A Conversation with J. D. Greear, the New President of the Southern Baptist Convention

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This afternoon the Southern Baptist Convention—the largest Protestant body in the United States and the largest Baptist denomination in the world—elected 45-year-old pastor J. D. Greear as its 62nd president, the youngest man to hold the office in 38 years.

Two years ago, Greear voluntarily withdrew from a closely contested election with Steve Gaines in order to unite the denomination.

Some quick background on the office of president in the world’s largest Baptist denomination and the largest Protestant denomination in the United States:

  • The first president of the Southern Baptist Convention was elected in 1845.
  • The term of the presidency is one year.
  • Beginning in the 20th century, the SBC president was allowed to serve a maximum of two terms.

And here is some background on Greear:

  • Greear did his PhD in theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (where he also teaches), writing on the correlation between presentations of the gospel in the early church and the theology of Islam. He has a heart for Muslims to come and know the saving gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, having lived and served among Muslims.
  • Greear and his wife, Veronica, live in Raleigh and have four children.

What is the biggest need of the hour in the SBC?

Re-establishing the gospel above all else as the foundation of our unity and focus of our mission.

The apostle Paul said that the gospel is “of first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). If we are going to move forward in unity, we have got to keep the gospel at the center of all we do. The gospel must be greater than our programs, greater than our political agendas, and greater than any petty difference that threatens to divide us.

We also need a shift in our culture. Our mission and our doctrine are rock solid. But recent events have shown that our culture has grown too comfortable with power and the dangers that power brings. We need to move forward on our knees—demonstrating confession, encouraging transparency, and modeling humility. God has been chastening the SBC, and that process is painful. But I believe that God is cleaning house in order to purify us for greater effectiveness for his mission.

Obviously the question of how churches should handle cases of abuse has been much discussed in recent days. How would you like to see churches deal with abuse going forward?

It is a tragedy when anyone endures abuse. It is particularly tragic how common it is today, and it is a scandal that abuse has often flourished in church environments. The church should be a place where the abused and the vulnerable find a safe haven. At the Summit, we are doing everything we can to ensure that both our culture and our processes really do protect the vulnerable.

This includes recognizing the difference between what is only immoral and what is both immoral and illegal. Jesus forgives both, but God gives primary jurisdiction over what is immoral to the church (Matthew 18) and jurisdiction over what is illegal to the state (Romans 13). We honor God and his Word when we recognize this and bring the appropriate authorities in, without apology and without delay.

Physical or sexual abuse can never be tolerated, minimized, hidden, or “handled internally.” Those in leadership who turn a blind eye toward abuse are complicit with it and must be held accountable. The women in our churches deserve better.

Are there ways in which you think the SBC needs to rethink the way in which women are utilized in gospel ministry?

The recent focus on raising up women in ministry has been a good one, and one that we in the complementarian camp should welcome. I affirm, without reservation, the complementarian view of gender found in Scripture—that women are equal in essence, equal in value, and equal in spiritual giftings, while not being equivalent to men. Women and men are created differently and serve distinct roles in the family and in the church, where (for instance) only men can serve in the office of pastor. Complementarianism is not a box to be checked, but a beautiful truth to be celebrated.

But this complementarian position should not lead us, as it has led some, to stifle the leadership possibilities and ministry avenues for women. The rich teaching of Scripture about the complementary roles of women and men has never meant, “All women everywhere should submit to men everywhere.” Nor does Scripture anywhere imply that women cannot exercise robust spiritual and leadership gifts in the church.

Sometimes, in our rightful espousal of complementarianism, we in the SBC have failed to create the same pathways into ministry for women that we have for men. This was true at the church that I pastor: it was easy for men to get trained and step into leadership, but not women. Our ministry team was very, very male-heavy, as we tended to consider only men even for positions of leadership that really did not require occupation by an ordained pastor/elder.

I hope to see complementarians recognize that far from preventing women from exercising our gifts, our theology propels us to equip, encourage, and empower women to unleash their gifts for the church.

I know one of the things that drives you is the conviction that theology and mission should be deeply grounded in the gospel. Can you explain what you mean?

God has raised up many to remind us that the gospel is not simply the “entry rite” into Christianity, but the fountain of our growth and focus of our mission.

The gospel is the good news that Jesus died in our place to restore us to God, and offers us abundant life in him through his resurrection. It needs to be declared to every person on earth. Jesus summarized his mission as “seeking and saving the lost,” and said he had more joy over finding the one sinner who repents than anything happening in the 99 who were already his.

The gospel should saturate every stage of the Christian life. The gospel that saves the sinner also makes the saint come alive. We grow in Christ not by going beyond the gospel, but deeper into it. Or, as a friend of mine says, “The fire to do in the Christian life comes from being soaked in the fuel of what has been done.”

How do you see the relationship between grace and truth?

The apostle John summarized Jesus’s ministry in one phrase: “full of grace and truth” (John 1:17). To minister to our culture like Jesus, we must aim for that same balance.

Truth without grace is fundamentalism; grace without truth is liberalism.

The combination of grace and truth made Jesus irresistibly attractive to people of all kinds, and will make us so as well. Of course, Jesus also made people so mad that some wanted to kill him. When we carry ourselves with grace and truth, we will find our culture reacting to us like they reacted to Jesus.

Practically speaking, this means our preaching of the gospel must be accompanied by acts of extravagant gospel generosity. As Francis Schaeffer explained, love on display in the church is God’s final apologetic to the world.

