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First Thoughts

SBC Survival Guide | Part 4: Race

Divisions Over Race

Division over the issue of race is one of the greatest threats to unity in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). This breaks my heart.

Some of that heartbreak goes back to something I learned from my mom in childhood.

Before my mother became a Christian, she would never have been confused with a virtuous woman, but with all her faults she was never a racist. My mom won scorn and lost friends when she invited an African American woman to join her and several other women at a party in our home in Kentucky. Several of the women were embarrassed, some of them left, and all of them talked about it. My mom knew it would happen and did not care. She loved her friend and thought the fault was with the women who were wrongly offended.

That example always meant a lot to me. It taught me a lesson as a little boy that when it comes to dealing with matters of race, we need, simply and straightforwardly, to be committed to standing on the principle of loving all people well. That is Jesus’ law of love (John 13:34-35). A commitment to loving all people well will be painful whenever it brings consequences from people who do not share this commitment. Even with these challenges, the law of love makes the path forward on the issue of race much easier than I sometimes think we are tempted to make it.

If the SBC is going to survive, we will only do so—and we only deserve to do so—when we are a convention who loves others well. This is a principle that is as true for race relations as it is for any other type of relationship.

Imagine that our cooperation on the issue of race is like dwelling together in a vast, beautiful, and open meadow protected by four strong walls. As long as we stay within those walls, we will enjoy love, trust, and joy in our relationships regardless of the color of our skin, our ethnicity, or our country of origin. But there are enemies on the other side of each of those four walls, and when we allow our enemies to penetrate any one of them, our cooperation will be characterized by hatred, distrust, and frustration.

Four Principles for Racial Harmony

Let me explain the four principles that comprise the protective barriers to our cooperation regarding the issue of race.

Principle #1: We Must be a Loving Convention that Is Not Racist

The American Heritage Dictionary says racism is, “The belief that race accounts for differences in human character or ability and that a particular race is superior to others.” Racism is a terrible sin that fails to realize that God has made all people in his image with equal dignity and worth (Genesis 1:27). There is no room for this sin in any church or in any denomination.

It has been observed by many that the SBC was birthed in racism. This terrible reality is to our everlasting shame and disgrace. Our commitment to Christ requires us to admit that this is a serious and mournful problem. But our commitment to Christ also demands we admit that it is not an insurmountable problem. The reason it is not insurmountable has nothing to do with ourselves and our sin. It has to do with Jesus. The most significant reason the SBC exists is to proclaim that Jesus brings forgiveness to all who trust in him. The grace of Jesus changes people, and his grace changes denominations too.

The grace of Jesus has brought meaningful change to the SBC. We are far from perfect, but we are not what we were. By the grace of Jesus, a denomination founded in racism is now fundamentally opposed to racism. This fundamental opposition is clearly expressed in our confessional document, the Baptist Faith and Message which demands in Article XV that, “In the spirit of Christ, Christians should oppose racism.” Even more than this, since the 1940s, numerous resolutions have been passed by the SBC expressing repentance over the sin of racism and demanding ever-increasing efforts at racial reconciliation. In addition to this, the SBC has elected African Americans to the highest posts in denominational life. This is a clear picture of a denomination that is living out a turn from its past sins.

The SBC must persevere in these gains and maintain our faithfulness on issues of race. We must see to it that the strong wall which forbids racism is not breached by anyone who would demean any person or group made in the image of God.

Principle #2: We Must Be a Loving Convention that Is Committed to Listening, Learning, and Ongoing Change

The fact that formal documents, official statements, and crucial leadership define the SBC as a denomination completely opposed to racism does not mean that we are completely free of the sin of racism in each person at every church, or in every corner of denominational life. Our steadfast commitment to oppose racism does not mean that some have not experienced painful instances of racial hatred. When these terrible things happen, it is right that those who have been the victims of racism be able to express the sinful mistreatment they received and the pain they experience because of it.

