Seeking unity, J.D. Greear assumes Southern Baptist presidency

J.D. Greear, center, newly elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention, accepts the gavel from outgoing SBC president Steve Gaines, right, as newly elected officers and their spouses, left, are recognized on stage during the closing of the 2018 SBC annual meeting in Dallas on June 13, 2018. Photo by Matt Miller via Baptist Press

(RNS) — J.D. Greear has big intentions as he begins his presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention. He hopes to help the denomination step away from partisan politics and lean more on its bedrock mission of preaching the gospel and saving souls.

The first Generation X president of the nation’s largest Protestant body said he wants to focus more on what Southern Baptists embrace than what divides them.

“We have a lot of variety in our ranks when it comes to ethnicity and when it comes even to politics and age,” Greear, 45, told Religion News Service in an early July interview. “But what we’re unified around is gospel, gospel doctrine and gospel mission.”

How much the North Carolina megachurch pastor will succeed depends on how he responds to the challenge of the #MeToo movement that roiled the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting in June, as well as declining membership, historical ties to slavery and linkages with the Republican Party.

“He’s at a starting point where he’s saying to the denomination, one of the reasons that the culture is not listening to you the way they once did, particularly in the South, is that you have become so politicized as a denomination and in American politics,” said Bill Leonard, professor emeritus of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

“People are distancing themselves from you because it looks as if in order to choose Jesus, you have to choose the Republican Party.”

J.D. Greear speaks during the Pastor’s Conference on June 11, 2018, at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas. Photo by Marc Ira Hooks via Baptist Press

The day Vice President Mike Pence spoke to the SBC’s June meeting — a scheduled 15-minute time slot that became a 35-minute address, including a list of Trump administration accomplishments — Greear tweeted that it sent “a terribly mixed signal.” Weeks later, he remained concerned about the impression it could leave on observers.

“Right or wrong, a lot of our people of color are wondering: Is this what the SBC is about, that kind of white populism?” Greear told RNS. “There’s a place for that discussion, but it’s not in a convention of churches who come together to focus on the gospel and mission.”

While some of Greear’s Southern Baptist colleagues have made several trips to Washington to meet with the Trump administration, the new SBC president said he has made one. During his visit with aides to the president, he emphasized the administration’s need to “speak with clarity on our respect for people of different races and different cultural backgrounds.”

Despite appearing in a group photo outside the White House, Greear said he does not consider himself to belong to an ad hoc advisory council to the president.

“I was there to try to speak God’s word and say ‘thus says the Lord’ in places where it was asked of me,” said Greear, who has authored six books, including, “Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems.”

But critics say Greear may have stepped on his nonpolitical emphasis just a month after his election when he signed two statements supporting President Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to succeed retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy.

Greear said that he and the two SBC vice presidents believe Kavanaugh’s record demonstrates his support for the “sanctity of life, the value of religious liberty, the dignity of all peoples.”

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Photo courtesy of Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a fellow North Carolinian and Christian activist who differs with Greear on cultural issues, questioned what he considered the narrow focus of the SBC officers on core conservative issues.

“That’s to completely ignore the way this Supreme Court nominee has voted on the circuit court on voting rights, on access to health care, on equal protection under the law for women and for LGBTQ people,” said the author of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom from Slaveholder Religion.”

Wilson-Hartgrove, a white evangelical who was raised in a Southern Baptist church, said the commitments to racial inclusiveness like the ones voiced by Greear and other leaders may be “cosmetic,” especially if there is not enough attention to social justice issues.

But others are praising Greear, who pastors a multiracial church, for his commitment to be inclusive in his congregation and to see more people of color in positions of power within the SBC.

RELATED: J.D. Greear is ready to give Southern Baptists a makeover

The Rev. Dwight McKissic, a black Arlington, Texas, pastor who was the original author of last year’s SBC resolution that ultimately condemned “alt-right white supremacy,” said Greear’s nonpolitical aims distinguish him from many SBC presidents who have been more committed to supporting the GOP. He considers Greear’s support of Kavanaugh, especially in light of conservative hopes about overturning Roe v. Wade, a “principled move” rather than a political one.

De-emphasizing politics in the denomination doesn’t mean that Greear won’t be “prophetic” when it comes to justice issues, McKissic said. “He’s expressing a desire for equality, empowerment, inclusion of women and different ethnic groups in SBC life.”

