'Follow in unity, not uniformity' David Uth says after Ben Carson disinvite

by Joni B. Hannigan, Editorial Staff |
Republican U.S. presidential candidate and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson stands with his wife Candy as he officially launches his bid for the Republican presidential nomination in Detroit, Michigan May 4, 2015. | REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

ORLANDO, Fla. (Christian Examiner) -- Southern Baptist mega-church pastor David Uth has felt the pressure of leading with strong convictions while trying to appease others.

A lot of people seem to think they have a better idea of what God wants then the ones assigned by God to make that decision. I pray we let our leaders lead and for our witness sake, follow in unity, not uniformity.

From First Baptist Church in Orlando, Florida, where he has been pastor for a decade, Uth told Christian Examiner in an exclusive interview May 5 he is "sad" Ben Carson will not join him as one of the speakers at the 2015 SBC Pastors' Conference in Columbus, Ohio, in June, but he understands and is in "full support" of the decision by Willy Rice who is the conference president.

Carson, 63, a famed neurosurgeon with conservative values, declared May 4 he will be a candidate for the Oval Office after meeting with pastors at a prayer breakfast in his native Detroit. The popular culture war crusader who chided President Obama at the National Prayer breakfast in 2013 expresses his faith through the Seventh Day Adventist tradition.

That is OK with Uth, who knows what it is like to be a leader whose ideas are not always popular. He is the former president of the Florida Baptist State Convention of more than 1 million Southern Baptists, and immediate past chairman of the trustees of the SBC's International Mission Board, having served as the head of the search committee for its new president, David Platt.

Serving 39 years in various leadership positions, and leading a church of over 17,000, has given him ample opportunity to be questioned about his decisions. The 6'6" senior pastor is savvy. He is honest. He tells Christian Examiner he has a public relations staffer listening in on the interview.

Uth wanted an opportunity to explain more fully a comment he made previously about Ben Carson, the newly minted GOP candidate for president, who had been the source of news stories and blogs which said he was no longer a speaker at the pastors' conference.

In a text message April 30, Uth told Christian Examiner: "I think the decision to disinvite him is sad and more importantly wrong."

His text was quoted in the story, "Southern Baptist bloggers bullied leader to disinvite Ben Carson," and it was accurate, Uth said, but he still wanted to speak more to an issue he said is important because of the respect he has for fellow Florida Baptist Willy Rice, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Clearwater, and, for what it means overall for the Christian witness of Southern Baptists.

"When I said I was sad and I thought it was the wrong decision, it wasn't so much about Ben Carson because I think now, with him being a named candidate, it would be a bit awkward," Uth said in a May 5 telephone interview. "The problem that I have with it is how it happened, not as much that it happened."

"I'm sure in my heart because I know Ben Carson fairly well, that Ben is the most humble person around, and he will be fine," Uth said. "I was hopeful that our convention could hear from him because of his incredible gifting from God."

Uth, who heard Carson speak three times when he took to the pulpit at First Baptist Orlando for three services in June 2014, said he was not under the impression Carson was going to speak on "theology" at the conference, but would be sharing his testimony.

"We knew that coming in when we had him here. He has an incredible story I would like for our world to hear," Uth said. "The attribute I most honor in leaders is humility and I've never met a man more humble."

News and opinion about Carson and the pastors' conference had appeared in online news at Baptist Press, Religion News Service, The Washington Post, Charisma News, Christian Post, Christianity Today, Baptist News, Christian Examiner and primarily on blogs such as Baptist21 and SBC Voices -- before the story in which Uth was quoted.

In an April 24 blog post, "Dr. Ben Carson will not Speak at the Southern Baptist Pastors' Conference, Here's Why," Rice wrote first of his invitation to Rice, then said "several Southern Baptist voices" had expressed opposition to Carson's invitation "over the last few days."

"Their concerns are both theological and political," Rice wrote. He went on to state that, "As a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, Dr. Carson is publicly identified with theological positions that differ from those of Southern Baptists. While this is true, I believed, and I still believe, that leaders gathered for our Southern Baptist Pastors' Conference are open to listening to persons from outside our denomination.

"I believe most are willing to hear from national leaders even if we disagree on some points of doctrine as we have done in the past, particularly when the point of the discussion is a biblical worldview of prevailing cultural issues," Rice continued.

Rice declared, "Nevertheless, it has become clear to both Dr. Carson's team and to me that Dr. Carson's appearance could create an unnecessary distraction for us both. He has worked too hard and too much is at stake for us to be sidetracked from that worthy call. While I don't agree with those who have voiced their opposition to this invitation, I have heard and respected 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 also wrote about SBC President Ronnie Floyd and how he has worked "tirelessly as any person I have ever seen to call our convention to clear agreement, visible unity and extraordinary prayer."

After writing that he "must respectfully disagree" with friends who believe in avoiding "all political involvements," Rice urged engagement in the public arena.

Speaking again of his regret and of unity, Rice said, "I am sad that Dr. Carson will not speak at our conference, but I am willing to sacrifice what some may want for the greater unity of our Southern Baptist family." His entire blog can be read online here.

About Rice's decision, Uth said: "I have great respect for Willy Rice and I trust him. My struggle with it is how do we allow a vocal group, whomever they may be, to basically kind of dictate or to make the call -- and it's hard to lead when you have to appease certain groups."

Uth said it is important to "trust our leadership" and that does not mean that people cannot disagree, but it is how they disagree that matters.

"I'm not sure that we can move ahead in the future with the kind of strength that I think we must have in unity as long as our goal is trying to fulfill our own agendas and our own feelings and honor them by influencing them by something like this -- in who we have speak at a meetings," he explained. "It's very difficult to lead when you are constantly trying to deal with the pressure of the direction you need to go.

"A lot of people seem to think they have a better idea of what God wants then the ones assigned by God to make that decision," Uth said. "I pray we let our leaders lead and for our witness sake, follow in unity, not uniformity."

About the Christian witness of Southern Baptists, Uth said the entire situation is unfortunate.

"I think this leaves a really bad witness to the world. Once again, we are known for what we are against, rather than what we are for. It gives the impression you have to be exactly like us in order for us to listen to you, or to hear you," Uth said. "I believe God has a lot to say to us from those who are very different from us."

Uth said he has "no regrets" for having invited Carson to speak at First Baptist Orlando.

He admires Carson, who "without fear and without compromise spoke his convictions of biblical truth," at the National Prayer breakfast in 2013, "knowing it would not be well received by the president and others."

"It was a poignant moment for all of us who lead because it reminded us of the call to be bold and courageous, no matter the audience, no matter the cost," Uth said.

Likewise, Uth said he stands behind Rice.

"I'm in full support of the decision that Willy made, because I trust his leadership," Uth said. "I regret that he felt any pressure from anyone as to what the Lord wanted for us to hear at the pastors' conference."

Now that decisions have been made, reaction is important as well, Uth said, specifically addressing bloggers -- apparently since many blogs and comments sections are full of opinions.

"For some reason I fear that some bloggers have forgotten that the Scripture applies to the internet as well," Uth said. "That we should guard our conversations as well and let it be edifying and that the world is watching and the world is reading. I call it 'verbal drive-by shootings.'"


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