“Come gather ‘round people wherever you roam
And admit that the waters around you have grown.”
So begins the familiar Bob Dylan song with its resounding refrain, “The times, they are a changin’.” If rising waters indicate a season of change, a great wave swelled this past week at the Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting (SBCAM) in Dallas.
While news of a sitting United States Vice President visiting your assembly is usually received with a note of excitement, the news descended on the SBCAM delegates like a low cloud with rumbles of hushed thunder. As the floor was opened for motions, several Southern Baptist delegates voiced concern over a perceived political tie to the religious organization. They also expressed unease at the effects a seeming affirmation of current political disquiet would have on our minority brothers and sisters. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has recently been focusing on exposing and mending fissures along racial and gender barriers. To many, this move seemed like a step backwards.
But why? This was not the first time a sitting public official was to address the SBCAM. Vice President Pence is widely respected as a brother in Christ. The second most powerful man in the world was asking for a few minutes to address the delegation. Wouldn’t a refusal be inhospitable? Aren’t we to respect those in authority? Aren’t we working toward the same goal of freedom, liberty and justice for all?
There is certainly something to thank God for when 10,000 Southern Baptists can gather freely without fear of repercussion while still openly debating or disagreeing with governmental policy or action. We should be grateful to God to live in such a time and place. Yet, as said motions were rejected, nationalistic songs were sung, the pledge of allegiance to the flag was given and a surprising number of delegates shifted uncomfortably around the auditorium, it was difficult not to sense the waters around us had grown, and we were in need of a family conversation.
There has long been a strain of nationalism in the SBC. While we have celebrated taking the Gospel to the nations as a cross-border message, we have also uplifted the United States as an ordained vehicle for this message in our time. But as Bob Dylan noted, rising waters are at our feet, and we must ask ourselves why.
The purpose of this article is not to take a side in the debate or spur undo controversy. Rather, as an observer of the recent tides within the SBC, and as one who wrestles with them myself, I want to offer a few points of observation that help us understand where we stand as a convention in relation to our changing nation.
What is not changing
For those concerned about rising tides of political disquiet in the SBC, it is important to note that those involved are not separated by as much as they might think. Those concerned with the nation’s place in the church may change some things in our gatherings, but there are two things of note that are not changing: Patriotism and Appreciation for those who serve.
Southern Baptists seeking to create more separation between the church and state in large part are doing so not as condemnation of the state, but as recognition of distinct citizenship between the two. But they are still patriots. They still love the United States of America and are proud of the freedom for which it stands. They recognize and are thankful for the ideals that ring under the red, white, and blue and desperately want the United States to live up to them.
It is not difficult to sing the anthem, pray for God’s blessing on our nation and its leaders, or don the colors in identification with our great nation. But it is difficult knowing so many in our time see those very things as symbols of oppression, misogyny, racial disharmony, and disunity.
Those uncomfortable with national prominence within the church aren’t against the nation – they’re for the church. They are working to submit one recognized authority to a greater recognized Authority. They are seeking to rally around what is of first importance and unity in the surpassing nature of the Gospel that sets free the oppressed, uplifts our sisters in Christ, celebrates every tribe, tongue and nation at the cross, and unites in one what has been fractured in a fallen world. Methods for integrating church and state may be changing, but commitment to both is not.
Another thing that is not changing is Southern Baptists’ appreciation for those who serve. They are grateful for the sacrificial courage of our men and women who fight, and have fought, to defend our freedoms and protect the land and people we love.
They also respect civic offices. The offices of President and Vice President will always be hallowed to a great degree – no matter who holds them. Much respect and prayer are due those who lead our nation. They face decisions and hardships we will never know. When one assumes such an office, they take on a great weight on behalf of millions. The same goes for our representatives in Congress. We should be thankful to live in a society of democratic representation and ensure we are properly heard as well as represented. In fact, Southern Baptists made a tremendous statement in their resounding support of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (The SBC arm that actively engages the civic and public square on issues of Gospel concern) as well as its president, Russell Moore. In this way, they affirmed the need for civic and governmental engagement.
What is changing
What is changing is the conversation around how the separation of our citizenship on this earth and our citizenship in heaven should be represented in the church in a way that appropriately addresses each.
While the banner is often raised of “God and Country,” many are growing uncomfortable with the idea of “God and…” anything. They just want to raise the banner of God and believe our places and times of worship should be reserved solely for that purpose.
The way many in the SBC are seeking to reconcile this tension is by distancing themselves from other loves. This is evidenced by fewer flags on our platforms, patriotic services giving way to the regular rhythm of our worship gatherings and political representation giving way to Gospel proclamation. This is good for our churches in many respects yet can easily be seen as antagonism toward those very entities.
So, is a movement away from “God and Country” a form of indictment on our country, its entities and those who serve? May it never be. Rather as Trevin Wax has noted about the rising phenomenon:
It’s common to hear the story of young evangelicals fleeing conservative churches and embracing center-left politics. I don’t see this happening among young Southern Baptist pastors. What I do see is less emphasis on bringing change through political engagement and more emphasis on dealing pastorally with the implications of a secularizing society.
When I talk with older Southern Baptists about recent cultural developments, I get the impression that many of them see mobilization of Christian voters as the best way to affect change. When I talk with younger Southern Baptists, I get the impression that the landscape has shifted to the point they expect to be a minority… This is a generalization, but I think there’s truth here: Older Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Israel. Younger Southern Baptists are more likely to see the U.S. as Babylon. That’s a significant shift, and it leads to a different tone.
While these perspectives are changing, it is important to note that biblically, the U.S. is neither Israel nor Babylon. But if many in the SBC are beginning to see the U.S. as Babylon (a place of exile for God’s people), how does the Bible say to treat Babylon? In Jeremiah 29:7, God commands His people, “But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” God tells His people to seek the good of the city and nation in which He has placed them. He tells them to pray on their behalf. He tells them to seek its welfare. Those distancing their stance between nation and church should ensure they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater in matters of nationalism.
Yet even those who uphold America as a new Israel admit that Israel, a nation led by the very laws and presence of God Himself, ultimately succumbed to the reality of broken people making broken decisions in a broken and fallen world. There is a greater reality than national identity. The U.S. must be recognized as neither the chosen covenant people of God nor a pagan vehicle of judgment on God’s people. But the balance is tricky.
The way this balance is being fleshed out is what is changing for many in the SBC.
Human government cannot save. No matter how many institutions we put in place or how we try to wield them, our sin will be exposed. God’s Gospel, unbound by any government or mortal institution, is the only hope for humanity.
We are all sinners in need of repentance and forgiveness through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. That is the Gospel we proclaim from churches in Dallas, Texas to Baghdad, Iraq; from Washington D.C to Beijing, China. That is the transformative news that unites us beyond borders, races, ages and social barriers.
The Gospel is something we can all agree on and uphold with unshaking joy and prominence in our churches. I believe those coming from every angle of this debate are seeking to do just that. But the rising waters around our convention may indicate a new way is prevailing.
The rising waters in the SBC displayed at the annual meeting are not necessarily a Noahic judgement but are perhaps more indicative of a refining baptism. Change for change’s sake brings harm, but willingness to admit we may need to make changes in order to most clearly display the Gospel should be a constant tide.
The fact that brothers and sisters in Christ can disagree on how to hold citizenship in a nation of which we are commanded to seek the good, yet come together not around a flagpole, but a cross, is evidence of the necessary unity of the body of Christ in any nation.
Regardless of where you stand amidst the rising waters in the SBC, there is one thing we can all be grateful for: the times they are a changin’, but the Gospel never will. Let’s hold that banner high together.