The Rev. Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, speaks with reporters on June 14, 2017.  Photo by Van Payne via Baptist Press

McKissic hopes that the percentage of racial and ethnic minorities serving on SBC agency trustee boards — who can hire and fire heads of seminaries and mission boards — will increase under Greear’s leadership after recent decreases. Statistics show undulating results in recent years: 16 percent in 2015; 25 percent in 2016; 14 percent in 2017; and 12.6 percent in 2018.

In the aftermath of a scandal involving Paige Patterson, an SBC luminary ousted in May from the presidency of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for allegedly mishandling rape allegations by students, Greear is looking to include more women as well. Longtime admirers of Patterson, Greear said, are grappling with seeing him in a new light while recognizing that everyone should be held accountable. But he also said a recent letter from donors seeking a reconsideration of Patterson’s termination was not beneficial.

“I did not think that the letter pointed a helpful way forward because it basically is like, ‘hey, put us on your investigative committee or we’re going to stop giving our money,’” he said.

Last week, a month after anti-abuse activists demonstrated outside the Southern Baptists’ meeting in a For Such a Time As This Rally, a Greear representative met with a protest organizer to hear about the group’s continuing push for training to address domestic abuse and sexual assault.

RELATED: Southern Baptists mull what’s next on confronting abuse

Greear’s calls for repentance on the SBC’s failings — from mishandling reports of abused women and adulterous behavior by male leaders to its need for more people of color at boardroom tables — are signs of a “fresh wind blowing” in the SBC, said Karen Swallow Prior, one of the signers of an online letter urging seminary trustees to take action against Patterson. She said Greear is modeling a way to deal with the complexity of the Patterson scandal.

J.D. Greear preaches during Good Friday on March 30, 2018. Photo by Sara Davis

“It takes that kind of wisdom of Solomon to distinguish the good from the bad and to not brush in broad strokes but to still work toward changing the things that need to be changed,” said Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University.

Greear, she said, is “separating conservative theology with the cultural baggage that has resulted in the oppression of women and minorities. Those two are not the same thing.”

Russell Moore, leader of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and another official who has challenged the denomination’s ties to the GOP, said Greear is riding a wave of younger people attending the annual meeting while people of multiple generations are embracing his vision for the SBC’s future. The 2018 registration report from the SBC Executive Committee found that a quarter of surveyed attendees were 18 to 39 years old, compared to about a fifth the previous year.

“There’s definitely much more excitement and engagement on the part of younger people that’s been building for several years,” said Moore. “And the sign of a healthy denomination is a denomination that has both strollers and walkers. We need both and we need everything in between.”

As Greear juggles his new role as president while continuing to pastor his college-student-dominated megachurch, he said he hopes to make progress but that he doesn’t have all the answers for the challenges ahead for Southern Baptists.

“I’ll be one chapter in a conversation that will take an entire book to tell,” he said.

J.D. Greear, the new SBC president, speaks during the annual meeting in Dallas on June 12, 2018. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

About the author

Adelle M. Banks

Adelle M. Banks, production editor and a national reporter, joined RNS in 1995. An award-winning journalist, she previously was the religion reporter at the Orlando Sentinel and a reporter at The Providence Journal and newspapers in the upstate New York communities of Syracuse and Binghamton.

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  • It’s certainly a convenient moment for the Southern Baptist Convention, after forty years of strong political ties to the conservative movement generally and the Republican party specifically, to suddenly bow out of politics. Why? Because right at this very moment when the Baptists’ near-unanimous allegiance to the Republican party is viewed with contempt by young people the Baptists are trying to reach, conservatives have gotten everything they ever wanted politically and then some with Donald Trump squatting in the Oval Office, along with a solid Republican majority in Congress doing Trump’s bidding. Why on earth should the Baptists or any other conservative movement, religious or otherwise, go out on a limb and risk losing young people with political endorsements when they already have everything they could possibly want from the political system? That would be like cutting off their nose to spite their face – it would make no sense.

    So what may seem at first blush to be a brave, noble, and selfless decision to bow out of politics is one that is really motivated by pure political expediency. Make no mistake, bowing out now is a win / win for the Baptists. But let’s get real: they’re as politically involved right this minute and as political savvy as they’ve always been – they’re just pretending not to be publicly. When they stop sending representatives to Trump’s regular meetings with faith leaders, then let me know – only then will I be convinced that they’ve truly bowed out. I, for one, won’t be holding my breath waiting for that to happen. J.D. Greear, Robert Jeffress, et al. will be there with bells and whistles, right along with the regular coterie of various and sundry evangelicals every month with Trump, plotting and scheming, same as always.