Can you tell us what you guys have done at The Summit Church to increase ethnic diversity and why this is so important to you?

Our efforts at The Summit Church along this line are guided by the plumb line, “The church should reflect the diversity of its community and declare the diversity of the kingdom.” Unity across race and ethnicity is one of the hallmarks of the gospel, a sign to the world that the gospel has real power (Ephesians 2).

Our congregations should bespeak a unity that goes beyond a shared cultural and religious heritage. It should point to a divine unity, established by

  • our common problem, sin;
  • our common hope, salvation; and
  • our common life, the Spirit.

Furthermore, our unity is to be a sign, preview, and firstfruits of the coming kingdom, in which every tribe, tongue, language, and nation will gather around Christ’s throne in all their resplendent cultural distinctives (Rev. 5).

Our journey toward this goal hasn’t been easy—true diversification never is. But we’ve learned that diversity isn’t a niche “project” for a select few; rather, it is an essential part of discipleship, and the responsibility of every follower of Jesus.

For those of us in the majority culture, this process has begun with a posture of listening, not talking. The definition of a blind spot, after all, is a weakness that we don’t know that we have. Historically, the most insidious blind spots result from positions of privilege and power. If we are serious about discovering these blind spots, it means committing ourselves to uncomfortable conversations where we seek more to understand that we do to be understood.

Not only will we find the experience of listening uncomfortable, we will also likely find that some of the changes necessary to reflect the diversity of the body of Christ are uncomfortable, too. If we want the SBC to be a homogenous, conservative, white Anglo-Saxon movement, then cultural hegemony is fine. But if we want to reach the diversity of communities throughout the United States, then we better get ready to see our cultural and leadership structures change.

God has, by his grace, given us real progress in this area. Nearly 20 percent of our church attenders are non-white (up from less than 5 percent less than a decade ago). At least a third of our campus pastors and worship leaders are non-white. Our church still has a long way to go, but we are proof that moving toward diversity is possible.

How could you see this playing out in the wider SBC?

For the SBC, the road forward may be difficult, but it’s not impossible. More than 21 percent of Southern Baptists are non-white. Let that sink in—and praise God for it!

The numbers, in fact, align rather closely to the national census statistics.

The U.S. population is

  • 12% African-American
  • 16% Latino, and
  • 4.7% Asian.

The number of Southern Baptists in these demographics is similar:

  • 7.4% African American,
  • 6.7% Latino, and
  • 3.9% Asian.

A quick glance reveals that while we aren’t perfectly reflecting our nation, we’re in the ballpark. And we’re much closer than the mainline denominations, which are nearly all white. We are, contrary to many expectations, a rather diverse convention.

The real work for us going forward is to bring our leadership into alignment with where our people are. Nearly a fifth of our churchgoers are black, Latino, or Asian, but our leadership still falls far short of that mark. The leaders are there, and we all stand to benefit from the treasures they bring the convention. But we’ve got to give them the platform to do it.

Why is “missions” so important for Southern Baptists, and are your hopes for the future of mission and the SBC?

Missions is at the heart of who we are because it is first at the heart of God.

One of the key truths we repeat often at the Summit is that sending capacity in the local church is more important than seating capacity. All of Jesus’s promises about the greatness of the church are not about a large group of people gathering to bask in the anointing on one leader but multiple leaders being raised up and sent out in the power of the Spirit. Our God is a sending God. He sent his best into the world to save us. Jesus is referred to as “sent” 44 times in the New Testament. After his resurrection, Jesus passed his identity on to his disciples: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). To follow Jesus is to be sent and to devote yourself to sending.

We also know that the reason God blesses a people is to make them a blessing to the nations. The basis of the psalmist’s prayer for revival in Psalm 67 is that God would use his people to make his salvation known among all nations. God never pours his Spirit into people to make them into gospel reservoirs; he turns his people into rivers that flood the nations. If we want the awakening of the Spirit, we have to be devoted to the nations (John 12:26).

I truly believe that the greatest movement of God in the SBC lies not in our past, but in our future. Throughout Scripture, we see that “past graces” are evidences that God wants to bestow future graces. There can be no doubt that the SBC experienced some unusual grace in the Conservative Resurgence. Why would the Holy Spirit have done that if it were not to give us an unprecedented effectiveness among the nations? God does what he does not to preserve institutions, but for the sake of the Great Commission. It’s all about the Great Commission. That means the best days of the SBC are ahead us. They have to be! There are still more than 6,000 unreached people groups in the world, and history cannot end until they have been given a gospel witness. It is our moment to expect great things of God, and then attempt great things for God.

What would it look like if every Southern Baptist church committed to help in the planting or revitalizing of just one domestic church next year? And what if every one of our churches got involved reaching one unreached or underserved people group overseas? Truly, the gates of hell would not stand a chance.

How can we pray for you personally in the days and weeks and months ahead?

I am first a husband and father, and second a local church pastor. These have been and will remain my primary assignments.

Please pray that God gives all of us—my family, our church, and the denomination—grace for the future.

Pray that my kids grow up to love Jesus and the sheep.

Pray for wisdom for me. Even those of us appointed to be shepherds are still sheep, which means we need to lean on him to make our paths straight and not trust in our ability to understand. We need to cast ourselves on the mercy of the One who laid down his life for us and promised the success of the church in every generation, world without end (Eph. 3:20-21).


Here is an example of Greear preaching on the grandeur of God from Job 38–42:

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