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June 12, 2021Leadership

Southern Baptists Are at a Fork in the Road

The SBC will be making choices about how we respond to abuse, race, and more at this watershed convention.
Southern Baptists Are at a Fork in the Road

I could have titled this piece “Southern Baptists are at a Crossroads.” Southern Baptists have faced many crossroads in their history. Yet where things sit for Southern Baptists in June 2021 isn’t a crossroads moment, but a fork-in-the-road moment.

The choices facing Southern Baptists in the year of our Lord 2021 remind me of Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken.”

In that poem, Frost talks about how two roads diverged in the woods, leaving him with a choice of which road he was going to take. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in a few days will be facing votes on a series of issues—including a president—that have the weight to set the trajectory of the denomination either positively or negatively for years to come.

The Issues

First, there needs to be an independent investigation regarding recent accusations of mishandling abuse claims. We need to ask hard questions about what was handled well, what went wrong, and more. Truth be told, survivors and our Baptist family deserve better than leaked letters with accusations followed by counter accusations. Given the severity of the issue at hand, we need clarity on these accusations that only an independent third-party investigation can give.

If we are people of truth, we need to seek the truth.

Second, we must continue to deal with the issue of race and listen to our African American brothers and sisters more and to the voices claiming CRT has infiltrated the SBC less. Also, race will likely be a key factor in both the resolutions report and the presidential election.

The issue is not (usually) blatantly racist comments; it is the inability to recognize—and consequently address—issues of systemic racism that remain. It’s failing to listen to African American pastors when they share their experiences, or when they say white Southern Baptist leaders continue to send the wrong signals on these matters—especially in doubting their theological orthodoxy when their political calculus or manner of cultural engagement differs from most white evangelicals.

If you don’t think this happens, you can watch this week’s Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) video. Each person accused of “liberal drift” was either black or their counsel was in reference to the way we engage in issues related to racial injustice.

Yet, as my friend (and colleague at Wheaton) Esau McCaulley recently tweeted:

The idea that black Christians needed Karl Marx to teach them about *systems of oppression* in a country that had *legalized slavery* and *Jim Crow* might be the wildest take to gain footing in a long time.

Wither Diversity?

As such, the bigger challenge the SBC faces with regards to race is whether we will continue to grow in diversity as a denomination.

Right now, the majority of SBC church plants are minority ethnic congregations. Current SBC president J. D. Greear’s appointments to leadership on various committees are diverse and worth celebrating. Substantial progress has been and is being made; however, this progress is now threatened.

To put things in perspective of how diverse a denomination the SBC is, the largest Lutheran body in America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), consists of about 9,000 churches. There are more minority ethnic Southern Baptist churches than the entire number of ELCA churches. Simply put, there are over 10,000 non-Anglo SBC congregations—and they are watching how Southern Baptists address race and ethnicity this week.

Our growth in this area is threatened right now by a false charge that the convention has gone liberal because many in leadership are rightly learning to listen better to African American brothers and sisters. In response, discussions on race have unfortunately been weaponized and Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become the nuclear warhead buzzword—a catch-all topic that could quickly shut down all efforts in making progress on race.

CRT actually is a major issue in our culture. I am not unaware of the concerns; I am engaged with them, publishing a 10-part series from multiple authors.

Yes, CRT has real problems. But it’s not a problem in the SBC. Because Southern Baptist leaders understand the dangers and do not subscribe to it as a worldview, but instead stand firmly on the sufficiency of Scripture—regardless of what some SBC presidential candidates may erroneously claim. It’s just not the SBC’s biggest problem. Actually, it’s not in the top five.

Most pastors and leaders I know have listened carefully to their African American sisters and brothers. They have sought—not by using CRT, but by looking carefully at our society, in light of the gospel and the scriptures—to find a way to account for the reality of structural racism while simultaneously distancing themselves from ideas of CRT that are, well, counter to biblical truth.

Just Focus on Evangelism?

I know that many will say “let’s just focus on evangelism.”

Let me be clear. I love evangelism and I seek to personally engage in it. The institutions where I lead focus on evangelism. But we cannot just focus on evangelism while sweeping sins of omission or commission under the proverbial rug.

Just like the Apostle Paul urged the Corinthians, we must deal with the evil in our midst.

We can walk and chew gum at the same time.

