As he celebrates three decades shepherding a Texas megachurch, former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham is optimistic about the denomination's future, but fears that the convention might be getting “sidetracked” by doctrinal debates.
The 68-year-old Graham, who celebrated his 30th anniversary at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano this month, told The Christian Post on Tuesday that recent social media debates surrounding the issue of women preaching could be deflecting focus from SBC’s true mission of evangelism.
As the convention holds its annual meeting this week in Birmingham, Alabama, two issues have dominated discussions in the media and online: whether women should have the right to preach and instances of sexual abuse in churches.
While SBC messengers adopted proposals on Tuesday that proponents believe will allow the convention to better review claims of sexual abuse occurring in churches and even expel churches that cover-up abuse, the debate on social media surrounding the SBC's doctrine of complementarianism has continued.
“I personally think the problem has been exaggerated on social media,” Graham, who subscribes to the SBC's teaching that Scripture calls on only men to hold the office of pastor, said.
“Here's what I really believe: We need to get back to focusing on the Gospel and fulfilling the Great Commission to evangelism and missions. And we seem to be getting sidetracked a lot with the issues that are important but not the important thing.”
Graham believes the debate over “complementarianism versus egalitarianism” is an important doctrinal issue that churches and denominations need to have a stance on. But stressed that he defers to local churches to “interpret the preaching ministry of their congregation.” He assured that Prestonwood follows the guidelines laid out in SBC doctrine.
Graham is a little concerned, however, when he sees the debate about women’s roles in ministry spill out on social media. The debate was ignited most recently by popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, who quipped in a tweet that she wanted to "teach a men’s Sunday School class at a church full of Calvinists," and preach on Mother's Day too.
“We need to get focused. Southern Baptist churches need to get focused on reaching their communities for Christ,” Graham said. “That needs to be first and foremost and forever. The goal and the mission of Southern Baptist churches.”
Graham estimates that about 90 percent of SBC churches are in agreement with the SBC's doctrinal statement that Scripture dictates that pastors are to be only men.
“I don’t see that changing anytime soon with the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said. “Beth Moore believes that herself and has said so.”
Graham explained that the SBC needs “to get back to doing what churches are called to do.”
“And that is to make disciples,” he said. “So many things define Southern Baptists right now. I don’t like the whole thing with social media and the division of Christians attacking Christians on social media. That is so damaging and I don’t like any of that. When you talk about what has changed in my 30 years, social media is a big change, of course.”
“What has always kept Southern Baptist churches going forward, and growing together, is unifying around the Gospel of Christ and the Great Commission,” he added. “And that's the one thing that will unite us again and ignite us to do what we are supposed to be doing.”
Graham clarified that he is not saying that the debate surrounding complementarianism and the SBC’s focus on tackling the sex abuse issue are not important issues.
“These are all important," he said.
"Every group of churches or denomination has to decide what is their confession of faith,” he continued. “The whole conservative resurgence was around our doctrinal beliefs and our faith in God's word and what it teaches. I don't want to minimize the doctrinal theological issues and then the social and cultural issues such as the sexual abuse.
“While these are very important and we should and are dealing with them, we cannot allow anything to sidetrack us from the mission of Christ for the Church, which is to introduce Jesus Christ to as many people and growing them in discipleship in effective witness to the Lord.”
Graham also assured that he is supportive of SBC’s effort to crack down on sexual abuse in churches.
“It certainly needs addressing. Every church should be on guard to protect children and to help victims,” he said. “I know thousands of Southern Baptist churches are aware of the issue, alert to the issue. We're clear and going forward as to how we should go about it in a more intentional way to protect children.”
Graham also praised the leadership of Ronnie Floyd, the new head of SBC’s Executive Committee. Floyd urged messengers on Monday to vote in favor of a resolution to create an SBC committee that would come alongside churches to help process sexual abuse claims.
The SBC Sexual Abuse Advisory Group, which was commissioned after an explosive series of reports from The Houston Chronicle detailing claims of sexual abuse in SBC churches, released its report last weekend. The report stresses that a number of churches responded to sex abuse claims by not offering support to the victims and protecting abusers.
“And I'm sure coming out of Southern Baptist Convention, we will have a clear statement to the world and safeguards in place to help churches,” Graham told CP. “Again, the denomination itself can only speak to the issue and offer churches an opportunity to get better. And what we're doing, certainly I'm supportive.”