Originally published in Christianity Today:
In 2017, the Christian hip hop artist, Lecrae, publicly “divorced” himself from white evangelicalism on a Truth’s Table podcast due to the lack of empathy and a persistent unwillingness to substantively engage with racial injustice by white evangelicals. To this, many, including John Piper responded: “What does this loosening from ‘white evangelicalism’ mean for multiethnic relations?”
As I considered the implications of what was occuring, I offered a response to Piper’s question.I shared that Lecrae’s departure was just the first of a #reverseexodus might take place by people of color from white evangelical churches and organizations unless things improved. This change was one I believed (and continue to believe) to be more consistent with the words of Scripture and a kingdom vision established by the rule and reign of Jesus Christ. This was in 2017.
Several months later, the New York Times published a piece about the growing trend of Black Christians leaving white evangelical churches, calling it a #quietexodus. This was confirmed by Michael Emerson who noted that the number of Black Christians attending multi-ethnic/multi-racial congregations dropped from 27% in 2012 to 21% in 2019. He also shared that the majority of diverse congregations are still overwhelmingly led by white pastors (70%), emphasizing that the diversity that exists within American churches are not driven by white congregants going to churches led by non-white pastors, but by Black, Latino American, Native American, and Asian American Christians attending predominantly white ones.
Patterns of Whiteness
When it comes to navigating and addressing issues shaped by racialization, the great majority of the white evangelical church’s response has been slow and insufficient (if not counterproductive), following the predictable historical patterns where any time issues of race are addressed, there has been much symbolic gesturing without substantive change. Good intentions are often hindered by inaction. Those who have been shaped by whiteness – a force that seeks to maintain dominance by demanding assimilation (often incentivized with access), apartheid (through accepting a segregated status quo where resources are disproportionately distributed), or annihilation (by an erasure of cultural differences and ways of being) – often follow predictable paths as they publicly declare that they stand against racism, yet make very little change in the eyes of those most negatively impacted. Further, if there is an effort to dismantle racism, there is often disproportionately less urgency and resources put towards it than other efforts that maintain the racialized status quo.
When those least affected by racialized realities push against calls for change, the question to ask is: who benefits from keeping things as they are and who suffers as a result of things not changing?
This resistance to change has led to the departure of many non-white Christians from white evangelical spaces for decades. These departures are often unnoticed by the majority because they often happen quietly. These departures are also often explained away as being a result of something other than race. These departures usually occur in spaces frequently marked by an often-denied commitment to whiteness usually masked by a stated but fractured commitment to the gospel typically lived out in voluntarily segregated communities, churches, and organizations. The more normative, dominant, and pervasive whiteness is, the more these racial tensions seem to emerge. However, in more recent years, several who have looked under the hood of “white evangelicalism,” an evangelicalism that is stained by a syncretism of Christianity and whiteness, have determined it best to make it known to publicly depart. They do so for three reasons: 1) a heightened awareness of the marriage between evangelicalism and partisan political idolatry, 2) a desire to protect other Christians of color with the realization that the long history of white evangelicalism harming Christians of color is more wide reaching and pervasive than previously understood, and 3) a discovery of greater encouragement offered by the common grace extended by unbelievers, than by many white evangelical believers who call their Scripture-based theological conclusions on race as “Marxist,” “Communist,” “Socialist,” “Liberal,” or, as we are seeing in more recent times, “Critical Race Theorist.”
As the white evangelical church in the west has not only remained silent but also, by and large, been the among the greatest resisters to faithfulness around God’s call to love neighbor (Mk.12:31) and seek the welfare of society (Jer. 29:7), many Christians of color are taking note that a racialized hermeneutic that leads to a hyper individualistic racialized interpretation of the Bible along with a highly selective reading of Scripture disconcerting. This hermeneutic has led to neglecting the call of the prophets, along with ignoring the significance of public witness and faith as seen in the life of Jesus (seen in the ways he turned over tables at the sight of systemic injustice in the temple), has given those with the most insight into the logics and systems of whiteness in evangelicalism clear enough evidence to also “divorce” themselves from it and warn others about it as they do.
They see that public Christian witness is at stake and that the most damaging voices within the network of white evangelicalism are capturing the public imagination with “loud gongs and clashing cymbals” (1 Cor. 13:1) – making evangelism and mission all the more difficult – simultaneously seeing that others who share their experiences, but might not have the words to describe them are getting hurt as well.
