On April 10, I published a column in the Rockdale Citizen challenging Christians to consider that unity in the church is a necessary catalyst for reaching people for Christ. I mentioned that there are many issues dividing Christians that can distract us from preaching the Gospel.
Not that these issues are small by any means. Many theological debates will pervade denominational life; we need to be careful that our debates are not so polarized that we lose focus of what’s most important.
About a month after that column, the Southern Baptist Convention took a healthy step toward unity for the sake of missions. On May 3, an SBC task force, named the Great Commission Task Force, released an initiative, the Great Commission Resurgence.
The GCR intends to refocus several bureaucracies in the SBC juggernaut to better promote evangelism. In other words, it is an effort to put three contentious decades behind the denomination and get back to the original purpose of the SBC.
In an interview with reporters on May 4, the chairperson of the task force, the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, shared that the Resurgence is designed to build a “culture of trust, of coming together in love for the sake of the Gospel.”
According to www.pray4gcr.com, one section of the GCR report reads: “We call upon the Southern Baptists to acknowledge the centrality of the gospel message to everything we do and everything we are. We celebrate the great variety in Southern Baptist life, but we believe that our true unity can be found only in the good news of Jesus Christ. We call for a new focus on the primacy of the biblical gospel.”
This call to unity is a breath a fresh air, and the acknowledgement that differences in Baptist churches exist also seems to be a step in the right direction. Commitment VIII of the task force’s Declaration states that getting out the Gospel requires nuance, diversity, and contextual missions within particular communities of faith.
It agrees that there are non-negotiable components of a biblical Christian witness, but leaves room for creativity and flexibility: “Different contexts demand diverse strategies and methods (of evangelism).”
The GCR also affirms what my church has believed for years — that everyone in the church, from pulpit to pew, are ministers of the Gospel in his or her home, workplace, community and county.
Of course the GCR is not without some controversy. There are debates regarding how the GCR restructures joint ventures between SBC state and national entities. There are also debates about certain buzz words in the GCR report.
Furthermore, Robert Parham, writing for Ethics Daily on May 13, noted that the Resurgence’s report has an implicit, anti-public school agenda. He asserts that the report devalues the place of public schools in society, that they are no better than godless entities. This is something with which not all Baptists agree, especially Baptist administrators working throughout the public school system in order to create healthy learning environments for our children.
The report also sends mixed messages. On the one hand, it declares that cooperation is necessary for missions. On the other hand, proponents are championing the Resurgence as a thoroughly conservative effort, with no room for partnerships with Baptist centrists, non-Baptist, and ecumenical agencies.
And then there is the report’s insistence that the Bible is to be taken literally, without error — something I wholeheartedly agree with in theory. In a presentation about the GCR’s work, Chairman Floyd quoted Joel 2:12-17 to encourage repentance in the SBC. If he read further — say, Joel 2:28 — he would also have to affirm that “your sons and daughters shall prophecy,” an important scripture that some Baptists use to affirm women in ministry (read: women pastors), something the SBC continues to shun.
Nevertheless, there are many positive things in the report that are refreshing to every onlooker. And, though I disagree with the Convention’s stance toward women in ministry, I think this kind of mission-centered trajectory in the SBC is something we can all prayerfully applaud and encourage.