In its nearly 172 year history, the Southern Baptist Convention has been known for many things: A commitment to global missions, defending the authority of Scripture, a hands-on response to disaster relief, and—for the past few decades—being a voice on behalf of the unborn. It’s also been accused of being rooted in, and unable to shake, an undercurrent of racism.
The SBC originally was formed because some Baptist churches believed slaveholders should be allowed to be missionaries. In its early days, the SBC actively opposed abolition and in the 1970s influential SBC leaders like Jerry Falwell came to the defense of Bob Jones University—and by correlation private SBC Christian schools—when the IRS fought BJU over what they claimed was a “Biblical mandate” for segregation. According to longtime administration of BJU, Elmer L. Rumminger, it was “this major issue that really got us all involved [in the SBC-influenced Moral Majority].”
This history has for some minority churches in the SBC created a rift that gained attention in recent months during the Russell Moore controversy. While some wondered if Moore would be fired for his outspoken criticism of Trump voters during the 2016 election, some black SBC pastors warned that firing Moore—who has also been a passionate voice of racial reconciliation within the denomination—would increase a sense of marginalization for predominantly non-white SBC churches.
It’s important to understand this history to grasp just how significant it was in 2012 when Fred Luter was elected the first president of the convention. As then Dean at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and current head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore said “The election of Fred Luter doesn’t mean the question of racial justice is settled for Southern Baptists, but it is one small step toward our confessing that Jesus Christ and Jim Crow cannot exist in the same denomination, or in the same heart. One has got to go.”
Now, five years later, the SBC is taking another step toward racial unity as a popular white pastor from Oklahoma—Brad Graves—voluntarily stepped out of the running for the SBC’s Pastor’s Conference President so H.B. Charles, a black pastor from Florida, can run unopposed. Charles will be the first to serve in this role in SBC’s history.
“I don’t want to be anything divisive” Graves said. “I think it’s time to show the culture that there is something that unites [Southern Baptists] more than just a Cooperative Program or a mission statement, but that we really do care for one another. We really are brothers in a fraternity. Our convention is very diverse. This will help show how diverse we really are.”
Charles has been the pastor of the predominantly black Shiloh Metropolitan Church in Jacksonville, Florida since 2008. In 2015, the 4,000-member church merged with the mostly white Ridgewood Baptist Church. He’s the author of four books and a regular speaker at SBC events. Former Pastors’ Conference President Ken Whitten said while Charles is a phenomenal communicator, it’s this ability to be a unifying ethnic force that makes him the right leader for the SBC.
“We thought it was time to stop talking about racial unity in positions of leadership within our convention” and “put a president out there at the Pastors’ Conference” from among the “African Americans, Hispanics and Asians who are pastoring great churches and are very worthy of being in positions of leadership in our convention,” said Whitten, pastor of Tampa-area Idlewild Baptist Church in Lutz, Florida.
At their annual convention in 1989, the SBC drafted a resolution on racism that among other things said:
WHEREAS, Southern Baptists have not always clearly stood for racial justice and equality; and
WHEREAS, The growth in the racial and ethnic population of Southern Baptist life is a strong indicator of our growing diversity …
Therefore, be it RESOLVED, That we, the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, June 13-15, 1989, affirm our intention of standing publicly and privately for racial justice and equality.
Be it further RESOLVED, That we repent of any past bigotry and pray for those who are still caught in its clutches …
It was approximately 140 years before this resolution was drafted, and another few decades until Luter was elected. But in the last few years the SBC has made enormous strides toward ethnic inclusivity that will only amplify the good they’re accomplishing for God’s kingdom.