In a few weeks, thousands of Southern Baptists will head to Nashville, Tennessee, for their annual meeting. So will news reporters, because the Southern Baptist Convention is huge—4.5 million at last count, making it the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The current president of the SBC is J. D. Greear, pastor at The Summit Church in North Carolina. The Summit Church has sent out more than 1,400 missionaries and planted more than 40 churches. Over the past few years, Greear has watched the SBC wrestle through sex-abuse scandals, COVID-19, and the contentious presidential election. He’s got a pretty good handle on where the denomination sits and where he hopes it’s going.
Senior writer Sarah Zylstra wrote about Greear in her book with Collin Hansen, Gospelbound: Living with Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age. In this episode of TGC Podcast, she sits down with Greear to discuss his experience as SBC president, future hopes for the SBC and the global church, and the importance of keeping the gospel at the center of it all.
The following is an uncorrected transcript generated by a transcription service. Before quoting in print, please check the corresponding audio for accuracy.
Sarah Zylstra: Hi there. This is Sarah Zylstra, senior writer for the Gospel Coalition. My job is to find and report on places where God’s spirit is at work in the world, so I hear a lot of stories of Christians who are living sacrificial, joyful, Kingdom-advancing, God-glorifying lives. And I’m so excited to share this one with you.
In a few weeks, thousands of Southern Baptists will head to Nashville, Tennessee for their annual meeting. So will news reporters because the Southern Baptist Convention is huge: 14.5 million at last count, making it the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. In fact, their 47,000 churches are more than the combined number of Starbucks, McDonalds and Subways in America.
That means the trajectory and priorities of the SBC affect a lot of things, from American culture to federal politics, to the orthodoxy of many of America’s churches. So the person who leads the SBC, then, is pretty influential. Perhaps as a safeguard, he doesn’t actually hold a lot of decision-making power, the programs are mostly run by staff, and he’s limited to two single-year terms in a row. Except J.D. Greear, who is just completing an unprecedented three-year term, extended because of COVID concerns that canceled last year’s meeting. He’s a 47-year-old pastor from North Carolina, whose church has sent out more than 1,400 missionaries and planted more than 40 churches. I wrote about that in my new book with Colin Hanson, Gospel Bound, Living With Resolute Hope in an Anxious Age.
Over the past few years, Greear has watched the SBC wrestle through sex abuse scandals, through COVID-19 and through the contentious presidential election. So he’s got a pretty good handle on where the denomination sits and where he hopes it’s going. To tell the story of Greear’s presidency, we actually have to go back to 2016 when SBC messengers split the vote right down the middle between Greear and Memphis pastor Steve Gaines. To break the tie they voted again. But again, it was too close to call. So they scheduled a third vote.
J. D. Greear: A lot of times I’ll joke that only in the Southern Baptist Convention, could you have a runoff between two candidates and still not end up with a majority. How does that even happen? But there was a moment in there where we were trying to figure out what’s the right way to do this. If we do this again, who’s likely going to win? It was one of those moments where the wise thing, what the Spirit of God wanted just became very obvious and something like it happens, sometimes it feels as plain as the nose on your face. It was just clear that that God was calling me in that moment to step back. Steve, I love Steve, Dr. Gaines, and felt like I’m glad to follow him as the president.
I think there was something in that, that kind of spoke peace and a humility that the Southern Baptist Convention really, in its better moments, is characterized by when we realized that it’s not about personality or position, it’s really about the great commission. And I remember explaining that. We just felt like we have a mission too urgent and a gospel too precious to let anything like that stand in the way.
Yeah, I think for a couple years, it allowed us all to rally behind Steve. His focus was on prayer and evangelism. I mean, who can be against that, and who doesn’t want to get excited about that?
Sarah Zylstra: During Gaines’s tenure, the convention condemned Confederate flags, Donald Trump was elected, and a few sex abuse cases started to be reported in the SBC, but in some ways that was a lot easier than what was coming.
You had to do this for three years. I feel like it was a much more difficult time stretch. Do you wish you would’ve just pushed Steve Gaines right off the stage and quick taking-it, back in 2016?
J. D. Greear: Have you seen Steve Gaines? Nobody’s pushing him anywhere, just to be clear on that. But yeah, 2016 to 2018, Steve had a lot of challenges, he will tell you that, but there were some unique things. The sexual abuse crisis that came up in 2018.
Sarah Zylstra: During Greear’s first year in office, he heard from the Houston Chronicle that 380 SBC church leaders were probably guilty of sexual abuse over a period of 20 years. And then he heard from his own appointed committee that the SBC had failed to care for abuse survivors while protecting the abusers from police and from unemployment. It was his wife, Veronica, who saw this as a confirmation that he was in the right spot.
