Have you ever wondered “What does the ‘Southern’ in Southern Baptist mean?” It is a good question!
After all, the sun never sets on Southern Baptist missionaries planting churches and making disciples all over the world. We are truly a global denomination, working in joyful cooperation with like-minded churches and ministries in every continent. But for a denomination with such proud inclusivity today, our past has some skeletons in the closet.
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was founded as a sort of church split by an entire denomination over the issue of slavery. Baptists in the south split from Baptists in the north to found a denomination that would allow the sending of missionaries who owned slaves.
Since that time, the denomination, as a whole, has taken key steps in overcoming our racist roots. In the 1995, we, as a convention, denounced the racist actions of our denominational fathers. In 2012, Fred Luther became the first African-American man elected president of the SBC. Just last year, the SBC denounced the Alt-Right (after an embarrassing first vote fail).
And a few weeks ago, an SBC entity (the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission) partnered with an organization that has a strong SBC presence (The Gospel Coalition) to put on a conference focusing on racial issues in the church. The backdrop for the conference was a man who himself was familiar with controversy surrounding the issue of race.
On April 4, 1968 the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn. The night before his assassination, Dr. King gave a speech in Memphis to inspire a group of sanitation workers that the struggle for Civil Rights was costly, but right.
He inspired them by preaching the parable Jesus taught about the Good Samaritan. He pointed out that the Priest and the Levite who passed by could possibly have thought, “Perhaps the robbers are still nearby. If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But the Good Samaritan came and could have acknowledged the danger but reversed the question, “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” Dr. King would finish this inspiring speech, on the night before his murder, by comparing himself to Moses on the mountaintop.
“We’ve got difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. Like anyone, I would like to live a long life. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He has allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land! I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land! I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
These words have haunted me since I first read/heard them. And in Memphis last month, these words shaped the conversation on race for some 4,000-plus gathered.
More than 25 percent of the conference was non-Anglo, and about half of the stage personalities as well. This was a conference that focused on the Gospel of Jesus Christ and asked the question how should thoughtful Christians in our world today respond to the issue of racism?
Dr. Russell Moore of the ERLC gave the opening keynote, calling us to sacrifice our preferences for the sake of unity in our churches. “If we have to change our worship styles, let’s crucify our worship styles. If God’s way upsets our political alliances, let’s crucify our political alliances. To be a Gospel people means we do not seek cheap reconciliation, but a cross reconciliation.”
Throughout the conference, a diverse group of speakers stepped to the platform to speak, sing and pray. The diversity was not merely ethnic, but generational, geographical, occupational and denominational. The conference modeled the unity and racial reconciliation it called churches and Christians to embrace today.
Southern Baptists in the state of Oklahoma need to embrace this today. God has used our state convention and churches across Oklahoma to see a multitude of persons reconciled to Christ, and we all have now been given the ministry of reconciliation. And that includes not merely being reconciled to God, but reconciled to one another.
There are some who would tell us that race is an issue that is being stirred up today in order to score political points. Shame on me and shame on us when we buy into that narrative. Race has been an issue since Genesis in every civilization. It would be hubris for us to claim that we are beyond race issues today.
The Church of Jesus Christ should be leading the culture in seeking racial reconciliation. This begins by repenting for our failures and by acknowledging the struggle of non-white brothers and sisters in Christ as well as our neighbors who do not know Jesus.
Some will tell us racial injustice ended a generation ago. Yet these same people will often speak of how following the Bible’s plan for families will impact your family legacy for generations to come. It is inconsistent to claim that the proper use of Scripture can have generational impact for good but to deny the past misses of Scripture matters today.
In 2012 in New Orleans, Southern Baptists voted to add an optional descriptor of churches in our convention “Great Commission Baptists”. This is truly what unites us. A laser-focus on our Savior’s final marching orders to his people. We are called to make disciples of all nations.
There will come a day when the Great Commission is complete. On that day we will worship around the throne with people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. When we see Him as He is, there will not be a worship style, political alliance or tribal identity of any kind that prevents us from worshipping the King of Kings together. Let’s not wait for The Day to seek for unity. Let us each confess our own fears of what unity would cost us and crucify our own comforts for the sake of true Gospel unity in our churches today.