The departure of well-known Christians and churches from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) tends to make the headlines. Recently a prominent pastor, one from whom I have benefited personally, led his church to leave voluntary cooperation with the SBC.
There are legitimate concerns with the state of our convention. The SBC is declining numerically, and baptisms are down. The reasons for the decline are undoubtedly complex, but concern is warranted. Ethnic, racial, social, and political tensions are high. Also, there are numerous internal squabbles over secondary matters.
Being a Baptist by conviction, I believe individual churches (and Christians) are free to associate with denominations or networks in ways that make sense to them as they seek to love God and love people. This article is not calling that into question. For those who do not remain, I sincerely hope the Lord uses them and their churches for the good of the nations and the glory of Christ.
But sometimes reasons offered for leaving distort the picture of what is actually going on within the SBC. Despite our challenges, I believe there are good reasons to remain within the convention. I want to reflect on why I (and my church) remain in this rather large, often frustrating, and certainly imperfect convention. But first, we must address the idea that the SBC has forgotten our racist origins and glossed over their ethnic problems. This allegation distorts the picture of the most recent past and current state of the SBC.
Have We Disremembered Our Past?
If it is true that we have disremembered our racist origins, it is lamentable. Why? Because the historical roots of the SBC are, in fact, wicked and lamentable. In 1845, the SBC was founded over the issue of slavery. Whether or not a slaveholder could be appointed as a foreign missionary was front and center, with the SBC emerging from those who affirmed appointing slave owners as missionaries. This history of racism within the SBC is truly grotesque.
We are better prepared for future faithfulness as we take honest stock of our past. History is a great teacher, and we do ourselves a disservice when we disremember where we have been. As Albert Mohler has noted, “We have been guilty of a sinful absence of historical curiosity” (SBTS Report on Slavery and Racism, 2). That is sad, indeed. I believe, and have published a chapter that asserts, Christians should have a robust theology of remembrance.
However, though the SBC has been guilty of failing to take an honest look at history, this disremembering has not marked the convention most recently. While we have failed, the convention has looked backward in the last ten or more years with more honest eyes.
In 2019 the messengers to the SBC Annual Meeting voted to change the By-Laws. The change asserts that churches who were guilty of racism or of mishandling sexual abuse cases would be removed from the SBC. The very churches who founded the SBC would not find themselves welcome today. We have looked at our history and, via a change in our governing documents, ousted our charter members.
The SBC has passed over thirty resolutions on race and racism in its history. While some of the resolutions from the early 20th century leave much to be desired, in 1989, the SBC acknowledged its racist past and resolved to “repent of any past bigotry.” In 1993, the convention was on record “abhorring racial and ethnic injustice.” Two years later, the SBC admitted the role slavery played in the formation of the SBC and resolved, on their 150th anniversary, to “unwaveringly denounce racism, in all its forms, as deplorable sin…. We lament and repudiate the historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest….that we apologize to all African-Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and that we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27).”
The list can go on as more resolutions have come to the floor and have been affirmed by the messengers (e.g., 2007 and repudiating Dred Scot; 2015 on Racial Reconciliation; 2016 and the Confederate Flag; 2017 and denouncing the Alt-Right White Supremacists; 2018 and Renouncing the Doctrine of the Curse of Ham). While these resolutions have limited impact, they give the SBC a public voice to the sinfulness of racism in our past and present.
Our seminaries are taking steps that indicate they have taken honest historical looks. In June, Adam Greenway, the President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS) repudiated the sin of racism while calling for justice and righteousness. In 2017, Albert Mohler appointed several faculty members of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to “prepare a report on the legacy of slavery and racism in the history of [SBTS].” As Dr. Mohler stated, “it was past time” for the institution to reckon with its past. The report found that “the founding faculty of SBTS—all four of them—were deeply involved in slavery and deeply complicit in the defense of slavery.” This letter shows that the SBC’s flagship seminary, formed by men committed to this wicked practice, has not disremembered the past.
Furthermore, in 2013 Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary established the Kingdom Diversity Initiative. This initiative is an example of one of our institutions acknowledging the need for our convention, and our schools, to purposefully pursue a diversity that is more reflective of God’s eschatological kingdom (Rev. 5).
Discussions in SBC life are pushing us towards greater faithfulness in terms of ethnic harmony. In 2018, a panel discussion on the CP stage aimed at helping Southern Baptists think through removing the stain of racism in the SBC. In 2019, another discussion was hosted on the CP stage concerning racial reconciliation. In 2020, yet another panel discussion was hosted by Baptist21 that took aim at a few issues, including racism in the SBC. These issues make it to a panel because these conversations already exist among Southern Baptists.
And the convention is trying to make moves towards greater diversity in terms of leadership. In 2012, Fred Luter was elected the first African-American president of the SBC. Today, Rolland Slade is the first African-American chairman of the Executive Committee. Walter Strickland serves as one of the VP’s at SEBTS. And Jarvis Williams is a rising voice in the SBC who has written a book that tries to help the SBC think practically about moving forward. The call for greater diversity in our convention leadership is clear, and more diverse voices are being heard.
