Church Health
Steve Gaines (2004): [Comparing churches to the gates Nehemiah was rebuilding] “Dear Brother, you may be serving the Lord at . . .
Sheep Gate Baptist Church—with a large, growing flock
Fish Gate BC—with soul-winners in your church
Old Gate BC—members are living in the past
Valley Gate BC—where everybody is depressed, half the congregation is on Prozac
Fountain Gate BC—people are filled with the Spirit of God
Horse Gate BC—a strong, working congregation
East Gate BC—everybody’s looking for Christ’s return
Dung Gate BC—it stinks
For Fidelity to Our Biblical Legacy
Jerry Vines (1987): [In service to the Conservative Resurgence] “‘All Scripture is God-breathed.’ pasa. [Greek for “all”] Dr. Herschel Hobbs has given the best explanation of the meaning of the word pasa. He says, ‘It means that every single part of the whole is God-breathed.’ That’s where I stand. That’s where Southern Baptists have always stood. Jed and his wife were riding the pick-up to town on a Saturday morning. His wife turned to him and said, ‘Jed, when we first married, we didn’t sit this far apart.’ Jed looked up and said, ‘I ain’t moved.’”
Ray Roberts (1966): “We are going through a period in the life of our Convention when the subtle and indirect approach is being espoused by man. I believe in keeping up with the times and of experimenting with every new and effective way of approaching people. It may not. Be the best to start down the street with a Bible under our arm as big as the Detroit telephone directory, button-holing people to ask if they know Christ, but had rather do that than to be so sophisticated and suave that people don’t know what my business is. If I should look out my window and see fire belching from the upstairs window of my neighbor’s house, I wouldn’t calmly pick up the phone and invited him over for coffee in order to give him a lecture on the principles of spontaneous combustion.”
Bailey Smith (2000): “I stood at the door of an expensive Christian Life Center of one of our noted churches. Young men walked by and slid their card into a slot that freed the turnstile to let them in. The recreational director simultaneously chasing some Latino teenagers away said to me, ‘Those durn Mexicans are driving me crazy. They though we built this for them, I guess.’
This wasn’t a church. It was a country club with a steeple on top.”
Richard Fuller (1861): “The world has never seen—heaven has never wept over—a more mournful phenomenon than that now exhibited (I grieve to say it) at the North, where not only politicians and bad men, but Christian editors, and pastors, and churches are breathing out slaughter, inciting to fury passions already terribly inflamed and seemingly thirsting for fratricidal carnage. Let us watch and pray, lest we forget the example and Spirit of Him who has taught us to ‘bless them that curse us’ and ‘do good to them that hate us and despitefully use us.’”
John Claypool (1971): “What I am suggesting is that in terms of national development, our country stands today where the prodigal stood in this parable, and what he went through in trying to grow up is what we were in the midst of just now. Please realize that as far as nations go, we are still very young. We will not even be 200 years old until 1976, which means that we are just now moving out of our adolescence toward maturity. I would go onto suggest that World War II was the moment in our history when we gathered up our inheritance and left home, and the twenty-five years since I’ve been momentous ones indeed, leading us finally to a far country called Vietnam, where are the many experiences of our history have all seemed to culminate in a painful “coming to ourselves” nationally.”