The pandemic and protests of 2020 have pushed many evangelical leaders to weigh in on the topic of race publicly in ways they did not have to before. Some did well. Others fell short, and were quickly asked to course correct. For some, this has led to some cautious encouragement, where Christians of color (namely Black Christians, but Latino, Asian, and Native American Christians as well) in these spaces, found themselves asking, could this finally be the time when things improve? For others, this has been revealing as either the troublesome nature of views shared in private are made public or things often discussed “in-house” are made known to the watching world. They are asking the age old questions of “Am I actually welcome here?,” “Is this a space that really cares about people like me (or just wants to use me to bolster their diversity numbers and enhance their marketing efforts)?,” and “Should I stay or should I go?”
The recent developments in the SBC are a prime example of this.
Race and the SBC in the Public Square
Upon watching the direction the SBC was heading in the midst of all the racial unrest, there have been a number of significant departures from one of the major bastions of the white evangelical world: the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Despite the efforts of some within the denomination to stand faithful to the call of a true Christian unity and justice laid out in Scripture, it seems like the racialized “majority” is winning.
In July 2020, John Onwuchekwa, an African American pastor in Atlanta wrote about why his church left the SBC. He wrote, “I’ve come to the conclusion that the Southern Baptist Convention is the wrong vehicle to address these issues our world is so desperately trying to resolve.” Then he cited four reasons he left: the “destructive nature of a disremembered history,” its optional approach to addressing racism, an “unhealthy partisanship” (and its close “alignment with the Republican party”), and it’s “shallow” approach to dealing with racial issues. In the end, he departed because he came to the conclusion that the SBC was not a place for people like him.
Soon after, in November 2020, the six seminary presidents of Southern Baptist Seminaries, made it a point to denounce Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality as they declared it was “incompatible with the Baptist Faith & Message.” This is significant because seminaries impact the formation of future pastors, Christian leaders, and priorities the Church looks to address. The challenge with entities like the SBC is that historically, they have failed to navigate race in a sufficient manner.
To the statement made by the SBC presidents, Jemar Tisby wrote, “At the recent annual meeting of the Council of Seminary Presidents of the Southern Baptist Convention, leaders ostensibly met to recommit to their guiding statement: the Baptist Faith and Message. In reality, these seminary presidents reaffirmed and gave themselves over to another historic Southern Baptist commitment: whiteness.”
Many, including myself, expressed that this was going to create divisions that could have been avoided. Beth Moore sought clarity, asking the presidents on Twitter “Is preaching against racism “any version” of [CRT]?” Reflecting on the statement, Dwight McKissic, a Black pastor in the SBC tweeted, “The SBC may be on the verge of a split or splintering. Why? Because the powers that be are willing to engage in nuanced understanding of the White Supremacist founders of the SBC, but they refuse to engage in a nuanced understanding of CRT, founded by African American law professor Derrick Bell,” who “was baptized in an AME Church.”
Then, on December 15, 2020, J. Alfred Smith, who served as pastor of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, as the 12th president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, and earned a doctor of ministry degree at SBC’s Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary stated, “They are more afraid of Critical Race Theory than the ugly racism that has our democracy about to be crucified with lies. They are complicit with evil. They don’t speak out against conspiracy theories. But they will make a big hullabaloo about Critical Race Theory.”
The next day, on December 16, 2020, Ralph Douglas West, pastor of The Church Without Walls, made it known that he would no longer affiliate himself with the SBC. He wrote, “The statement on critical race theory and intersectionality has soiled that good faith. I cannot maintain my affiliation any longer and therefore am withdrawing from [teaching at] Southwestern Seminary. Nor will I associate with the SBC any longer.” He explains, “I am uncertain as to why these men found it necessary even to associate their affirmation of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message with a rejection of critical race theory. One would expect, with their sincere rejection of racism, they would speak to instances of it in our culture. They would stand against our president’s attempts to maintain the names of Confederate generals on monuments and military bases. One would expect they would stand against the rise of anti-Semitism and racism seen in groups like the Proud Boys. They would stand against police violence against Black bodies and stand in solidarity with the Black community. They would call the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. But they have not done that. Their stand against racism rings hollow when in their next breath they reject theories that have been helpful in framing the problem of racism.”
Then, on December 18, 2020, Charlie Dates, pastor of Progressive Baptist Church in Chicago, also said he was cutting ties with the SBC, writing, “The SBC’s power structure wants to maintain white dominance. They are happy to have a Black chapel speaker, the occasional conservative Black professor whose classes are not taken seriously or a Black employee who never bucks against their notions of superiority.”
On the same day, Fred Luter, the only Black pastor to serve as president of the SBC joined 230 others, including pastors Page Brooks, Stephen Partain, Dwight McKissic, and Alan Cross, in signing a statement entitled, “Justice, Repentance, and the SBC” where they wrote, “we stand firmly in opposition to any movement in the SBC that seeks to distract from racial reconciliation through the gospel.” They also called for “collective repentance.” Seth Martin, pastor of The Brook Community Church, also separated from the SBC writing, “ This problem with addressing systemic racism and injustice is not isolated to the seminaries and long tenured SBC churches. It also exists in the younger and new churches they are planting as well. In my time within the organization, I have seen the same insensitive attitude and gaslighting in addressing issues of justice from planters or planting leaders.”
