Concerns are building among some black Southern Baptists about a predominantly white conservative church movement to redirect funds away from the denomination's policy arm because of disagreements with Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission President Russell Moore.
Earlier this week, the Southern Baptist Executive Committee set in motion a study surveying churches to pursue "redemptive solutions to the current reality in Southern Baptist life of churches either escrowing or discontinuing Cooperative Program funds," according to the Baptist Press on Monday.
A study of this nature has been brought about in part because of congregations like Prestonwood Baptist Church outside of Dallas, Texas, escrowing their contributions to the Cooperative Program in order to steer resources away from the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the agency Moore leads. This distresses some notable African-Americans within the SBC, many of whom generally shared Moore's anti-Trump stance during the 2016 election and appreciate his emphasis on issues of racial justice.
Frank Page, president of the SBC's Executive Committee, said in an interview with The Christian Post on Wednesday that while he does not presume to speak for all black Southern Baptists, he noted that many "do feel that Dr. Moore has spoken to issues that are of importance to them and so it would be very hurtful if he were to leave."
Such is the sentiment of African-American Pastor Dwight McKissic of Arlington, Texas, who wrote Monday at SBC Voices that if Moore ends up being reprimanded or rejected, "it would be difficult for me to be able to continue to say, I'm proud and grateful to be a Southern Baptist. I am not sure how a reprimand will affect many like-minded black Baptists who are members of the SBC."
Too many white Southern Baptists, he argued, are inextricably linked to the GOP and such blind political loyalty is being prioritized.
But other black leaders, while acknowledging the tensions in the denomination, attribute this to a generational cycle of sorts that occurs every so often, saying that current discontent is partially due to unusual political circumstances.
In an interview with CP on Thursday, Kevin Smith, an African-American pastor who is the executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware, said that as the SBC continues to stretch beyond its regional stronghold in the South it's going to have to endure these kinds of challenges as they become more diverse in every way.
"More so than strictly along the categories of race, I just think the divisions are along the lines of political division as far as methodology" about how to engage culture and politics, Smith said.
Leading the ERLC is one "challenging" job, he added, and Moore is "finding that rhythm."
While black and white Southern Baptists are on the same page on social issues like the sanctity of life and marriage, he said, "it's just hard to speak for 16 million Baptists, and an even harder job as those people become more ideologically distinct."
Smith further underscored the challenge of speaking in a strange year like 2016, especially given "the personality of then candidate Trump" and all that came with it.
The Louisiana Baptist Convention is arguably the camp most upset with Moore; they passed an official resolution asking the Executive Committee to investigate the ERLC, an action that is not within the EC's purview. A handful of ministers, including the pastor of the predominantly black Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans, Fred Luter — the first ever African-American elected president of the SBC — signed a letter publicly dissenting from the resolution. CP reached out to Luter for comment on this article but calls were not returned by press time.
Churches escrowing funds amounts to "cutting our fellowship lines too thin," said David Crosby in a CP interview on Thursday. Crosby is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of New Orleans, a friend of and colleague of Luter's, and also a signer of the letter dissenting from the state convention's resolution.
As CP reported on Feb. 21, some Louisiana Baptists assert that their objections were not related to Moore's comments about then candidate Donald Trump, but how he intimated that Christians supporting him cared more about having political influence than they did sharing the Gospel, a charge they spurned since many of their churches actively evangelize.
But Crosby believes that had Moore's pointed remarks been directed toward Hillary Clinton in the same manner he criticized Trump "we wouldn't have this storm."
"I can guarantee that had he been talking about Hillary, nobody would be objecting," he said. "That is for certain. So this is about Trump, the Republican Party, and its ill-advised connection to the power brokers in the Southern Baptist Convention."
Historically, Crosby continued, "people of color have seen politics from a different point of view than the white majority, and if we truly want to be diverse in our Convention ... we must not only invite people of all ethnicities and cultural backgrounds into our churches, but we also must give them space intellectually and politically and not make these tertiary matters a condition for fellowship."
"The things that are dividing us right now are not worthy of the conflict and sorrow that is on the horizon with these matters," he emphasized.
Yet even in light of these presently heightened sensitivities, EC President Page reiterated that the divisions, though very real, do not involve anyone attempting to undo racial healing within the Church, something about which he cares very deeply.
Several SBC councils are engaged in a "deliberate long-term effort" toward greater racial reconciliation, which include getting 33 different ethnic groups within the denomination "into our processes at a much higher level," Page said.
"It is my goal," he stressed, "to make sure that elections such as Pastor Fred Luter's are not an anomaly but an ongoing part of who we are. And I'm looking forward to the day when we see Hispanic presidents and Asian-American presidents."
The report on the Executive Committee's findings will be presented at their September 2017 meeting.