07.09.20

4 Reasons We Left the SBC

INTRODUCTION

“For I wrote to you with many tears out of an extremely troubled and anguished heart—not to cause you pain, but that you should know the abundant love I have for you.” ()

First, I’m not writing this to try to convince anyone. I’m merely writing to corroborate convictions that others already have. Sometimes you have instincts and feelings about things that you can’t put into words until someone else does. This is my attempt to put concrete words around what I’ve felt (and tried to push back against) for years.

Secondly, I want to clarify that I’m speaking on behalf of John Onwuchekwa and my identical twins in regards to the reasons for our departure. I include four reasons for my departure below. I want it to be clear that I’m only speaking for those who would read those four reasons and exclaim “EXACTLY. That’s exactly how I feel.” I imagine that if my reasons for departure were a TV show, there could be a host of spin-offs in regards to frustration with the Southern Baptist Convention. My simple request is that you would feel free to reference this document, but please don’t coopt it for your personal agenda. I’m having a hard enough time coming up with words that adequately capture my own heart; therefore, I imagine that appropriating my words for your cause would only do it a disservice. Thanks for understanding.

Third, I want to make it clear that the SBC was good to me personally. People were genuinely kind and respectful. Multiple people, on an individual and institutional level, offered their help. When we were dealing with a shady group in preparation to buy our church facility and were in need of an expedited process for a loan, the North American Mission Board (NAMB) stepped in and helped us get a loan for our building. The building may have slipped away if we weren’t helped in that regard. So, we praise God for the Cooperative Program that enabled NAMB to steward Southern Baptist resources to help solidify Cornerstone’s place in the West End. For that I’m grateful. We needed money to renovate our church building and again NAMB stewarded Cooperative Fund Giving our way in the form of a $175,000 grant to renovate the church building. I’m grateful for that as well.

Danny Akin and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary have taken steps to resource and scholarship many people of color over the nine years I’ve been in the SBC. For that, I’m grateful. I have relationships with many entity heads which is a resource in and of itself. I don’t leave due to personal acts of prejudice against me. I was favored, loved, and cared for as best they knew how. I was respected as far I could tell.

Nevertheless, I had to leave. The SBC liked me, but I feel like they’ve failed people like me. I’d rather give myself to serving that overlooked and under-resourced demographic than merely enjoy the perks of being treated as some outlier.

THE DECISION: Getting off the bus AND Announcing IT

I’m getting off the bus.

The Southern Baptist Convention is like a charter bus. Nothing more than a vehicle meant to take a collection of people to an agreed upon destination. In 2011, while pastoring in Atlanta, we got on the bus with much skepticism. Once we boarded the bus, we found out that there were a lot of dope people onboard who genuinely wanted to move this bus in a healthy direction. For the past nine years I’ve tried to work by the rules within the confines of the bus in order to change certain directions. I gladly sat in meetings to talk about the matters I’ll outline below. Sat on boards, had private conversations, served in many other ways. I’ve even convinced other people of color to board the bus because I believed it was headed in the right direction. For the past nine years, I’ve been:

(1) Encouraged by friends we’ve met on the bus
(2) Encouraged by the fact that those friends (with influence) genuinely wanted to see the bus head in the right direction—pursuing justice for the oppressed and seeking to prioritize segments of people who have been disadvantaged due to the color of their skin. (Both inside and outside of the denomination).

Nevertheless, as time has gone on, it has become clear to me that the destination that I desire to reach— the correction of the racial injustices and socioeconomic inequalities that plague our country—is an island. And the fact of the matter is….

You can’t drive a bus to PUERTO RICO.

I’ve realized the futility of some of my efforts in the denomination. Not because the SBC isn’t a place full of good-hearted people—there are plenty. 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.

At this point, I just want to pull the little break thing on the bus and make my exit. This isn’t SPEED (remember that movie with Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock?). I ain’t trying to blow the bus up; I just want to get off and go about my business. However, the reason I’m leaving this way, as opposed to quietly telling the bus driver to let me off at the next stop, is because I’ve served in public facing ways within the denomination. I’ve spoken with multiple church planters, preached at the pastors’ conference, had my face, name and information on calendars, websites and the like. I’m letting everyone know just in case there are some who only felt comfortable boarding the bus because of my implicit recommendation. I don’t imagine my influence is global, but it does extend to areas unknown to me. There’s a reason disinfectant comes in aerosol containers and not squirt guns. You want it to cover areas that you’ve aimed to disinfect as well as places that are in need of disinfection but you didn’t foresee. You offer it up and let it fall where it may. This is my attempt to do just that.

