Free Will Baptists respond to racist congregation

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.

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  • Sam Ashwell

    “Adam and Eve were the original parents for every person on earth. Our study of genetics helps us understand that every characteristic and trait in the population today were latent in the DNA of our original parents.”

    …I don’t think that ‘study of genetics’ means what they think it means.

  • David Estlund

    Wait, I’m confused–can someone explain to me where the dividing line is between American Baptists and Evangelicals? I attended a Baptist school (at which I basically lost my faith), and there I saw the language and ‘witnessing tools’ of evangelism at work, but I thought this was a simple commonality between the two. I thought Evangelical churches were part of a separate, even more iconoclastic sect of American Protestantism, one to which Fred belonged. It had never occurred to me that the two should overlap so intimately.

  • Anonymous

    I think of Baptists as a subset of Evangelicals, so that all Baptists are Evangelical but not all Evangelicals are Baptist.  
    And of course the denomination “Southern Baptist” is distinct from Baptists in general.  …I guess this doesn’t clarify. :P  

  • Chris Denlinger

    is more of an adjective than a noun: there are evangelical Catholics,
    Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.  The word implies “A strong focus on
    evangelism,” but relates more to a particular culture.

    Speaking as an Evangelical Christian myself, I see that the following are usually part of the mix to some degree in an Evangelical church:

    Loud Worship – Many evangelical churches use praise choruses with a 4-5
    piece “worship band” instead of hymns (Because hymns are “alienating to
    new believers”)

        Hands up – the charismatic tradition of hands-in-the-air worship is
    still alive in this subculture; I have heard speakers correlate “being
    in the spirit” with waving hands.

    Megachurch – Evangelical churches tend to be large; often these churches will have satellite campuses.

    Pastor as CEO – many Evangelical churches are too large for one pastor
    to take care of; instead of hiring more theologically-trained pastors,
    the responsibility of taking care of church attendees is handled by
    other attendees.

    Iconoclastic – You’re right here; Evangelicals are typically suspicious of the religious trappings of more liturgical groups.

    Separate – Evangelicals claim evangelism as a prime focus, but many
    times, this evangelism is on a limited scale: Every Thursday, a group
    from a church may go together to minister (which usually means give out
    tracts, not provide food or clothing) to the homeless, for example.  But
    they go in a group (protection from the Scary “Other”), on a set
    schedule (because evangelism needs to be done before The Office starts),
    and then they are done for the week (many will simply ignore the
    homeless person the very next day).

    The Big Four: Anti-Abortion, Homosexuality, Environment, and Evolution. 


    These are not necessarily all in effect in every evangelical church, though my (admittedly limited) sampling shows some amount of these in every Evangelical church I have visited.


  • It depends on whether or not you believe that Fundamentalism is a subset of Evangelicalism. In the broader term, historically, it is. I don’t know if I’m going to clarify it all here:

    If one is a Southern Baptist, then one is most likely an Evangelical. But there are many fundamentalist strains within that denomination. 
    An independent Baptist, at least in my run-ins with them (cf, First Baptist of Hammond) are all Fundamentalist, though they try to distinguish themselves from all other Evangelicals.
    Black baptist churches are not seen as being in the Evangelical fold, because the term usually refers to a predominately White movement. But then some historians would argue that they fit into the much larger definition of Evangelicalism, even as they’ve largely been ignored by their White counterparts (who’ve also done a good job of ignoring Latinos as well. But that’s a different story).

  • mcc

    One of the things that frustrated me about the original news articles about the Pike Country church was that they identified the church as “Baptist” without explaining which Baptist convention.

    Question: Does the “National Association of Free Will Baptists” have the ability or any mechanism to expel a member church from the convention?

  • rizzo

    We had Adam and Eve, not Adam and some black girl!
    Er…wait, am I confusing my racism and homophobia here?  I’m so confused…look, why don’t we just let the nice black guy pray for good things along with the rest of us?

  • Anonymous

    This: 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.

    combined with this: 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.

    makes me wonder if it will be early into the 23rd Century before the NAFWB will issue a similar document on why they need to treat LGBT people as created in the image of God, as someone for whom Christ died, as worthy of equal treatment, and expecting member parishioners to confront oppression.

    It’s a very good statement.  But until they realize that “people different from us” includes everybody who is not you, and that all means ALL, the statement still rings hollow.

    On the positive side, though, I suppose you gotta start somewhere.

