It was just one article, but its publishing in 1896 ignited a flashfire reaction across the Southern Baptist Convention. Sides formed. People postured. Proverbial lines were drawn in the sand. Rhetorical flames fueled by passionate conviction rose higher and higher and threatened to gut any good work Southern Baptists had accomplished.
But a voice of reason can extinguish the flames with a much-needed biblical perspective.
E.E. Folk was that voice.
Folk was the proprietor and editor in 1897 of the Baptist and Reflector. Folk was described as “a strong promotor of the entire denominational program on both the state and national levels.” His diplomacy was needed because when William H. Whitsitt, president at the time of Southern Seminary, published his article disparaging Landmarkism, he effectively tossed a match on dried kindling.
Many Southern Baptists of the day firmly embraced a Landmarkist perspective. Outrage swelled. Entire associations called for Whitsitt’s immediate resignation. Others called for a rigorous academic inquiry to be made on the subject while others counseled Southern Baptists to reject “judgements” and expressions of “opinions” which would “injure the seminary.”
The battle raged on, but Folk stepped into the fray and wrote that while there were strong arguments on both sides, there was a larger view that was more important.
“If we differ,” he wrote, “let us differ only in love, and let us discuss our differences calmly and dispassionately and try to arrive at the correct solution. We hope that we shall not need to say anything more on the subject. Now for Missions!”
Folk’s concern was that Southern Baptists would forfeit their Great Commission focus at the expense of secondary issues.
Southern Baptists have weathered many storms through the years and we again find ourselves battling division and disunity over several issues in our convention. Lines are being drawn, pastors and churches are threatening to withdraw from convention participation and take their Cooperative Program giving with them. In the end, your side may win the point, but we all wind up losers. So also, the untold billions of spiritually lost people across our state, country and around the world who will die and go to hell while we waste time, energy and money on things that pale in significance to them hearing the gospel.
Is that the legacy we want to leave our children? The world?
Satan’s work is not that difficult really. He may prowl around seeking to kill and destroy, but he is just as content to disrupt and distract. He doesn’t have to torpedo a ministry to render it ineffective, all he must do is roll a hot-button issue or two out into the middle of the convention floor that consumes our attention from making “every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3). We chase our second, third – or our ninth and tenth – items on our list of priorities, and the divide widens.
Jesus knew this would happen. That’s why He told us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness” (Matthew 6:33). This directive is more than a pithy verse. It is a command that always demands obedience for all His people everywhere collectively and individually.
Certainly, there are important issues that arise and demand discussion, even debate. But there is a Christ-honoring way for these conversations to take place. The Apostle Paul admonishes us to be sure “that everything is done properly and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40). Sure, he is talking specifically of worship, but shouldn’t the business that God has given us to be stewards of be done properly and in order as well?
Peripheral vision is defined as “outside the point of fixation, i.e., away from the center of gaze.” The SBC and the TBC have always had great distractions within the scope of our peripheral vision. The great pain occurs when these controversies take our “point of fixation” away from the reason we cooperate to begin with. Pulling away from the convention or withdrawing missions giving through the Cooperative Program only weakens the collective strength we possess in unity to pursue the Great Commission with holy abandon.
So, in this age of distraction, I stand with E.E. Folk and implore us as Southern Baptists that, “If we differ let us differ only in love, and let us discuss our differences calmly and dispassionately and try to arrive at the correct solution.” And l add, let us dispense quickly with the distractions and press onward with the gospel to Tennessee, North America and the uttermost parts of the world. Let’s lift our Great Commission banner high and with determined unity offer a rallying cry: “Now for missions!”
It is a joy to be on this journey with you.