Southern Baptists, Black Presidents, & Homosexuality

For the very first time the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has elected a black President. And I am happy about it. As someone who has historical roots in the SBC, it’s a happiness borne out of relief. But I am a little puzzled why many are wearing it as a badge of honor. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought Christians should be at the forefront of equality movements, the first in every sphere of life to declare “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Are we really excited and proud that it has taken 60 years after the Civil Rights Movement to put a black person in charge of the largest Evangelical denomination? At least take the time to be humbled by it and learn from it, rather than simply tossing it in the trophy case.

Okay, rant over. What I found most interesting as I thought about this “historic moment,” was how it seems to fit a certain pattern in Evangelicalism* We have to walk a fine line between “preservation” and “relevancy.” If we do not preserve, we will lose our identity as Evangelicals. If we do not stay relevant, we will lose our voice in the culture. This tends to lead to a pattern where we eventually change our views to fit the culture but we do it more slowly. That way we seem to be preserving while getting to stay relevant. There seems to be three distinct movements:

Stage 1: The culture moves in a particular direction and Evangelicals knee-jerk reaction is to reject it. They write books about how the culture is headed in the wrong direction and how we need to “return to our historical roots” or something like that. In this stage we are pretty well unified in our rejection. This may last a few decades.

Stage 2: At some point, some Evangelicals start to play with the idea that perhaps the culture is onto something and that the Bible can be compatible with it. Our books no longer sound like harsh criticism but stepping our toes in the water to see what we can come up with. In this second stage, there becomes internal discord while we duke it out and figure out which side we will stand on, what we think the Bible actually saysand then align our alliances accordingly. This too may last a few decades.

Stage 3: Finally, once the broader culture is onto something new and no longer really debates the matter, most Evangelicals make the same move the culture did 40 years before. Some groups and individuals do it gradually over time while others make a proclamation that they are now “this type” of church or person. At some point in this stage, if you don’t capitulate you become a “fringe group” and are labeled “fundamentalist” or at least we say that you no longer “speak for us as Christians.”

Let’s take a look at this pattern and see if there is something to it.

Divorce. Evangelicals held out that divorce was a sin, and not allowed, for many years. Of course, they were just following a few thousand years of Church Tradition. But eventually divorce became widespread in the culture and biblical scholars began to wonder if maybe they had the Bible wrong on this issue. With the work of folks like David Instone-Brewer and when the cultural pressure reached a tipping point, we simply found acceptable divorce in the Bible and then baptized it.

I am not interested, for my point here, in whether or not we “got it right this time,” that is, what the Bible actually says about divorce, but about why we keep holding things so dogmatically when history shows that we will likely change our minds about it when culture does? We are so tied to our need for an “unchanging foundation of Christian ethics” that we seem to suffer from memory loss when it comes to all the times the Church has changed its mind on all sorts of ethical areas and categories.

Women in Leadership. Let’s look at another example, one that we are still in the middle of as Evangelicals: women in leadership. Again, this position has been popular and assumed in broader culture for several decades while Evangelicals largely rejected it. After a while, scholars began to wonder if maybe we had it wrong, maybe the Bible was okay with women, you know, being equal to men. The first step was to allow women to work outside the home. Then it was to allow women to actually be in charge of men in the workplace. And unfortunately, we are still in Stage 2 (see above) when it comes to women in leadership in the church.

As a church, there is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, but there is still certainly male and female (see Gal. 3:28). But, based on what I see in other areas, this is my prediction: 25 years from now if you don’t allow women in leadership you will be a “fringe group.” We are now entering into stage 3 where it will no longer be debatable. You either capitulate or you lose relevancy and get relegated to the fringe of conversation.

Racial Equality. To bring us back to the topic at hand, let’s look at a more relevant topic. The Civil Rights Movement was mostly rejected by conservative Christians. It was led by “liberals” like Martin Luther King, Jr., who was implicitly reprimanded by Jerry Falwell (who was an evangelical and became a member of the SBC in 1996, before which he was an Independent Baptist) in a 1965 sermon entitled “Ministers & Marches.” Jerry Falwell, one of the figureheads of the Evangelical movement before he passed away, even preached a sermon in 1958 titled, “Segregation & Integration: Which?” I’ll let you imagine which one was biblical.

My point is not to criticize Falwell. I am actually a Liberty alum and have always respected Falwell. My point is that he changed his mind, like a majority of Evangelicals in the South, once the culture had decided to go in a different direction. It was either that or he lost his platform and became a “fringe” voice. And now, with this issue in particular, racial equality, we are well into stage 3. No one in Evangelicalism questions it anymore. And if they do, we consider them “fringe” and “not representing us.”

