RALEIGH — In his last act as president of the denomination, Pastor J.D. Greear of the Raleigh-Durham area’s Summit Church led the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual gathering, which was held in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15–16. The event drew more participation and media attention than usual due to a number of controversies — including how to address race and sexual abuse within what is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
“Leading this meeting was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences of my life. Thank you, Great Commission Baptists, for entrusting me with this sacred privilege,” Greear said on social media after the meeting.
Greear chose “We are Great Commission Baptists” as the theme for the meeting to signify what should unite members of the SBC, a reference to Jesus’ “Great Commission” to his followers to make disciples of all nations.
The decisions made by the SBC’s 15,726 present “messengers” — as participants from the various represented congregations are called — focused on finding a peaceful and united path forward despite ongoing divisions.
On Critical Race Theory, which was a hot-button topic prior to the meeting, the messengers voted to reject a proposal to denounce CRT by name and instead approved a proposal to reject “any theory or worldview that denies that racism, oppression, or discrimination is rooted, ultimately, in anything other than sin.”
Resolutions also reiterated earlier SBC statements condemning and apologizing for the denomination’s historic support for slavery and racism. This balance was aimed at finding common ground in a church with a deeply conservative theology and membership that is also quickly becoming more racially diverse.
“We should heed the counsel of our leaders of color who tell us that our denunciations of justice movements fall on deaf ears when we remain silent on the suffering of our neighbors,” Greear said to those gathered, according to Baptist Press, SBC’s in-house news agency. “And we must make certain that our zeal to clarify what we think about CRT is accompanied by a pledge to fight with [Black Southern Baptists] against all forms of discrimination against our neighbors; to make clear that we stand with our brothers and sisters of color in their suffering, lamenting the pain of their past and pledging to work tirelessly for justice in our present.”
Mike Stone, the immediate-past chair of SBC’s powerful executive committee, ran to replace Greear as president on a platform partially defined by opposing CRT. Stone helped form the Conservative Baptist Network to oppose what he sees as a leftward direction in the denomination when discussing issues of identity.
While Stone received the most votes of the four candidates running, his 36% was not enough to secure the necessary majority. In a subsequent runoff vote with the top two candidates from the first round, Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama, received 52%, enough to secure his position as the next president of the SBC.
The election of Litton, known for his racial-reconciliation work, signals that many in the denomination agree with Greear that blanket denunciations of CRT without accompanying calls for racial justice only pushes away the growing minority membership within the SBC.
Greear, for his part, retired the use of the “Broadus Gavel,” named after slave owner John Broadus, which SBC presidents had used at annual meetings since 1872. In addition, the majority of Greear’s appointments to SBC committees were “non-Anglos,” according to Baptist Press.
Stone may have also lost support due to controversy around how the executive committee handled sex-abuse allegations under his chairmanship.
Russell Moore, the leader of SBC’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, resigned after a fiery letter from Moore to Greear leaked to the press in recent weeks. The letter denounced Stone’s conduct on the executive committee relating to sexual-abuse allegations. Moore accused Stone of covering-up allegations, intimidating victims and other malfeasance.
Messengers at the meeting approved the creation of a task force, which will be appointed by Litton, to investigate the accusations made by Moore and others that Stone swept sex-abuse claims under the rug.
A motion was approved to prevent any pastor from being accepted into leadership at an SBC church if they had ever been found to have committed sexual abuse. The body also amended their constitution to “disfellowship” churches which promote racism or flout church policy on handling sex abuse.
As he stepped down from leadership to make way for Litton, Greear advised the SBC not to let politics divide the body unnecessarily, saying, “Whenever the church gets in bed with politics, the church gets pregnant, and the offspring does not look like our Father in heaven.”
Rather than just being a “political voting bloc,” he said they should be focused on unity in the Gospel message and being a “Great Commission people.”
But while Greear and Litton are both adamant about taking a more open, modern approach to race and sex-abuse allegations, they were both equally clear that the SBC is a conservative body that should side with the Bible over the culture whenever there is a conflict.
“Let me be very clear; we are not talking about communicating ambiguity on things the Scriptures speak clearly on — the sanctity of life and marriage, the sinfulness of homosexuality, God’s design in gender,” Greear said to those gathered. “These are things that faithful Christians cannot disagree on, and our consciences are captive in these areas to the Word of God.”
An influential black pastor, Dwight McKissic, part of a group of black pastors who threatened to leave if Stone was elected, took to social media to celebrate Litton’s victory, saying, “God has a plan for the SBC & I want to be a part of it. Truly, racism was rejected 2day!”
Greear returned to his Raleigh home after passing the torch of SBC leadership and tweeted statements on Juneteenth from his personal and church accounts. He described the new federal holiday as a “joyous and sobering day” which “commemorates the end of chattel slavery in the United States. It remains one of our nation’s proudest moments,” and said, “staff had a family cookout to reflect the diversity of our community and proclaim the diversity of the kingdom of God!”
Summit Church’s website says that under Greear’s leadership, the church “has grown from a plateaued church of 300 to one of over 10,000, making it one of Outreach magazine’s ‘top 25 fastest-growing churches in America’ for many years running.”
The SBC reported that in 2019 they had the largest loss of membership in 100 years, with 287,655 people leaving the 14-million-member denomination. Their recently released 2020 numbers showed an even larger decline, with a loss of 435,632 members.