The Southern Baptist Convention is no stranger to internal religious disputes, but a new divide over racial politics is threatening to spill dramatically into the public square and split the convention. This disagreement differs from the normal clashes over theology and church polity with which the SBC is accustomed to dealing.
The nation’s largest affiliation of Protestant churches faces a controversy that contains a potent admixture of politics and theology. While politics writ large have circulated in the background of the religious debates of the SBC, purely political disputes have rarely been front and center. But all that has changed in the past year.
At the MLK50 Conference held this spring in Memphis, Tenn., the SBC took on one of the most politically charged debates in America — the effects of racism on American society today. As the conference title indicates, the subject was the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr., and the emphasis was on how racism continues to be a blight on American society and the Christian church.
While it’s no surprise the topic of race was discussed at the MLK50 event, what may have surprised some in the SBC was how race and the church was discussed and by whom. Pastor Matt Chandler — certainly no theological liberal — in his lecture at the MLK50 conference asserted that the white members of his congregation in Texas are racist in ways they don’t understand and don’t want to understand.
They don’t know what they don’t know and they are part of a system that encourages their not knowing. … We don’t know about housing disparities because we’re snuggled in affluent suburbs where no one will lay that data in front of us. And even if that data is in front of us, our education has taught us, ‘That’s not on us, that’s on y’all.’ … I am … taught [by this system] that racism is unleashing dogs and spraying with hoses, so I certainly cannot be a racist. There is a seed of doubt sewn in the minds of whites, that blacks have a work ethic or the capacity to help us.
MLK50 was then punctuated by a similar conference known as Together for the Gospel (T4G) held the following month. It was at the T4G conference where the brewing division was felt most strongly. Normally, the T4G conference showcases the standard topics, lectures, and speakers of what has come to be known as the “Reformed Baptist” movement within the SBC, a doctrinally conservative group. Not so with this year’s conference.
Two very clear agendas seemed to be afoot at the gathering. The clear intention of the conference organizers was to emphasize racial reconciliation in the SBC. Several key speakers and panelists addressed this issue. The counter agenda, if you will, were those who seemed intent at avoiding the topic and sticking with the status quo. The tension between the two programs was palpable to those familiar with the players.
On the one hand David Platt, the former SBC International Missions Board director, gave an impassioned call to recognize “how white” the SBC remains, even in 2018, in a lecture titled, “Let Justice Roll Down Like Waters: Racism and Our Need for Repentance.” For Platt, the racial reconciliation agenda was the central thesis of his lecture. Note his dramatic assertion at its climax:
On a whole, pastors in America and the churches we lead, instead of bridging the racial divide in our country, have historically widened and are currently widening the racial divide in our country. … I look at my life and ministry. And in so many ways, my world has been so white. Why are the churches I’ve led in and been a part of so white? Why is the missions organization I lead so … white [emphasis added]?
On the other hand, this kind of rhetoric is what seems to have prompted leading pastor John MacArthur not only to ignore the direction of the T4G conference in his lecture, but also to sign a “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel,” in which he and other pastors proclaimed:
Relativism, socially-constructed standards of truth or morality, and notions of virtue and vice that are constantly in flux cannot result in authentic justice. We deny that Christian belief, character, or conduct can be dictated by any other authority (than the bible), and we deny that the postmodern ideologies derived from intersectionality, radical feminism, and critical race theory are consistent with biblical teaching. We emphatically deny that lectures on social issues (or activism aimed at reshaping the wider culture) [emphasis added] are as vital to the life and health of the church as the preaching of the gospel and the exposition of scripture. … Historically, such things tend to become distractions that inevitably lead to departures from the gospel.
It seems here that the rhetoric at both the MLK50 and T4G conferences bothered MacArthur and other pastors in the SBC so much that they felt the need to produce this strongly worded statement on social justice and the gospel. MacArthur and company are concerned some of their close colleagues are implementing a social justice agenda that mirrors the popular culture’s approach to social justice instead of a biblical one. When language such as “postmodern ideology,” “intersectionality,” and “radical feminism” are being deployed in a very conservative wing of a denomination like the SBC, well, those are fighting words.
In the middle of all of this is none other than R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, and host of “The Briefing.” Mohler was a keynote speaker at the T4G conference. Although his lecture did not touch on race relations in the church, much of the push toward a “social justice” agenda for the SBC is originating with men closely associated with and employed at his Southern Seminary.
Additionally, Mohler’s name is glaringly absent from the social justice statement signed by a number of people who have great influence on the SBC membership and leadership. In addition to MacArthur, this includes SBC influencers such as Vodie Baucham, Phil Johnson, James White, and Vesta Sproul. Note: Not a single plenary speaker from the MLK50 Conference signed the social justice statement, and MacArthur was the only speaker from the T4G conference who signed the statement.
While the contrast in opinion on this matter was felt most sharply at the T4G Conference, the socially progressive agenda was seen most clearly at the aforementioned MLK50 Conference sponsored by the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and The Gospel Coalition. Here, speakers pushed for policy campaigns such as the “Fight for $15” in a pastor’s round table entitled “Memphis Fifty Years After King.”
Jackie Perry-Hill decried police violence in her talk titled, “Equipping the Next Generation to Embrace Gospel Diversity,” by citing cases such as the Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown shootings, and elevated protests, such as NFL players kneeling for the national anthem.
Now, to be sure, as spoken word poet Preston Perry pointed out at the conference in his “Dear Mike Brown” soliloquy, there certainly are incidents of police brutality and racism in America. Perry is right to raise awareness of this fact.
Still, it seemed that perhaps the most controversial and most politicized issues surrounding race were put front and center at this conference as if these are the norm. A clear call was made to SBC pastors to both accept the popular narrative on these matters and to speak and act in accord with those narratives forthrightly and without apology — even if it costs them their jobs. In the aforementioned lecture, Chandler asserted:
White pastors … you have got to say something. … I am not going to be fired for saying these things. You might be. … I don’t think your first sermon should be a sermon on white privilege … unless … you want to go out in a blaze of glory.
This is an odd statement. Is Chandler saying he wants pastors to get to the point where they can preach about “white privilege” to their congregations? As with Platt’s lecture, policy and philosophy are mixing in cloudy ways with religion here.
A microcosm of the division — and an example of how virulent this controversy has already become — can be observed from a dispute between Dr. James White, a signatory of the social justice statement, and Kyle J. Howard, a close associate of the organizers of MLK50 and a graduate of Mohler’s Southern Seminary.
In a recent interview on the “In Layman’s Terms” podcast, Howard recounted an exchange with White after being challenged to meet with him. “I would not be comfortable meeting with White one on one (without a third party present),” Howard said. “I’m not afraid of him physically harming me, [but] because of his temperament, if he were to lose his cool — if there were police around — that one may not go well with me.”
Howard said White took his request for a third party at the meeting completely out of context and interpreted it as an accusation by Howard that White might physically harm him. Howard went on in the interview to passionately express hope that charity would eventually abound on both sides.
Still, he expressed doubt that this new movement on display at the MLK50 event could continue to abide with men such as White and MacArthur. Only time will tell if cooler heads will prevail in this heated controversy.
James White, David Platt, and Matt Chandler did not respond to requests for comment.
This article has been slightly modified to clarify the relationship between these critics and the SBC proper.