Fentress & Patterson: Descriptor would benefit African Americans, ethnic groups, non-Southerners
Fentress, senior pastor of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., and Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Forth Worth, Texas, were members of the task force appointed by SBC President Bryant Wright last September.
Fentress' remarks appear first, followed by Patterson's.
What's in a name? Depending on whom you ask, there may be a number of different answers to this question. Names can indicate identity, mission, philosophy, theology, history, purpose, etc. Names are important because they identify and distinguish us from others. The name 'Southern Baptist' is filled with meaning, significance, and history. Why am I Southern Baptist? This is a question that I've been confronted with several times over the years. It is probably true that most African Americans are Southern Baptists despite the objections of many in the larger black Christian community. Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. recently summarized the history of the founding of our convention in 1845. In his eloquent recitation of the issues that led to the establishment of the SBC, we learned that the founders intended for the name to identify with the Confederacy in the years leading up to the Civil War. This signifies that the name has not only been a source of difficulty for church planters serving in areas outside the American South but also that the name has been a source of some difficulty among African Americans precisely because of its identity with the Confederacy.
For many African Americans, our reasons for being Southern Baptist are theological, not cultural, political, or geographical. While we must acknowledge that theology does intersect with culture and politics, we must also recognize that sound Christian theology takes priority over culture and politics. I am Southern Baptist specifically because of the theology for which the conservative resurgence stood. I was saved at 16 years of age in a predominantly black Baptist church in my hometown of Fort Worth, Texas. Everything that congregation taught me was consistent with the theology of the conservative resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention. I was taught the doctrine of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. I was taught the total sufficiency of the Gospel. I was taught the value of sound biblical theology and sound biblical preaching.
This foundation in sound theology led me to Criswell College where I earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biblical Studies and Southern Seminary where I earned the Master of Divinity degree. It also enabled me to complete my M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in Hebrew Bible and Ancient Semitic Languages at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
There are two important theological reasons why we have been engaged in a discussion of a potential name change for the SBC: 1) The progress of the Gospel through evangelism; and, 2) The progress of the Gospel through racial reconciliation. The fact that we are having this discussion is good because it signifies the progress of the Gospel. For only the Gospel has the power to save sinners and sanctify Christians of every race, tribe, language, and background. The Gospel alone has the power to enable us to reach people of every nation, race, tribe, language, and background. Milton Vincent, in his book, "A Gospel Primer for Christians," states that the power of God in its greatest density is found inside the Gospel. The Apostle Paul writes, "For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is God's power for salvation to everyone who believes, first to the Jew, and also to the Greek" (Romans 1:16). And if we remain true to the teachings of the Gospel, we shall surely overcome prejudice, racism, and hatred. The Gospel alone enables us to overcome the stain of a racial history that is still painful for some and shameful for others. This progress of the Gospel will have an undeniable impact upon non-Christians all over the world. Removing impediments to Gospel-driven evangelism and reaching across historic barriers in order to achieve Gospel-driven reconciliation is precisely what progress is all about. The progress of the Gospel brings people to God while also bringing them together. I pastor a congregation that has 30 plus different nationalities of people, not to mention our school and child development center where we have children from five continents (including North America and Canada). Nothing demonstrates the progress of the Gospel more than the dissolving of racial barriers. This kind of progress of the Gospel speaks a very powerful message to our critics who would say, 'They're trying to change their name, but they're still the same old convention.' If they are referring to our theology, yes, we are the same. But if they are referring to how we apply our theology to the issue of race, we had better not be the same, if we want to honor God.
This task force has attempted to give a prayerful, thoughtful, honest, deliberate, and in-depth investigation into these matters with the utmost integrity under the seasoned leadership of Dr. Jimmy Draper. When the non-Christian world sees a convention that has been known for tremendous missionary enterprises, Gospel propagation, Christian publications, theological education, disaster relief, and Christian discipleship and influence, not only on the American landscape, but on a global landscape; when they see a convention examining itself in light of the very Bible it believes; when they see a convention seeking to honor Jesus Christ in the way it presents itself to the world, they will be profoundly impacted for time and eternity. These are positive things that indicate to the world that the SBC is not declining or dead, but simply in the process of allowing the Gospel to reform and revive us for ministry in the 21st Century. In spite of the racial history of this convention, the Gospel is propelling the SBC forward and there are many people of color who want to be an important part of what God is doing through this convention. The glory of God is in these things.