None of this means we have arrived. Though we are growing in diversity, our diverse churches are not necessarily doing life together. The convention at large is diverse, but unity in the midst of this growing diversity is still lacking. Honestly, we still have a long way to go, and we often miss opportunities. For instance, I believe we missed an opportunity in the recent past with five entities looking for presidents and not one minority was selected. Yet, that miss should not lead to the conclusion that we have glossed over our history, disremembered our past, or failed to make any strides in ethnic harmony.
Six Reasons to Remain
Despite the problems that still linger, I do not believe disengagement is the best way forward. The benefits of involvement tip the scales towards remaining. Here are six reasons to remain.
1. The Cooperative Program: Better Together. Churches can partner with other churches in a myriad of different ways. The rise in various networks is evidence of this. Churches should be interdependent when it comes to accomplishing the mission Christ gave his Bride. Christianity is not a lone ranger religion. At the heart of being Southern Baptist, we believe that local churches are better enabled to accomplish the Great Commission when working alongside other churches. The charter of the SBC states our purpose as “eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of the Baptist denomination of Christians, for the propagation of the gospel.” We depend on one another even while, as Baptists, we assert the autonomy of local congregations under the Lordship of Christ.
One of the mechanisms that brings us together for ministry and mission is the Cooperative Program (CP). Since the founding of the CP in 1925, SBC churches have sent billions of dollars to the CP to jointly fund a myriad of ministries. The CP, then, tangibly expresses our commitment as a local church to link arms with other like-minded believers and churches across the land.
2. Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M). The SBC draws doctrinal lines via its official confession of faith. Thus, Southern Baptists are a confessional people. The Preamble to the BF&M states, “Baptists are a people of deep beliefs and cherished doctrines. Throughout our history, we have been a confessional people, adopting statements of faith as a witness to our beliefs and a pledge of our faithfulness to the doctrines revealed in the Holy Scripture.” The document, therefore, sets out what we believe.
The BF&M brings us together around theological commitments that tether us to historically orthodox Christianity, basic Baptist identity, and a missional orientation. As the winds of culture blow and doctrinal division becomes increasingly common, Southern Baptists unite around the BF&M. The document is tight enough to lead to unity while broad enough to allow for disagreement over secondary and tertiary matters.
3. Theological Education. One of the reasons I am thankful for the SBC and contribute cheerfully to the CP is the number of men and women our convention trains for ministry. In 2018-2019, SBC seminaries trained over 23,000 students! Through our six seminaries, our Southern Baptist schools are producing quality students and sending them into the world to witness for Christ. Remaining in the SBC is one way we support the continual training and deploying of future pastors, missionaries, and ministry leaders.
4. Church Planting. Seeing the number of churches springing up in my area via North American Mission Board (NAMB) church plants is a reason to rejoice and remain. The MN-WI Baptist Convention is on track to see over ten churches planted this year and another ten or so next year. Through NAMB and Cooperative Program gifts, we are witnessing the planting of numerous healthy churches.
5. Disaster Relief. The SEND Relief ministry of the SBC is one of the largest disaster relief ministries in the world. We share the gospel, plant churches, and train future leaders, while also loving our neighbors in tangible ways like providing food, mudding out houses, offering medical services, assisting in adoption and foster care, helping people learn how to read, and meeting a host of other needs. I have been greatly encouraged by SEND Relief and believe it is yet another reason to remain.
6. International Missions. There are millions of people around the globe who do not know Jesus as Savior and Lord. Our call as Christians pushes us into our neighborhoods and the nations with the good news of Jesus Christ. Yet, that task is too big for one Christian or church to tackle alone. We are more effective when we link arms with other churches to make disciples around the globe.
The International Mission Board (IMB) is our convention’s global sending agency. Through the CP, we send and fund our missionaries as they go to the hardest places on the planet in order to make Christ known. Right now, we have over 3,500 missionaries overseas. The reaching of the unreached and unengaged is a massive reason I want our church to remain within the SBC.
We Remain Though We Work for Reform
My church remains. We remain because we can do more together than we can apart. We remain because we believe being part of the SBC helps us accomplish the mission Christ has given us. We remain to train future leaders, plant churches, provide disaster relief, and reach the nations for their joy and the glory of God. But we also work for reform. We desire and pray that our convention would be marked by humility, have listening ears, remain honest in our assessments, and display the gospel that reconciles all peoples to God through Christ by the power of the Spirit.
If we are going to move ahead together, we must truly assess our past and our present. We should admit the presence of racism and the problems in our entities while acknowledging the progress we’ve made by God’s grace and power. We are not who we should be, but by his grace, we are not who we once were. Let’s link arms together in this imperfect convention until Christ returns or calls us home in order to spread the gospel to a lost and dying world.
Jonathon and his wife Gina are originally from Kentucky and moved to Minnesota in 2012 to attend seminary. They have two energetic boys, Calvin and Caleb. Jonathon is an avid fan of Kentucky basketball (Go Big Blue), enjoys the outdoors, likes to read a good book from time to time, and finds history fascinating. Jonathon earned a B.A. in Biblical and Theological Studies from Boyce Bible College, an M.Div from Bethlehem College & Seminary, and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in Historical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. You can give him a follow on Twitter (@jonwoodyard).