Fewer Southern Baptists Call Themselves ‘Southern Baptist’
Several prominent Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) leaders have embraced a moniker that identifies it with the denomination’s mission rather than its regional (and at times racist) past: Great Commission Baptists.
Last month, SBC president J. D. Greear announced “We Are Great Commission Baptists” as the theme for next year’s SBC annual meeting and said the Durham, North Carolina, church he pastors will employ the descriptor in lieu of identifying as Southern Baptist.
Great Commission Baptists has been an authorized descriptor of America’s largest Protestant denomination since 2012, when SBC messengers adopted the nickname by a 53 percent–46 percent vote. Though the idea has been floated and rejected over the years, it was not an official name change for the SBC, which took on the name Southern when separating from Northern Baptists over slavery prior to the Civil War.
Seminary president Danny Akin and SBC Executive Committee president Ronnie Floyd have also embraced the moniker. But others have given it a lukewarm reception. The newly formed Conservative Baptist Network within the SBC said its members support the 2021 annual meeting theme but reject “the idea that the name ‘Southern’ is racist” and oppose “any effort to change the name of the SBC that is simply a desire to pander to advocates of Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and similar ideas.”
In an email interview with Christianity Today, Greear discussed the theme and its implications for the SBC.
Why did you select the theme “We Are Great Commission Baptists” for the 2021 SBC annual meeting?
The Great Commission is what unites Southern Baptists, the reason we come together. We are more excited about going forward into 2025 than looking back to 1845. What unites us now is not a shared Southern heritage but a desire to see the gospel get to the ends of the earth. Our mission fields and, increasingly, our membership are outside the South. By every metric, Great Commission better captures the spirit of our convention than does Southern.
The convention officially voted on using this term in 2012 primarily to help churches and planters outside the Southeast. Today we are seeing a movement of churches and leaders in the Southeast putting this into practice at the grassroots level. Churches are free to use whichever term best serves their membership and the people they are trying to reach.
As our IMB [International Mission Board] president often says, “When the Great Commission isn’t the lead topic of conversation in our convention, the other topics divide us.” … Utilizing Great Commission Baptists is simply one more step to make clear we serve a risen Savior who died for all peoples, whose mission is not limited to one people living in one time at one place. Our Lord Jesus was not a white Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee. Every week we gather to worship a Savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear.
What do you hope will be the result of an annual meeting with this theme?
I would love to see our convention defined by the gospel and the Great Commission. The early church saw an influx of Jews and Gentiles, and much of the Epistles was written to help unite them around the things that mattered, those things of “first importance.” The church’s unity is not based in shared ethnic heritage, shared stylistic preferences, or shared political perspective. It’s found in the gospel. That’s also where our power is.
By God’s grace, nearly 20 percent of our churches are led by pastors of color. NAMB [the North American Mission Board] announced that leaders of color planted 63 percent of our new churches last year. For all three years of my presidency, one of my two vice presidents has been African American and the other Hispanic. By God’s grace, we are diverse and becoming increasingly more so.
Our Lord Jesus was not a white Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee.
Did you have any reticence to use this theme because of potential criticism? If so, why did you decide to proceed with it?
Well, as noted, this is not a new action but rather embracing what the convention officially adopted in 2012. Its recovery has been a grassroots movement. President Bryant Wright championed it in 2012, and President Jack Graham before him in 2004. Recently, I saw First Baptist Church, Charleston’s pastor, Marshall Blalock, and their church’s announcement that they wanted to use the term. This is significant because of its history as the earliest Baptist church in the South, the very definition of a Southern Baptist church. Since then we have seen that many prominent South Carolina pastors are doing it as well. I know of many churches in North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Texas, and other southern states. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has publicly announced that the school will use the descriptor as well.
Furthermore, I can’t see how any Baptist would be against saying “We are Great Commission Baptists.” Some have asked whether in doing this we are seeking to minimize our past sins—attempting to hide our past or avoid doing the hard work of changing our culture. That is not the intent. We are committed to being a convention defined by the gospel and the Great Commission—not a shared ethnic heritage, stylistic preference, or political perspective.
You mentioned in Baptist Press that you had received emails from around the country asking about using the descriptor Great Commission Baptists. How many such emails have you received, and why do the senders feel now is the time to begin employing the moniker Great Commission Baptists?
We did not count the number, but we did notice that starting in July, seemingly out of nowhere, people began writing to us and reaching out about this subject. Most mentioned what the convention voted on in 2012, that their church was doing it, and had questions about if our associations, state conventions, and national entities were using the name.
At your church, what does it mean practically that you will start to use the descriptor Great Commission Baptists?
It means how we refer to the churches and entities we partner with as calling them Great Commission Baptists. This fits the heartbeat of our church, a sending church, and we believe the heartbeat of every Christian. Jesus’ final command must be our first priority. Legally, the convention still bears the name Southern Baptist Convention.
Do you think the SBC should reconsider an official name change, or is employing the already-approved moniker sufficient for now?
I don’t know enough of the context surrounding the task force’s 2012 decision, so I can’t speak to the official name change challenges. Our church’s official name, for instance, is still legally Homestead Heights Baptist Church, even though we’ve been “doing business as” The Summit Church since 2003. If churches still want to refer to themselves as SBC, that’s fine. Whether in our name or only in our aspirations, we are all Great Commission Baptists. It’s why we come together.
David Roach is a writer in Nashville.
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