Black Lives and the Southern Baptist Convention
I see a brighter future for the SBC, but not as much if our African-American brothers leave us.
Recently, African-American Southern Baptist Convention pastor Lawrence Ware explained in the New York Times, “Why I’m Leaving the Southern Baptist Convention.” Ware said he had experienced years of racism in the SBC. The last straw was this year’s SBC annual meeting, when a resolution against the “alt-right” was not immediately passed.
But his interpretation of the events at the annual meeting, as well as his pessimism about the SBC, is overly skeptical and unwarranted. Instead, there’s progress and a brighter future for the SBC — though not as much if our African-American brothers leave us.
Is Loving Black People More Than the Church OK?
Ware’s opinion piece should be read backward. The key to his interpretation of events lies at the end, where he states, “I love the church, but I love black people more. Black lives matter to me.” This is a troublesome statement. Jesus Christ wrote nothing. The legacy he left on this earth was the church, which is the universal body of believers who profess and follow Jesus Christ. The church wrestled with racism early on (see Galatians 2:11–14), but overcame it. One of the lasting legacies of the church is that in Christ “there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Galatians 3:28). Ware’s version of Christianity seems to reintroduce the racial biases that the early church fought so hard to demolish.
Ware’s version of Christianity seems to reintroduce the racial biases that the early church fought so hard to demolish.
I can only assume it is because Ware loves “black people” more than “the church” that he sees such a downward racist spiral in the SBC. Ware complains that the SBC has not supported the Black Lives Matter movement. But consider what the movement’s representative website promotes. They want to disrupt the “Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” They are “queer and transgender affirming.” And while they claim to desire “loving engagement,” the movement has sparked violent protests and riots that destroyed private property.
Not all BLM advocates hold all these beliefs, but many do. A conservative Christian denomination cannot support wholesale a movement whose values so flagrantly contradict biblical values. Rather than asking, as Ware does, what the SBC is doing for black people, we should ask what the SBC is doing for the kingdom of God.
The Alt-Right Resolution Debacle: Racism or Misunderstanding?
But what about the failure to immediately pass a resolution against the alt-right? First, Ware admits he was not there. He must rely solely on journalists’ interpretations of the event. Second, the resolution was not rejected. Rather, the committee did not approve it for a vote. Third, once the resolution was ignored a second time, many leaders fought to get the resolution to a vote.
Fourth — and this is probably the key point — the resolution contained jargon that many SBC pastors may not have understood. SBC pastors tend not to have a robust political theory. I’m not surprised that the committee passed on the chance to present a resolution that condemns the “alt-right.” It’s a recent political movement that many SBC pastors just weren’t familiar with. Indeed, just after this debacle, the Gospel Coalition posted an informational post about the alt-right. They must also have felt that many pastors were ignorant about the movement’s history and goals.
Finally, once the resolution’s language was revised, it was quickly passed. The likely culprit here was not racism, but the failure to tailor one’s language to a given audience. The original resolution was likely unintelligible to many SBC pastors.
We Need Black Voices in the SBC
Are there other reasons to suspect a downward racist spiral in the SBC? Some point to five white professors at an SBC seminary who recently posed as rappers in a photo posted online. The photo was quickly removed and school officials apologized, admitting it was insensitive. But in a denomination with over 15 million members, will we judge them all by the poor judgment of five?
If our black brothers retreat, we will lose the minority voices that we so desperately need to hear.
Along similar lines, Ware interprets the SBC’s 1995 apology for its racist origins as an attempt to “convey the appearance of racial inclusivity in an attempt to attract black churches to shore up declining convention membership.” It’s hard to know how to please Ware at this point. Would he have been happier if the SBC had never apologized for its support of slavery? His imputation of motives is troublesome.
I’m no SBC apologist. I have served in Methodist, Christian, and Presbyterian churches. No doubt there is still some racism in the SBC. But that’s surely true of every denomination. To which denomination can our black brothers retreat?
I’m cut from a different cloth than our black brothers in the Southern Baptist Convention. But many of us want to know how we can do better. If our black brothers retreat, we will lose the minority voices that we need to hear, that we need to help us find our way.
Todd Scacewater (PhD) is a pastor and a research fellow for the Center for Christian Social Ethics. He lives in Missouri with his wife and two children. He earned a B.A. in Political Science, a Th.M. in New Testament, and a PhD in Biblical Interpretation from Westminster Theological Seminary. He roasts and sells his own coffee and owns Exegetical Tools and Fontes Press.