Posted on December 26, 2020

Several Black Pastors Break with the Southern Baptist Convention over a Statement on Race

Sarah Pulliam Bailey and Michelle Boorstein, Washington Post, December 23, 2020

A sweeping recent statement about racial theory from Southern Baptist leaders has prompted at least four Black pastors to publicly break from the denomination and has triggered high-level, urgent meetings about whether Black evangelicals have a place in the Southern Baptist Convention.

Some think the statement, issued in a year full of racial tension, could speed an exodus of Black members and leaders from the country’s largest Protestant denomination.

The Nov. 30 statement by the six SBC seminary presidents, who are White, took aim at critical race theory, a cluster of ideas that began to take shape in the 1970s and 1980s. {snip} The presidents said it is dangerous to view humans and conflict primarily through the lens of race or gender or sexuality instead of via scriptural concepts such as sin.

In their statement, the presidents said critical race theory and a new framework called “intersectionality” are “antithetical to the Bible and the only Gospel that can save.” A new statement Tuesday from Adam Greenway, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that he and the other seminary presidents accept that structural racism is a modern-day problem and think critical race theory does “rightly decry racism and injustice,” but that they reject the theory as a comprehensive way of understanding race-related problems.

Critical race theory made its way into the news in September when President Trump attacked it as part of a “left-wing cultural revolution” and issued a memo ordering federal agencies to stop employee trainings on “white privilege” and critical race theory.

Now racial tensions are building rapidly in the predominantly White denomination, whose leaders have been working in recent years to increase the number of non-White members, as well as opportunities for advancement and funding for new churches, pastors say.

Minneapolis-based W. Seth Martin, a Black pastor who lives two blocks from where George Floyd died on May 25 in an encounter with police, said he was angered by the focus on critical race theory, especially in a year in which racial protests dominated the headlines. He is leaving the SBC.

“For this to be where they plant a flag this year?” Martin said. “It was like, let’s create a problem where there wasn’t.”

The statement was timed to mark the 20th anniversary of Southern Baptists’ statement of faith. But many think it was partly meant to appease a more theologically and politically conservative faction in the denomination that has been organizing in recent years.

In a new statement issued Tuesday to The Washington Post, the presidents said they made the statement because members had asked about critical race theory’s compatibility with the SBC’s faith statement. Without defining critical race theory, they said they recognize the “reality of racism on both the personal and systemic or structural level” but still see critical race theory as incompatible with Baptist teaching.


Danny Akin, the president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, confirmed an earlier report by Religion News Service that the person who initiated the statement was Albert Mohler, the president of the flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Mohler has said he plans to run for convention president next year.

Joel Bowman, a Black pastor in Louisville, said he recently decided to leave the SBC because of several recent events, including Mohler’s support for Trump this year. The nail in the coffin, he said, was the presidents’ statement on critical race theory, setting it up as a “boogeyman.”

“I can’t sit by and continue to support or even loosely affiliate with an entity that is pitching its tent with white supremacy,” Bowman said.

Martin, the Minneapolis pastor, joins other pastors who are more established and have larger churches and also have decided to part ways with the convention. Among them are Chicago pastor Charlie Dates and Houston pastor Ralph West.


Martin, who graduated from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2018, said he started feeling uncomfortable in seminary when a professor assumed he spoke in “Ebonics” or a dialect that was more culturally Black, and was uneasy about the expectation that pastors are to assimilate into White Southern Baptists’ perception of church.

“I feel ashamed to be connected to this platform and these people right now,” he said.

Pastors such as Martin often choose to affiliate with the SBC in part because of its large network of resources, such as retirement funds for pastors and financial support for missionaries. John Onwuchekwa, a Black pastor who left the SBC this year citing several issues including Southern Baptist support for Trump, said the denomination asked for the funds it had donated to be returned (a request he declined), and his church had to refinance its building loan, which had been provided by the SBC.


Some Black church experts say the controversy is a legacy of the political alliance many White evangelicals made with Trump. These debates have made life in a predominantly White denomination more complicated for Black evangelicals, who in 2014 made up about 14 percent of all African American Christians, according to a Pew Research survey conducted that year. Eighty-five percent of Americans who identify as Southern Baptist are White, according to Pew.


Some Southern Baptist leaders said that challenging critical race theory is urgent because they think it implies that Whites are inherently racist.


SBC President J.D. Greear, who affirmed the statement on critical race theory, and New Orleans pastor Fred Luter, the only Black person to have served as president of the convention, joined a separate statement this month urging “collective repentance” for the mistreatment of people of color and the “systemic injustice” in SBC churches.


Ed Stetzer, a prominent SBC pastor who runs the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, said he thinks the blowup over critical race theory belies that many Southern Baptists are waking up to the reality of racism and are open to learning more and participating in public protest in some cases.

There are more than 10,000 majority non-White SBC churches, Stetzer said, up from 5,000 in 1995. “It’s made major progress.”