J. D. Greear: She would always tell me that bigger stage that you think, it’s not going to make your life any better. Not only will it not satisfy you, it’s going to make your life more complicated. She would always tell me, “Fame is making yourself accessible to people you don’t really care about at the expense of those that you do.” She’s like, “This is going to decrease your quality of living.”
So she was actually, she’s not against it. I went into this with her blessing, but we didn’t go into it with her saying, “This is what we’ve got to do,” or anything, but when the sexual abuse crisis thing came up, I remember she told me, she says, “Now I see why God had you here in this moment,” because of some things we’ve dealt with in the church and some things that God has taught us that allowed us to be able to say, “Hey, we need a different approach when it comes to this, that’s less focused on defending the reputation of the church, that’s more focused on the ones that Jesus gave his life to help and to save, and that is the victim.” They’re the one that, if we’re going to err on anything, we need to err on the side of the victim.
That was something that God wrote it into our story and our understanding, and realizing that while that was the difficult challenge that was not on my radar when I came it in 2018, it was one that was, I think obviously, divinely appointed.
Sarah Zylstra: The 2019 meeting was themed Gospel Above All. And it was pretty quiet by SBC standards. The repudiation of sexual abuse and the desire to address it was something everyone could get behind. In fact, the meeting was so friendly that Christianity Today’s headline read, “Will Southern Baptist political truths last through 2020?” Well, as you know, almost nothing lasted through 2020.
J. D. Greear: And then the COVID thing, that’s another challenge, obviously. That’s just been… I don’t know. What in the world are you supposed to do with that? That’s been a moment that has allowed for a lot of controversy because most local church pastors have experienced, when people are at home without that interaction and the social elixir of getting around people and the in-person part of being in the church, a lot of these problems and drama and conflict has come to the surface. Well, that’s been true in the SBC as a whole, also. What was sad was that it was revealed that for a lot of people, their primary identity and their primary hope was their political alignment.
Sarah Zylstra: For many in America, the SBC included, political affiliation dictated how concerned they were about COVID, what they thought of the George Floyd demonstrations and whether they’d be willing to get a vaccine. By August pastors reported to Lifeway Research that they were having trouble maintaining unity, that pastoral care from a distance was difficult and that they were feeling exhausted, stressed and isolated.
J. D. Greear: I’ve been discouraged at how our enemy has taken some of our leadership and certain voices to try to say, “Let’s focus more on the culture of religion and some what I call ‘the leaven of the Pharisees.’ Let’s focus more on that and less on the unity and centrality of the gospel.”
I do think that was there in seed form, but there’s certain occasions that give rise to certain sinful tendencies. And I think this last year scared a lot of people, so they retreated into the idol that made them feel secure, which was their politics. They weren’t able to gather as a church and realize that people that had different perspectives on this could still be united in love for Jesus. And that wasn’t the main thing.
Plus, and let’s just deal with the reality, the average pastor gets to disciple his congregation in these things at most one hour a week. And these same people are watching three hours of discipleship on Fox News and MSNBC or CNN at night, so they’re adopting the patterns of the world, which are built on separation and division.
I don’t want to say it was always there and we just had it covered up. I think the seeds of it were there, but this particular moment was where God revealed cracks in the foundation. I have to believe that whom the Lord loves he chastens, and that he’s got a good purpose for the Evangelical church in the future because of this.
Sarah Zylstra: Cracks have appeared in the SBC before, most memorably in the 1980s and 1990s, when the denomination was headed the same direction as the other liberal mainline churches. But while the problem back then was wrong doctrine, today, Greer sees wrong culture.
J. D. Greear: That was a legacy that was passed to us, and what I, to use the terms, call it the leaven of the Pharisees on the other side. And there is, Jesus with the Sadducees and their denial of certain things, but then there was Pharisees and it wasn’t that what they believed was wrong, it’s that the spirit with which they held a lot of these things was wrong and it caused them to miss Jesus, to miss grace right in front of them.
For example, they weren’t content with what the Bible said on certain things, so they created what became known as a hedge around the law, conflating the traditions of man with the commands of God. And Jesus said, “This is a big problem for you because now you’ve taken your secondary traditions and you’ve given them divine authority.” And so you see that in Southern Baptist churches.
A lot of times that’s going to show up, not the only place, but a lot of times it shows up in political questions. Is we then go beyond what the scriptures teach, and we say, “And if you’re biblically wise, this is what you’re going to do.” And there’s nothing wrong with having that conviction. There’s nothing wrong with the tradition. It’s when you begin to give that the authority of God. Jesus said that the Pharisees were more focused on the minute parts of the law, all the while ignoring the weighty parts of the law.
