SBC President J.D. Greear speaks on a panel discussion about racial reconciliation during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 11, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill.
At their annual meeting, Southern Baptists re-elected their president, adopted statements on their views about major cultural issues, and discussed how to deal with sexual abuse and racial discrimination in the church.
They also brought to center stage questions about church leadership roles that are appropriate for women in the church.
North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear, who was elected Tuesday (June 11) to a second one-year term as president, had emphasized a “Gospel Above All” theme for the meeting. He said that message was linked to multicultural worship music throughout the meeting and the inclusive approach Baptists took in appointing leaders to the convention’s various committees.
“We’re not where we need to be on those things, but I believe a signal has been sent that we believe that’s where we need to go,” he said at a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting on Wednesday.
“Now it’s on us to take the right steps at the right time and to move in a way that shows that it’s not words or virtue signaling but it’s something that we mean because we believe the Bible teaches it.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said that in the past, issues of diversity were usually discussed mostly in hallways among small groups of church delegates, known as messengers. At this meeting, the conversations were held on the main stage of the gathering, which drew more than 8,000 messengers.
A Wednesday panel discussion on the value of women talked about whether a woman could be pastor (no, since the SBC’s doctrine limits that role to men) and whether a woman could one day become a president of the Southern Baptist Convention (maybe, since nothing in the SBC’s governing documents precludes women from that role).
A messenger speaks to a motion during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. (RNS Photo/Butch Dill)
Panelists in a Tuesday discussion on racial reconciliation addressed how the issue affects both local congregations and the larger church. A pastor on the panel mentioned how a church member left his congregation when the congregant disagreed with the minister’s support of Baptists’ vote several years ago to repudiate the Confederate flag. Another mentioned how people of color are not likely to get to executive meeting rooms until they are in the same dining rooms with influential white leaders.
“It was definitely a different convention,” said Mohler. “There were more women’s voices and, by intentionality, more voices from African Americans and others who we very much want to be a part of the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Pastor Dwight McKissic, a Texas minister who has advocated for more minorities and women to be placed in positions of leadership, agreed the issue of inclusion was highlighted at the meeting.
“It was clearly a move in that direction, stronger than I’ve ever seen, and I welcomed it and celebrate it,” he said.
Still, McKissic was concerned about a lack of diversity in the leadership of major Southern Baptist entities. He noted that the trustee chairman of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary told messengers the search committee had considered several minority candidates when hiring a new president. But McKissic was disappointed that the board chair of the Executive Committee declined to be as forthcoming about details of its recent hiring process for a new president.
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Abuse victim advocates noted the many actions Southern Baptists took on the abuse issue — including the introduction of “Caring Well” handbooks and video resources. But they still urged the convention to set up a database to help track abusers and keep them from moving from church to church.
Messengers hold up an SBC abuse handbook while taking a challenge to stop sexual abuse during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill
“A clergy database must be established, documenting confessed, convicted or credibly accused abusers,” said advocate Cheryl Summers at a rally she organized outside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on Tuesday. “We have seen some progress, but there is a lot more work to be done.”
On Wednesday, Baptists also passed resolutions, nonbinding statements that give a sense of the views of those gathered for the annual meeting. They included:
- Urging the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and celebrating “recent bipartisan gains in state legislatures that restrict abortion.”
- Calling the U.S. government to make religious liberty “a top priority of American foreign policy in its engagement with North Korea and China.”
- Recognizing critical race theory and intersectionality as “analytical tools” but repudiating their misuse.
- Urging the president and Congress to not include women in the Selective Service military registration, “which would be to act against the plain testimony of Scripture and nature.”
- Affirming their “commitment to Christ comes before commitment to any political party.”
CHANGING HISTORY: Rev. Fred Luter's election as first vice president puts him in line to possibly become the SBC's first black president.
Fred Luter Jr., pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, was elected first vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention on June 13, a milestone that many believe may eventually lead him to assume the denomination’s top position. UrbanFaith news & religion editor Christine A. Scheller spoke to Luter by phone Monday. The conversation focused on Luter’s historic ascent to leadership in a denomination that was founded, in part, as a means of preserving a religious justification for the institution of slavery in America. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Have you always been a Southern Baptist?
Fred Luter: Franklin Avenue at one time was an all-white Southern Baptist church, but in the late 1970s, there was a white flight. Whites moved out of the neighborhood; blacks moved back in. The white congregation literally turned the building over to the local Baptist association, so that it would be used for the people in this community. I’ve always given them credit for that. They could have torn it down or sold it to the highest bidder. They knew the neighborhood was changing, so they wanted it to be used for the people in this community. I came in 1986, so the church was already a Southern Baptist church.
The initial New York Times report on your election noted a Southern Baptist connection to slavery. Were you aware of that when you became pastor at Franklin Avenue?
No, to be honest, I was not. I had no idea at all. … When I found out, I was already too deep in it. I doubt if a lot of people who are part of our churches are aware. … Back in 1845, the convention was started as a split between the American Baptist Convention. They started the Southern Baptist Convention based on the issue of slavery. That’s part of our dark past.
What is the significance of your election?
I didn’t realize how significant it was until I started getting all these requests for interviews. It has been incredible. I’ve been a part of this since ’86 and … I never thought it would get this much notoriety. I guess if something happens to the president, you it. … We lost over 4000 members in Katrina who were displaced all over the country and I started getting calls from people all across the country saying, “I saw you in this paper. I saw you in that paper. I saw you on CNN.”
Your church lost 4,000 members from Hurricane Katrina?
We had grown from 50 members back in ’86 to about 8,000. We were the largest Southern Baptist church in the state of Lousiana, white or black. God had blessed us in a mighty, mighty way. But then Katrina came and destroyed all of that. Our church was flooded with nine feet of water.
The Baptist Press report on the convention noted its emphasis on ethnicity, and unity. Was there a concerted effort, in the pursuit of diversity, to elect an African American?
Honestly, I don’t think it was, because this report involving ethnicity was really a resolution that came forward in our convention last year in Orlando … that this convention was going to vote on. I think it just so happened that my election came at the same time that this was a major resolution. … I think the background of it, honestly, is that next year the convention is going to be in New Orleans, and I got some calls saying, “Hey man, it would be really nice, since the convention is going to be in New Orleans, that you be in a position of leadership in your hometown.”
What is the value of the diversity resolution?
I think it’s critical. Back in , the convention made a public apology for their beginnings, for their founding on slavery, and they apologized to all the African American pastors in the convention. … That was the start of what’s now becoming something we’re beginning to see, because in this convention there are other ethnicities. Of course, it’s predominantly Anglo, but now we have African Americans, we have Asians, we have Hispanics, and so many in the leadership roles are saying it doesn’t make any sense to have all these different ethnic groups at our convention and the leadership role is lily white. Those in leadership said, “Let’s start doing something about this.”
I think it’s great. It says to those of us who are part of the convention that, yes, this is a part of our past, but we have been talking about including other ethnic groups for a while; now it’s time to start putting our money where our mouth is. Let’s start walking it instead of just talking it. I think it’s now finally coming together.