Below are my four reasons for leaving the Southern Baptist Convention.

REASON #1: Destructive Nature of a Disremembered History

In May of 1845, the Southern Baptist Convention began over the issue of slavery. The Southern Baptist convention was not merely a bystander of racism. Nor were they merely accomplices to this grave evil, as if they were merely “hanging around the wrong country against their parents’ wishes” and found themselves unduly influenced. Rather, this denomination was a leader in the persecution and humiliation of black people. They were architects, instructing its followers as to where and how to lay the bricks to build a wall of racial inequality that still plagues black and brown people to this day!

This history has been disremembered. Not merely forgotten the way one would forget to include the trivial details when recounting a story about their activities a week ago. There is a consistent pattern of the denomination failing to own this troubled history:

  • 2013 – Video shown during SEND Conferences to stadiums of Southern Baptists in an attempt to recount the SBC’s missional history as well as move them to partner in church planting. Slavery is not mentioned, and the topic of race is talked about for 2 seconds in a passing statement describing the 60’s.
  • 2014 – Video shown to church planters recounting the history of slavery. Notice how 90 seconds are given to ambiguous honesty about the ugliness of slavery. While the remaining five and half minutes are given to specific instances of hopefulness about where the denomination is headed.
  • Throughout the years there have been various official attempts to change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. Every name change resolution has been about geography and not about the fact the “Southern” in Southern Baptist Convention was not about geography as much as ideology. An honest understanding of history will embrace that the SBC was really one bad marketing meeting away from being called the Confederate Baptist Convention.
    • http://www.sbc.net/resolutions/367/resolution-on-convention-name
    • http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/septemberweb-only/southern-baptist-name-change.html

Active harm requires active repair. Equity will not be accomplished by the mere passage of time, resolutions, or sweeping past wrongs under the rug. Forgiveness isn’t begotten by forgetfulness.

A disremembered history begets passivity, which leads to the second reason for my departure…

REASON #2: RACIAL REPAIR: Obligation or Optional Opportunity

I believe the SBC is uniquely positioned in this season to provide a Gospel Witness to the problem of racial inequality that the whole world is trying to solve. While there are individuals within the denomination who may be working toward justice within their local church structures or seminaries, as a whole, the denomination is not leading to denounce racism in its walls or in our cities.

The SBC undeniably had a systemic hand in perpetuating wickedness, and yet, its systemic efforts to restore and promote racial justice fall flat. Confession and repentance are not optional in the Christian life, and yet, on the topic of racial oppression in America, the SBC is not teaching its members to deal effectively with these issues. Its silence is deafening to those of us who feel the effects of this oppression every day. And those people are in my neighborhood. They are in my church. They are my brothers and sisters. They are me.

Nevertheless, striving for racial equality and seeking to undo those evils isn’t seen as an obligation (something we must do), instead at best it’s seen as a passion project that one has the option to participate in. At worst, it’s seen as a distraction from true gospel work.

This second reason heads straight into my third…

REASON #3: Unhealthy Partisanship – Too closely aligned with the Republican Party

A Marketing adage best applies here. You aren’t who you say you are; you are who other people say you are. Meaning that when it comes to your public perception what other people see and surmise about you is often more important than what you say about yourself amongst yourselves. If a marketing adage is uncomfortable, then maybe Scripture is more helpful. Peter basically says the same thing.

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.” ()

Although the SBC represents a diverse array of churches across the political spectrum, the denomination conducts itself in a manner that is extremely partisan. (i.e. Influential churches vocal about pulling funding from the SBC when Russell Moore spoke out against basic human decency issues regarding President Trump in 2016; Pence’s invitation and subsequent address at the SBC in one of the most polarizing political cycles of my lifetime; Al Mohler, the President of the largest SBC Seminary and apparent incumbent President of the SBC, using his public platform at T4G to endorse President Trump and reaffirm his personal lifelong allegiance to the Republican Party…and the list goes on and on).

Hear this, the only people that don’t believe the SBC has a partisan problem are those who have some allegiance to the favored party. Everyone in the world looks and associates the SBC with the Republican Party. The minorities among you believe it to be true.

The Southern Baptist Convention often boasts about being the most diverse denomination in the United States as if it were because of something they’re doing. I tend to believe that they are as diverse as they are despite what they’re doing.

REASON #4: Shallow Solutions where they should be putting on Scuba Gear

While the Southern Baptist Convention is working to solve its unity problem, they fail to realize that this unity problem could be solved by deep diving into the problem of race in America.