Here’s what that looks like today. We have people in the Southern Baptist Convention and the Evangelical world at large that expend a whole lot more passion decrying something like critical race theory than they do lamenting the devastating consequences of years of racial bigotry and discrimination.
And by the way, I think that we need to bring every thought captive to Christ, which means that anything that comes out of the world, critical race theory or anything, we’ve got to submit that to scripture and say the worldview implications of this are wrong, the ideological formulations are wrong, but we’ve got to submit all that to scripture. So I’m not trying to, at all, lessen our theological rigor in that, but the weightier parts of the law, which is years of suffering by our brothers and sisters of color and an evangelical church that in large part turned a deaf ear toward that, and the pain that that has caused and the damage of relationship and even the pain today. That’s something that a believer, a Christian, that’s the weightier part of the law, that’s that kindness and mercy.
And it just seems like the Pharisees, they strained out a gnat and swallowed a camel. And I think it’s very easy for a group like the Southern Baptist Convention to just adopt the patterns and the feelings of the Pharisees. So I’m grateful for what happened in the eighties when we got rid of the liberalism, and we needed to, but there’s another side to that gospel mission, and that is the leaven of the Pharisees. And we’ve got to be faithful there because Jesus is not going to go the unbelief, the liberal direction, but nor is he going to go the Pharisee direction. Both of them consider Jesus their enemies. Following Jesus, following the gospel is going to take you a different place than either Pharisee or liberal.
Sarah Zylstra: It seems so tricky because back in the eighties, it was like, well, you can kind of clearly see the issue and you could sort of clearly see we have to change the personnel in the seminaries. And we have to change what we’re teaching. We’re literally teaching the wrong thing. So it seems like, I don’t know, maybe a clearer path to change it. But this is what we have to do now, maybe it’s change hearts. How do you change the levain of the Pharisees, since it’s different than how you’ve changed the levain before?
J. D. Greear: Sarah, you’re right. It was easier because when somebody is on record saying, “I don’t believe in the inerrancy of the Bible,” it’s more difficult when you have somebody who is believing all the right things, but whether it’s their disposition, how they carry themselves, the emphasis they give to certain things, that’s when it gets tricky, because it’s not as cut and dry. I don’t know what that kind of magic standard is, that’s part of the difficulty. But I know that when you’re truly shaped by the gospel, that you’re going to find yourself attacked from the right, let’s call that the Pharisees, and you’re going to find yourself attacked from the left.
I don’t know that always get the balance right, but I know that if the Southern Baptist Convention or groups like that are going to be faithful, they’re going to have to expect attack from both sides.
And not only think because we’ve left the unbelief and liberalism that therefore we’re in the clear now, because we need to be aware that Matthew 23 is written to a group of people who, for the most part, had their doctrine correct. And Jesus said all the woes are directed toward them.
So it means at least we ought to be asking the question. And what I’ve found is that a lot of people in groups like the SBC, they’re not even aware that there is that side. They read and shake their head, “All the Pharisees were bad.” We can quickly become them. And when you’re motivated by your love of the outsider and you’re thinking like Paul thought, which was, “Look, I’m going to become all things to all people because we’ve got to save [Simon].” And Paul knew salvation belongs to God, but he still was driven by this desire of “I’ve got to make the gospel accessible to all.”
I think, I wouldn’t say that it’s just a field that you get, because I do think there are biblical signs, but I think, like you’re getting at, they’re harder to pinpoint than simply going through a theological exam and grading somebody’s answers incorrectly.
Sarah Zylstra: Another advantage to fighting liberalism or, for that matter, sexual abuse is that it provides a clear enemy to unite against. Fighting Pharisaical impulses within yourself is a lot more ambiguous and can lead to all manner of infighting.
J. D. Greear: Positively, I’ve been surprised at the relative unity around the essential things that at the average rank and file Evangelical Southern Baptist has. Yes, they’re going to have diverse perspectives on various things, but they understand that the gospel and the great commission really is the most important thing. They understand that the future of America is changing and it makes sense, if we’re going to have a multi-ethnic community, that we need to have multi-ethnic churches as a demonstration of the gospel, and that requires multi-ethnic leadership. And that requires a different posture in conversations that we have. We need to be quick to hear and slow to speak.
I’ve just been amazed. There’ve been times that, based on social media, I thought I was walking into a hornet’s nest going into some of these Baptist communities in different parts of the United States, and just been blown away at how people there just want to see the gospel go forward and the great commission. So that was the positive surprise.
