Today, the 2018 Southern Baptist Convention begins in the city of Dallas, Texas. Contrary to popular belief, the SBC is really only in existence, in technical terms, for two days each year during the annual meeting that assembles to take care of the business and organize the ministry partnerships of the Convention.
Leading up to the 2018 meeting, there have been a number of considerable controversies that have caused people to pause and ask honest questions about the health of the SBC. Add that to a presidential election season of politics in SBC circles and there is no shortage of things to pray about and to think through.
The two candidates for the office of president are Ken Hemphill and J.D. Greear. Both are well known men who have served in SBC circles for many years. In a recent Facebook live video, J.D. Greear addressed some of these controversial issues and called the members of the SBC to prayer. In this video, he said several things that I can’t affirm convictionally nor theologically, however, one thing stood out to me in a statement that he made. He encouraged members of the SBC to:
Mark those among us of a divisive spirit who seek to create division in our denomination over secondary and territary things…and keep away from them.
On the surface it sounds good, because who wants to promote division among a group of believers seeking to accomplish the Lord’s work? However, upon closer examination, two things are concerning about Greear’s statement.
Romans 16:17 Is Not About the SBC
When Paul was writing the letter to the church in the city of Rome, he was addressing theological beliefs among other issues pertaining to the local church itself. Therefore, to appeal to the apostle’s words regarding the need for unity within the SBC in a general sense is to miss the point. While we do want to strive for unity among our brothers and sisters (and sister churches), the issue for Paul was the type of division that comes into the local church itself as it pertains to the gospel of Christ. It’s very much possible for people in the SBC to be divided over some secondary issues while laboring earnestly to point people to Jesus Christ collectively.
We must be careful when interpreting the Bible so that we do not apply texts that are addressing the life of the local church to a collective group of churches known as the Southern Baptist Convention. If you know anything about the SBC, it’s a rather large tent that involves people who are both Arminian and Calvinistic, single church model and multi-campus, pre-millenial and almost all other stripes of eschatology, single pastor and a plurality of elders, and the list goes on and on. Therefore, it’s difficult to have complete unity on all issues in the SBC and I don’t believe that we’re in sin when we have differences that prevent us from serving together in the same local church.
In fact, sometimes the willingness to have differences among us is a good thing. Building walls to prevent people from critiquing differing opinions and positions in the SBC may in fact be a dangerous model to adopt moving forward. The leaders of the SBC can’t expect members of the SBC to follow them in the same way that members would follow their elders in the local church context. That’s why I believe that such passages like Romans 16:17 should be interpreted in light of the apostle’s commitment to the local church rather than a convention model.
Romans 16:17 Is Condemning Division on the Gospel—Not Secondary Issues
When Paul writes these words to the church in Rome, he is laboring to protect the unity of the local church on the purity of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was not speaking primarly about secondary issues. To suggest that people who provide an open voice of critique in the life of the SBC (on secondary issues) are “trouble makers” who should be marked out and avoided is a very dangerous posture of leadership. We certainly don’t want to deconstruct our current hierarchy and reconstruct an evangelical Vatican City.
The fact that Greear has made such a statement leading up to this vitally important SBC in Dallas should cause us to pause and ask an honest question. Do we have people in the SBC who are laboring to preach another gospel other than the gospel of Jesus? Do we have many voices who are offering up criticism regarding issues on matters of social justice, identity politics, critical race theory, intersectionality, complementarianism, and other practical and theological matters? I think the latter scenario describes our current landscape in SBC circles rather than the former. So, what exactly did J.D. Greear intend by his statement? William Hendriksen writes, “Therefore Paul urges the brothers (on which see 1:13, p. 52; 7:1, pp. 214, 215) to avoidthese dissenters altogether. He knew that the possibility that some of the members might otherwise have lost their bearings was real, especially in view of the clever methods employed by the propagandizers.” 
What Paul was arguing for was unity on the gospel and that if anyone comes along and seeks to teach a gospel that is contrary to the pure gospel of King Jesus—such a person should be marked out as a hertetic and avoided. To mark those who criticize leadership decisions in the SBC as heretics is to butcher the apostle’s original intent and to miss the mark completely. Furthermore, such a posture harms the character of people in the Convention that we should otherwise be seeking unity with in the midst of diversity.
In closing, I would like to say that while I don’t know J.D. Greear personally, I find him to be a strong leader, a gifted speaker, and a man who will, in my estimation, be elected today by the messengers of the SBC as the next president by a large majority vote. It is not my goal to assume false motives regarding his recent tweets or his Facebook live video. However, I do disagree and I think we should be free to do so in a constructive manner. When elected as president, I will pray for J.D. Greear and will seek to work within the SBC structure as a unifying voice as much as possible for the glory of God.
I would urge the members of the SBC to keep an open dialogue when approaching big change and big pendulum swinging decisions. Avoid the monologue narrative of back door politics and be willing to listen to those who may not agree with your position. Seek to understand their positions and think through their ideas. Don’t build up walls and move people aside as a marked trouble maker who disagrees with you on secondary matters. However, when someone comes along and preaches another gospel other than the true gospel of Jesus, mark out such a person, avoid them, even if it’s an angel from heaven—and let that one be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).
Romans 1:17-20 — I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.  For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive.  For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.  The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
- William Hendriksen and Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, vol. 12–13, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953–2001), 510.