Allow me to clarify. In looking at where the Southern Baptist Convention is throwing collective resources to deal with issues of race, they are aiming where a lot of predominantly white institutions aim—racial reconciliation. Let’s fight for unity. While I’m grateful for series like the UNDIVIDED curriculum, I fear it’s addressing surface level issues instead of deep diving into the problem of race in America. Efforts like this focus on relational obstacles to unity instead of systemic injustice and inequality. Understand, unity is a goal, but unity in and of itself is not a vice or a virtue. Unity is a vehicle. The most important thing about a vehicle is who or what’s driving. Bad guys are unified—but their unity doesn’t do much good! To solely emphasize unity without addressing the sources of disunity (i.e., racial injustice and inequality) is to confuse the goal with the pathway. If unity is the goal, then fighting for racial equality is a pathway to achieving it.

The Civil Rights Movement was a unified and diverse movement, not because they took up a fight against disunity. Rather, they were fighting inequality of a societal and structural nature. A diverse group of people found solidarity around advocating for the equality of the disenfranchised. Where you have a diverse group of people sharing solidarity around a worthy concern, you’ll end up getting both unity and equality. Where you merely aim for being undivided, you’ll get neither.

In our circles, whenever issues of justice are brought up, there are immediate accusations of being unduly influenced by critical race theory and cultural Marxism (they did it to the prophets of old who wanted to drink out of the same water fountains). Listen, that’s not what’s influenced me. I’ve been influenced by an unbiased reading of history. So, when Southern Seminary published a report almost two years ago, tracing the influence of slavery to the billion dollar organization that is the Southern Baptist Convention, with no mention of how the Convention intends to repair the damage it caused, it feels eerily reminiscent of when the US Government gambled away half of black wealth from the Freedman’s bank on railroads and merely offered an apology to the effect of Sorry for YOUR LOSS, now let’s move on.

There are reasons why the International Mission Board (IMB) sends over 3,000 missionaries to the mission field and the number of black missionaries remains in the single digits (by my last count). Those reasons can’t be discovered with surface level discussions and strategies. Scuba gear is needed to take a deep dive into the racial history of our country and convention. Then and only then will we understand how we can move forward. Thus far it seems as if the convention has other more important things to do, and concerns such as these are often, at best, extracurricular passion projects for individuals.

Conclusion: WHO IS THE SBC FOR? NOT PEOPLE LIKE ME.

WHO IS MORE COMFORTABLE IN THE DENOMINATION: A closet racist or a black man who openly cares about seeing racism attacked with the full force of the gospel? From personal experience, when talking about issues that are near and dear to my heart, I’ve heard the former leader of church planting for the Georgia Baptist Convention tell other people that we (Cornerstone Church) are not one of them (presumably Southern Baptists). I’ve never heard people of color have the audacity to say the same thing in return.

I really pose this rhetorical question for you to consider. I know my answer and that’s why I’m leaving. I imagine others will come up with their answer. I’m not interested in debating answers. I am just at a place where I realize the SBC is not a home for me.

I LOVE MANY PEOPLE IN THE SBC. I do not leave my brothers and sisters. I leave a former denomination that never really felt like a home. While others were proud of their SBC Passports, I was always aware that I wasn’t a citizen. I was merely there on a work visa. At this point, I believe my work is done.

People often say things like, I imagine it was hard for you to leave. To be honest, it wasn’t. The leaving is never hard. The staying is. The leaving was the easy part. One part freeing, one part refreshing.

I leave having personally given up on the notion that I (or anyone else) can reform the Southern Baptist Convention, or that this vehicle, as it stands, will make it to the destination of addressing the sins that lead to the racial injustices that plague our country (and community). This is something I hope that God will do. I personally would feel no greater joy than to be wrong about my assessment. Nevertheless, this is a mission that I no longer feel personally called to. My work visa has expired and I’m moving on. My involvement will be one of prayer. Like the prophet Samuel I agree that, “As for me, I will certainly not sin against the Lord by ending my prayers for you…” (). But prayer will be the extent of my participation. I trust God that none of our labor was in vain, but I do not see the utility of our church made up predominantly of ethnic minorities remaining in the SBC. Because rather than being an agent of change, I fear our presence has largely been an advertisement for other churches of similar makeup saying “Come in…the water’s fine.” The sign I’d rather hold up is “Enter at Your Own Risk!”

“So then, have I now become your enemy because I told you the truth?” ()

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John Onwuchekwa
John Onwuchekwa (MA, Dallas Theological Seminary) is a pastor at Cornerstone Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and a Council member of The Gospel Coalition. He’s the author of Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church. He and his wife, Shawndra, are the proud parents of one daughter, Ava.

C’mon Up!