The negative has been how loud and how vitriolic this, what I consider to be a relatively small minority, and how loud they are and how bent on division they are. A couple of times, Sarah, I’ve found it’s almost been like that moment in the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy pulls back the curtain and the big wizard voice is a scrawny little man. I’ve been like, “Oh, it’s just you guys? I thought this represented this big movement. It was actually something really small.”
So I’m actually encouraged by where most Southern Baptist evangelicals are, so-called ordinary believers. It’s not that our divisions are so deep, it’s that our love of the gospel is so small. A lot of times when you see Christians divide, I think that’s what it is. They just take in these other things and this gospel that is supposed to unite them has becomes so small in their eyes.
My role is to ask God to do what only he can do and say, “Would you renew us again to do what Paul said?” How does a guy say in Philippians one, “Hey, these people are trashing my reputation. I don’t really care, as long as Christ is preached.” That’s a love of the gospel that doesn’t take away all the divisions, but it minimizes them. And I think that’s what we need, is a renewal of the largeness of the gospel Greer
Sarah Zylstra: Greear is so intent on expanding the size of the gospel that he challenged the SBC’s executive committee to make a decision about what was more important: being Southern or being Baptist? But untangling culture from a local expression of the gospel is easier said than done. Think about the Dutch Reformed, the Russian Orthodox, the Irish Catholics, part of the gospel’s beautiful mystery, is its ability to thrive in every culture. What does it mean to untangle that?
J. D. Greear: Southern Baptist Convention is not the only group of churches that is tied to the place of origin. Anglicans, that means it comes out of England and all that, so it’s not inherently wrong, but specifically with the SBC, we have to acknowledge that part of the reason there’s an SBC is because a group of Southern pastors wanted to be able to appoint slave holders in 1845 as missionaries. And it was begun, it was conceived in inequity. They were on the wrong biblical side of that discussion. They have since repented of that, repudiated that in multiple resolutions and right now the Southern Baptist Convention, there’s a couple of things people don’t realize, it’s growing fastest outside of the south. It’s got more missionaries around the world than any other denomination.
Last year, of all the churches that the SBC planted in America, 63% were led by people of color. It’s already 20%, right now, of the membership is diverse. And so it has become a global phenomenon in terms of it’s no longer just a Southern Baptist Convention.
That said, a lot of the leadership, they’re still coming from the Southeast. And one of the things that God has put on my heart is what’s more important to us, the Southern or the Baptist part? It’s not that we need to change the name, per se. It’s just that there needs to be a recognition that what unites us is not particular cultural perspectives or approaches; what unites us is this gospel that is so much bigger than the South and that critiques the South in a lot of ways, just like it does every culture. That’s what I want to be a part of to
Sarah Zylstra: That end, maybe a name change isn’t a terrible idea.
J. D. Greear: The theme of the convention is We Are Great Commission Baptists, and that goes back to a decision that was made well over 10 years ago, that the Southern Baptist would also adopt that name, Great Commission Baptist. I’ll be honest, I would love to see that become the more common parlance for what the SBC is referred to, so that we’re no longer tied to both the past, the mistakes of our past, with the condoning of slavery or the geographical trappings of our culture and to say, “What unites us is the great commission.”
Sarah Zylstra: I love that. I would vote with you on that. I think it’s always been so interesting anyway, because when you think of the South, it just seems solid and slow and methodical, just in general, and Baptists don’t seem that way to me at all. They seem like go-getters and a little more Wild West, really.
J. D. Greear: Yeah.
Sarah Zylstra: So it always seemed like a weird pairing anyway. I don’t know.
J. D. Greear: It’s like what you read about Methodists back in the day. They were sort of the “whatever it takes to reach people” and a little bit of pragmatism, not in a bad way, but just like, “Let’s get this done.” And yes, I think that still characterizes a lot of Southern Baptist, but you’ve also got, when you’re in a culture, it’s hard not to take on the characteristics of that culture, both the good and the bad. And that’s been true of Southern Baptists also.
Sarah Zylstra: So interesting to think about, the beginnings of it and then how it’s moved through. And then through the conservative resurgence in the eighties, and now where we are today. If you were going to kind of shoot that ahead and look in the future, there’s always going to be some sin that we’re grappling with, but what do you think is a realistic hope or a realistic, 10 years from now, they’re like, “J.D., you want to be the president again?” What do you think would be the worries then, or what would you hope that the church would do [crosstalk]?
J. D. Greear: If that happens in 10 years, hopefully my wife will not… I mean, she’s made it clear that if I’ve served under the year, that our marriage is now in question. No, yeah. I’m kidding. But anyway, yeah.
