At this week’s annual Southern Baptist Convention, America’s largest Protestant denomination will vote to select their next president. The process is usually of little interest to the rank and file of evangelicalism—candidates sometimes run unopposed—but this year’s campaign has been widely recognized as a “pivotal” clash between the “old guard” of the conservative resurgence and the rising Southern Baptist Left.
The primary policy issue is whether the SBC should pursue race- and sex-based proportions in hiring for leadership positions within the denomination. The two men running for president, J.D. Greear and Ken Hemphill, both have strong church credentials and unimpeached personal character. But they differ on how the church should respond to accusations of sexism leveled against SBC leaders and the widespread claim in the mainstream media that white evangelicals are racist because they voted for President Trump.
Hemphill’s platform emphasizes a responsibility within the convention to continue to “preach the whole counsel of God’s Word which teaches that racism is sin,” and highlights the important role of women within the church as found in the New Testament. Hemphill also seeks to recall and celebrate the SBC’s positive role in opposing racism in the South.
Greear’s platform is a little more pessimistic. “Our doctrine and our mission are solid,” Greear said in a recent campaign video, “but I think we need a new culture, and a new posture in the Southern Baptist Convention.” This culture would not be created by simply teaching more of “God’s Word,” but by repenting of a “failure to listen to and honor women and racial minorities” and “to include them in proportionate measures in top leadership roles.” This failure, Greear explained, had “hindered [the SBC’s] ability to see sin and injustice and call it out.”
While Greear does not specify what “failures” he is talking about, he is likely referring to accusations against Dr. Paige Patterson, a former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson was recently fired on allegations that he has displayed a sexist attitude towards women at least twice in the past 20 years, and failed to properly report two incidents of rape. The failure-to-report accusations have been called into question by comparisons to documents from the time and a police report, but Patterson has not escaped a verdict of guilt in the public eye.
As the Washington Post pointed out, Patterson’s fall from grace has significant political implications within the denomination, since Patterson is “one of the main figures credited with steering the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s and ’90s away from liberalizing changes going on in the wider culture and into the conservative religious force it is now.”
Racism as a Sin of Which to Repent
Traditional Baptists tend to see racial biases within the church as a matter of “sin” that must be overcome by a “renewing of one’s mind,” whereby a common Christian identity overpowers secondary differences of sex, class, race, and ethnicity. Running on this platform, Hemphill argues that while there is much left to be done about racial relations in the SBC, “preaching the Gospel and pointing people to Jesus provides the most powerful way forward.” Hemphill cites the Apostle Paul’s writings in the New Testament, which, when addressing racial and ethnic tensions of the time, spoke of a higher call to follow Christ in breaking down cultural and ethnic barriers.
A story from his youth illustrates Hemphill’s approach. Having been raised in the South, Hemphill remembers the day his local public school was integrated. The first black student who walked into his high school chemistry class stood awkwardly at the door, not sure whether to come into the room. So Hemphill invited him to share his desk. Hemphill’s small act of kindness was certainly conscious of the cultural context, but it refused to be controlled by that culture, defying it in the name of Hemphill’s Christian upbringing.
Race relations, from this point of view, are a matter of individual moral responsibility. Since Christians are to be “renewed” in Christ in a manner that creates “no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman,” those who persist in creating such distinctions simply need more of the gospel.
Racism As a Sin for Which We Can’t Fully Repent
The Southern Baptist Left tend to see race and ethnicity within the church from a more sociological and institutional standpoint. In a recent sermon on racial reconciliation, Greear made no mention of the New Testament commands about race, sex, and class-based distinctions within the church, choosing instead to emphasize racially correlated differences of experience and opinion.
Greear reflected on how the racial bias that influenced his early education in the history of the church had created a subconscious bigotry within him that persists to this day. “During that time I never learned about Augustine and Athanasius, who are both Africans… I never learned that the first American missionary was not a white guy…. I ended up thinking that the ones who made civilization and church history were pretty much exclusively white, and if somebody of color had contributed to it, well then they were the exception. And that just leads to a way that I approach the world and a way that I approach people.”
While traditional Southern Baptists would likely argue that such bias should be combatted with a stronger commitment to leave behind “worldly” distinctions when approaching people within the church, Greear emphasizes strategic efforts to increase the percentage of church leadership that is non-white.
Greear reports that while only 17 percent of attendees at the megachurch he pastors are people of color, more than 33 percent of pastors and worship leaders are non-white. Aggressively pursuing people of color for leadership positions and prominence onstage helps his church have more of the conversations about race that the Left sees as the ultimate means of reducing white bigotry and ignorance.
Whether these kinds of measures really do work—not solely to eradicate racial bigotry, but also to fight sexism—is a matter open to question, and one of the main issues the SBC will be voting on in this year’s election. The outcome will be worth watching, not simply for those within the SBC, but also for Americans interested in the political trajectory of America’s largest Protestant denomination.
Update: J.D. Greear was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday. The decision was released that afternoon.