As a racial and ideological divide over critical race theory continues to roil the Southern Baptist Convention, two of the denomination’s senior black leaders insist the denomination is big enough to accommodate dissent.
“My understanding is that there is enough room under the tent of Southern Baptist for differing opinions,” Rolland Slade, the 62-year-old senior pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, California, who was elected as the first black chair of the SBC’s executive committee last June, told The Christian Post.
“What must hold us together is our collective passion to fulfill the Great Commission. We may disagree along the way and those disagreements will cause tension, yet they should not separate us from our calling to be salt and light in a world of darkness. We must focus on what we have in common rather than our differences as we are all created in the image of God.”
His comments come after a megachurch pastor, who is not part of the SBC, called on black leaders in the denomination to leave over the CRT dispute.
“My call is for African American pastors is to simply get out!” Theron Williams, pastor of Mt. Carmel Church of Indianapolis, Indiana, said in an interview with WXII 12.
Williams, who is also the founder and president of The Bible is Black History Institute, argues that a statement last year by the SBC’s Council of Seminary Presidents to condemn “racism in any form” while rejecting CRT as incompatible with their faith is white supremacy at work.
“It’s actually a response to the Southern Baptist Convention’s position that critical race theory is inconsistent with their theology as they see it and so [in] their theological seminaries, there will be no discourse, there will be no teaching, no conversation about how race affects our society,” Williams argued.
Amid tensions triggered by mass protests against racial injustice and police brutality in 2020, the statement by the Council of Seminary Presidents, which is comprised of the SBC’s six seminaries, has led some black leaders to leave the denomination.
There now appears to be an impasse over the issue that could likely contribute to more black pastors and their congregations cutting ties with the SBC if Resolution 9, which describes critical race theory as an analytical tool that can “aid in evaluating a variety of human experiences,” is rescinded at the SBC’s annual meeting this summer.
Slade said while he understands Williams’ position, he respects the autonomy of the local church and the entities of the SBC.
The Rev. Jeffery W. Friend, pastor of Suburban Baptist Church in New Orleans, Louisiana, and executive board member of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, argued in an interview with CP Monday that people outside of the denomination shouldn’t be commenting on SBC affairs.
“The people who are not a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, I don’t care what the pigmentation of their skin is, if they are not a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, surely they have an opinion but their opinion should not matter or be a deciding factor of what that institution should do,” he said.
“One of the major reasons I became a Baptist is the theological term called autonomy. And autonomy means that I’m not bound to anyone’s opinion on what should or shouldn’t be done in their religious institution or their church,” he said. “As far as the CRT scenario, I believe that it is a danger to force any religious institution to teach anything other than theology and doctrine of the Bible. I am a graduate of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary with four degrees – I got my associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from said seminary and there wasn’t any time I was taught pro racism. We were always taught that racism is not of God.”
He argued that while the SBC isn’t perfect, he has been a part of the denomination since 1999 and he has watched it evolved and worked with pastors who are trying to understand the dynamics of race, particularly in light of the recent police killings of black persons caught on video and the ensuing protests against them.
“It’s nothing new to me but there are some who have never experienced and never saw or never been a part of this divide. If you stay within your core group, your circle or your family or your religious church and you never go outside of it, you’ll never experience it. But because of the technology we have now, what has been happening for decades, if not centuries now, everybody gets to see what many of them never saw. And so what is the perpetuation of the norm for me is an eye-opener for some,” Friend said.
“I receive many emails and telephone calls asking — because I give my Anglo friends permission to call and ask me the stupid questions because I know your heart, not what your words can say — and sometimes it literally amazes me how they are seeing the revelation because they never thought [about] what is being experienced or being viewed today,” he explained. “You can’t see something you’ve never been a part of or have no desire to see. The Bible says many folks have eyes yet they do not see. They have noses yet they do not smell. They have tongues yet they have no ability to taste. They have minds but they don’t even contemplate.”
He said one of the things that attracted him to the SBC is the current diversity of the denomination that was founded on racial segregation.
“If you talk to individuals in the conglomerate, you will always find one who’s a bigot, you’ll always find one that’s still a racist, you’ll always find one that wants to maintain its predominantly white historical presentation. But yesterday has no bearing on where the convention has a desire to be,” he said.
Friend’s church, which has a weekly attendance of 125, has also benefited from the support of the denomination during times of crisis such as in 2017 when his church was completely destroyed by a tornado.
Friend told Nola.com that he had no insurance when the tornado hit because the rising cost of disaster insurance in the city since Hurricane Katrina has made it too pricey for him to afford.
“Now this so-called racist convention, I didn’t make up one phone call, I didn’t call nobody but because I was a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, they showed up from all over the country and aided me to get Suburban Baptist Church functioning and I’m still functioning today,” he said.
The Indiana pastor explained that his ministry generally contributes funds to the SBC and doesn’t normally depend on the organization for financial support. When a crisis like the tornado in 2017 happens, however, he sees the value of his association with the denomination.
He noted that while some of the more outspoken black pastors in the denomination may now run larger ministries with more access to financial resources that can keep them afloat in times of emergency, many smaller churches led by black pastors cannot survive without the support of a denomination like the SBC.
“When you talk to people who have multiple ministries within the ministry, their financial situation is solvent. They’ve got thousands or hundreds of members and them leaving the resource or the source that helped them get to where they are today, it’s easy to leave the cow when I’ve got my own milk now,” he said.
“But to suggest to a brother who is still benefiting and depending on the cow to leave the cow and by leaving that cow their ministry would starve or be left high and dry, I think that not only is unwise, I think that is unchristlike,” he said.