When you have the gospel at the center, it ends up renewing everything, and it may take you, because of your hardness of heart and your dullness, a while to get there. But Thomas Sowell, the African-American economist, he says that slavery, just use this as an example, the sin of slavery it was characteristic of all cultures, if you go back in history. Whenever people are in power, they tend to use that power to subjugate others. And he said it’s true in Asian, Arab, African cultures, European cultures. He said the European slave trade, what makes it tragic, was that they believed the gospel that should have taught them better. And he said that’s what made it particularly tragic. He said, “However, if you look at all the cultures, the only culture,” Sowell says, “that the renewal and the repudiation of slavery came from within, the only cultures where the Western ones, because they had the gospel that eventually self-critiqued.” He said all the guilt literature, all the movements are coming from inside. No other culture had that happen. And that’s because the gospel was there as that renewing presence.
And that’s certainly not an excuse, those tragic years of inconsistency and hypocrisy, but it showed you that when the gospel was there, eventually the gospel wins. So I’m confident that whatever our short sightedness and whatever our blind spots are, and if I knew what they were they wouldn’t be called blind spots, so I don’t know what they are, but I’m confident that if we continue to believe and pressing on the gospel, that eventually he’s going to renew, not only us, but our children.
I’m pretty confident that my grandchildren, if Jesus doesn’t come back before then, I’m pretty confident they’re not going to look back at me and say, “Man, granddad J.D., he had it together.” They’re going to look back at me and say, “Man, how did he get that wrong?” When I meet them in heaven, I’m going to be embarrassed and I’m going to say, “I don’t know how I was so blind to that,” but I’m confident that the gospel that I’m going to give to them is going to critique not only me, but eventually them as well.
But when Paul confronted Peter on his inconsistency in race and how he separated from the Gentiles, he said, “Hey, you have failed in taking the gospel seriously.” That’s the greatest thing that my forefathers gave to me was the gospel, but it ended up… I used it to critique them and my children will use it to critique me. That’s the legacy that I want to put forward is the gospel.
Sarah Zylstra: The same gospel that critiques the SBC also offers its greatest hope. And as the Southern Baptist function, in many ways, as a bellwether for American Christianity, Greear’s hopes for his denomination are also for the rest of us.
J. D. Greear: And so I’m encouraged with what God is doing. And I think there’s a pretty incredible future. I’m encouraged. Again, I’m a pastor of a mega church, but I’m seeing more and more that… I mean, the last 100 years have been characterized by the mega church. Ministries that are so big that the apostles would have never dreamed of having the kind of audiences we have every weekend. And all the while, our auditoriums have been getting bigger and bigger, the percentage of Americans that are going to church every weekend has gotten smaller.
I’m looking now at, “Okay, what if God was doing all this to take us back to that original blueprint that grew the church so fast in in those first three centuries?” I read Rodney Stark, the church historian, says in his book Rise of Christianity, that if you look at the total number of Christians in the world at like 99 AD, at the end of the first century, it was like 7,500. We have more people every weekend at the Summit Church than that. 7,500! Yet by the time you get to Constantine’s conversion in 312, there are so many Christians in the Roman Empire that Constantine converts for, arguably, political reasons. So, several million at that point.
How do you go from 7,530 to all these millions without, they didn’t have auditoriums, they didn’t have big churches, they didn’t have book contracts. It’s just, they had the power of multiplication. Every Christian understood it was their responsibility to make disciples and every church understood it was their responsibility to multiply. And evidently that’s bigger than mega churches and even printing presses and publishing contracts.
I’m hoping that what’s happening now is you’re seeing a renewal of this commitment to raise up and send and to plant churches and to send out missionaries. The church is at its best when it’s sending out its very best members to go and carry the gospel in new places and start new works.
Sarah Zylstra: It’s a beautiful vision, if we can keep our eyes on it. Greer will be passing over his leadership mantle in a few weeks, and that’s his hope for his denomination that has stumbled after Jesus through 176 years of sinning and repentance, embracing the culture too much and condemning it too harshly, arguing and agreeing, pursuing unbelievers with the good news and baptizing them by the thousands.
J. D. Greear: We’re in the defining moments. And I’m not saying I have everything right in my perspective on that, but I do understand that the moment that we, as a convention of churches, begin to substitute the centrality of the gospel with even good things, wise things that are secondary and tertiary, it’s going to be disastrous for the reputation of the church and the future of the great commission. And so if God has had me here in this moment to help continue to champion that message, which I believe is right and biblical, well, I’ll get to the end of it after three years and say I was grateful to have had a chance to serve as faithfully and according to what my conscience would direct.