Southern Baptist division
Amid debates on race within the Southern Baptist Convention, some black pastors wonder if it’s the right denomination for their churches
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Dwight McKissic has wonderful memories of the Southern Baptist Convention as a black youngster. He watched black and white Baptists pray and worship together, saw black and white pastors swap pulpits. His older siblings were all active with SBC-funded student groups in college. When he interned with a prison chaplain, the SBC financially supported him.
So when McKissic, now the 64-year-old senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, joined the SBC in 1983, he did so with great optimism. At the time, he only vaguely understood parts of the SBC’s history—how a group of Baptists in the South split off from Northern Baptists over whether missionaries could own slaves, how multiple founding fathers of the SBC’s flagship institutions held slaves, or how, like many Southerners, Southern Baptists defended segregation and supported the “Lost Cause” mythology until the 1940s. “But so much good was happening at the time that sort of smothered SBC’s very ugly racist history,” McKissic recalled.
In 2011, John Onwuchekwa also joined the SBC, but with much less optimism than McKissic. Onwuchekwa is the 36-year-old lead pastor of Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, which he planted in 2015 with some financial help from the SBC. For several years, he was active in the convention—preaching at the pastors’ conference, speaking on panels, and recruiting other black pastors into the SBC. Still, Onwuchekwa said he joined with “hopeful skepticism”—hopeful, because he met a lot of Southern Baptists passionate about justice. But also skeptical: Forty years ago, an SBC church told Onwuchekwa’s Nigeria-born parents they weren’t welcome because of their skin color.
“The irony though is six Anglo males, denouncing a racial theory, in a room where [African Americans] have been systematically denied access, exemplifies CRT.”
Many black Southern Baptists have a complex relationship with the SBC. As the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the SBC has a rich, long-standing infrastructure of top-notch seminaries, church-planting and missions boards, programs and conferences, and lobbying arms. The SBC’s commitment to evangelism and doctrinal orthodoxy drew many black Christians, who benefited from fraternal and fiscal support: McKissic’s church received a loan of $330,000 from the SBC in 1984 and another $3 million loan in 1996, while Onwuchekwa accepted a $175,000 grant to help renovate his church. These financial benefits sometimes hold back disenchanted pastors from fully withdrawing from the SBC. (McKissic said his church has since paid back more than what it had received.)
But some black members wonder if the SBC truly is home for them. National conversations on race have exposed deep disparities between experiences for black and white Christians. The 2016 and 2020 elections, and many SBC leaders’ public support of President Donald Trump, alienated some black members. They question: How much does the SBC prioritize racial reconciliation? Some Southern Baptists tell me the SBC has made racial progress, while others say it has regressed.
A RECENT CONTROVERSY showcases why some black members say the SBC takes one step forward and two steps back when it comes to race relations. On Nov. 30, 2020, six SBC seminary presidents released a statement condemning critical race theory (CRT). The statement declared that CRT, intersectionality, and “any version of Critical Theory” are “incompatible with the Baptist Faith and Message.” In comments following the statement, the presidents acknowledged that “racism still exists” and opposed “the sin of racism.”
Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary who initiated the statement, told me the seminary presidents decided to address CRT after receiving constant questions from Southern Baptists about it. (Mohler is a WORLD board member.) The statement doesn’t contain a clear definition of CRT or intersectionality, or what specifically is problematic about them. But Mohler, who’s running for SBC president this year, told me the presidents’ purpose was “not to issue a comprehensive analysis [of CRT] but a statement that would just signal and inform Southern Baptists that we’re not going to have Critical Race Theory taught in our seminaries.”
Legal theorists and activists in the 1970s developed CRT to attack laws and systems that they say perpetuate inequality. They looked at how once-lawful practices such as segregation and racial discrimination, though no longer legal, created residues that still affect people.
Others objected. Conservatives emphasized the positives in the American experience. Marxists saw economic class rather than race as the crucial divide, and feminists and LGBT leaders foused on sex. A new doctrine, intersectionality, emerged: It emphasizes multiple overlapping (or “intersecting”) identities—race, class, gender, religion, sexual orientation, etc.—that may disadvantage people.
CRT is complicated, and some CRT scholars even disagree with one another on what it is and how to apply it. But it’s become a vortex sucking Biblical Christians into heated debates: Some Christians say CRT can be a useful tool in understanding long-persisting inequalities in society, so long as Christians don’t adopt it as an ideology or worldview. Others say CRT perpetuates some form of reverse racism against whites, is no help for Christians navigating race issues, and has links to Marxism and other ideologies that deemphasize personal responsibility.
On Jan. 20 a Stop Critical Race Theory coalition of law firms and legal foundations filed three lawsuits against public institutions conducting CRT programs, charging that they “perpetuate racial stereotypes, compel discriminatory speech, and create hostile work environments.” The coalition said CRT programs “violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the United States Constitution.”
The seminary presidents’ Nov. 30 statement contradicted the SBC’s Resolution 9, adopted in 2019, which described CRT and intersectionality as “insufficient to diagnose and redress the root causes of social ills” but also sees them as helpful in “evaluating a variety of human experiences” so long as they are “only employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture—not as transcendent ideological frameworks.”
Mohler said the presidents’ statement in November did not directly respond to Resolution 9, but “it’s certainly a part of the background.” Some Southern Baptist leaders are trying to rescind the resolution, saying it’s a sign of secular liberalism creeping into the denomination.
