The last year has revealed areas of weakness in our beloved convention of churches. Fissures and failures and fleshly idolatries. COVID-19 didn’t produce these crises, but it did expose them.
Discipline is never pleasant in the moment, but painful. However, we know that God is up to something good, because “whom the Lord loves he chastens” (Hebrews 12:6). God only tears down in order to build us up.
In 2018, when I allowed my good friend Ken Whitten to put my name in nomination for president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), we both saw the SBC coming to a point of decision where we would have to decide who we were, what we were about, and what the basis of our unity would be.
We knew change was coming. We didn’t need to change our doctrine. Neither did we need to change our mission.
No, what needed to change was our culture.
Gospel doctrine and gospel mission without gospel culture are sterile, weak, and even, according to scripture, deadly. The question the Holy Spirit put on my heart for the SBC when I began as president was (and remains), “Are we truly a gospel people if evaluated by culture in our churches?”
In the 1980s, we repudiated the leaven of the liberals, a leaven that threatened to poison the gospel. Are we now going to repudiate the leaven of the Pharisees, which can choke out the gospel just as easily? Most of you know that almost immediately after I began to lead our convention, the character assassinations, false accusations, innuendos and exaggerations began.
For example, it was said I was going to turn us all into Calvinists and that I didn’t care about baptisms – even though I don’t call myself a Calvinist and our church (The Summit Church) has led our state convention for many years in baptisms, baptizing more than 7,000 in the last 10 years. In 2017, we launched an enormous evangelism initiative (Who’s Your One?), which I then passed on to the convention, and in the last decade, we (the Summit Church) have sent out more than 1,300 members to plant nearly 400 autonomous churches in North America and around the world.
Then people said I was going to gut state conventions. But the Summit has been the top CP giving church in our state for years.
It was then said I was going to soften our stance on biblical sexuality – even though I publicly affirmed the Danvers Statement and helped edit the Nashville Statement. In fact, my clarity about the sinfulness of homosexuality has resulted in my being targeted in malicious ways by LGBT advocates in my community.
Some bloggers said I was privately funded by George Soros with the agenda of steering the SBC toward political liberalism – even though Al Mohler’s podcast is the only one I listen to every day, I regularly read the Federalist, First Things and National Review, and I consider the invitation by a Republican senator to pray over the Senate on the day they confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to be one of the greatest honors of my life. As for George Soros, I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, and if he has ever sent a check, trust me, I haven’t seen it.
My office has gotten calls from people who say they’ve heard that I am friends with Nancy Pelosi, that I am a Marxist, or that I’m a card-carrying member of Black Lives Matter.
I expected a lot of this. After all, I realize that slander often comes with the position.
But look at what our convention’s culture has become. Having these kinds of slanderous accusations made against our leaders has become the norm. The result has been a breakdown of partnerships and, as a result, whole segments of our convention feel unwelcomed.
I’m not as worried about how it affects me personally. I am concerned for our future. When I talk with next-generation leaders, as well as Latino and African American pastors and leaders who see these things, they understandably want no part of it.
Sadly, they often do not feel at home in our convention.
We need to have robust, humble, Bible-open-on-our-knees conversations about things like Critical Race Theory (CRT). For something as important as “what biblical justice looks like,” we need wise, biblical thinking. But we should mourn when closet racists and neo-Confederates feel more at home in our churches than do many of our people of color. (And, to be sure, for the vast majority of our churches, that’s not the case, and if it’s not true of your church, praise God!) But I have received the emails and phone calls and letters from people in our churches who do fit that description. And it should bother us that many in our convention show more passion to decry CRT than they do sorrow over the painful legacy of racial bigotry and discrimination. If we had, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess we are now in.
It’s not that clarity about the dangers of CRT is not important; it is. It’s that, as Jesus said, we’ve ignored some of the weightier parts of the law – justice and mercy and compassion.
What a tragedy it would be if we squandered our gospel and Great Commission legacy because of our unwillingness to be a “Gospel Above All” people.
