On Mar. 13, an entry in the Missouri court system noted the official end of the litigation of more than 16 years in Missouri Baptist life. When the Missouri Baptist Convention sued five Baptist ministries in 2002, I was just starting my senior year at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo. The lawsuits finally ended 199 months later. In biblical terms, we’ve seen nearly half a generation pass by — a time when litigation ate up missions money and many of our young people walked away from our churches altogether.
Some might be tempted to shout “rejoice” about winning lawsuits, but it doesn’t seem anyone really won (except the lawyers — and the devil). The split verdict over the years, the negative publicity and the millions of dollars moved from offering plates to legal firms hardly seems like a victory to celebrate. While we can be glad the litigation has ended (for now), shouting for joy seems to miss the point.
Two months after the filing of the lawsuits in 2002, I went to the microphone of the MBC’s annual meeting as a messenger from the church where I pastored. I moved for an end to the litigation. The motion didn’t pass, but it did garner one-third of the votes. If people then knew the litigation would drag on for 865 weeks and would cost millions of dollars in missions money, I suspect even more hands would have raised upward in support of my motion.
It’s too late now. The damage is done. The Baptist lawsuits kept popping up in secular newspapers as an unbelieving world found us unbelievably unloving. Not only did we waste millions in legal fees that could have supported new churches, training of leaders, or missionaries around the world, but we’ve also seen giving to Baptist groups in Missouri decline by millions more. Who wants to give their offerings to fund lawsuits focused on control?
The religious leaders in Jesus’s time may not have had a Baptist Agency Restoration Fund but Jesus similarly accused them of gagging themselves by straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel. When we lose sight of what really matters, we do stupid things. Like spending 6,056 days and millions of dollars suing ourselves.
But if we rejoice in our “victories,” we miss the point that we all lost as we hurt the cause of Christ. And if we don’t learn that lesson, we might give into the temptation to search for the next battle to fight. After nearly 17 years of prioritizing the suing of ministries, why not look to sue another one? Surely we can find something somewhere that makes us mad. Maybe we can make up some heretics to rhetorically burn at the stake as a sign that we have the power. Maybe Southwest Baptist University could be the next fight.
John Yeats, the third MBC executive director since the litigation started, set that fighting tone during a meeting at the MBC’s building in Jefferson City in April. He boasted about their recent legal victories and criticized SBU’s Redford College. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Yet, if Yeats had been slower to speak and quicker to listen, he might have heard God’s voice not in the whirlwind of lawsuits or the fires of heresy trials, but in the voice of God’s Spirit at work in the world.
I’m told that sitting in that meeting as he crowed was Ukrainian church planter Elisey Pronin (in photo holding copy of the April issue of Word&Way that included his story). God is at work in mighty ways through Elisey and other Ukrainian Baptists. And it doesn’t even involve lawsuits against each other!
Or, later that week, Yeats could have heard Elijah Brown, general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, as Brown spoke in Missouri about how global Baptists are experiencing the greatest revival in the 400-year history of the Baptist movement. God is at work among Baptists in Asia, Latin America and Africa. They’re not suing each other but preaching, baptizing and loving.
So, there are things to rejoice about among Baptists. I pray we will stop pummeling each other and stop ignoring how God is at work around the world.
Brian Kaylor is editor & president of Word&Way.