  • “How much the North Carolina megachurch pastor will succeed depends on how he responds to the challenge of the #MeToo movement that roiled the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting in June”. So far he has been silent on the case of a former IMB Missionary being arrested for sexual assault. The IMB has been silent as well. It is almost like all the #metoo talk during the convention was just because the press was watching.

  • I kept Jesus but ditched church several decades ago because of its too-cozy relationship with Republican politics. The fact of the matter is that 81% of the evangelicals used abortion and gay marriage as their personal excuses to align with snakes at the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Club for Growth, the NRA, the Hoover Institution, miscellaneous hard-core racists and every corporate lobbyist known to man. They all SHOULD have bailed when they were asked by church to dump Jimmy Carter for Ronald Reagan and a pack of economic lies which simply grows evermore egregious as the years and decades go by. Neither SBC nor any other denomination with a house full of so-called “strong conservatives” CAN downplay the politics in their veins. It is IMPOSSIBLE for them to do it. Too much lying for too long on too many issues. They are completely captured by Trump now and cannot escape the gravity of his black hole. The best hope is that individual members will drift away, get sense, and vote with the libs until America is restored.

    There is this old saying that “If you are not a liberal at 20 you have no heart, but if you are not a conservative by 40 you have no brain”. Ya’ll know that is exactly backwards? That you’re supposed to suck up to Ayn Rand at 20 and finally learn better in spiritual maturity by 40? If your church likes the original saying, QUIT GOING TO IT. Crazy church is ruining the country. It is worshipping Trump and cluelessly asking “So what’s the problem with that?” Yikes.

  • “They are completely captured by Trump now and cannot escape the gravity of his black hole.”

    Best line I’ve read all day.

  • “They are completely captured by Trump now and cannot escape the gravity of his black hole.”
    vice versa imho because religion is a black hole offering nothing of value to humanity.
    trump is as religious as my nether regions

  • I’m quite political in individual opinion. But please bear in mind that I’m not doing it from church or any other organization, okay? The further one gets away from herds, the better one can think about both religion and politics.

  • Greear, she said, is “separating conservative theology with the cultural baggage that has resulted in the oppression of women and minorities. Those two are not the same thing.”

    I’m not so sure. Neither is part of Jesus’s direct teachings but Paul later made women spiritually inferior to men.

  • The Southern Baptist Cult has been aligned with racism from its beginning and with right wing extremism since Billy Graham allied with Nixon to be his side kick. The only thing that can “save the SBC” is its complete & total dismantling as it is corrupt to its core.

  • I hope that JD Geear uses his influence to help Dr. Patterson receive a full and public apology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Executive Board of Trustees. What these 8 people have done is against everything good and right with Southern Baptist and the cause of Chriist. They have gone about this unbiblically which was well documented in this blog and unethically which is documented in this blog

  • Great point. What I can’t figure out is why didn’t any of these women crying out before the convention go after the real criminal, the alledged rapist, Mrs. Megan Nichols (Lively) boyfriend? He could be out there pastoring a church right now and nothing has been said. Instead 98% of the women and men of the SBC rather crucify a good man and let the rapist Barabbas go free. Go figure. I hope that JD Geear uses his influence to help Dr. Patterson receive a full and public apology from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Executive Board of Trustees. What these 8 people have done is against everything good and right with Southern Baptist and the cause of Chriist. They have gone about this unbiblically which was well documented in this blog h and unethically which is documented in this blog

  • I wish him good luck in any efforts to make the SBC slightly less evil. But I’m not optimistic about his chances.

  • I wish them well.

    They should remember…as Catholics should…what Pope Pius XII called a “false irenicism”. A hollow or shallow unity.

    There are too many people without an understanding of the full effects of the Enlightment and Moderism (as opposed to lower case modernism). They bandy about simplisitic slogans, seeking any unity however shallow.

    And the unraveling continues.

    The “big rock show” Protestant churches, were a response to something! And what they promised, they haven’t delivered.

    The big rock show/latte serving churches are nothing but huge one way exit doors for Protestants, many of whom are former, badly formed Catholics….they then turn to “home churches” which in turn leads to early football watching.

