This morning Jason Keith Allen, President of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, published a piece titled “Denominational Discourse & the Future of the SBC.” Allen’s recent online run in with a discernment blog over false accusations leveled at Allen’s work prompted his piece and while the false accusations leveled at President Allen are regrettable this may prove to be a case where the Lord uses for good when men meant for evil.
Dr. Allen’s piece represents the first meaningful acknowledgement that I am aware of on the part of a major Southern Baptist Convention leader that the communication process in our Convention needs reparative attention. For this I am deeply thankful. To be clear, what follows is a product of thankfulness – for Dr. Allen choosing to bring this conversation to public attention but also a broader thankfulness for Allen’s work at MBTS. I hope that, should Dr. Allen read what I write here, he will receive it as an attempt to continue, in fraternal spirit, the conversation he has begun.
If I have understood Dr. Allen’s counsel in his piece correctly I would summarize his recommendation for communication within the Convention to be built around (1) the writing of letters and (2) making use of an institution’s Confession of Faith in order to understand that institution’s doctrinal position. I am glad to give my support to these ideas but, as mentioned above, I believe more attention needs to be given by our Convention to both points.
The second point there, that reading an institution’s Confession will provide clarity about that institution’s doctrinal position, is not the subject of my writing here so I will only point out that many of the controversies facing the SBC in recent years are centered precisely on the idea that entities are acting (or their employees are teaching) in a way contrary to the confession of that entity and/or The Baptist Faith and Message. The controversy over Critical Race Theory and Birminghan’s Resolution #9 is a ready example. Thus I conclude that what is even more needful than a re-reading of an Institution’s Confession is a means by which an institution can account for how its employees and leaders are keeping step with that confession, particularly in times like our current moment where confidence in an institution’s practice of their Confession is shaken.
Dr. Allen’s first point, about the efficacy of a personal letter to receive meaningful feedback from the person addressed, is the one I would like to address a bit more thoroughly here.
First, I largely agree with what Dr. Allen wrote on the subject:
For inquirers, the best way to express concerns, especially if you don’t personally know the leader, is by writing them a letter. A letter arrives with a certain degree of formality, which prompts a response. A letter has a name associated with it, a return address and, hopefully, a cogent statement of the question or concern.
If you write a letter to a ministry leader, especially a Southern Baptist leader, I’m confident you’ll receive an answer from them or their office. If not, you’ll have a legitimate complaint, and perhaps legitimate cause to escalate by writing the entity’s chairman of the board or even drawing public attention to the matter.
In summary, questions are always in-bounds. Accusations are always out-of-bounds. Honest inquirers should be treated with respect. Direct questions should receive direct answers. False accusations should be dismissed, and those who traffic in such should be called out.
I respond, in short, yes and amen! However, my own experience with attempting this strategy prior to Dr. Allen’s counsel was met with silence. As readers of this site will know, I privately wrote J.D. Greear to ask for clarification about sermon content he preached while holding the SBC Presidency. After months of no reply I published the letter publicly. To date no reply has been forthcoming.
A careful reader of Allen’s piece (and, hopefully, mine) will note that there may perhaps be a difference between Allen’s proposal and my action. Someone might object that, unlike Allen, Greear is not an entity head, meaning Greear is not under the trustee structure (note: the trustee system is yet another issue for discussion on another day; the pew-level Southern Baptist finds this system unwieldy and Byzantine) that entity heads are nor is Greear properly an employee of the Convention. All those points are well taken. However, note that Allen commends the writing of personal letters to “ministry leaders”, an umbrella that Greear surely falls under. Certainly Greear also falls under the next term Dr. Allen uses, “a Southern Baptist leader.”
Going further, even if a distinction could be made between an entity head and an elected official of the Convention, surely we would agree that the man bearing the title of President of the Southern Baptist Convention would need to be approachable in a way consistent with Dr. Allen’s proposal or, if the President is not approachable in the way prescribed by Dr. Allen, that President’s unapproachablility would severely undercut Dr. Allen’s point.
If the reader will allow a sidebar: a wise friend of mine made a point that bears repeating here: If the SBC President is going to be beyond the reach of grassroot Southern Baptists then our Convention should consider putting less emphasis on the position currently named President. Our Presbyterian brothers and sisters call the person occupying a similar position within their denomination something like Moderator of the General Assembly. Southern Baptists rightly value local church autonomy; we do not need someone we do not pay or otherwise have reasonable means to hold accountable speaking for us. If this is to be the relationship of Convention members to the Convention President then perhaps title elevates the position too highly and should be changed.
Returning to the central point, Southern Baptists stand in dire need of a system for attaining meaningful and timely feedback from entity heads. It is my observation and contention that a majority of the animosity driven and expressed by the species of discernment sites that made false accusation toward Dr. Allen is a product of simple disenfranchisement. Many Southern Baptists who are clicking on and sharing content from those sites would have the steam taken right out of their belligerence if they knew how to ask a question of an entity head that would be answered in a way that is forthright and timely.
Another wise yet anonymous friend of mine proposed a system where official representatives of the convention would make a commitment to formally respond in timely fashion to questions asked under a system where three churches are willing to affix their names to the submitted question. This kind of system would see to it that ministry leaders are not exhausting the hours of their day responding to anyone with a Twitter account but would also reflect our Convention’s DNA-level commitment to the local church. If the issue is a big enough deal for three churches to say “We want to know” it seems reasonable to conclude the issue is a big enough deal to get an answer from an SBC ministry leader. Perhaps the idea should be tweaked – more churches, additional criteria, etc. Nonetheless, a formal system of asking well wedded to a formal commitment to answer well is just what the SBC needs in this hour and may very well be essential to maintaining the SBC missions coalition.
In conclusion (and again), thank you Dr. Allen. The conversation you have begun is sorely, sorely needed. It is my hope – as someone who loves the good God does through the Southern Baptist Convention – that what Dr. Allen has started here will move forward to the kind of meaningful system of feedback and answer our Convention truly and deeply needs in order to continue as a powerful force within Christ’s Great Commission.