An open letter to the Southern Baptist Convention

Dear Southern Baptists:

Though I am an elderly man, I am your kid.

And though I am no longer a pastor in a Southern Baptist church, I am employing skills and applying knowledge you nurtured in me beginning in 1950 when I first joined a Southern Baptist church at age nine.

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Through scholarships and grants you enabled me to graduate from a Baptist school, Samford University, and then attend Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Alabama Baptists surprised me in 1983-1985 by twice electing me president of the million-member Alabama Baptist State Convention.

You licensed me to ministry in 1958 and ordained me in 1962. From 1973 to 2019 I had the privilege of serving as pastor or associate pastor of Southern Baptist churches, including your largest, Second Baptist of Houston. There I was a senior associate pastor for eighteen years under one of your finest leaders, Dr. Ed Young.

Wallace Henley, former Senior Associate Pastor of 2nd Baptist Church in Houston, Texas.
Wallace Henley, former Senior Associate Pastor of 2nd Baptist Church in Houston, Texas. | Photo by Scott Belin

While I am not currently in a Baptist pulpit, my love for you has not faded. There are three great themes that have reverberated in my spirit and soul, whether in newspaper journalism, covering the turmoil of the 1960s, or in the White House where I served three intense years, or the U.S. House of Representatives where I worked as an aide for a year.

The vision the Lord used you to instill in me has never faded and continues to drive me in my eighth decade of life to the extent I cannot sit down and be still.

Those three great themes that the Holy Spirit seared into my heart using you as an instrument were these:

  • The Bible is the inerrant Word of God, fully inspired by the Holy Spirit.
  • Evangelism is the passion of our existence as a body of Christians seeking to work together.
  • Missions is critical to our task, and we must keep our eyes and minds open to the whole world as our mission field, beginning with our own communities.

I write this letter to you in the wake of your recent convention in Nashville. My mind and emotions traveled back over the decades. In all those conflicts, we were intensely conscious of outside forces trying to deepen the wedges that we ourselves had first opened in our fellowship. Those issues, their propagators, propagandists, and perpetuators, diverted our passion for evangelism and the energy and material resources for global missions, and weakened commitment to the highest view of biblical inspiration and authority.

There are those who recall and remind us of the cancer of racism and slavery in the Convention’s founding history. But Baptist institutions and the Convention itself, under the leadership of men and women like Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, have publicly confessed and formally repented of the sins of the founders, and the perpetuation of that social iniquity.

Southern Baptists must maintain a continual watch lest ground be given again to societal evils like racism and discrimination. But it is also important to embrace the truth that in Christ old things are passed away and all things are made new. (2 Corinthians 5:17) That includes institutions as well as the individuals who comprise them.

Newness often involves a recovery of the best of the “old”, so don’t join the herd of historical revisionists who are seeking to redefine the United States and re-write its history.

Be a voice that cries out to God in repentance for our past national sins, but also the herald of hope in God’s promise of forgiveness and the freshness of His restoration of ourselves to fellowship with Him, love for our neighbors—whomever they may be—and the promise of a blessed future.

Relevancy is essential for the sake of proclaiming the Gospel to the culture. However, there is a point at which the passion for relevancy becomes reactionary. Reactionism leads to a loss of focus on the grand objective. There is a confusion of fundamental identity.

Contemporary issues become definitive of both being and function. The unthinking and constant reactionism brought on by the urge to relevancy ultimate leads to conformity. The person or institution enamored with its contemporariness becomes identified more with those with whom it seeks identification than its real being.

I have seen this in myself—especially in the 1960s—as well as institutions.

So, dear Southern Baptists, the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the age, has been wrestling with you. Its aim is to bring you over to its side. It seeks entry constantly. Once in, it seeks to control dominance everywhere.

The “Long March” of Marxist-inspired theory that has produced a “pandemic” of spiritual, philosophical, and functional disease in so many of our institutions wants to invade you as well.

You don’t need the latest theory to root out racism and discrimination because the Bible informs you of what to do about such sin. While others try to pull you into their agendas and notions of the “systemic” nature of things, you have the greater perspective—the transcendent. You must address the “systemic” evil of personal and societal sin as the Bible addresses it. You have the treasure of the Book of Revelation’s “unveiling” of the Babylonian world system. Let that shape your understanding and message.

Allow God’s transcendent truth about sin, including racism and other present malignancies, inform you and then you inform the rest of society through Spirit-inspired prophetic proclamation, and bind the wounds of those afflicted by our current manifestations of evil through Spirit-empowered pastoral ministry.

Go back to who you truly are. Bring the best of your past into the worst of the present.

Keep upholding and teaching the inerrant authority of the Bible.

Continue the focus on evangelism.

Continue casting the vision for global missions.

In Christ’s Bond and with much love,

Wallace B. Henley

Wallace B. Henley’s fifty-year career has spanned newspaper journalism, government in both White House and Congress, the church, and academia. He is author or co-author of more than 20 books. He is a teaching pastor at Grace Church, the Woodlands, Texas.

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