As Great Commission Baptists, we must do whatever it takes to make sure people of color know that they are not only welcome and safe in our convention, but are also an essential part of our future.
So how do we begin to heal and reshape the culture of our convention?
It starts with each of us making three commitments:
First, we must commit to being Great Commission Baptists.
This is more than a theme for our annual meeting. It’s what makes us who we are. We must champion evangelism, send missionaries and plant more and more churches. We must truly be more committed than ever to see that the most resources go to sending missionaries with the IMB and church planters with NAMB, through Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong.
Last week I talked with Dr. Fred Luter, a former SBC President, and he said, “The reason I remain enthusiastically a part of the SBC is because of how it equips us in evangelism, church planting and missions. No other convention comes close to doing what the SBC does in this.” Evangelism and church planting is what brings us together. They are also what will keep us together.
We must continue to press forward with initiatives like Who’s Your One?, Go2, GenSend and Send Network. We have the ability to call out the called, mobilizing a generation for gospel advance like never before.
I made ethnic diversity a goal of my presidency because in the last 30 years the largest growth we’ve seen in the SBC has been among Black, Latino and Asian congregations. We must go the extra mile of not only condemning racism, but also welcoming our Black, Latino and Asian congregations, knowing this will change who we are.
For the better.
Our brothers and sisters of color are a huge part of our present and an even bigger part of our future. Our leadership needs to reflect who we are and who God is making us, and we must commit to prioritizing having them in the highest levels of leadership and having them around the table for all important conversations.
Finally, we must commit to being a “Gospel Above All” people.
The gospel is the North Star of the church. The gospel eventually corrects our wrongs. Previous generations of Southern Baptists have gotten things wrong – often grievously wrong. But when they were corrected, it was because of the gospel.
A little over two years ago, we were confronted with the painful fact that many of our churches failed in giving the right response to sexual abuse. Again, the gospel corrected that – and is still correcting that.
That’s what the gospel always does, and why it has to remain at our center. If we remain a gospel people, the gospel will correct our faults. The gospel must be above all.
Again, if we are going to be a “Gospel Above All” people, it means that we will be a convention of churches that engages all of the peoples in the United States, not just one kind.
I’ll admit: That’s hard. Bringing together people of different backgrounds and cultures and ethnicities into the church creates challenges. Anybody who thinks it’s simple hasn’t actually done it. People bring in their music and style preferences and political approaches.
And that creates friction. But it’s biblical.
We must decide: Do we want to be a gospel people or a Southern culture people? Which is the more important part of our name – Southern or Baptist?
If we truly want to be a gospel people, it will take humility and work.
In Acts 15, we find the early church struggling with their own divisions. Church leaders asked both Jewish and Gentile Christians not to insist on uniformity in all things, but to consider the needs of one another as more important than their own. They asked them to downplay certain secondary convictions, even correct ones, to prioritize gospel and missional unity. Their rationale? James, the Jewish leader of the church, explained, “We ought not make it hard for Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19).
I wish I could write some version of that phrase over every Baptist church in America. We ought not make it hard for people of color to find God. We ought not make it hard for Democrats. We ought not make it hard for Republicans. We ought not make it hard for public school teachers or policemen. We have a gospel too precious and a mission too urgent to let anything stand in their way.
Let’s pursue the wisdom that is from above, that is first peaceable, and pure and full of good fruits (James 3:17).
As Isaiah explained in Isaiah 59:1-2, the Lord’s arm is not shortened that it cannot save, nor His ear heavy that it cannot hear. It is our sins that separate us, Isaiah said, from His power. If we commit to being Great Commission Baptists, a “Gospel Above All” people, and a family of truth and integrity, might not we see the outpouring of the power of God in our generation?
William Carey said, “The future is as bright as the promises of God!” May our future as Great Commission Baptists be so bright.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – J.D. Greear is pastor of The Summit Church in the Raleigh-Durham, N.C., area and president of the Southern Baptist Convention. His address to the SBC Executive Committee has been edited for length.)