Early last year those leaders formed the Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) “to cultivate the momentum needed for a course correction” in the SBC. They aim to reboot a version of the “conservative resurgence” that took place in 1979 when initiators tried to flush left-leaning leaders and professors out of the SBC. More than 2,500 churches signed on within the first two days of the network’s formation, and it currently has more than 6,000 members. One of CBN’s objectives has been to remove Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ELRC) President Russell Moore, whose open criticism of Trump has spurred many Southern Baptists to call for a change. CBN recently nominated Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor and member of CBN’s 48-member Steering Council, to be the next SBC president. Stone chaired the task force that reviewed “the past and present activities” of ERLC.
In light of the movement, some black members eyed the seminary presidents’ statement with suspicion. At least four black churches left the SBC as a result. They’re less upset with the rejection of CRT and are more concerned with the timing and implication of the statement: Why a whole statement on CRT while staying silent on other problems within evangelicalism such as Christian nationalism, which may have played a part in the Jericho March and the Capitol riot?
“I’m no CRT advocate,” McKissic tweeted. “When we open our Bible, God opens His mouth. The Bible doesn’t bow to CRT. CRT must bow to the Bible. The irony though is six Anglo males, denouncing a racial theory, in a room where [African Americans] have been systematically denied access, exemplifies CRT.”
Soon after the presidents’ statement, National African American Fellowship (NAAF) President Marshal Ausberry issued a statement reaffirming the supremacy of Scripture, adding, “there are ideologies from a sociological and anthropological perspective [that] when used appropriately, help us to better understand the inner workings of living in a fallen and sinful world.” When those ideologies conflict with Scripture, “it is Scripture that governs our worldview, our decisions, our lives.”
Another group of Southern Baptist pastors also penned a statement saying, “While some progress has occurred, recent events have left many brothers and sisters of color feeling betrayed and wondering if the SBC is committed to racial reconciliation.”
The seminary presidents and NAAF leaders met virtually on Jan. 6 to discuss CRT and race relations. McKissic, who participated in the meeting, described it to me as “very robust” and “mutually respectful,” as did Mohler. In that meeting, the presidents said they should have consulted black SBC pastors before releasing the statement, but they refused to modify it. McKissic called their stance on CRT “a sledgehammer to a nuanced conversation.” Mohler said he recognized that the seminary presidents’ stance will “disappoint” some, but added, “I think the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists will appreciate it.”
MIXED REACTIONS TO hot-button racial issues aren’t new in the SBC. In 1954, the SBC affirmed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in which the court ruled that state-mandated racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. That was the position of the denomination’s leadership, but many local clergy strongly opposed it. In 1964, the SBC narrowly defeated a motion to affirm that year’s Civil Rights Act, and it wasn’t until four years later, when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, that it released a statement denouncing racism—though, again, not without bitter opposition.
In 1995, by a nearly unanimous vote, the SBC adopted a historic resolution that apologized for the denomination’s role in “condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime.” It was a striking, bold move—the first time Southern Baptists officially and directly addressed their denomination’s pro-slavery roots and acknowledged that “the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past.”
The resolution earned national praise, but some were still skeptical, including McKissic. In 2012, the SBC elected its first black president, Fred Luter Jr., though the position doesn’t come with much executive power. Today, though, none of the major SBC institutions has a nonwhite president. “That to me speaks volumes,” McKissic said.
Many black Southern Baptists say they want to see action, not resolutions condemning racism. Some say the SBC has taken those actions. They note that after the 1995 resolution, the number of black churches joining the SBC spiked 43 percent between 1998 and 2002. Today, about 1 in 5 of SBC’s 45,000 churches is predominantly black, Latino, or Asian.
Furthermore, when J.D. Greear became SBC president in 2017, he prioritized seeking racially diverse candidates. The majority of his committee appointments are minority members, mostly from smaller churches. Many Baptist state conventions that affiliate with the SBC have elected nonwhite presidents. The International Mission Board’s goal is to have 75 black missionaries by 2025. (Its 2020 report says it has 13 black missionaries out of 3,700.) The NAAF and the North American Mission Board are also launching an outreach effort to black churches. Those are all steps the SBC has taken to show it’s “committed to heading in the right direction,” said Executive Committee CEO Ronnie Floyd: “Our heart is to do the right thing.”
CHARLIE DATES, THE 39-YEAR-OLD senior pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, which joined the SBC last year, told me he’s not impressed: “It hasn’t fixed the problem.” Dates had a tough time convincing his church members to join the SBC. When they cited the SBC’s history, Dates told them, “That was the old Southern Baptists,” pointing to SBC programs that train young black pastors. But like Onwuchekwa, he held strong reservations about the SBC’s racial commitment and also kept his church’s affiliation with the Progressive National Baptist Convention, an African American Protestant denomination. His hesitations grew last year, particularly when Mohler publicly supported President Trump.
Onwuchekwa’s “hopeful skepticism” morphed to full-blown skepticism in 2020, as crowds decried racial injustice. Though many prominent SBC leaders publicly grieved George Floyd’s death, Onwuchekwa said some in the SBC fought over terms like CRT and Black Lives Matter: “It’s actually popular to stand against racism, and it’s still not clear to you?” After nine years in the SBC, his church voted to leave the denomination last June. Dates’ church also left soon after the seminary presidents’ CRT statement.
Last year McKissic said his church planned to stay in the SBC. But after the statement on CRT and the Jan. 6 meeting between the seminary presidents and black pastors, he announced his church is pulling out of his state Southern Baptist Convention for now and may decide to leave the national SBC if it rescinds Resolution 9 in June.
It’s a tough decision for McKissic. He still feels indebted to the SBC. He remembers the Southern Baptist hymnals and magazines scattered throughout his childhood home and his rich theological education at an SBC seminary: “It’s a mixed bag. There is some appreciation to the convention that invested in you and birthed you. It’s like, you don’t turn on grandmama and mama because they have issues, you still love and support them.”
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