When we hear those stories of racial mistreatment, the law of love requires us to listen, to learn, to correct what we can, and to help those who have been mistreated move forward with grace. Indeed, it is our very commitment to avoid being a convention defined by racism that compels us to listen to such stories and grow from them. This work is called Christian care. It is called pastoral ministry. People who have experienced the pain of racism are not a threat to us or our denomination. Ministering to them in their pain is the reason we entered Christian ministry. Helping them in their lives and correcting the source of any problems they experience will strengthen our denomination.

As we live in the glorious meadow of a multiracial denomination, we are not threatened by those who have experienced the pain of racism. We are threatened by cruel voices who would keep us from hearing and learning from people who have experienced such pain.

We must not allow such cruel voices to breach the second wall and corrupt the glorious meadow of denominational life.

Principle #3: We Must Be a Loving Convention that Is Not Woke

A person is woke when they believe that all white people are guilty of the sin of “whiteness” by virtue of their being white. To say it another way, to be woke is to believe that all white people are guilty of the sin of racism regardless of who they are, where they were brought up, and whether or not they are aware of their racism. Those who are woke teach that the problem of racism which exists in every white person, and in every corner of our society can only be solved as those guilty of it confess their sin, engage in unending efforts to learn about and repair the damage of their sin, and, ultimately, seek to address the problem with political and economic solutions.

The problem with woke thinking is that it is built on a false doctrine of human sinfulness, and it teaches a false gospel. In woke thinking, sin is that of being white. You are guilty by virtue of who you are, where you were born, and what you look like. This is very different than the biblical understanding of sin as any transgression of the law of God. In woke thinking the way this problem is fixed is through an unending train of confession, learning, and penance, that never ultimately solves the problem. This is the opposite of the true good news in Scripture that teaches all of your actual sins—not your purported ones—are fully and finally forgiven through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Those of us in the SBC need to know that woke thinking is a very bad approach to racial reconciliation because it never leads to reconciliation, but only to more accusing, more guilt, more animosity, and more division. This is not what Jesus came to bring. The path forward through the sin of racism is a full confession of our sin (Principle #1), the full confidence that Jesus forgives us of our sin and empowers us to move forward, and a commitment to listening and making progress when we fall short of that noble goal (Principle #2).

Our convention will fail at reconciliation and will fail at preaching the gospel if we allow this third wall to be breached.

Principle #4: We Must Be a Loving Convention that Is Not Unrealistic

Much of the conversation about race in evangelical circles has been naïve and unrealistic.

Let me explain what I mean.

When we talk about race, Christians have done a wonderful job of explaining that we must do better at reaching different races and ethnicities. We have rightly urged that we must have churches that look more like our culture. We have exhorted our fellow Christians to work for churches on earth that will reflect the church in heaven (Revelation 7:9). I am profoundly grateful for these efforts.

In the midst of those important and helpful appeals, however, we have sometimes failed to acknowledge the obvious. That obvious observation is that Christian congregations in rural Vermont are going to look different than those in downtown Philadelphia. A church plant in Miami’s South Beach will have a vastly different racial demographic than one in Pikeville, KY. No minister has done anything wrong when the faces of the people in his church look like the faces in his local community even if that means there is less racial diversity than in other places. In such a situation, no one should make judgments about the church’s commitment to racial reconciliation but must understand the reality of demographics.

Until Jesus comes back there will be countless realities of geography, mission strategy, and personal preference that play a part in where people worship and why specific congregations look the way they look. That is good, and no cause for complaint.

Christians should not allow guilt and a spirit of suspicion to breach this fourth wall of denominational harmony, placing burdens on faithful people and congregations that are too heavy to bear. We can love each other well when different congregations have equal commitments to diversity while maintaining different demographic profiles.

Real Racial Harmony

I really believe that these four walls will contribute to racial harmony. Furthermore, I do not believe they are that hard, even though practical applications may be challenging. Even more than that, I think this is where most Southern Baptists are. We will be a more united denomination when we all agree to fight against racism, to listen to and learn from those who have experienced racism, to fight against woke thinking as a false alternative to racial reconciliation, and trust that all of us are passionate about the same things even when various ministry locations make our congregations all look a little different.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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