I called it shooting yourself in the foot. Again. Publicly.
What could have been a Tuesday condemnation of racism became a Wednesday mea culpa.
So, what really happened on Tuesday when the Southern Baptist Convention Committee on Resolutions offered nine resolutions on various topics but passed over Pastor McKissic’s resolution condemning the alt-right? As I conversed Tuesday night with some of the players, everyone knew that Dwight McKissic had brought a resolution, as he often does. With him regularly bringing resolutions, perhaps the Resolutions Committee had been predisposed to pass this one by—and some of the language in the resolution may have added to that.
But it’s time we see that decisions like this are more than just what happens in a room in Phoenix.
Let’s step back and look at what it means to exegete the national cultural context.
Here comes a well-publicized resolution on racism (of the alt-right, in this case). It had similarities to resolutions overwhelmingly approved in years past. But a national context is not built on the doctrine of “once-passed, always-passed.”
The number of resolutions passed on the issue of abortion (or alcohol!) testify to this. Things happen in culture that lead us to discern that we may need to speak up again.
If you’ve passed literally dozens of resolutions on alcohol, when everyone already knows where you stand, maybe another resolution on rasicm might help address some history and stereotypes. (Right now, the SBC resolutions mention alcohol four times for every one mention of racism—it’s not bad to close that gap.)
In addition, a lot has changed in the last 12 months. The public (rightly) now sees the alt-right as a pressing topic since President Trump’s election. (Regardless of your vote, we cannot deny that the alt-right has been emboldened by the election of President Trump.)
Furthermore, some of the public also wrongly surmises that many constituents in the SBC resonate with or even follow alt-right doctrines.
Add to the mix that as the wider world watches, there are intentional ‘misunderstanders’ among them who are ready to pounce on missteps. The cultural moment needed a denunciation, but due to some contextual misses and parliamentary snafus, that was missed on Tuesday.
That’s probably why the outcry was so loud.
It’s Not One Denomination
It's not just the Southern Baptists, by the way.
This misunderstanding of context has become a recurring reality in the meetings or actions of other denominations.
Last June (2016), we saw the Presbyterian Church of America finish an entire year of considering whether racism was a bad idea. (At least, that’s how the PCA deliberations came across to some in the watching public.) In 2015, they had debated for nine hours and finally decided to give it a year to simmer, perfect the language, repent, and—in the critics’ eyes—hope the issue disappeared. (That’s not an accurate perception of what happened, and a detailed account can be found here, but stay with me on the bigger point.)
Or, perhaps you recall the horrific mass murder of our children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012. An interfaith prayer service followed as a nation wrestled with the grisly reminder of evil. After the service, while the local pastors were no doubt still piecing together the painful community, local pastor Rev. Rob Morris was exhorted to confess publicly his participation in the multifaith prayer service (which he indicated was more of a community chaplaincy). Morris apologized, but the perception was a disaster (and a repeat of a similar LCMS controversy after 9-11).
The LCMS president, Matthew Harrison, later apologized to a befuddled public over the ‘prayer-gate’ controversy. As with the SBC and PCA, what they meant (an important concern about the uniqueness of the faith) and what was heard (a lack of compassion) did not align. For more, see my article, Lessons for (and from) Lutherans about What to Say (and How to Apologize for Saying Things You Shouldn't Have Said.)
In all cases, the expectation for those outside always to understand what’s going on inside was unrealistic.
The World Is Watching
I’m not asking that we jettison serious biblical principles and never pass resolutions about sin. And, I’m not saying we can’t have serious dialogue amongst ourselves.
However, let’s think about the words I just said: “amongst ourselves.” In a world on social media steroids, we need to rewrite part of our playbook to consider the cultural context as we conduct our church business.
So, how should we have a conversation that acknowledges that the wider world is watching and perhaps even intentionally misunderstanding what we are discussing?
First, manage denominational realities more like you would in a local church.
For example, Dwight McKissic regularly brings resolutions. Therefore, his resolution already may have been taken less seriously by some simply because he has submitted others in the past. (Full disclosure, I consider Dwight a friend and supported his resolution, but I did see these other dynamics at work.) But Dwight is not just a resolution bringer—he is known across the SBC.
So, like the person who makes a lot of motions at the annual meeting, and you know this one will certainly cause discussion, you meet with him or her, hear his or her concerns, and address him or her before that meeting.
Barrett Duke, the Chairman of the Resolutions Committee (who I also consider a friend), explained that the committee thought some of McKissic’s resolution language was problematic. But inaction was not an option given the cultural context, and that language could have been fixed.
Like a well-respected and well-known church member with strong opinions, you sit down and hash it out beforehand.
Second, create a specific way to help find a less public way to hash out disagreements as denominations.
Now, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest deliberative body in the world. There's not much of a backroom for discussion of resolutions at the SBC once they are on the floor. However, anticipating and then initiating as many conversations as necessary between McKissic and the Resolutions Committee would be helpful. (The PCA has a process with some similaries, where the Overtures Committee receives and discusses such issues.)
I wrote in an article last week that the Resolutions Committee could have taken his resolution, assigned it to an astute editor, consulted with McKissic on certain rewrites, and then released it to the convention as a whole.
There were some who misrepresented (lied) about what happened that Tuesday at the Southern Baptist Convention. However, there were plenty of others who simply misunderstood and perhaps thought that the Southern Baptist Convention actually debated the substantive question of whether or not to condemn the alt-right and then couldn't get the vote necessary to do so.
The world does not understand our parliamentary procedures. It is our responsibility to recognize that our parliamentary procedures cannot unilaterally rule out the cultural context.
Third, apologize (and act) promptly.
LCMS President Harrison apologized fully for the prayer-gate debacle. PCA pastors could (and did) literally sign their name to a protest to apologize when their overture was delayed.
Barrett Duke also apologized publicly “for the pain and the confusion that we created for you and a watching world when we decided not to report out a resolution on alt-right racism.” Steve Gaines (SBC President) exhibited remarkable, behind-the-scenes leadership to help the convention reconsider this resolution. The committee worked hard to bring back what I think was a good resolution. I'm glad to see that it did condemn the alt-right specifically and racism in all forms.
Fourth, face the reality that there are some things the world is not going to understand.
The exclusivity of Christ, gender, and same-sex marriage will always be controversial issues. But it should not be difficult for the world to understand that Christians condemn racism.
I'm thankful that the course was reversed on Wednesday. However, I hope Southern Baptists (and others) will learn that context matters when we are making declarations these days. If we are going to have resolutions, denominations need to make them in such a way that they are not unduly embarrassed by the process. After all, the public is watching.
These are our statements to the world; last week showed us that the world is listening. It is our responsibility to make sure that our positions are clear, even to those not in the room.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.