A select group of leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) plan to meet in early January amid ongoing debates about how to address racism that are straining partnerships across the denomination.
On Dec. 18, Baptist Press reported that SBC Executive Committee president Ronnie Floyd called a meeting to “foster healthy dialogue and unity in Christ,” following a volley of statements by various Southern Baptists on social science theories, Southern Baptist beliefs and racial issues. Floyd invited officers of the National African American Fellowship (NAAF), the Council of Seminary Presidents (CSP) and SBC president J.D. Greear to join the conversation.
The Biblical Recorder sent a request for details about the meeting to a spokesperson in Floyd’s office. Their response referred to a previous statement by Floyd that did not address the Recorder’s inquiry, which included questions about the venue, rationale for who was invited and specific goals the group hopes to achieve in the meeting.
Rolland Slade, chair of the SBC Executive Committee, told the Recorder he hopes the meeting will help attendees develop a “better understanding” of one another.
“My hope is that out of this meeting will come an understanding that though our lived experiences are different we can find unity in the word of God,” Slade said. “Our opinion and understanding of the tools used to comprehend the Word will change, yet the Word does not.”
CSP chair Danny Akin, who serves as president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., told the Recorder, “I hope and pray brothers who love our Lord Jesus and one another will come together to pray, listen to one another and find common ground and understanding for moving forward in unity for the fulfilling of the Great Commission and the building of God’s kingdom.”
The CSP, whose members represent six academic institutions formally affiliated with the convention, adopted a statement during a regular meeting on Nov. 23 that condemned racism while declaring “that affirmation of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and any version of Critical Theory is incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” Their statement appeared to come in response to critics who allege the convention is losing its conservative commitments.
Controversy about what Southern Baptists should believe arose in 2019 when the convention passed a resolution saying critical race theory and intersectionality were acceptable “analytical tools” for examining racial dynamics and discrimination but could not be accepted as “transcendent ideological frameworks.”
Some critics claim “Resolution 9” was an effort to usher in leftist beliefs contrary to Southern Baptist faith and practice. The 2019 resolutions committee has denied such allegations and defended their position as being in line with the Baptist Faith & Message.
NAAF president Marshal Ausberry responded to the CSP on Dec. 11 by saying he planned to meet with them to discuss “concerns that affect all ethnic groups in the SBC” regarding the council’s statement. A group of church leaders and ministers affirmed Ausberry’s response in a statement posted online Dec. 18, adding their own calls for repentance over infighting and name-calling in the convention amid disagreements about how to address racism.
Two well-known African American church leaders announced they would no longer be affiliating with the SBC in the wake of the CSP statement: Charlie Dates, pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, Ill., and Ralph West, pastor of The Church Without Walls in Houston, Texas. Two other African American pastors told the Washington Post their churches were leaving the SBC as well.
Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, responded to criticisms of the seminary presidents’ statement, saying the “optics” of six white seminary presidents addressing racism has no “direct relationship” nor “doctrinal bearing” on whether the social science theories are compatible with Southern Baptist beliefs.
The CSP told the Washington Post they acknowledge the “reality of racism on both the personal and systemic or structural level.”
Jamie Dew, president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, sent a letter to the school’s faculty acknowledging that “it wasn’t immediately clear” what prompted the CSP statement.
“Over the past three weeks I have had nearly 50 conversations with African-American pastors, students, and alumni,” Dew said. “After listening long, it is clear that for many of our African-American brothers and sisters, our statement came off as insensitive and hurtful. For some, the statement left the impression that we do not fully appreciate the historic struggles of African-Americans in the United States, both in the past and in the present.
“This was certainly not my intention. I regret that this caused pain or that I gave the impression that I am aloof to concerns and struggles of our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ.”
Dew said he continues to have “deep theological concerns” with critical race theory and expressed a desire for those concerns to be heard “without my African-American brothers and sisters feeling as though I do not sympathize with the struggles they have experienced throughout their lives.”
“As any basic survey of our nation’s history makes clear, racism – both individual and systemic – has been a cancer in our society for centuries, infecting both people and the fabric of society. That is, when the sin of racism is in the hearts of people that shape society, its laws, and its customs, there will be systemic and structural harm for the marginalized,” said Dew.
“We have made progress in our country. But, as recent events have made clear, we are naive if we think that things are now where they need to be. We still have a long way to go and I am committed to helping do everything in my power to fix remaining problems.”
More information about the upcoming meeting will be published as it becomes available.