As I challenge the prevailing narrative arising from the recent Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, my remarks, though sincere and well-intentioned, will likely be misunderstood. This is regrettable and unavoidable. Just because something is difficult to say does not mean it should not be said. Perhaps my timing will be challenged. Could this not wait for another day? Yes, it could, but Barney Fife’s “nip it in the bud” philosophy is practically a core value of mine. Why allow a questionable notion to grow unchallenged for an extended period of time?
Most accounts of the convention describe the beautiful feelings of unity and peace elicited by the withdrawal of J.D. Greear from the Presidential race just prior to the second runoff ballot on Wednesday morning. The election result was thus determined, not by the expressed will of the electorate, but by one candidate yielding to another. Candidates are free to run and free to withdraw, but in the aftermath of Greear’s resignation, I must have read a half dozen times that Greear is almost certain to become the SBC President in 2018. The theory is that his 2016 forfeiture was such a sign of grace and humility that Southern Baptists practically owe Greear the SBC Presidency in the next contested election, presumably the one in Dallas in 2018.
Several aspects of this suggestion are worthy of more thoughtful reflection. Let me say at the start that my aim here is not to offer any sort of personal attack against J.D. Greear. I am thankful that he withdrew his candidacy. I believe it was a gracious gesture, albeit an unnecessary one. He was under absolutely no compulsion to do so. I would not have thought any less of him had he remained in the race, allowing the will of the electorate to determine the outcome of the election on Wednesday morning. Instead, through his forfeiture, he created a beautiful moment on the platform by endorsing Steve Gaines for President in a very public display of humility and grace.
Let me also add that, in terms of his personality and Christian service, I actually like J.D. Greear. He is my brother in Christ and a fellow pastor in our Southern Baptist Convention. While I do not know him personally, he strikes me as a very nice man and a fine Christian leader. I have no personal vendetta against him. I simply disagree with his ministry direction and philosophy. In other words, I oppose some of the things he stands for in SBC life, such as a certain approach to the financial support of missions, and a certain willingness to partner with non-Southern Baptist networks that actually engage in discrimination against Southern Baptists like me.
Did We Truly Leave St. Louis United?
I am more than willing to grant there was a definite sense of relief when Greear resigned, for the tension of a closely contested election had been resolved, but relief is not the same thing as unity. I am also willing to grant that this was an “outward display of grace” that offered messengers a sort of “public relations kind of unity” in which we “put on a good face” and, for a brief moment at least, chose to mask our differences by pretending they did not exist. Frankly, these approaches to conflict management provide almost textbook cases of denial and dysfunction. This is the couple in marriage counseling that says with plastic smiles, “Everything is fine, really,” when in fact, below the surface, there are numerous issues that remain unresolved.
If we are being completely honest, Southern Baptists left St. Louis with just as many unresolved issues as we had when we arrived. The fault lines were never erased. That beautiful public moment on Wednesday morning did not usher in an Age of Aquarius promoting harmony and understanding, and the reason is that all of the issues dividing us remain:
Generation Gap or Conflicting Visions?
Some have suggested our differences are nothing more than a generational divide, but I find that assessment lacking. Yes, most of the Calvinists in the convention are younger, but not all of the younger people in the SBC are Calvinists. I do not believe we are so much divided by age as we are divided by ministry approaches driven by theological orientation. In other words, there are substantive differences creating the disunity in SBC life. This is not merely a personality conflict or a generation gap. It is a clash of ideas. We did not leave St. Louis having resolved the issues that continue to divide us. An outward spirit of unity is a nice charade, a happy moment in the sun, a gloriously pleasant escape from reality. But it is not the real thing. It is not true unity, for it is rooted merely in the fiction of conflict avoidance and not in the reality of conflict resolution.
Were We Truly Spared A Disaster?
Some have insinuated that by his withdrawal Greear saved the Southern Baptist Convention from an apocalyptic event that would have left us paralyzed, divided, angry and uncooperative. One imagines catastrophic scenes of Southern Baptists rioting in the streets of St. Louis, throwing television sets through shop windows and smashing cars with baseball bats because our preferred candidate for SBC President lost a simple election. The narrative being spun is that Greear saved us from a cataclysmic upheaval the likes of which Southern Baptists have never known. Rubbish, nonsense and poppycock!
