An Open Letter to the Southwestern Seminary and Scarborough College Family
Dear Fellow Southwesterners:
“Have Southern Baptists forgotten the Ninth Commandment?”
That jarring question was posed to me in a recent letter written by a recipient of our seminary’s Southwestern News magazine. Sadly, it seems the correspondent was not making a mere rhetorical inquiry. His probe about the Decalogue’s penultimate commandment, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor” (Exodus 20:16, av), came in the context of gratitude expressed for my recent op-ed (“Inerrancy still matters; so does integrity”) where I challenged my fellow Great Commission Baptists—as well as myself—to consider four specific questions:
- By our actions, is it evident that we love one another?
- Do we treat one another with Christian dignity and respect?
- Do we seek to believe the best about each other, rather than assume the worst?
- Do we truly work to find ways to come together rather than to tear each other apart?
The unfolding conversation about Critical Race Theory/Intersectionality (CRT/I) taking place across the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) reveals not only that we deserve a failing grade on this four-fold test, but before a watching world we appear all the more determined to tear each other apart. Please allow me to illustrate by way of one particular, personal episode.
Last month, the Council of Seminary Presidents (CSP) of the SBC released a unanimously-adopted statement that in summary form had three components:
- reaffirmation of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) as our confessional consensus;
- reaffirmation of all SBC condemnations of racism in any and every form; and
- affirmation of the ideology of CRT/I and Critical Theory as incompatible with the BFM.
As president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS), I enthusiastically signed the CSP statement, and I was grateful to see words of support for it from our SBC president, J.D. Greear, who noted it represented Convention leaders affirming “our historic Baptist theological confessions” as well as “a biblical view of justice,” and adding his own voice to “declare that ideological frameworks like Critical Race Theory are incompatible with the BFM. The Gospel gives us a better answer.”
While other voices of support for the CSP statement have made their views known, greater attention has been given—especially on social media (where the sardonic and snarky seem to rule the day)—to critics who, among other things, asserted that we were reaffirming our commitment to whiteness, assumed that we are propagating fear to maintain control, announced that we are complicit with evil, and ascribed to us the pejorative label of theological architects of American slavery. And this is just a mere sampling of the complaint, criticism, and condemnation that has come our way, both publicly and privately.
Some of this fallout was to be expected because there are certainly those outside the SBC fold who seem to take some perverse delight in any real or apparent Southern Baptist infighting, particularly because they reject our convictional commitments. If someone’s negative response toward our CSP statement regarding CRT/I is ultimately rooted in their denial of what we affirm about the BFM, then what we contend about CRT/I is really not their main problem.
But what motivated me to write these words was two-fold in nature.
The first was the op-ed penned by my friend Ralph Douglas West where he publicly announced he intended to withdraw from our PhD program at Southwestern Seminary, would disassociate from the SBC, and called upon me and my seminary presidential colleagues to “repent.” I only learned about my fellow Southwesterner’s plans the same time the rest of the world did: when the Baptist Standard published it. But once I read it, I immediately called him, and two brothers in Christ had a wonderful time of conversation sharing hearts and minds with one another in candor and charity. As our call concluded, I told him that I hoped he would not follow through with any plans to withdraw from SWBTS or from the SBC. We mutually agreed it would have been better if our conversation would have occurred before rather than after the fact. And yet since our conversation, his op-ed has continued to circulate, being carried and cited by a number of media outlets, both Christian and secular. Regrettably, Pastor West has even been defamed as a “Marxist” by some self-appointed defenders and definers of conservative Baptist orthodoxy.
The second was an email I received from a current SWBTS student a few days ago, with the subject line: “Should I Stay?” The student mentioned he enrolled here after hearing me preach at a state evangelism conference but now wondered if he should stay in light of my having signed the CSP statement, writing that “I am a follower of Jesus Christ, minister of the Gospel message, and African American male made in the image of God. Am I welcomed at SWBTS? Should I stay? Should I go?” My heart broke over the fact that this student would even contemplate that he should leave our seminary, but I also realized there are likely other African American and other ethnic minority students at Southwestern Seminary and Scarborough College who may be having similar internal deliberations but who haven’t sent me their emails.
So I believe it is time to speak to the Southwestern Seminary and Scarborough College family about the CSP statement and where I stand regarding it. I note, obviously, that I can only speak for myself and cannot comment definitively on behalf of any other SBC seminary president. But from my own heart and mind, here are a few points to ponder:
First, some criticisms of the CSP statement are simply based upon misunderstandings. The CSP statement has been treated by some like a Rorschach test, where ultimate meaning is determined by the subjective experience of the recipient, not by the objective exposition of the statement. A common refrain I have heard and read from critics has been, “In rejecting CRT/I, the CSP statement feels like a denial of systemic racism.” I emphasize “feels like” because those words are the crux of the criticism. Feelings and sentiments are undeniably visceral, but not unimpeachably veridical. Specifically, the CSP statement not only did not deny systemic racism, but reaffirmed denominational condemnations of it such as the historic 1995 SBC Resolution “On Racial Reconciliation on the 150th Anniversary of the Southern Baptist Convention,” where messengers resolved in part:
“That we lament and repudiate historic acts of evil such as slavery from which we continue to reap a bitter harvest, and we recognize that the racism which yet plagues our culture today is inextricably tied to the past; and . . . That we apologize to all African Americans for condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime; and we genuinely repent of racism of which we have been guilty, whether consciously (Psalm 19:13) or unconsciously (Leviticus 4:27); and . . . That we hereby commit ourselves to eradicate racism in all its forms from Southern Baptist life and ministry” (emphasis added).
