In his address before the Southern Baptist Convention meeting at the Louisiana Superdome, SBC President James Merritt urged the 16-million-member denomination to make sure they fight the right battles.
"There are battles raging outside of this arena, and we need to be on the frontlines," Merritt said in his president's address June 12, referring to attacks on the institution of marriage, sanctity of life, and sacredness toward God, as well as the battle for the souls of men and the very survival of society.
He drew from the illustration of the 1815 Battle of New Orleans when a collection of American volunteers commanded by Andrew Jackson successfully held off an attack from twice as many British soldiers, saving the strategic port city to hold control of the Mississippi.
"But there was only one problem," Merritt explained. "The battle was really not worth fighting. Unbeknownst to Jackson, the war had ended two weeks earlier when the Treaty of Ghent was signed in Europe."
Merritt argued that times have never been worse in America from a spiritual, moral, ethical, and domestic standpoint, urging Southern Baptists to confront a cultural rebellion. The dismal outlook should not surprise Christians, he said, citing 2 Timothy 3:1 as Paul warned that "perilous times will come" and even worsen over time.
"The last days are going to be dangerously difficult days," Merritt told the SBC annual meeting in New Orleans. "Economic indicators may go back up, but cultural, social, and spiritual indicators are going down."
Expressing concern that much of the damage to the family is self-inflicted as parents allow children to disobey, Merritt said, "Fathers abdicate the throne of authority by allowing children to execute a bloodless coup of the home."
Merritt praised a new focus that Southern Baptists have placed on the family, unapologetically defending marriage between a man and a woman.
"We need to get back to the biblical understanding of marriage," Merritt said. "Marriage is not a legal contract between two people that can be ended by a judicial decree. It is a divine covenant bound together in heaven that should never be broken before a Holy God."
While visiting Washington, D.C., for the presidential inauguration, Merritt observed that the signature of John Hancock is barely visible on the Declaration of Independence displayed in the National Archives Building. A guide explained that because the ink is fading no one could do anything about it, Merritt said.
"That's a perfect analogy of what's happening to America," he said. "The principles, values, and beliefs that once seemed indelibly written on our hearts, minds, and culture are fading, and it seems like very few people are doing anything to stop it."
He called upon the nearly 41,000 Southern Baptist local church pulpits to not be silent on moral issues.
"One president commits sexual sin in the Oval Office and the Christian Right is told to shut up," Merritt said. "Another president speaks openly of his faith in God and his trust in Christ and he is told to shut up."
Urging pastors to speak up, Merritt said, "There is a cultural rebellion we must confront. That is a battle worth fighting."
Merritt further appealed for the SBC to condemn doctrinal recklessness, noting the relationship of Paul's instruction in Titus 2:1 to "speak the things which are proper for sound doctrine."
"We will go against the tide of personal opinion and political correctness," he acknowledged. "But that's all right because we are twice-born men in a once-born world, and we should never stoop to go with the flow."
While urging Southern Baptists to avoid being "heresy hunters," Merritt said they still must fight heresy.
"If truth is worth believing, then truth is worth defending," Merritt said. "Instead of following the path of some denominations who waste their breath debating what the Bible denounces as sin, we ought to spend our breath declaring what the Bible defines as truth."
Merritt referred to the Atlanta Baptist Association's refusal to disfellowship two churches that accept openly avowed homosexuals as members and leaders, instead defending the autonomy of the local church.
While not wanting "any leader, agency, institution, or any convention giving orders to me or my congregation, the ocean of church autonomy stops at the shore of biblical authority. Local autonomy without biblical authority becomes anarchy."
He further stated, "It is the height of spiritual cowardice and theological hypocrisy to hide behind the skirt of local church autonomy or the priesthood of the believer, while pretending that churches can do anything they want to do or believe anything they want to believe and still be a Baptist church."
Merritt predicted, "When an individual, a church, an association, or a denomination burns with the flame of righteous indignation against sin, and lives in the light of the fire of God's truth, society will launch its heat-seeking missiles of tolerance and political correctness to shut us up or destroy us if they can. So if you cannot stand the heat of persecution, don't get into the kitchen of doctrinal warfare."
Convinced that Southern Baptists need not go into battle unarmed, he urged reliance upon the Bible, calling it "the two-edged sword of the Lord that is sharp enough to cut through any barrier and cut down any foe." Merritt said God had blessed Southern Baptists because they have honored his Word and reminded them to commend the scriptural revelation.
Merritt cautioned that Southern Baptists must complete a personal responsibility to keep evangelism a priority.
"Twenty years ago our battle was against live liberalism," Merritt said. "But today my greatest fear is not live liberalism. I fear dead orthodoxy. I fear becoming a denomination that is straight as a gun barrel doctrinally, but as dry as a gun barrel spiritually."
He announced an emphasis the first week of October in conjunction with the North American Mission Board to observe "Saved to Share" Sunday. Pastors were encouraged to devote time during the worship service for members to write out a personal testimony of conversion to Christ, then share it over the next few months with at least one person in an effort to lead others to Christ.
Merritt concluded by asking pastors in the audience to stand and make a renewed commitment to finish their ministries well.
"Let us stay faithful, knowing that ahead of us lies ... a crown of righteousness which the Lord our righteous judge will give to us on that day," he said.
Though tempted toward dismay over the forces arrayed against Southern Baptists, Merritt pointed to the eternal reward ahead.
"So until He comes let us go forth in His name, under His blood, in His power for the battle is worth fighting," he said.