By Dr. Juan Sanchez, senior pastor of High Pointe Baptist Church in Austin, TX
Ethnic diversity has been all the rage in our culture for some time now. But while our culture celebrates diversity, it has a difficult time achieving it. This is because simply celebrating diversity is impotent to unite us, since it does nothing to address the very issues that divide us. Ever since sin came into the world through Adam, humanity has been at war: men versus women (Gen. 3), brother versus brother (Gen. 4), and ethnic group versus ethnic group (Gen. 10).
Gospel diversity is quite different than what our world has to offer. Gospel diversity emphasizes unity: through faith in Christ, the diverse peoples of the world are made one (Eph. 2). The church displays the glory and wisdom of God as we live together as brothers and sisters in Christ (Eph. 3-4). It is only through Christ and the transforming power of the gospel that a former Ku Klux Klan leader and a former Black Panther leader come to the Lord’s table as brothers.
Is our own Southern Baptist Convention friendly toward such gospel diversity? As with any large entity, the answer is mixed. Let’s consider the ugly, the bad, and the good. Then, I will propose a way forward.
Most Southern Baptists agree that ours is an ugly history because of the role that chattel slavery played in our founding in 1845. Like other Southern evangelicals, many Baptists in the South defended the right to own slaves, with some even owning slaves. The repercussions of this ugly history still reverberate in our denomination today.
The SBC has a large number of non-white members—about 20-25%—but our leadership doesn’t yet reflect that. A simple review of all our SBC entities shows that our denomination is still led, in large part, by white Baptists. Of the 79 members of the SBC Executive Committee, 78 are white.
This observation is not, in itself, an indictment of wrongdoing; it simply exposes one of the ripple effects or our history. We cannot change what has gone before, but we can change what comes ahead.
The good news is that many of our Southern Baptist leaders have long recognized the ugly aspects of our history, and have courageously sought to address them in hopes that the SBC leadership may better mirror the gospel diversity that is reflective of our member churches.
- In 1995, the SBC meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, passed a resolution on racial reconciliation in which we repented of our participation in slavery and the ensuing racial discrimination, and we asked all African-Americans for forgiveness.
- In 1999, Richard Land, chair of the Racial Reconciliation Task Force, “was surprised and disappointed with the lack of progress in race relations” and called for an increased emphasis on racial reconciliation and ethnic diversity within the SBC leadership.
- In 2008, the SBC meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, passed a resolution “On Celebrating The Growing Ethnic Diversity Of The Southern Baptist Convention,” in which we encouraged all SBC entities to strive to reflect the ethnic diversity of our member churches in their leadership.
- In 2011, the SBC Executive Committee released a report titled, “A Review of Ethnic Church and Ethnic Church Leader Participation in SBC Life” (see SBC Annual 2011, pages 138-42). The report offered ten recommendations and two other suggestions to help pursue and attain greater ethnic diversity within SBC life.
- Just last year (2015), the SBC Executive Committee provided the convention with “A Review of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Progress on Racial Reconciliation, 1995–2015” (see SBC Annual 2015, pages 143-155).
We should be thankful to God for such courageous leadership. This brief list, of course, does not exhaust the efforts our SBC leadership has taken to pursue racial reconciliation and ethnic diversity within the SBC. And those who led the way with these efforts would agree that there is much work still to be done if the leadership of the SBC is to reflect the ethnic diversity of our churches.
A Way Forward
The future for ethnic diversity in the SBC looks bright. At the organizational and institutional levels, the SBC is not just friendly to ethnic diversity but vigorously pursuing it. But it is not enough merely to have a diversity of faces in leadership at the SBC. Just as we do in our churches, we must continue to uphold the biblical qualifications for leadership within the SBC. We do not want token minorities in leadership to fulfill quotas; we want biblically qualified minority leaders to lead Christ’s church.
Next, we must continue to support ethnic diversity in our institutions of theological learning and training. We must reach further back than just electing ethnically diverse officers and committee members; we must first identify, encourage, and support young men and women from ethnically diverse backgrounds while they are getting their theological training. This requires taking a longer-term approach to ethnic diversity, but our investments today will reap great rewards in the near future.
Finally, it is no mystery that leaders tend to promote and affirm people whom they know and trust. We need to work on knowing more people than our comfortable circle of friends. We need to provide venues for conversations—not only conversations about ethnic diversity, but conversations where the goal is simply to get to know one another. We need to learn about one another’s lives, backgrounds, and ministries. As we get to know one another, regardless of ethnic, generational, socio-economic backgrounds, our SBC will continue to grow stronger and more diverse.