Actually, we can focus on evangelism and at the same time deal with predators preying on the sheep. In Acts 20, when Paul addressed the Ephesian elders, he not only affirmed with clarity the importance of proclaiming the gospel (v. 20–24), he also warned vociferously against allowing wolves to harm the sheep (v. 29–30). If we continue to mishandle predators, it won’t matter how much we focus on evangelism—for we will have harmed our witness.

That’s why we (an evangelism center) hosted a summit a couple years back, where women and men courageously told their stories of abuse and called the church to do better.

You can’t “just focus on evangelism” when there are predators in your midst.

In addition, we can focus on evangelism and at the same time deal with racism. Racism is also connected to missions and thus our witness in the world.

Adam Greenway recently tweeted:

The time has come to finish the shift from the Confederate culture of our origins to a global vision of mission/ministry embracing all peoples without distinction. We are with Christ after the lost—not the “lost cause.”

His tweet reminded me of a chapter I wrote for a book, The Enduring Lost Cause: Afterlives of a Redeemer Nation. My chapter was “The Lost Cause of the Confederacy and the Ongoing Cause of Southern Cultural Superiority and Its Impact on SBC Home Missions in the Mid-1900s.” In that chapter, I noted how a failure to understand and embrace racial reconciliation back then hurt missions, just like today it hurts evangelism and church planting.

In the 1960s, too many Southern Baptists were on the wrong side of the fire hoses in Birmingham. In 2021, I choose to listen to my African American Southern Baptist friends and to stand with them over the false smears that somehow they are liberal when they affirm our doctrinal statement and yet are targeted simply because they issue specific challenges on matters of race. We can’t confuse being challenged on race with “drifting toward liberalism.”

Those two things are not the same, no matter what boat you’re in.

A New Exodus?

If things go poorly this week, we will likely see a mass exodus of black pastors (and many others who stand with them) from the SBC. And for what it’s worth, that’s not just a concern if the CBN gains control or if resolutions go badly.

An exodus could also happen if Al Mohler is elected SBC president. Mohler’s insistence on the seminary presidents’ CRT statement—where six white men who are good and godly men were trying to be faithful, but made a mistake of not listening to and recognizing the signal they were sending to African American leaders—has hurt race relations in our convention. As has Mohler’s flip-flopping on President Trump.

Mohler is already president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and the Evangelical Theological Society—that’s enough presidencies to keep one man quite busy.

With my vote, I’m choosing a pastor with a proven track record of committing to the hard work of racial reconciliation. I encourage you to do the same.

Given the issues and challenges facing the denomination, we need someone who will lead biblically, wisely, sensitively, and courageously. We need someone who laments over the brokenness not only in the world but within our denomination. We need a uniter and a bridge-builder. This requires one who has a track record of listening, not dismissing. We need someone who has suffered and been broken but emerged better and more sanctified.

The president Southern Baptists need at this fork in the road is Ed Litton.

Do the Next Right Thing

Now the reality is Southern Baptists are perpetually at war with themselves, with every year bringing yet another controversy. The only way to end these controversies is to do the right thing. And the right thing is to vote on resolutions that support the sufficiency of Scripture and acknowledge that there are places where racism from the past still systemically intrudes in the present. And no, this does not make me a Critical Race Theorist, no matter how many times people on Twitter lie about that.

If we fail to do so, we will spark an exodus of black, young, and other leaders who care deeply about these issues.

Friends, if you think that Danny Akin is liberal, that black pastors have secretly infiltrated us with Marxism, and that abuse survivors are the enemy, then you’ve been fooled. Instead, I hope you will be discerning as you make wise choices on resolutions, motions, and elections of officers.

We can choose the right path.

We can do the right thing this time.

What Now?

Southern Baptists, we are not at a crossroads with many different options. We are at a fork in the road. We can choose to go down the path of continued in-fighting, name calling, Twitter spats, and division, or we can choose to go down the path of love, honor, and unity. We can choose to go down the path of status-quo managing the decline of Southern Baptists, or we can choose the path of mobilizing Southern Baptists for greater mission impact.

As I close, Robert Frost ends his poem, “The Road Not Taken,” with this famous line:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Southern Baptists, there have been moments in our history where we have chosen the road less traveled—moments like the Conservative Resurgence and the Great Commission Resurgence. We pushed against the tide. But there have been moments—too many to name—where we have chosen the road most traveled.

Let’s not choose the wrong path.

In the year of our Lord 2021, let’s choose the right thing. Let’s choose the right path.

And we will be able to say with Frost, “that has made all the difference.”

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Southern Baptists Are at a Fork in the Road