Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention are increasingly dropping the “Southern” part of their Baptist name, calling it a potentially painful reminder of the convention’s historic role in support of slavery.
The 50,000 Baptist churches in the convention are autonomous and can still choose to refer to themselves as “Southern Baptist” or “SBC.” But in his first interview on the topic, convention president J.D. Greear said momentum has been building to adopt the name “Great Commission Baptists,” both because of the racial reckoning underway in the United States and because many have long seen the “Southern Baptist” name as too regional for a global group of believers.
“Our Lord Jesus was not a White Southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee,” said Greear, who this summer used the phrase “Black lives matter” in a presidential address and announced that he would retire a historic gavel named for an enslaver. “Every week we gather to worship a savior who died for the whole world, not one part of it. What we call ourselves should make that clear.”
The shift takes place at the end of a summer of racial unrest, when Confederate monuments have been removed, schools have been renamed and Washington D.C. has decided to change the name of its football team. For Southern Baptists, the change also reflects a long-standing desire to remove confusion when the convention launches churches in the Northern United States and overseas.
The convention formed in 1845, splitting from Northern Baptists over Southern support for missionaries who owned enslaved people, and is considered the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with 14.5 million members. It will continue to legally operate as the SBC, officials said, citing the hefty cost and complexity of a legal name change. But since August, the denomination’s website has declared “We Are Great Commission Baptists,” an alternative moniker that refers to the verses in the New Testament when Jesus commands his disciples to baptize believers in all nations.
Ronnie Floyd, who heads the convention’s executive committee and was on President Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council during the 2016 campaign, addressed fellow Baptists in a recent letter as “Great Commission Baptists.” And Greear said hundreds of church leaders in several Southern states have emailed him in recent weeks to say they plan to adopt the alternate name.
Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, and Al Mohler, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said they both support using “Great Commission Baptists” to describe the denomination, though they won’t legally change the names of their schools.
About 80% of churches in the convention are located in Southern states, according to the 2019 SBC Annual Church Profile. But Greear said that moving forward, Baptists’ shared evangelistic mission – not Southern culture – should help shape their identity. He said 20% of churches in the convention are led by pastors of color, and 63% of churches that were “planted,” or launched, last year were led by people of color.
While theology hasn’t changed, he said, what does need to change is the culture of the convention: “We as Baptists want to be defined by 2025, not by 1845.”
Southern Baptists debated changing their name for decades, but church leaders concluded that legally doing so would be too expensive for their huge network of churches, seminaries, colleges and other institutions.
A resolution allowing Southern Baptist institutions to call themselves “Great Commission Baptists” was narrowly approved by the convention in 2012, but most leaders chose not to do so.
Marshal Ausberry, president of the convention’s National African American Fellowship, said all 13 pastors on his board were in favor of adopting “Great Commission Baptists.”
“You’ll have skeptics, with people who say, ‘You’re only doing it because you’re trying to whitewash history,’ ” said Ausberry, pastor of Antioch Baptist Church in Fairfax Station, Va., and first vice president of the convention. “But it’s a good time to do it. There’s a sincerity.”
Marshall Blalock, the White pastor of South Carolina’s First Baptist Charleston, which is believed to be one of the earliest Baptist churches in the South, said he decided to adopt the name “Great Commission Baptist” after he met with Black pastors in Mobile, Ala., in July in an effort to build bridges.
“I would say, ‘I’m Southern Baptist,’ and they’d look at me like, ‘I think I could like you, but I’m not sure,’ ” Blalock said. He said he didn’t realize before that meeting just how many Black Christians outside Baptist circles associate the name with the support of slavery and racial segregation.
Blalock and others are wary of being perceived as part of a broader politically liberal movement, or taking actions that could be seen as aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement or the Democratic Party. Still, Blalock said, he thinks using a different name is the best way for the convention to move forward from its past.
“Anybody who knows why we’re trying to do this knows we’re not trying to be woke, and we’re not trying to cover up the past,” Blalock said. “We need to remove barriers.”
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