The Story: More than 160 years after its founding in a dispute over slave owning, the Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday elected a black pastor for the first time to lead the denomination.
The Background: As Denny Burk, associate professor of Biblical studies at Boyce College, notes, “Over a century and a half ago, Baptists in the south split from Baptists in the north over the issue of slavery. Southern Baptists wanted to appoint slave owners as missionaries, and the northern Baptists disagreed. And so in 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention was born.”
In the mid-1990s, Southern Baptists affirmed a resolution of repentance for being on the wrong side of slavery and Jim Crow. But as Burk says, “It was too long in coming, but it was good and needed.” As CNN points out, the election of the Rev. Fred Luter Jr. of New Orleans comes 17 years after Southern Baptist leaders apologized for the denomination’s one-time support of white supremacist and segregationist policies. Luter was unopposed in the election, which occurred Tuesday afternoon at the denomination’s annual meeting in New Orleans.
Why It Matters: In February I interviewed Pastor Luter and discussed how his being selected as president of the SBC would have affect the denomination’s future:
Fred Luter hadn’t planned on becoming a multi-site preacher. But in the summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina buried his church and his city under nine feet of water—-and dispersed his congregation across the country. By January 2006, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church had recovered enough that it began holding worship services in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and Houston. Luter, while living in Birmingham, Alabama, spent his time traveling to these three cities—-as well as across the United States—-to minister to his church’s displaced members.
“Fred Luter is a hero,” says Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “He stood with conviction and compassion and shepherded his flock after Katrina, when he could have gone anywhere, had a comfortable ministry, and chalked the move up to the ‘calling of the Lord.’ He’s never hesitated to persecute the Devil by preaching the poured out blood of the living Christ.”
Today, Luter is poised to carry out the dual role of preaching the gospel and leading America’s largest and most diverse Protestant denomination, as a currently unopposed candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). “Fred Luter is one of the most loved and respected pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention,” says Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. “Electing him as our president would be a great thing in so many ways, and I am excited about what it can mean for the future of our Convention.”
Luter, who currently serves as the denomination’s first vice president, would be the first African American elected president of the SBC in its 166-year history. The historic choice could have a profound effect on the denomination’s future. “A descendant of slaves elected to lead a denomination forged to protect the evil interests of slaveholders is a sign of the power of a gospel that crucifies injustice and reconciles brothers and sisters,” Moore added. “The election of Fred Luter doesn’t mean the question of racial justice is settled for Southern Baptists, but it is one small step toward our confessing that Jesus Christ and Jim Crow cannot exist in the same denomination, or in the same heart. One has got to go.”
I recently talked to Pastor Luter about his challenges as a minister, his view of racism in the SBC, and why denominations still matter.
In 1983, when I first received the calling to be a preacher I was working for a brokerage firm. I’d work for the firm during the week, and then every Saturday I’d be on different street corner preaching the gospel. My first job as a pastor came in 1986. Even though I had no pastoral experience the members of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church hired me to be their pastor. I’ve been there ever since.
What is the biggest challenge you face as a pastor of a large congregation?
Before Hurricane Katrina, our church had more than 8,000 members; today we have 4,500. A lot of churches in the area lost a lot of people. Even now only about 75 percent of the former residents have returned to New Orleans. So we have the challenge of losing half our members and having them be spread all over the country.
Another challenge we have as a church with a large congregation is trying to minister to each person individually and to not see them as just a number. But that’s a problem for all churches, both large and small. Our congregations include a diverse group of folks—-singles, young families, senior citizens—-and they all have different needs. We want to help them become better than what they are, better servants of the Lord. But that’s not an easy task.
The SBC was born in a climate of racism. But since 1845, and especially since 1940, there have been at least 31 SBC resolutions on race and racism. Is racism still a significant problem for the SBC?
People ask me all the time, “Why would you want to be Southern Baptist when their history is rooted in racism?” The truth is that when I became a Southern Baptist I wasn’t even aware of the denomination’s history. It wasn’t until years later that I found out, and by then I was already involved in the association.
I look at it this way: All of us have a past. But it’s not what happened in the past, but what is happening right now that matters most. I was in the convention in 1995 when the denomination repented and apologized for perpetuating individual and systemic racism. I thought that was a major step forward for racial reconciliation. I don’t think racism is still a problem, because the convention has said that they want to make it a racially diverse community. The SBC reaches out to all different races and culture. You now have an African American serving as the denomination’s vice president, and they may soon elect an African American as president. I think that says a lot to the world.
Is self-segregation of congregations still a problem? If so, what can we do about it?
I get asked that question a lot, because I am often the first African American preacher in Anglo churches. Local churches often reflect their communities. Where neighborhoods are predominately Anglo or African American, the churches tend to be predominately Anglo or African American. Where neighborhoods are changing in racial diversity, we see more racial diversity in the churches.
There are a lot of cultural issues, ranging from the way people dress to the style of worship, that lead people to choose a particular congregation. You can’t force people to come to your church. But the doors need to be open to everyone. At Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, 99 percent of the congregation is African American. Now I would love for our church to be more diverse, say 50-50 between Anglo and African American. But it just doesn’t happen. We are in the “hood,” so the people in the neighborhood are African American. We have Anglo guests every Sunday, and every last one of them will tell you they feel welcome. That’s the key. We can’t force people to come to our churches, but when they do come they should feel welcome.
Denominationalism has been on the decline for the last 50 years. Many evangelical churches are moving toward aligning with networks or other non-denominational organizations. Why is it important for the SBC to remain a denomination?
Because we can do more together than we can do apart. When Hurricane Katrina hit, volunteers from SBC churches around the country came by the hundred of thousands to our city and helped whoever needed to be helped. They helped to remove debris and rebuild homes. One particular church in Tennessee came to New Orleans more than 20 times to help. Often, these were Anglo churches coming to help their brothers and sisters in African American churches.
When the government was slow in their response to rebuilding the city, the local newspaper editor—-who, I believe, is Catholic—-wrote that if Southern Baptists were building New Orleans, we would have been rebuilt a long time ago. That is a great testimony. That is one reason why we need to stay a denomination—-we don’t want to lose the reputation for compassion that we have built over the years.
Recently, Gerald Harris, editor of The Christian Index, news-journal of the Georgia Baptist Convention, stirred up controversy by expressing his concern about the “encroachment of Calvinism.” Do you think resurgence of Reformed theology is a threat to the SBC identity?
Not at all.
A task force of the SBC was appointed last September to study a possible name change. After considering 535 possible names, the committee is recommending the convention keep its legal name but adopt an informal, non-legal name for those who want to use it: Great Commission Baptists. What do you think of the proposed auxiliary name?
I was at the meeting when that was discussed and was very impressed by the way the task force came to the decision. They didn’t feel the SBC name should be changed, but they wanted to provide an alternative option for people who think the name hinders our mission. The proposed solution gives newer churches and younger pastors who don’t yet have the same loyalty to the denomination a way to remain associated with the Convention. I thought it was a great compromise.
As a potential president of the SBC, what is your vision for the denomination?
If I’m elected, I would like to use the position to bring together all the different groups within the denomination. We share a common vision for reaching the world and carrying out the Great Commission. I want to bring us together so that we can fulfill that vision.