The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Several Black pastors break with the Southern Baptist Convention over a statement on race

Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear speaks on a panel discussion about racial reconciliation during the SBC’s annual meeting on June 11, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. (Butch Dill/Religion News Service)
Placeholder while article actions load

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. They examine how institutional racism came to exist in American life and law and how it endures. 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.”

In the 1960’s, Gloria Richardson emerged as one of the nation’s leading civil rights fighters. Now, at 98, she talks about how she sees U.S. race relations. (Video: The Washington Post)

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.

“We regret that our statement inadvertently caused significant hurt among some black brothers and sisters,” the statement said, noting that seminary leaders will meet with Black SBC leaders in January. “This was never our intention or in our heart, even as we expressed our genuine concern about what we see as dangerous ideologies,” they told The Post.

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.

“The reaction has been like a bomb exploded,” said Dwight McKissic, a Black pastor in Arlington, Texas, who said he’s still deciding his status within the SBC.

Southern Baptists see historic drop in membership

Two years ago, Martin established the Brook Community Church with $10,000 from the Southern Baptist Convention, and its state convention has been giving the church $1,200 a month for two years. This week, he said he would pull his multiethnic church of about 75 people out of the SBC. Martin knows he’s taking a financial risk.

“When we started, my wife was like, ‘I don’t know, babe. I don’t know about going with them, just because of the history,’ ” Martin said. The SBC was founded in 1845 in defense of missionaries who owned enslaved people. “I said I’ll give it a shake because of a relationship I had. It was about the network.”

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.

“There are folks who would leave in a heartbeat,” Onwuchekwa said. “But to leave would have very real consequences for people who are on their staffs.”

Some Black Southern Baptist pastors say they are tired of watching the country progress on racial justice while their own religious community tepidly advances or even regresses on the topic.

Few Americans even know the meaning of the concept of critical race theory, a term coined by academics to help describe the pervasive and entrenched nature of racism. Some religious critics of the theory see it as inherently flawed because it doesn’t focus on sin as the problem and God as the answer.

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.

An increasingly right-wing portion of the SBC is “making it untenable or unbearable for people who are moderate, let alone passionate on racial justice,” said Jemar Tisby, an author and historian who focuses on race in the church. “It’s a larger trend in U.S. Christianity, whether on family separations, a spate of federal executions, the rise of white supremacists like the Proud Boys — these are very clear moral issues that are forcing people to take sides, and it will result in separation.”

Concern about racism and racial equality are not new in the SBC. The vast majority of Black Christians belong instead to historically Black denominations. But those who are in the SBC identify with the cultural and theological — and sometimes political — conservatism, and the emphasis on the Bible and prayer over social justice. In the 2000s, the SBC recorded a 43 percent jump in the number of majority-Black churches in the convention.

Then a few weeks ago, the six seminary presidents set off controversy with their letter, which also rejected “intersectionality,” which seeks to explain how different facets of identity intersect.

The presidents did not define what they meant by critical race theory or intersectionality, and some Southern Baptists immediately had questions: Why this? Why now?

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

“Our focus must be on promoting the Gospel rather than having prolonged debates about new ideas that gain cultural traction. … Anything that detracts from that eternal message is counterproductive to our mission of sharing the Gospel with the nations,” Jeff Iorg, the president of Gateway Seminary, wrote.

Prominent Southern Baptists are dropping ‘Southern’ name amid racial unrest

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.

But critics said the seminary presidents’ letter seemed politically timed, too vague and, judging by responses, designed to soothe the convention’s White and more-conservative members.

“Wisdom would’ve been helpful before they published it,” said Marshall Blalock, who is White and the pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, S.C. Blalock, who said he is not necessarily a proponent of critical race theory, said the seminary presidents’ statement detracts from efforts to achieve racial reconciliation. “It’s distracted us from the real issue, which is systemic sin along racial lines.”

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.”

Tisby said discussion has been intensifying among Southern Baptists since the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement about how to understand racial division: Is racism still a problem? Is it a matter of individual prejudice or is it systemic?

Then in 2020, Tisby noted, the killing of Black Americans spurred racial justice movements. Tisby’s book “The Color of Compromise” and others such as “How to Be an Anti-Racist” shot up the bestseller lists as many Americans sought to learn more about racism. Others complained that racial differences were being overemphasized.

A key trigger was the passage in 2019 at the SBC convention of a resolution saying critical race theory was not acceptable as a comprehensive, “transcendent” Christian way to see race-related conflict, but had helpful and truthful parts.

Tom Ascol, a pastor in Cape Coral, Fla., who is head of a group called the Founders Network that has attacked critical race theory, said he plans to make a motion to rescind the resolution. He said that the convention has boundaries and that those who won’t work within them should leave.

“If they can’t let go of that ideology and they’re offended by the seminary presidents, then okay,” he said. “They must leave. I’m not going to wish them ill will. I’m not going to try to talk them into staying.”

Curtis Woods, a Black pastor who was chair of the committee that brought the 2019 resolution to a vote, has come under fierce attacks. He said the seminary presidents’ statement opens a Pandora’s box questioning all kinds of theories, including in fields such as philosophy, sociology and the hard sciences.

“I couldn’t work in an environment where people questioned my biblical fidelity and integrity,” said Woods, who was a professor at Southern Seminary until earlier this year.

He said that critical race theory is not a worldview for him but a helpful tool in giving language and definition to the experience of Black Americans, something he used in writing a chapter in a book on racism in the SBC.

Woods, who became pastor of a predominantly White megachurch in Elizabethtown, Ky., this year, said he is confident that he will die a Southern Baptist because he believes in the church’s ability to spread missionaries around the world, but he said some African American leaders like him are going to stop trying to do their work in a predominantly White denomination.

“I’m like, I can’t handle this,” Woods said. “Let me just go pastor a church and love on some folks.”