Guest Post: “Every Kindred, Tongue, and Tribe? Ethnic Diversity in the SBC” by Daniel Akin and Walter Strickland II
From its inception the Southern Baptist Convention has been a missionary people that began to cooperate in an effort to reach the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like many other strengths, our passionate pursuit of the Great Commission is accompanied by unintended consequences that could hinder genuine gospel partnerships from developing. In a real sense Southern Baptists have, in pursuit of obedience, proclaimed the gospel around the globe and as a result have assumed a position of prominence in gospel partnerships, especially when ministering with minority Christians. Although there have been a number of positive developments to involve minority Southern Baptists, equitable gospel partnerships are not the norm stateside or abroad.
Believers seeking to cultivate genuine gospel partnerships should avoid impediments that stifle authentic unity. Christians must identify other believers not as “projects” but as full partners in ministry. It is doubtful that Southern Baptists intentionally carry this disposition, but the social and economic power the majority culture has retained in American contains an inherent “hero” disposition. This trait creates two classes among God’s people: the helper/helped and the privileged/underprivileged. Paul never envisioned anything like this in the church.
The helper/helped dynamic is an unhealthy idea believers may have unconsciously assimilated from an American history rife with the “white good/black deviant” dualism. “Black” in this instance transcends the African-American distinction and extends to all minority peoples in America. A divide that demarcates the perpetual helper and the perpetually helped bears the marks of inherent inequity that the gospel seeks to reverse if not abolish. In this framework the helped remain perpetually voiceless and powerless and are not equitably included in the denomination’s pursuit of the Great Commission.
The helper/helped dynamic was not Christ’s or Paul’s hope for the Gentiles (i.e., the ethnes) rather, they hoped all believers would become mature and able to contribute to the mission of God in a meaningful way as family. This divide among God’s people is not only damaging to the helped but also destructive to the helper. Believers who are understood to be the helpers in a gospel partnership are hampered because of an assumption that relationships across the privileged-underprivileged divide are not mutually beneficial. A common symptom of this phenomenon is when affluent Christians take a trip to serve impoverished believers either oceans away or in an urban area and they are astonished upon their return that the “least” had blessed them so powerfully when their intent was to serve them.
It is not wrong for economically privileged Christians to think that under privileged believers can benefit from the gifts God has given them to steward (Acts 4:32), but it is unbiblical to think those that are helping cannot gain anything from their brothers and sisters who are helped. The apostle Paul affirmed the vulnerable members of the body by saying:
“And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘1 have no need of you;’ or again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor.” (1 Cor. 12:21—23 NASB)
The formal study of theology and missiology often reflects a belief that minority Christians are incapable of contributing to the Great Commission efforts of the dominant culture of believers. For example, one can attain a laudable theological education without having read a book or article by a minority scholar.
Said differently, among Southern Baptists a dominant-culture Christian can be considered well versed in theology and missiology without having read the works of a person of color. The inverse, however, is unthinkable. In the spirit of “iron sharpening iron” (Prov. 27:17), believers are able to benefit from one another’s insights and perspectives as one Spirit-filled body.
Providentially, the most acute sharpening occurs along the lines of difference. In Baptist life we have rightly cherished the fruit of diversity with older mentoring younger (Titus 2:1—8) and in marriage as man and woman are satisfied when joined together (Eph. 5:22—33). However, Southern Baptists have largely neglected the opportunity of being sharpened across the lines of race or class. The admonition for dominant-culture Christians is not to elevate the voices of minority Christians to the neglect of the majority but to purge a long-standing bias deeply rooted in our nation’s history. In addition, minority Christians in America must not neglect the insights of dominant-culture believers in God’s mission just because they are not consistently heard in the collective kingdom effort. God’s mission calls the people of God to embody the strengths of the entire body of Christ and leverage its strength toward a unified goal. When writing to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul expressed the diversity of God’s people while maintaining its single purpose using the illustration of the human body:
“For the body is not one member, but many. if the foot says, ‘Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body;’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, ‘Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body’,’ it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body.” (1Cor. 12:14—20 NASB)
*This article is an excerpt from The SBC and the 21st Century: Reflection, Renewal, and Recommitment. Edited by Jason K. Allen (B&H Academics). The culmination of a landmark symposium on the campus of Midwestern Seminary, this book features contributions from President Allen, Frank Page, Ronnie Floyd, Thom Rainer, Albert Mohler, Paige Patterson, David Platt, Danny Akin, Justin Taylor, Collin Hansen, and more on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. Available to purchase online at Amazon.com and B&H Publishing and in LifeWay Christian Stores.topicsSBC, Southern Baptist Convention
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