  • Christians have never been about ‘saving souls’ but about taking over govts and countries. They won’t be happy till we have a christian established govt and say as much in the republican platform. They want biblical doctrine in our laws and christianity as a preferred religion in our laws. In other words non christians and probably gays, will be second class citizens. Religious freedom, to them, is freedom not not have to serve gays or whoever they pick to be their buggyman from their businesses and from whatever govt job they have.

    It was the Baptists who wrote to president Jefferson to make sure they had the freedom to practice in Virginia where anglicans were torturing and killing baptist preachers for fun. I with they were for religious freedom for non believers and non christians as much as they were for themselves, but they are not.

  • just before trump announced for president he re-tweeted a tweet I sent that would only be seen as positive to atheists. he doesn’t believe any of what Pence and company are spouting.

  • You might want to specify or identify a subset of christians against whom to make this claim as it clearly does not apply to christians in general.

  • I consider myself a leftie Christian, one who would rather deal in truth about economic issues. I am registered for politics as a Democrat, would support something like Ralph Nader if there was ever a chance of winning. I would have liked either Bernie or Hillary in the last election and I belong to exactly zero organizations of any kind. No one pays me to write comments.

  • I figured as much; you pretty much laid out the DNC talking points there in your previous post.
    We’re you a Perot guy too?

  • no the quiet centrist marginal christians are silent and allow their religion to be defined by the fringes who do want gays locked up etc. that makes them the worst of all. if the silent majority remain silent and allow fanatics to define them, are they really NOT fanatics too? or just fanatics with no balls.

  • I answered you as a courtesy. But since you are an obvious harasser, I have now blocked you. Bye, bye. I would not tolerate you in my face on the street and I don’t here either.

  • No, Paul did not do so. The classic egalitarian Bible text, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” comes from Paul. (Gal. 3:28)

  • Baptists today are more social activists than they are believers in God. They reject God’s promise for forgiveness in Holy Baptism and The Lord’s Supper, they reject original sin.

  • I certainly hope they do bring the rapist to justice. The reason many of us are directing our efforts at SBC leadership is that they are the ones who fostered this environment where abuse is tolerated and they continue to remain silent in the face of it.

  • No news there. Trump is his own savior (although evangelicals have anointed Trump as theirs) and worships nothing but himself and wealth.

  • Not true. Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 11:7 that only man is made in god’s image and not woman. This Pauline verse isn’t surprising since Paul simply continues the pervasive misogyny found throughout the bible. He’s also wrong about Jesus offering salvation to gentiles (Paul didn’t get anything correct.) since there are multiple verses stating that Jesus came exclusively for the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Jesus didn’t even come for righteous Jews who he considered already saved.

  • What makes you believe Jesus was the Christ since he never sat on King David’s throne and isn’t accepted by Jews as the Messiah?

  • Why would I need forgiveness of my sins? Didn’t Jesus die on the cross for all my sins?

  • Does The King of Kings need an earthly “throne”? He is the Christ/Messiah because of Old Tedtament prophesies He fulfilled, His signs, wonders, and miracles of the New Testament and the fact that He defeated sin and death on The Cross and rose again. All of this is just the start!

  • Btw, a remnant in the Jewish community does accept Him as Messiah. Have you ever heard of Messianic Jews?

  • He fulfilled no Old Testament prophecies. If he had, the Jews would worship him and they don’t. Yes, he should have sat on David’s throne (Luke 1:32) if he were the Messiah. You’ve been misled.

  • Yes hula fulfilled ALL the OT prophesies concerning The Christ/Messiah. Not only that, but “ALL the promises of God find their Yes in Him” 2 Cor. 1:20. I would encourage you to study the early Christ followers like Peter and Paul because you will find that they were Jews. Also, you should visit a Messianic Jewish community. Since you mentioned King David you must remember that the great prophet Isaiah foretold that a shoot will come from the stump of Jesse. Why was there a stump? Because the the tree had been cut off. A shoot represents something small and new life that will grow into something new. This is exactly what happened with Jesus Christ and thus the reason the unbelieving nation of Israel has not had a king in hundreds of years. Yeshua also completed and cut off the sacrificial system with His death on The Cross. The remnant in Israel believed just like the OT Scriptures foretold but the shoot has become a new tree now and has impacted every continent.