Some will argue that these departures were based on a misunderstanding of the motives behind the statement the SBC presidents made. Others will say that the statement was misconstrued, especially since they condemned “racism in any form.” However, those who have studied the ways race functions and how it has played out in white evangelical spaces, will know that this statement was consistent with the ways in which racialization operates in the evangelical world (and beyond). Despite intentions to have doctrinal clarity, the statement revealed a lack of awareness around the ways that race functions and how deeply embedded racialization is within the Evangelical imagination. It is worth noting that many Christians of color pursuing racial justice had never heard of or even read Critical Race Theory until people started calling them Critical Race Theorists.
The lack of understand around how the sin of racism functions in the world along with the conflation of Christianity to partisan politics (and the many who fail to see their idolatry of partisanship) has led to significant divisions among the precious body of Christ, including what we are seeing today within the SBC. Instead of seeking to understand, the need to draw lines and build walls instead of bridges established upon the resurrection reality of Jesus is leading to painful divides.
As a result, we might be witnessing a schism in the making.
I love God’s call for justice, reconciliation, and unity. I want to see God glorified among those who bear witness to His name. I want to see Christians live out the Kingdom in ways that compels people towards repentance and faith clearly grasping a vision of Christ’s Kingdom. And in any situation, I believe we ought to do our best to find ways forward that picture His Kingdom.
As someone who believes in the power of the cross and resurrection to overturn death, I believe these worldly divisions can be overcome through the power of the Holy Spirit. The powers and principalities that fuel racialization and white dominance can be rebuked because of the blood-bought freedom of Christ. Evangelicalism no longer needs to be held captive by whiteness, but can be firmly rooted in a full gospel. But this will require a true faith that leads to deep humility and great courage: humility to learn from radically different ways of knowing, doing, and being, and a willingness to steward and give up power in a way that follows the kenotic way of Christ.
One of the primary issues in white evangelicalism is the imposition of a “white” way of knowing, doing, and being. This “white” way of doing things often leads to Christians of color, who hold the same core theological commitments, as being labeled safe or dangerous. Christians of color often feel a greater pressure to prove their orthodoxy as they address issues surrounding race. Those who are safe, fall in line, don’t rock the boat, maintain the racialized status quo, rarely speak up, and are fine with change that is slower than it could be. Dangerous Christians of color, who challenge a racialized status quo are often labeled “prophetic,” “radical,” or “impatient” seeking too much change, too quickly. They love their denomination, church, organization as much as the next person, but are seen as a threat because they challenge a whiteness that has never been fully acknowledged or sufficiently addressed. Those who embody humility in positions of authority and power will actively seek out feedback from those who might be perceived as the greatest challengers, for they will often speak a necessary truth that could save them from avoidable crises.
To be humble is also to be able to share or even give up power. It is the ability to step aside when one is incompetent to navigate the waters they find themselves in. It is also the ability to courageously and persistently speak truth to those who might be hindering faithful witness. It requires courage to speak truth to those who are afraid of losing racial dominance (even if they try and mask it with a commitment to right doctrine) and to speak truth to those who hold coffers full of riches and threaten to withhold their contributions (or their approval) in order to maintain the racialized status quo. As Russell Moore shared, “The temptation that evangelical Christianity always has is to be as authoritative and as prophetic as the people with money in the room will allow us to be.”
I do want to make clear that what we are seeing in the SBC is not limited to the SBC. As I have spoken with Christian pastors and leaders throughout the country spanning a variety of entities, it has become evident that this is and has been a pervasive reality among many denominations, organizations, and churches that have (knowingly or unknowingly) married whiteness to the Christian faith. The SBC just happens to be the place where such realities have emerged for the public to observe.
The question we must ask is will there be a genuine and true “collective repentance” which necessitates substantive changes, not relying on the time-tested excuse that change takes time, or mere lip service, empty resolutions, and shallow efforts that might seem significant at first glance, but ultimately reveal themselves to be superficial? Will there be a willingness to seek the interests of others (Phil. 2:4) and to allow righteousness and justice to be the foundation, driven by love and faithfulness (Ps. 89:14)?
Time will tell. For now, I pray for our brothers and sisters in the SBC, that they might find ways forward that reflect the glorious beauty of a gospel that leads to true reconciliation and unity.
Read “The SBC, Whiteness, and an Exodus of Black Pastors” on Christianity Today here.