  • Anonymous

    The main confusion is that American denominations (Roman Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, etc.) do not neatly map onto the major theological/cultural groups (Catholic, Mainline, Evangelical, Reformed, Charismatic). A lot of Baptist and non-denominational Protestant churches in particular are evangelical.

  • friendly reader

    “Evangelical” is more of an adjective than a noun: there are evangelical Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, etc.  The word implies “A strong focus on evangelism,” but relates more to a particular culture.

    No, that’s not what the word originally meant, and it’s still not what the word means to many people. You can’t be an Evangelical Catholic, because Evangelical means “Protestant.” It was Luther’s preferred term for the movement he started, and it derives not from “evangelize” (in this context a synonym for “proselytize”) but from evangel, the gospel, which in the Protestant understanding is generally “saved by grace” that expresses itself in works versus being co-workers in our salvation through both God’s grace and our human effort (particularly “efforts” organized by the Church, like penance, indulgences, and prayers/masses for souls in purgatory). It also means relying more on direct or personal reading of the Bible than on church tradition for the development of doctrine (hence why there are so many Protestant subsets).

    That’s still the definition in Europe.

    Evangelicals in America tend to refer to groups that emerged in the Second Great Awakening that tend to emphasize the conversion experience that results in a strong sense of personal relationship with Jesus. Protestant churches that are less likely to describe themselves as Evangelical* would not, for example, expect you to have had a born again experience or to make a public dedication of your life to God.

    All Christians emphasize evangelizing to a certain degree, but “Evangelicals” in this sense often have a different view of evangelizing. Non-evangelical Protestants (and, I think, most Catholics) will, in my experience as one, consider running a hospital in a third world country or relocating refugees or running a soup kitchen to be “evangelism,” in that it spreads the gospel of God’s love for all people. “Evangelicals” would consider evangelism to only be helping people establish this personal connection with Jesus.

    Many “emerging” Evangelicals (like Fred) are starting to reject this narrow understanding of evangelism, but without succumbing to the timid lukewarm passiveness that has characterized a lot of non-Evangelical Protestants. Meanwhile, non-Evangelic Protestants are starting to gradually realize they have to be engaged in more assertive outreach if they want to accomplish permanent change towards a just and loving society.

    The terms have loose boundaries, and there are other Christian categories one can through into the mix, like Calvinists (God knows ahead of time who will be saved, and it’s not up to us), Arminians (oppose the idea of predestination, and believe choice plays a part in salvation), Charismatic/Pentecostal (believe in “gifts of the spirit” like speaking in tongues and faith-healing), Fundamentalist (reject modern Biblical criticism and thus tend to be “literalists”), Dispensationalists (the rapture theology), and Third Wave Pentecostals (believe in spiritual warfare and a small pantheon of angels and demons controlling the world). Some of these boundaries cut across the Evangelical/non-Evangelical divide in America; no Lutheran church demands you be born again (that happened at baptism and is a gradual process of renewal through your life) but I’ve met many a Biblical literalist.

    And then you have Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox Church, Jehovah’s Witnesses (who are not Trinitarian), Mormons (who are… basically a new religion that grew out of traditional Christianity, at least as far as theology goes; they’re as different as Christians are from Jews), and, as the media suddenly discovered this year, Coptic Christians who are monophysites (a distinction which is so hair-splitting I don’t feel like trying to explain it here).

    Man, that got long…

  • Tonio

    Dumb question – why does Fred assume that a denomination requires a hierarchy and a unified voice? I would think that it simply required some unanimity in theology and teachings.

  • Yes, I wondered that too. It’s not an organized or unified denomination, but by virtue of sharing a name and common beliefs, it is a denomination by any definition I’ve ever seen used. The dictionary backs me up:
    a group or branch of any religion
    a name or designation, esp. one serving to classify a set of things
     – from the verb denominare, from de- ‘away, formally’ + nominare ‘to name’

  • Anonymous

    That was exactly what I thought all these years ago when I read “The ones who walk away…”. That I hope I am one who would walk away but I know that there is no way I’m leaving that kid there.

  • Anonymous

    In response to Tonio and Jamoche about the use of “denomination.”

    The definition I think Fred is utilizing is this: A large group of religious congregations united under a
    common faith and name and organized under a single administrative and
    legal hierarchy.

    That’s in contrast to a sect which can be defined this way:

    A group of people forming a distinct unit
    within a larger group by virtue of certain refinements or distinctions
    of belief or practice; a religious body, especially one that has separated from a larger denomination.

    I could probably say more, but I just woke up and the brain is still a little fuzzy for a Saturday morning.