I want to make this point as charitably but honestly as I can: misconstruing the CSP statement’s rejection of CRT/I as being synonymous with or code for the SBC seminary presidents denying systemic racism is bearing false witness. One of my colleagues has even written specifically about how Christians should affirm the reality of systemic racism. Furthermore, when feelings become all-consuming and paramount in determining courses of action irrespective of the facts contained in plain language, we commit the fallacy of eisegesis, or reading into texts meanings we feel or interpretations we want to impose.
Along similar lines, concerns have been raised about the “optics” of “six Anglo brothers” making any statement concerning “racism and other related issues” because “without having ethnic representation in the room . . . the only outcome can be from their life experience.” With the greatest of respect toward and love for those who have expressed this point of view, such a notion itself could be construed as consonant with the worldview framework of CRT/I, even if not the stated intention or expressed ideology of those making this specific criticism. Theologically, neither the life experiences of the six seminary presidents nor anyone else in any segment or subset of Southern Baptist life has any direct relationship to or doctrinal bearing on the compatibility or incompatibility of BFM affirmation and CRT/I affirmation. The reason is straightforward enough: human experience neither determines nor falsifies biblical and theological truth. The Scriptures are the spectacles through which our own experiences must be evaluated, not the other way around. CRT/I is not a value-neutral collection of insights about the individual and collective experiences of African Americans and other ethnic minorities incapable of being correctly understood by Anglos; it is a comprehensive ideology that makes transcendent truth claims about creation, humanity, and the social order that stand in diametric opposition to the BFM. Critiquing CRT/I is not about preserving “whiteness,” but rather pursuing righteousness and justice as God says through the prophet Isaiah:
“Wash yourselves. Cleanse yourselves. Remove your evil deeds from my sight. Stop doing evil. Learn to do what is good. Pursue justice. Correct the oppressor. Defend the rights of the fatherless. Plead the widow’s cause. “Come, let’s settle this,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are crimson red, they will be like wool.” — Isaiah 1:16-18 (CSB)
But what about the timing of the CSP statement? Why release it now? Some unsympathetic respondents have surmised we were trying to placate certain factions in SBC life; others have tried to argue we were just lemmings in lockstep with the agenda of the outgoing president of the United States and/or a hopeful SBC president; still others protest we are “elites”: a wannabe magisterium making pontifical pronouncements purported to police the populace in the pews. Here’s how it actually happened: the annual meeting of the Council of Seminary Presidents is held every year the weekend after the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society on the weekend before Thanksgiving. That timing has been fixed since before any of the current seminary presidents took office. We met via Zoom to fulfill our annual meeting responsibilities, and in that context the conversation turned to the significance of this year being the 20th anniversary of the most recent adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message and contemporary challenges confronting our convention of churches. Put another way, our statement arose from simple colloquy, not scheming conspiracy.
One final point: in making the statement that affirmation of CRT/I is incongruent with the BFM, the CSP did not declare that CRT/I offers no insights at all, as some intellectually dishonest detractors have charged. CRT/I does rightly decry racism and injustice, not unlike Islam’s adherence to monotheism, Mormonism’s valuing of the family, and inclusivism’s emphasis upon Christ’s power to save. I doubt anyone would seriously argue though that Islam, Mormonism, and inclusivism should therefore be embraced in the SBC. Is rejection of these three tantamount to a theological throwing out of the baby with the bathwater? Of course not.
Since the release of our CSP statement, other statements have followed from various corners of Convention life, and a public announcement was made of an upcoming meeting I will participate in with other SBC leaders, both black and white. I look forward to the time of dialogue and fellowship together. It is entirely appropriate for Southern Baptists of various perspectives to deliberate matters of importance to our Convention of churches and the broader cultural context in which we find ourselves presently situated. And that debate can—and perhaps must—be vigorous at times. What it should never be allowed to descend into, however, is a disputation laden with inaccurate claims and irresponsible language, both of which take us further from settled conviction and enduring consensus during a time when our world needs the gospel message now more than ever. Great Commission Baptists can do better than this; and we simply must. After all, the Ninth Commandment still applies to SBC life, doesn’t it?
This presidential letter is ultimately driven by pastoral concern. As Southwesterners, when it comes to public discussions like this one, we must determine not only where we stand, but how we will engage. Let me urge you to resolve for yourself to have a faith that seeks to understand and be understood; be a person known both for speaking truth and doing so with charity and grace. On this particular issue, I humbly and publicly acknowledge:
- That many of our African American brothers and sisters have experienced injustices—both individually and systemically—that I have not. I grieve for them, and I lament with them, any way in which our CSP statement unintentionally brought hurt and pain.
- That I personally and Southwestern Seminary and Scarborough College corporately remain totally committed to the Word of God being the supreme authority by which reality is defined. Our firm commitment to a “high view of Scripture” and “confessional fidelity” alongside “the Great Commission” and “cooperation” as the core components of our “big tent vision” at SWBTS is not mere rhetoric.
- That these two positions are not mutually exclusive or contradictory. For all who are passionate about truth and justice—“red and yellow, black and white”—know that you are welcome here and indeed have a home under the Dome.
- That we must renew our commitment in both word and deed to true racial reconciliation among Southern Baptists. Please join with me as we pray and work together to that end.
Carla and I wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas and a blessed New Year of our Lord 2021. I am grateful to God for the privilege of serving here at Southwestern Seminary and Scarborough College, and I am thankful that you are a part of our institutional family.
Adam W. Greenway, President