The recommendation that is being presented to the Executive Committee is very important in demonstrating to Southern Baptists and to the world that we are serious about fulfilling the Great Commission as Jesus commanded us in Matthew 28:18-20. As a member of the task force I wholeheartedly support the recommendation that has been submitted to President Bryant Wright.
So, despite any cost to African Americans, Latinos, Asians, or to people of color in general who are Southern Baptists, we are committed to the progress of the Gospel. We are committed to the total sufficiency of Scripture. We are committed to sound biblical theology for the 21st Century. We are committed to biblically shaped evangelism and discipleship. We are committed to the ministry of reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21). We are committed to the Great Commission as Southern Baptists. We are Great Commission Baptists.
When President Bryant Wright telephoned late last year asking me to serve on a committee to provide counsel to the president about a change in name for our beloved Convention, my initial thought was, "Mr. President, why do you hate me?" My life has been spent, too much of it, in controversy, which contrary to popular wisdom, I thoroughly despise. In fact, my life verse has become Jeremiah 15:10: "Woe is me, my mother, that you have borne me, a man of strife and a man of contention to the whole earth! I have neither lent for interest, nor have men lent to me for interest. Every one of them curses me."
My love for and devotion to this fellowship that we call a Convention and to its churches and mission causes is by now, I hope, apparent. Soon, if God wills, I will attend my 60th annual meeting without a miss. While I seek neither sympathy nor applause, my family has paid a high price for faithfulness as we understood it to Christ, the Bible, and to the faith of our Baptist Fathers. For 36 years, I have led three different institutions to train your missionaries, pastors and evangelists. For 55 years I have faithfully preached the unsearchable riches of Christ mostly in Southern Baptist churches and mission points. Haltingly and often poorly, I have sought to be a personal witness to the saving grace of our Lord.
So what is your point, oh hoary with years? Just that in the pedestrian words that I am about to utter, I sincerely hope that my motive and intentions are pure even should you find my logic flawed. From my vantage point in the forced march to the summit of Nebo, the twin concerns that rivet my heart are seven billion lost people on this globe and the care of the churches that serve as the launch pads for the dissemination of the Gospel.
Since I was a boy-preacher somewhere back in the Pre-Cambrian era, I have been concerned that Southern Baptists needed to change our name. Every time the issue arose, I cast a losing vote contrary to that of some of my dearest friends. The logic that appealed to me then was as simple as the mind that assessed it. (1) We were no longer regional and (2) If the regional moniker were an offense, a barrier to some, used in turn by the Enemy to keep them from Christ, then we should remove the barrier.
Please note what I did not say. While I recognize that some of our own are offended by our Southern Baptist history of sometimes fierce clashes, of our moral stands against abortion, gender confusion, the dissolution of the family, the devastating effects of gambling and alcohol on our families and the social order, and even belatedly the more politically correct, but in this case biblically correct stand against racism, while I regret that any are offended, I view all of this as noble, even if in our flesh we were sometimes ignoble in our approaches to these issues.
Neither do I think that the name on the shingle has much to do with evangelistic success. History is replete with the objections of the establishment to the evangelization of the lost. When God's people seek His face for His mighty hand to move and then when they witness as though they were in the fourth quarter, I know for a fact that the baptismal waters will be stirred far more frequently than Bethesda.
Consequently, I am not ashamed of the Southern Baptist name. Indeed, I love and treasure it for what it represents in terms of doctrine, ethics, shared mission, response to human need, and world mission endeavor. But my brothers and sisters, if at least a descriptor could be found which focused on the nature of our mission, how could that be a bad omen?
The recommendation which our distinguished Baptist statesman, Dr. Draper, will now bring is one that satisfies my conscience on all levels to a degree I never thought possible. I support it enthusiastically. I have just two requests of you my brethren. First, let us seek God's face with ardent supplication to see if the committee's report is an amazing solution given by the Spirit of God. Second, if at the end of the process, you do not agree, that is fine. This is why you are a Baptist, a dissenter, and why I am not your bishop, cardinal or pope. But may we agree that we will debate and decide the issue without recourse to a discussion of motives and intentions of the heart which only God can see and know.
Whatever the outcome, I remain confident for the future. The gates of hell will not conquer the church of Jesus the Christ. The Spirit and the Bride say come. Southern Baptists say come. Let whosoever wills come and slake his thirst with the water of life. Such remains the mission of Southern Baptists until Jesus comes.