About brotherly love: You don’t need me to write you because you yourselves are taught by God to love one another. In fact, you are doing this toward all the brothers and sisters in the entire region of Macedonia. But we encourage you, brothers and sisters, to do this even more… (1 Thessalonians 4:9–10).
I am grateful that the Southern Baptist Convention overwhelmingly approved a resolution denouncing white supremacy, especially as seen in the alt-right movement. Praise God for his sanctifying grace in the life of the network of churches I have come to love and call home. This article intends to call our family of churches to the next step in light of our recent resolve.
Part of the approved resolution states:
RESOLVED, That we acknowledge that we still must make progress in rooting out any remaining forms of intentional or unintentional racism in our midst.
“Unintentional racism” tends to flow from ignorance, rather than malice. It assumes that lack of individual hatred or prejudice means that racism has been eradicated. But racism exists in many subtle forms, most pointedly in institutional and organizational structures. Even more specifically, such structures promote “racialization,” where “race matters profoundly for differences in life experiences, life opportunities, and social relationships” (Emerson and Smith, Divided by Faith, p. 7). Race matters profoundly for opportunities of leadership in the SBC. We need increased diversity of leadership at the highest levels of executive leadership, both nationally and the state level. Despite the wonderful developments of the convention voting persons of color into prominent positions in Southern Baptist life (President, VP, President of Pastor’s Conference), we need to excel still more, and to excel still more exponentially. A convention of churches founded in 1845 in part to protect slavery and almost completely led by white leaders for a century and a half needs to do deep work to root out institutional racialization. The recent votes for resolutions against racism are like the first wins in a long playoff run. We have to focus and work harder still, because the real work is in front of us.
Bottom line: the SBC’s formal and functional leadership structures are insufficiently diverse. Most of the positions of influence in the life of the convention are held by white leaders. This undermines our credibility in denouncing white supremacy, compromising our gospel and the credibility of our witness. Sadly, it loses credibility in the fellowship of brothers and sisters of color with white members. White members’ affirmations of love for brothers and sisters of color can ring like a hollow gong without a strong, visible, formal, and functional affirmation of equal authority in Christ. This is not to say that the SBC is committed to a racist agenda to elevate whites and denigrate persons of color. It does mean that in the SBC’s entity heads, national committees, institutional boards, and state conventions persons of color are disproportionately underrepresented. This needs to change, and it needs to change quickly.
Look at the church in Acts 6. The Greek-speaking (i.e. minority) widows were being overlooked by the Hebrew-speaking (i.e. majority) leadership in the allocation of resources. The apostles empowered the church to appoint leaders to address the situation — and the chosen leaders were all minority, Greek-speaking leaders. We must follow this example. We must denounce functionally and formally any whiff of white supremacy, any idea that white leaders call almost all of the most important shots. The best way for this happen credibly is by empowering ethnically diverse leadership at the highest levels of executive power.
I am not an expert in Southern Baptist polity. I have neither influence nor expertise to give step-by-step instructions on accomplishing this. I can see from the evident ethnic makeup of the most prominent positions of leadership that we need to address this, and quickly. I believe our credibility, both in terms of our fidelity to the gospel itself and in our public witness, depends on it. Much like the Conservative Resurgence worked within the polity of the convention to appoint leaders who believed the Bible, we must work to appoint ethnically diverse leaders to represent the reality of our convention and world. Most multiethnic church practitioners see 20% as the watershed for church diversity. That is, no single group makes up more than 80% of the congregation. This is a baseline goal, the minimum standard. In this light, in order to excel still more, I believe 25% ethnic diversity on every committee and board should be the SBC’s immediate aim. There must be a loud enough voice to dislodge any tendency to fall back into a homogenous and/or racialized status quo. As Jarvis Williams says in Removing the Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention:
If we as Southern Baptists are going to take serious strides toward leading the evangelical world in the work of gospel-centered racial reconciliation in the twenty-first century and toward removing the stain of racism from the SBC, we must listen to and include more qualified, under-represented voices of color within our denomination. Vetted black and brown people need a platform on which to speak and from which to write about important issues affecting our churches and denomination […] Shared leadership within the SBC would perhaps help our denomination gain great insights from the diversity within it and provide credibility with both majority and minority Christians (pp.46–47).
There must be an evident diversity of leadership to represent what Jesus would have our convention become: fully reconciled in its diversity, under the cross. This is a gospel issue.
This is not to denounce any leader of any entity, committee, board, or institution. This is not merely a response to recent events. This call flows from a deep-seated and years-long conviction based on the Bible. The Scripture demonstrates that ethnically diverse bodies (churches or conventions) need ethnically diverse leadership. This is likewise not a crusade to “oust” any person. This is to say that when positions of executive leadership open up, persons of color should be the first choices for those positions. Before anyone writes this off as some baptized form of “affirmative action,” I would encourage them to look at the empowerment of minority leadership in Acts 6. I would encourage them to look at the diversity of the leadership team of the Antioch church in Acts 13. This is not a negotiable for an ethnically diverse convention in an ethnically diverse world. The gospel demands that we do this.
We must do this for at least four reasons: First, persons of color in the SBC are brothers and sisters and co-heirs in Christ with white persons in the SBC. Therefore, there must be proportionate influence of leadership authority. Here we must affirm that persons of color should serve as representative of the entire SBC, as white leaders currently do, not as token representatives. Second, diversity of leadership is the logical and biblical next step in the movement of racial reconciliation within our convention in recent years. Third, increasingly diverse leadership will give credibility to our witness in accomplishing the Great Commission. Such a commitment envisions an ethnically diverse convention with ethnically diverse leadership reaching all the ethnicities of the world with good news. Fourth, this commitment would move the SBC toward more comprehensively demonstrating the reconciled diversity of Jesus’ church, his new humanity, at the end of time around Jesus’ throne.
God is sanctifying the SBC. Make we excel still more, by his grace.