I want to give some credit to the National Association of Free Will Baptists for responding quickly to an eruption of ugly racism in one of its congregations. You may recall that last month the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church of Pike County, Ky., voted to ban interracial couples from joining the church or participating in worship services.
Peter Smith of the (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal reports on the response from the association:
The publishing arm of the Free Will Baptist denomination has produced a seven-page, downloadable study guide on racism. It’s a rapid response to the recent controversy over a member church in Pike County, Ky., approving a short-lived ban on interracial couples.
Members of the Gulnare Free Will Baptist Church on Sunday overturned that vote, which had taken place the previous Sunday. The controversy had followed the visit earlier this year by a white woman who had been raised and baptized in the church and her black African boyfriend, now fiance. The woman’s father, who is the church secretary, said he believed it was the first-ever visit by a black person to the all-white church.
The vote had caused a national uproar, and denominational officials had urged the church to reconsider. Said Keith Burden, executive secretary of the National Association of Free Will Baptists: “We are encouraged by the Kentucky church reversing its previous decision regarding interracial couples. Christians should love, accept, and respect people of various ethnicities.”
Like many before him, Smith stumbles over the nature of this association. It’s not a “denomination” — Baptists don’t have those. What we have, instead, are associations and conventions — groups of independent congregations who agree to pool resources for larger, cooperative, projects such as publishing houses, mission agencies, seminaries, and pension and benefit funds. But there’s no hierarchy, no unified voice, no leadership figure who can speak for or to every member of the association. And, outside of the increasingly denominational Southern Baptist Convention, most members of Baptist associations tend to be emphatic about that. Reporters will often identify people like Burden, the Free Will association’s executive secretary, as “denominational officials,” but if Burden started referring to himself that way, he would soon be the former executive secretary.
I mention this just to explain why the association’s response to the Gulnare church took the form that it did. There is no bishop to denounce the Gulnare congregation’s racist vote — no authority figure who could make such a denunciation and no mechanism in place with which to make it. The only way Baptist associations can speak with one voice is through the things they do together — such as the publishing house that quickly produced and promoted this study guide: “Racism, the Bible and the Church.” The publisher describes the study guide this way:
This study examines the biblical teaching about race and interracial relations and challenges believers to overcome the sin of racism. It presents biblical answers to some of the most pressing questions we face today and counters erroneous teachings that lead to prejudice and hatred.
This isn’t the deepest or most compelling such study, but it’s not bad. The study is more than just a PR maneuver to blunt the embarrassment caused by the Gulnare church. It’s commendably firm and unambiguous, particularly considering that the NAFWB is a small, mostly Southern, fundamentalist-leaning association (about 200,000 members in about 2,400 churches). If parts of it read like a time-capsule from the 19th Century — dealing with matters such as the heretical garbage about the “curse of Ham” — that’s probably because it was written in response to congregations like Gulnare being still stuck in the 19th Century.
It’s encouraging to read passages like this coming from a very conservative, mostly white and mostly Southern association:
How are we supposed to treat people that are different from us?
Treat them as someone created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Treat them as someone for whom Christ died (John 3:16). Treat them like you want to be treated (Matthew 7:12). God also expects His people to seek justice and confront oppression (Deuteronomy 16:19; Isaiah 1:17; Jeremiah 22:3). Anything less is sin.
For those seeking the best Baptist resources on the sin of racism, racial justice and the gospel of reconciliation, I’d recommend starting with A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. (King was a Baptist preacher. And, yes, as a Baptist I like to brag on that.)
But while the NAFWB’s Bible study isn’t as deep and rich as King’s work — few things are — I do commend them for quickly producing, promoting and giving away this resource. It’s a small step, but a small step in a positive direction.
Good for them.