This year’s annual meeting in St. Louis offered plenty of highlights, but three rose above the rest. All of these could be summarized with a single word: unity. Here are my top three memorable moments from St. Louis:
3) Confederate Flag debate. Heading into St. Louis, some may have anticipated that a resolution disavowing display of the Confederate Battle Flag could cause considerable uproar in being seemingly tantamount to dishonoring one’s ancestors and their sacrifices. Yet, it soon became evident to most messengers that a higher cause was at stake here. Many won’t soon forget former SBC President James Merritt’s poignant remarks that took the SBC to task.
“Southern Baptists are not a people of any flag,” Merritt said. “We march under the banner of the cross of Jesus and the grace of God.” Urging Christians to discontinue displaying the Confederate Flag because it hinders evangelism among African Americans, he asserted, “I rise to say all the Confederate Flags in the world are not worth one soul of any race.”
After messengers overwhelming passed the resolution, Russell Moore, president of the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, commented: “Today, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, including many white Anglo southerners, decided the cross was more important than the flag. They decided our African-American brothers and sisters were more important than family heritage. We decided that we are defined not by a Lost Cause but by amazing grace.”
2) Racial reconciliation—Jerry Young’s appearance on a panel and during the nationally televised prayer service marked the first time in at least three decades that the leader of the National Baptist Convention, a historically African American denomination, has addressed SBC messengers. And, his challenge to us was noteworthy.
Racism in America, he said, stems in part from the church’s failure to be salt and light in the world. “Somebody needs to pass the salt and turn on the lights,” Young urged.
“(To) those who would like to suggest that racism is not indeed a problem for the church, but rather is a sociological problem, I would argue it is without question a sin problem,” Young said. He described himself as “a young man who … despised people who looked like Dr. (Ronnie) Floyd, because I thought they were the problem—until I met Jesus, until Jesus Christ became Lord of my life.” The cure for racism is found in transformation of the human heart brought about by the gospel.
Yet, something far more noteworthy took place. A presidential candidate graciously and humbly felt led of the Spirit to withdraw from the race in the interest of fostering unity. When has that ever happened before?
It was a classy gesture by J.D. Greear. And, it was difficult to disagree with Steve Gaines’ assessment that “there’s no way God’s not doing something in all of this.” Some even wondered aloud as they embraced on stage after announcing their mutual decision, if we weren’t looking at the SBC’s past, present and future. Outgoing president Ronnie Floyd congratulated newly-elected president Steve Gaines as J.D. Greear, perhaps the next SBC president, looked on.
These three comprised the top memorable moments for me. Yet, even as SBC messengers gathered to plead for spiritual awakening in America and around the world, they joined together in praying for those affected by the shooting rampage in Orlando, Fla., that had occurred over the weekend, which left 49 people dead and as many injured.
“Since all human beings are made in the image of God, this attack against gay Americans in Orlando is an attack on each of us,” Floyd said. “As followers of Jesus Christ we stand against any form of bigotry, hatred or violence against our nation and against any people of this world.”
Sensitivity, reconciliation and solidarity seemed to be on the hearts of messengers in St. Louis. While the world around us may be teetering on “the ragged edge of moral insanity”—as Floyd observed—Psalm 133 was being lived out before us: “How good and pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”