Repligion & politics

A lighted sign at First Baptist Church, McComb, says, ‘Our world has changed, but God never changes.’

Southern Baptist leadership waded into some hot water in recent months by endorsing the Black Lives Matter concept, backing the removal of the Mississippi state flag, and changing church names from Southern Baptist to Great Commission.

In June, Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear said, “Southern Baptists, we need to say it clearly: As a gospel issue, Black lives matter. Of course, Black lives matter. Our Black brothers and sisters are made in the image of God.”

He added that he is not aligned with the Black Lives Matter organization.

Later that month, the Mississippi Baptist Convention issued a statement supporting the removal of the Confederate emblem from the state flag.

And hundreds of church leaders, including Greear, are reportedly calling their congregations Great Commission churches rather than Southern Baptist.    

All three moves have sparked ire among many rank-and-file Baptists, while others say the denomination shouldn’t be getting involved in those sorts of political issues.

“There are a lot of things that J.D. Greear has proposed in his tenure of service that we were against in the rural area and the Mississippi Baptist Convention,” said the Rev. Alton Foster, director of the Amite County-based Mississippi Baptist Association.

Foster noted efforts to change the name from Southern to Great Commission Baptists have been underway for some time.

“I’m at a loss to understand how that will help us in ministering to people,” Foster said.

He described the Southern Baptist Convention as “open-handed, generous and color-blind,” so no name change should be needed.

“We’ve tried to help anyone we could,” he said, citing church plants among Black, Hispanic and Asian communities.

Foster pointed out that the convention has no authority over individual churches, which in the Southern Baptist denomination are autonomous.

“The Southern Baptist president is just a figurehead. He has zero authority,” Foster said.

“We’re autonomous and each church stands for themselves as far as they way they think and feel,” Foster said. “If you have a flow chart, the church would be at the top, the local congregation.”

When churches contribute to the Southern Baptist Convention Cooperative Program, they support mission endeavors, Baptist colleges, seminaries and hospitals, emergency relief and more — all with the ultimate goal of bringing people to Jesus Christ.

“That’s the bottom line,” Foster said.

He fears the denomination’s involvement in political controversies will hurt that cause.

“It’s so polarizing, and I think we need to back away from some of that,” Foster said.

Likewise, he didn’t think the Mississippi Baptist Commission should have weighed in on the flag issue. What’s more important is what Baptists are doing to help others, he said.

“We’re helping Black lives every day,” Foster said. “We need to be sharing the love of Christ.”

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The Rev. Tim Buford, pastor of First Baptist Church, Magnolia, said some of the hot-button political issues have little relevance in the day-to-day lives of local folks, including pastors.

“A lot of the political issues are not even here. They’re not even at the forefront,” he said, noting they may loom larger in urban areas.

“We’re not battling out here. We’re just trying to reach people in the community.”

Buford and his wife served as overseas missionaries for seven years — India, Ukraine, Egypt, Poland — where the debate over whether to use the word “Southern” is meaningless.

Likewise in Maine, where a friend serves as director of missions, “the word Southern before Baptist does not fit in. To try to start a church that says Southern Baptist church, people do not relate to that,” said Buford, who moved here from New Orleans in January.

On the other hand, in Mississippi, “Southern Baptist fits in perfectly.”

Buford said he’s more focused on the word of God than political or denomina-tional issues.

“I pastor a Southern Baptist church, but I don’t preach Baptist. I preach the gospel,” Buford said. “I don’t preach Southern Baptist messages. I preach the word of God.”

Buford cited a video of a pastor of an underground church in China, who said he doesn’t speak out against that nation’s policies.

“He said politics never brings healing. It brings division,” Buford said. “He said, ‘We preach and teach Jesus Christ and we pray for our leaders as God commissioned us to do.’ ”

Buford winced when Greear spoke up for Black Lives Matter.

“I told my wife, ‘Oh. He just endorsed a political movement that could explode on the good or bad.’ ”

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The Rev. Rick Edmonds, pastor of First Baptist in McComb, said he has heard little on any of those topics from his members.

“We’ve had enough issues with COVID-19 to keep us busy,” he said.

Hurricane Laura likewise occupied folks’ attention as they hastened to help victims in Louisiana.

Whether the Southern Baptist Convention will ever change its name is “a national convention issue. It will take a group of messengers to decide if they want to go through with a name change,” Edmonds said.

He noted that Greear made his statement about Black Lives Matters in June before it became associated with riots in cities like Portland, Ore.

“I don’t know what his choice would be today as there is a lot more unfolding about the organization,” Edmonds said.

He believes Americans want cooperation, not division.

“What most of us want is to raise our families in peace and America to be great and for people to love each other,” Edmonds said. “People want the best for their families and the best for their children,” regardless of race.

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Dr. Larry LeBlanc, pastor of First Baptist, Summit, had harsh words for racism — and for Black Lives Matter.

“The Bible makes it perfectly clear that all people are equal at the cross and that the blood of Jesus covers people from every tongue, tribe, people, and nation,” he wrote in a newsletter Wednesday. “Racism is sin. But to align with the Black Lives Matter organization is also sin.

“BLM opposes Scripture’s clear teaching on salvation, the family, human sexuality, reconciliation and forgiveness, the relationship of citizens to government and civil authorities, and the value of human life.”

 LeBlanc warned against efforts to appease critics in an era of “cancel culture.”

“The question, ‘Where does it end?’ must be asked,” he wrote.  

“My main concern regarding our commitment to the Southern Baptist Convention is not its name,” he wrote. “This convention fought hard and won against liberal, progressive forces in the 1980s, and the conservative resurgence was born.  I have been proud to be a Southern Baptist as they have stood on the authority of Scripture when many other evangelical denominations fell to the secular and demonic forces of liberalism.  

“The greatest threat to Southern Baptists now is not the name ‘Southern’ or ‘Baptist.’  The greatest threat we currently face is the increased willingness among leadership to take politically correct stances on the issues to which the Bible speaks clearly. The authority of God’s Word is all we have upon which to stand.”

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The Rev. Rick Kennedy, retired pastor of New Heights Baptist Church, Summit, said folks he knows don’t go along with some of the denominational pronouncements.

Kennedy said “everybody that I know of absolutely, totally resented” the Legislature mandating the removal of the state flag without a vote. “Our convention getting involved in it and endorsing it was a slap in the face to the people, and we didn’t get a choice,” he said.

He said he wouldn’t have minded as long as people had a chance to a vote on whether to keep the old flag. Regardless, the denomination shouldn’t have gotten involved, Kennedy maintained.

He also opposed Greear’s speaking out for Black Lives Matter.

“Black Lives Matter is political,” Kennedy said. “Everybody knows Black lives matter. White lives matter. All lives matter. Babies’ lives matter.”

He’s puzzled by the removal of “Southern” from some churches. Kennedy pointed out that no Baptist churches in the area even use the word. His former congregation goes by New Heights Baptist.

If there is an effort to change the name of the denomination, the decision should be made at a convention where people can vote, he said.

“Are we going to take the word ‘Southern’ out of the universe because of slavery?” Kennedy asked. “There is a word called Southern.

“It’s a political thing, and I’m sick of politics.”

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