On my first day as a student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, I wasn’t just beginning my doctoral education; I was also stepping into another world. After earning two Masters degrees from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, I was quickly labeled “Mr. Southern” by several of my classmates, and inevitably jokes about John Calvin abounded. I was frequently reminded about how we folks in Louisville never neglect to omit the definite article at the beginning of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I was ribbed about my suspiciously Calvinist-looking beard and about my alleged overuse of the word “sovereignty.” In class, it sometimes seemed as if I was stereotyped before I ever spoke, like my viewpoint was assumed because I carried a scarlet “S” on my chest.
Outside looking in, many non-Southern Baptists today (like me growing up) can look at the SBC and falsely assume that we’re all the same. But my experience testifies to the fact that Southern Baptists are often not even in the same genus. At Southern, I received a steady diet of church history, systematic theology, and languages. At New Orleans, the menu was primarily apologetics, philosophy, and textual criticism. Names like Founders Café and Norton Hall and Nettles and Schreiner changed to New Orleans Café and Hardin Center and Lemke and Stewart. When I left Louisville, figures like Albert Mohler and Russell Moore were modern heroes of the faith. In Louisiana, they were often anathema in the state Baptist newspaper. I wasn’t in Kentucky anymore.
As time passed, however, I slowly realized that I had come to New Orleans with a few stereotypes of my own. I had walked into NOBTS my very first day with a small “Southern swagger” of sorts, convinced that I possessed some wisdom from above to impart to the Cajun Baptists. Therefore, as some might imagine, I gulped the day I opened a letter and read that Adam Harwood had been assigned as my doctoral supervisor. We had never met, but I was familiar with his work, particularly his views against Reformed theology. To say the least, we were…different. Honestly, I wasn’t excited about his appointment over me nor was I particularly thrilled when he invited me to grab some Raisin Canes one evening (If you don’t know what that is, you’ve obviously never been to Louisiana). The Adam Harwood I knew was on paper, not in person. And that’s precisely why our dinner was so important. Before that dinner, he was a stereotype and not a saint. But over two box combos and lemonades, what I quickly realized was that the man with the sharp pen also possessed a soft smile and a kind personality. He was also a man of hospitality. Not one year later, after our home was inundated in Baton Rouge by the “Great Flood” of 2016, it was Dr. Harwood who offered to come help. The non-Calvinist serving the Calvinist. What I discovered in Louisiana was precisely what conservative Southern Baptist learned decades ago in Dallas: when conflict arrives, we need each other.
That night at Canes, we talked about the Conservative Resurgence and Paige Patterson and Al Mohler and the doctoral program. Though we came from very different sides on a number of issues, and although we had come to NOBTS from two very different institutions (SWBTS and SBTS), we were both Southern Baptists who treasured God’s Word and the work that had been accomplished to restore a commitment to inerrancy. There are many today who would perhaps question how Dr. Harwood and I could work together in any constructive sense holding to such different views. And concerning the doctrines of grace, it certainly takes work. But it also takes more than that. Ultimately, it takes conversation and coffee and congeniality. It begins not with debates or articles or forums but with a relationship. Today Adam Harwood and I are still divided on the issue of Reformed theology. But by God’s grace we are something more than Southern Baptists or even colleagues. We’re friends.
Today in the SBC, friendships are too often lacking among the very same pastors and theologians who preach a God of peace. We invite sinners down the aisle, meanwhile we won’t cross that very same aisle to extend fellowship to those who believe differently in our own denomination. Many of us in the Southern Baptist Convention are far too willing to spar in written words but unwilling to build up in spoken ones. Years after the Conservative Resurgence, true Gospel unity still requires more than an antagonist; it actually takes the Gospel. Brothers and sisters, that is the only kind of community that honors Jesus Christ.
This month, in a season of controversy and division, the Southern Baptist Convention will convene once again, with thousands arriving to support their respective views and leaders. And while all will confess the Baptist Faith and Message, there will in fact be two kinds of Baptists in Dallas: those with a common enemy and those with a common Lord. May our brotherhood be found in the latter.
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” –John 13:34