CLEARWATER, Fla. (Christian Examiner) – Ben Carson was disinvited to the Southern Baptist Pastors' Conference after "publicly disruptive" blogs and comments threatened to worsen if conference president Willy Rice did not pull the plug on the now declared candidate for U.S. President.
Detroit native Ben Carson, 63, a famed neurosurgeon with conservative values, met with pastors May 4 in a prayer breakfast, after telling a news station, WPEC-TV, a CBS affiliate in West Palm Beach, Florida, he is planning to run for president.
Rice, senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, told Christian Examiner he and Carson's team came to the "mutual decision" Carson would not speak to the June 14 Sunday evening session of the annual SBC Pastors' Conference following intense online criticism he said was "publicly disruptive."
"I was conflicted and I was disappointed to do what I had to do," Rice said. "Dr. Carson and his team has been first class. They understood the quandary that we were in and what was happening."
CALVNISTIC AND OTHER CRITICISM
Rice acknowledged Carson's invitation to speak to SBC pastors was criticized primarily by a group of Calvinistic Millennials known as Baptist21, and by Texas pastor Bart Barber, a former SBC first vice president, who posted a blog about speakers at the annual conference.
Critics had said Carson's possible political run could create the impression of ties between Southern Baptists and Republicans. Some expressed angst that Carson expresses his Christian faith through the Seventh Day Adventist tradition and said that denomination's tenets do not match consensus beliefs of Southern Baptists.
Barber's blog post generated at least 135 comments -- and at least one challenged the fitness of any one pastor/president to choose conference speakers. Barber replied: "[T]here is nobody in the convention in a position to veto the decision of the Pastors' Conference President."
Rice, a former president of the Florida Baptist State Convention, and a member of Florida's GCR Task Force, has pastored the Clearwater church for 11 years. He is the former pastor of Hillcrest Baptist Church in Pensacola and has been a pastor for nearly 30 years.
Elected at last year's Pastors' Conference in Baltimore, Rice said some people who do not agree with the decision are "very disappointed," but that "unfortunately there are some folks that wanted to be as disruptive as possible and publicly critical."
The online criticism and pressure, he said, "would increase in my mind and be worse," if he had not taken the steps to insure Carson was not on the program.
Rice said he is sure there are those who "join me in disappointment that [Carson] is not coming, but recognize this is the best way to make sure it was not a point of division when we got to the convention."
About remarks that Carson made on Facebook at Easter time, calling people of every faith, in essence "All God's children," Rice said those are the kind of statements people make to express unity. "They are not expressing some specific soteriology," Rice asserted.
"Rhetoric like that was likely to increase," Rice said. "We didn't need that and he didn't need that. We are just not able to handle that right now."
In an April 24 post on his blog, Rice described his initial reasons for inviting Carson, calling the physician a "great American hero and a man who boldly and publicly professes his faith in Christ."
After describing Southern Baptists who "voiced their objections" to Carson's appearance for political and theological reasons -- Rice cited the work of Southern Baptist Convention President Ronnie Floyd to call the large denomination to "clear agreement, visible unity and extraordinary prayer."
"He has worked too hard and too much is at stake for us to be sidetracked from that worthy call," Rice wrote in his blog. "While I don't agree those whose who have voiced their opposition to this invitation, I have heard and respect their concerns and for the sake of unity we have reached a mutual decision with Dr. Carson's team to forgo his appearance at our Pastors' Conference."
Rice denied that Floyd asked him to seek Carson's removal from the platform and Floyd told Christian Examiner he had not sought any such move on Rice's part. The conference is held the two days prior to the SBC annual meeting in the same city. The Southern Baptist Convention is the world's largest Baptist denomination with 16 million members and over 46,000 churches. It is the second largest Christian body in the U.S. after the Catholic Church.
"As president of the Southern Baptist Convention, I have nothing to do with who is invited to the pastors' conference," Floyd said. "These are two separate meetings."
David Uth, pastor of First Baptist Church in Orlando -- where Carson spoke in June 2014 -- said he was surprised by the news.
"I think the decision to disinvite him is sad and more importantly wrong," Uth told Christian Examiner.
Uth is a speaker at the 2015 conference, along with two other non-Southern Baptists including the senior pastor of the non-denominational Harvest Bible Chapel, James MacDonald, who is a popular personality with Calvinistic Millennials; and, Paul David Tripp, a professor at Redeemer Seminary (Reformed, Presbyterian).
Other Southern Baptists are David Platt, president, SBC International Mission Board; Russell Moore, president, SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; J.D. Greear, pastor, The Summit Church in Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; H.B. Charles, Jr., senior pastor, Shiloh Metropolitan Baptist Church, Jacksonville, Fla.; Clint Presley, senior pastor, Hickory Grove Baptist Church, Charlotte, N.C.; Dean Fulks, lead pastor, LifePoint church, Columbus, Ohio; Vance Pitman, senior pastor, Hope Church, Las Vegas, Nevada; Steve Gaines, senior pastor, Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, Tenn.; Ronnie Floyd, SBC president and pastor, Cross Church, Springdale, Ark.
Maxie Miller, a black Southern Baptist leader who is careful about building community among ethnic and culture groups -- told Christian Examiner that regardless of the political concerns, Southern Baptists must be careful to not "paint ourselves as being spiritual elitists to other Christians."
Cultural sensitivity is a must in the church, especially, Miller said, and especially where there is an understanding of grace.
BLOGGERS AS BULLIES
Miller has no time for bullies either.
"It's a sad day when bloggers can control the platform of the convention or the Pastors' Conference," Maxie Miller told Christian Examiner. "If the bloggers can do that, that takes away from the voters that place leaders in those positions."
A Birmingham native, Miller is senior pastor of New City Church in Plant City, Florida, and the former director of the African American Ministries Division of the Florida Baptist Convention.
Miller said the "politics of the convention" are threatening to overwhelm reason for the convention's existence.
"Blogs have become political tools to vent frustration about activities of the convention," Miller said. "If you have a big church, a big name; then people consider your blog carries weight and everyone wants to follow you. I think that's unfortunate.
"I feel sorry for Willy Rice in being pressured that way," Miller said.
Rice said he was surprised at the growing presence of criticism online.
"I hope not," he said of whether this is an acceptable way of expressing disagreement with leaders. "It was concerning to me. Some of the criticisms were really concerning.
"Dr. Carson and his team are first class," Rice continued. "There are a number of Southern Baptists who know him really well and his testimony and his personal faith in Christ. And to see that attack was sad to me."