Homosexuality. I wonder if we will follow this pattern. I know that by including the GLBTQ community into this post I am opening up an entirely new conversation. But as something that represents the very early stages of Stage 1, as I have defined it above, I am interested to see if this moves into Stage 2 (it already has for mainline denominations but not yet for Evangelical denominations) or to Stage 3.

But whether or not homosexuality fits, there does seem to be a pattern. Reject, Debate, & Accept. But maybe if we are to represent the God of grace we have it backward. Maybe, the pattern of the God we find in Jesus Christ is to accept first, debate later.

*I am still processing this. Since I have not done any hard research on this, I hold these thoughts lightly. And I have no idea what the implications are yet. Any thoughts or critique is welcome.

8 responses to “Southern Baptists, Black Presidents, & Homosexuality

  1. I believe there is an alternate route for step three, in which the church becomes so overwhelmed by culture that they no longer kick and scream anymore. Perhaps this could be labeled “We realize we cannot run other people’s lives”. My example would be premarital sex. I am pretty sure that most denominations do not approve of it, but have given up the battle and no longer try to prevent in outside of the church. There is still plenty of encouragement, but there aren’t rallies trying to get it out of our culture or magazines (like the two moms in the Kohls catalog).

    Just like your step 3, this step should also be a starting point as well. I see that paul says in 1 Corinthians 5:12 not to judge outside the church (but i am very open to being corrected about that interpretation), and it would appear that with issues we are firmly against outside the church should also be met with grace and love.

    However, I do think that homosexuality will probably be in line with your process. A decent percentage of christian youth (from my experience) either don’t care or don’t have an opinion anymore about the issue. As culture becomes more accepting, the next generation or two will eventually line up with it.

    I sadly find abortion to be more in the category I said. The point will come where abortion will never be outlawed, if it has not already come, and the fight against abortion will probably slow down as we all tire out. I do not think the church will ever accept it as morally permissible, but there will not be nearly as many rallies and protests.

    Perhaps Christians will finally choose something to be for instead of something to be against.

    • Good thoughts on a different “sub-category Josh.” I’ll have to think about it more but I think you are probably right.

  2. I will mention this again: It is Christ who guides his Church. If the Baptist communities have communion in the Holy body then their path is the responsibility of the Shepherd who will guide them to be safe within the flock.

    I suspect the things you talk about are characteristics of a regional culture and not characteristics (or fruit) of the Baptist faith.

    It is tempting to think that we syncretize the Church and it is obvious that we attempt to syncretize his Church….but if what we are doing is Church then it is the Church built on the foundation of the Apostles and guided by Christ as he promised.

    It is likely that if there are characteristics we dislike in Church then they were not characteristics of the Church to begin with. Because of the presence of Christ in his Holy Church it follows that if we do not understand Church correctly then we must first misunderstand Christ.

    There is a challenge in every age to know Christ in the forms by which he makes himself truly present, to know God by knowing Christ, and to Love and adore his Most Holy Body which is given for the salvation of the World.


    Garry Mott, OFS

  3. An earlier example would be slavery, which is of particular relevance to the SBC because that is where it started. Slavery through to segregation, the underlying constants are racism and greed. So there is a sense in which one can see why the present-day SBC consider a black leader to be a ‘badge of honour’ – it’s a bit like a reformed alcoholic who can spend an evening with his friends in the local pub/bar and happily drink mineral water, without craving or envy. They have made a long and difficult journey from a very dark place to somewhere close to ‘normality’. At least in that particular area.

    A much earlier example would be the issue of Gentiles in the early church. This highlights another phase, somewhere in the stage 2/stage 3 overlap: “they are welcome to join us … so long as they change their behaviour to conform to our standards”. With the Gentiles that meant following Torah (including circumcision, but the rest of the Law too); with modern homosexuals and unmarried couples it requires a change in sexual behaviour.

    I can’t help feeling that this whole merry-go-round is somehow based on a false premise, a wrong way of looking at things. As a variation on what Josh says above, surely Jesus’ followers should be looking for reasons to include people, rather than reasons to exclude them. One take on the ‘good news’ in Mark (a gospel which notably omits most of the standard evangelical ‘evangelism’ spiel) is that Jesus is opening up God’s kingdom to anyone, including ‘outsiders’, it’s not just for the religious people.

  4. An interesting extension of this analysis would be to look for times when the culture shifted, the church stayed put, and the culture eventually came back.

  5. Pingback: Blog Rewind | Jared Byas

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