Yes, it is déjà vu all over again. A young, Reformed pastor with a solid following faces an older evangelist in an election that will determine the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. If this scenario seems familiar, that’s because it is.
The announcements by J.D. Greear and Ken Hemphill that they will both run for president of the SBC sets up a kind of repeat of the 2016 election. In that one, young-and-Reformed Greear represented the potential for a generational handoff and a firming up of Calvinist theology within the convention. But after a near tie that promised to be divisive, Greear withdrew from the election before a third balloting, giving the seat to Steve Gaines.
At issue: Will a rematch this time around be divisive? Comments by Gaines point to doubtful; comments by Richard Land say otherwise.
At 56, Gaines stood in contrast to the 42-year-old Greear for several reasons. In terms of age alone, Gaines may have been characterized as a spokesman for Baby Boomers, while Greear clearly had the ear of his generation, X. As successor to Adrian Rogers, Gaines led Memphis-area megachurch Bellevue to increase Cooperative Program giving and was known for his traditional views on evangelism and salvation. In a three-man race, with New Orleans pastor David Crosby covering much of the same ground as Gaines, North Carolina’s Greear performed well, but not well enough to avoid a run-off. Greear surely earned the respect of many of the older crowd when he deferred to Gaines. The emotional moments on the convention platform in St. Louis were marked by tears and hugs.
“The Convention essentially said, ‘See you in two years,’” one Illinois Baptist reporter summarized, and so we will. Greear announced his intent to run a second time on January 30, now that Gaines is finishing his term in office. Two days later, Hemphill announced his intent to be nominated for the presidency.
At 69, Hemphill is of Gaines’ generation, albeit a decade older. As a leader in the area of church growth at the Home Mission Board (precursor to the North American Mission Board), former president of Southwestern
Seminary, pastor, and evangelist, Hemphill swims in the same stream theologically as Gaines. (In his announcement, Hemphill said if elected he will continue Gaines’ emphasis on revival and evangelism.) And Hemphill has been a strong supporter of the Cooperative Program. The church where he is currently a member gives 10% of its undesignated receipts to missions through CP, in contrast to the 4% given by Greear’s church, The Summit. (The church gives substantially more than 4% to a number of mission causes under the banner “Great Commission giving,” press releases and news reports point out.)
As he exits the stage, Gaines told Baptist state newspaper editors meeting in Galveston last week that he will essentially stay out of the politics of this race. Gaines said he would handle the election as “fairly and neutral” as possible. “I pray it won’t be contentious. I believe God will give us good leadership in the days to come.”
His comments came after Richard Land, former president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, framed the election as pitting “the John Calvin wing” against “the Billy Graham wing,” in Land’s words.
“This is about the gospel and whether or not the gospel is for everyone, not just the elect,” Land, 71, told OneNewsNow. Land publically endorsed Hemphill. Now we wait to see who else will take sides, and there may be plenty willing to queue up. Remember the controversial rap video in which many well-known SBC leaders endorsed Greear in 2016.
So, what we have now appears to be a rematch—in terms of generation, theology, and mission giving through CP. But beyond age and soteriology, there’s the matter of ascendency. Greear’s star is on the rise, while election at this stage in Hemphill’s life would cap a 50-year ministry career. And there’s a possible Platt after-effect. Of the same age-group and ideology as Greear, David Platt’s resignation as president of the International Mission Board after four years could create a vacuum and a need for a voice like his. Or it might make older messengers at the Dallas Convention nervous about tapping another young man they might perceive as a “whippersnapper.”
With the election in June, it promises to be an intriguing three months.
– Eric Reed