We were told by Greear that he wanted to spare us from an election in which one candidate received 51% of the vote and the other received 49% of the vote, but no one ever explained why such a close vote would necessarily be a bad thing. If such a vote truly expressed the will of the messengers and if honesty is still the best policy, why not leave St. Louis with a crystal clear understanding that we do indeed have work to do in resolving our conflicts? Why pretend we are not divided when in fact we so obviously are? And why run in fear of electing a President by such a narrow margin of victory?
Question: “When was the last time Southern Baptists elected a President with only 51% of the vote?” Answer: “The last time we elected a President.” That’s right. In 2014, Ronnie Floyd was elected with exactly 51.62% of the vote. Following the election, there was no hand wringing. I saw neither sack cloth nor ashes in Baltimore. There were no riots. Southern Baptists did not leave the convention hall throwing their ballot cards at one another or spilling each other’s purchases to the floor in the LifeWay bookstore. Instead, we acted like mature adults—with both sides smiling and shaking hands just like I do at the net after every tennis match, win or lose. I refuse to believe that Southern Baptists would have thrown temper tantrums had our side lost the Presidential election. Despite overblown claims to the contrary, J.D. Greear’s forfeiture merely spared the Teller’s Committee a few hours of their time.
How Much Did Greear Truly Concede?
Bear in mind that at the time Greear withdrew from the race, Gaines had received 2,410 votes and Greear had received 2,306. Of the votes properly cast using correct and legible ballots, Gaines received 51.1% of the vote while Greear received 48.9% of the vote. However, by a rule that deserves further examination, 108 spoiled ballots were counted among the total votes cast while not attributed to either candidate. Thus, by considering illegal ballots too spoiled for either numerator but not too spoiled for the denominator, the number of votes needed to reach a majority was 2,413.
Greear was 107 votes away from winning but only 3 votes away from losing. By withdrawing from the race, he essentially conceded those three votes. Was this gracious? Indeed. Was it a sacrifice of monumental proportions? Hardly. Does it mean that Southern Baptists practically owe Greear the SBC Presidency in 2018? Not at all. If the concerns with Greear’s ministry philosophy and vision continue to be relevant in 2018, I hope he will not run unopposed—a status some have suggested Greear has earned by his three vote concession in St. Louis.
It has even been suggested that Gaines might nominate Greear in 2018 as a gesture of unity in the convention. Personally, I hope this is not the case, for I believe their candidacies are actually larger than either of these two men individually. I believe they each represent certain ideologies, beliefs and ministry practices, and that voters deserve the right to vote for the candidate whose platform most closely aligns with their own, in order to influence the convention in the direction they believe it needs to go.
The narrative being spun is that Southern Baptists left St. Louis completely united, that J.D. Greear’s withdrawal from the race spared us from certain disaster, and that his humble and monumental concession practically purchased for him the SBC Presidency in 2018. At the risk of bursting our bubble, and however unpopular this sentiment may be, I am compelled to challenge that narrative. Southern Baptists are not completely united. Greear’s withdrawal did not spare us from any real catastrophe. And no concession of three votes entitles anyone to a future SBC Presidency.
One other aspect of this event deserves consideration—the impact of Greear’s withdrawal upon the democratic processes of our congregational polity. By removing himself from the race, Greear actually short circuited our democratic process, removing the decision from the electorate and taking it upon himself to decide the outcome. While it may rightly be deemed a personally gracious gesture, it does nothing at all to help us more clearly discern the will of a closely divided SBC electorate.
In the final analysis, a lot can happen between now and 2018. The issues dividing us today may be completely resolved. New issues may arise. Greear may not even run for President. We may be raptured by then. But as matters stand right now, as we come out of the convention in St. Louis, this popular narrative deserves to be challenged. No candidate conceding three votes in one election should automatically win the next election as a consolation prize.