Linking arms and walking forward
An interview with Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear
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J.D. Greear, 45, is the pastor of the Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.—one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the country. He’s also an author and the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Below are edited excerpts of Warren Cole Smith’s recent interview with Greear on Listening In.
The Southern Baptist Convention is one of the largest religious bodies in the nation, and you’re now the president. It is an important bully pulpit. Yeah, that’s a good way to say it, because you’re not like the CEO of the SBC. What you become is the people’s leader of the 47,000 churches. You’re supposed to represent what Southern Baptists are and what they want to be. You do have some—I guess power would be the right word—in appointing people to committees that determine the shape of these things. But the main thing is trying to give a picture—inside the SBC, in the Christian world, and beyond—of really who God has made us to be and where we think we need to go.
At 45, you’ve been in ministry a while, and yet in some ways your election is handing over the reins to the next generation. Some folks are concerned that it might be not only changing of the guard from an older to a younger generation, but from a generation that took the Baptist Faith and Message seriously to one that might be a little more heterodox in its approach. I would say that might not be the most accurate read on what’s happening. I spend a lot of time with younger Southern Baptists and most of them are the product of Southern Baptist seminaries and good gospel-preaching Southern Baptist churches. They’re not really wavering on their commitment to the historic, Baptist doctrine. And let's even broaden that to evangelical doctrine—things like the inerrancy of the Bible, the sanctity of marriage, and God’s roles for gender. The Southern Baptist Convention is unashamedly complementarian—believing that God has created men and women differently. I don’t think the generation I represent or the one coming behind me is really wavering right now on those things. I do think there is a sense in which there is a different cultural posture that some of us are taking. We believe that the gospel compels us to get involved in politics, but we recognize that the church only has a certain bandwidth to be identified for something. We don’t want the gospel message to be encumbered by any other secondary message, no matter how good it is.
That’s been a particularly relevant conversation over the last couple of years as there have been some prominent Southern Baptist pastors who've gotten very actively involved in Donald Trump's campaign and presidency. You were quoted saying the Southern Baptist church and some pastors have been too active in partisan politics. Accurate quote? I don’t remember that specific quote, but we believe the Christian worldview touches everything. Abraham Kuyper said there's not one square inch of the entire cosmos over which Jesus doesn’t declare ‘Mine.’ And so Christians need to be involved in questions about healthcare and how to empower the poor and all those things. At the same time, there are things the Bible doesn’t draw a direct line to. Christians can be passionate about the poor and have an honest disagreement about what the best strategies are for empowering the poor. Now I’m not saying they’re both right, but they can still say that doesn’t define our church. There’s a difference in a church’s organization and the church’s organism. The church’s organism means its members need to be in every facet of society from the Supreme Court to Hollywood to municipal government, and they need to be bringing the view of the Bible to bear on those. But the church’s organization needs to limit its message and what it’s identified with to the gospel and making disciples. In other words: I might be wrong in my approach to global warming, but I’m not wrong about the gospel. And I don’t want to let my position on the former keep people from hearing me on the latter.
It seems part of what’s going on in the Southern Baptist church is that there is some tension between the Reformed wing and the historic Baptist message. Agree or disagree? Depends on how you define “Reformed.” I mean, as far back as you can trace Baptist roots, you're going to have people who understood the sovereignty of God and a lot of things that go with Reformed doctrine. There certainly is a branch of the Reformed that has a lot of characteristics that would be a novel addition to Baptist life.
Neo-Calvinism? Yeah—where Calvinism becomes the main thing, and it makes you second-guess evangelism. Now, Charles Spurgeon is one of the most reformed Baptists you could find, and he was also one of the most zealous soul winners. So Calvinism is not really an issue to me until it becomes one to you. And when it becomes one to you, I’m probably going to be on the opposite side of whatever one you’re on, because I think the error is not so much in what you believe about Calvinism but when you make it a central thing that competes with the gospel.
