The SBC and Fighting in Our Own Frontiers

by Jonathon Woodyard September 4, 2019

When it comes to our denomination, it seems every time I turn around, there is fighting afoot within the family. And, unfortunately, due to the prevalence of social media, it feels like everybody is watching the show.

Fighting is Fine, Sometimes​

I’m not one who thinks every scuffle is out of place. Sometimes, we need to fight. Or, at least we need to wrestle with things, engage in healthy debate, and call each other to account. This is true at the local church level and within the broader SBC. We should talk about sexual abuse, homosexuality, the sanctity of life, and a host of other things. The way in which we conduct the conversations and where these conversations take place (blogs, Twitter, Facebook) are perhaps things we need a committee to look into.

What saddens me at the moment, however, and what I think is grievous in the present era, is how our SBC family squabbles go viral and too often invite the gaze of those on the outside. It is clear that people are gazing at our tribe at unprecedented levels. And they are looking in our direction precisely because of our problems. That, in my opinion, is one of the saddest realities today.

We debate the merits and extent of complementarianism. We fight about how the gospel and social justice go hand-in-hand, if they do at all. We argue over who or who should not lead this or that institution. And we do this on platforms like Twitter and Facebook where the world watches for free.

Talking with a Brother in Private Instead of Public

A while back, a brother in my local church wanted to meet and chat. I initially told him I’d be happy to meet him for coffee. The day of our meeting rolled around and he asked if we could meet at his house instead. His reasoning? He knew we had some potentially divisive things to discuss. He wanted to meet in private because “it is a grievous thing for unbelievers to see division in the people of God” (his words). I thought this was a wise and mature perspective and happily met him in his dining room. The conversation was emotional at times, and we disagreed about a few things, but we could speak with conviction, even passion, face-to-face and before the face of our God. The gaze of the unbelieving world was not a concern because they had no view.

Gregory of Nazianzus, the great Cappadocian theologian, exhorted his opponents to conduct their debates “within [their] own frontiers.” Why? Because Gregory knew our enemies (and sometimes even our so-called friends) “keep all too close a watch on us, and they would wish that the spark of our dissensions might become a conflagration; they kindle it, they fan it, by means of its own drought they raise it to the skies, and without our knowing what they are up to, they make it higher than those flames at Babylon which blazed all around.”

Gregory’s point is that the world keeps a close watch on how we engage with each other. And if our fighting is laid bare for all to see, if every disagreement within the SBC is published to the general public, then we give our enemies the chance to fan the flames and burn us down. Thus, we should be careful about inviting the watching world to gaze at every family fight.

Let the World Watch When It Matters

Now, for the sake of nuance, we should acknowledge it is not always a bad thing when the world watches some of our family squabbles. This is particularly true when we fight over central concerns. If people in the family begin to drift on the issue of the good news of Jesus and his substitutionary atoning work, we will fight to the death. If churches in our denomination waver on the sinfulness of homosexuality, then we rise to wrestle for the truth. If those in our ranks abuse women or distort the divine design of complementarianism, then let us invite the world to listen to our exchange of words. And when the giants among us falter publicly, then the public should see us holding our leaders accountable. When it comes to those matters (and others), we are not afraid of the gaze of the world as we fight for the truth in the present evil age.

However, I wish some of our fighting, some of our debating, some of our back-and-forth would take place away from the gaze of those outside our ranks. We should stay away from social media when we are dealing with less than ultimate things and keep our family fights “within our own frontiers.” The world doesn't need to watch as we debate the presidency of our convention. We should not take the Calvinism versus non-Calvinism debate into the New York Times or Washington Post. Beyond those two issues, we could create a nice, long list of things that are not worth hashing out before the eyes of the world.

What issues, debates, or fights go public and what issues stay private, well that’s a matter of prudence. I have not worked out the application grid for such things. What I do know, however, is that we should think more carefully about how we conduct our family affairs, including our fights. We need to think about these issues for the good of our churches, the future of our convention, the joy of all (watching) peoples, and the glory of our King.