The Southern Baptist Convention has had several big changes recently. There was the Paige Patterson firing at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Frank Page’s resignation, and David Platt resigning from the International Mission Board—all for different reasons and not all of them scandal-related. But there’s some controversy and lots of points of view. How do you bring the SBC together? One of the keys to unity is learning to put the right emphasis on the right things. There's a tendency in human nature to elevate some secondary thing to the point of division, and that’s when we really go wrong. One of the things I love about the Baptist Faith and Message is that it’s narrow enough to keep us united on the essentials—the inerrancy of the Bible, the exclusivity of Christ, the sanctity of marriage, justification by faith alone. There can be disagreement about the end times, various political strategies, or finer points of Calvinism. We can have robust discussions about those things, but at the end of the day, I’m fine linking arms with you and walking forward in mission, even if we’ve got a different view on how and when Jesus is going to come back or what limited atonement means or doesn’t mean.
On the topic of scandals, often in those situations there’s a lack of legitimate accountability. So, as a leader, what do you do to maintain accountability? Paul David Tripp is a great friend to me, and I asked him about this. I was like, “What is going on? Is it a lack of community?” And he says no, all these guys are extroverts. But what they lack is people that are on equal footing with them—who can look into their life and don’t have so much to lose that they’re afraid to actually call out sin when they see it. Coupled with that: A lot of these guys forget the power of indwelling sin and think that, somehow, they’ve graduated past it because of their success. He said that’s a lethal cocktail that’ll take down anybody. So my wife and I have chosen to engage intentionally in relationships with people who don't see me as the guy on the stage, but see me as just a local guy. We moved into a neighborhood with a few families from our church that had kids about the same age, and we just do life together. Ecclesiastes says, ‘Better is a friend nearby than a brother far away.’ I’m in a small group—not a bunch of staff people, but people who speak into my life. And my wife is always calling me back to this statement: She says, “Fame is making yourself accessible to a bunch of people you don’t really care about at the expense of those that you do.” And so through her and friends here at the church, I have a community.
A common denominator I have seen with church scandals is that people knew about it—often for years—but they were afraid to say something. It’s part of fallen human nature. We’re trusting the grace of God to hold us, but it’s something that scares me.
Here in your office you’ve got this amazing collection of books—it’s like a library. There are some books I expect to see—like theology and apologetics books. Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell is up here. But I also see Wayne Grudem’s Politics According to the Bible and Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue. How many of these have you read? One of my mentors said it doesn’t matter how many books you’ve read or own—what matters is whether you get the information out of those books when you need it. I’d say there are 5,000-6,000 books in here, and I’ve probably I’ve read cover-to-cover about 3,000-4,000 of them. John Wesley said if you’re going to be serious about the ministry, you’ve got to read.
Other interesting books here: Paul Johnson’s Modern Times, Thomas Sowell’s Basic Economics, and Neil Rackham’s book Spin Selling. That’s a business and marketing book. I read a leadership book that said no matter what field you’re in, you need to read at least one book a year on selling things. Because whether you’re in personal conversations, or whatever, you’re always trying to convince other people to do things, and so I’ve made that a habit.
And here’s Chuck Colson’s How Now Shall We Live? I devoured those things in college and seminary. His view of how to take the Biblical worldview and see it played out in government and business—it was just awesome.
So among all these books, are there a few that changed your life? In late high school and college, I struggled so much with the assurance of salvation. Martin Luther grappled deeply with questions of the gospel and soul, and so his book Freedom of Conscience and the famous biography about him were definitely defining. The biography of Adoniram Judson, one of the first American missionaries—he was deeply Reformed, but it sent him all over the world. I first went into ministry by going to the mission field, and so his biography was huge in that. John Piper’s writings were big for me. Tim Keller’s writings redefined how I approached the gospel and the culture.
You started your career on the mission field, and I see a lot of books on Islam here. Yes, my Ph.D. dissertation was on the early church’s approach to salvation and how it was a better fit for the Muslim mind than our current 21st-century Western approaches to salvation. God lit a fire in my heart when I was overseas. My call to the pastorate began as a call to the mission field. The majority of unreached people groups in the world are Muslim. And we know that history can’t end until every one of those people groups has a gospel witness. I always tell people if you want to be on the front lines of what God is going to do in the next generation, be thinking about Muslims. Every great civilization up until now has seen a major breakthrough of the gospel. Islam is the one that has never seen anything dramatic. In David Garrison's book he points out that in the last 12 years more Muslims have come to faith in Christ than in all the years since 722. So there’s a lot of exciting things happening.
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