We all have memorable days and we also witness historic days. It’s a notable milestone when memorable days are historic, and Tennessee Baptists experienced a notable milestone last November when messengers from Tennessee Baptist churches overwhelmingly selected Memphis Pastor Michael Ellis to be president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention. Michael is the first African-American to fill that role in our 140 years as a network of Tennessee churches.
The selection of one of our black brothers to lead our convention was long overdue, and when Michael was affirmed, it was one of my most satisfying moments as a pastor, denominational leader and most importantly, as a Christian.
I know firsthand the division that’s been part of the church’s history these past five decades. I grew up in the Deep South, in lower Alabama, and I was a pastor in Mississippi. No one need explain the historical strain between blacks and whites if you share a similar heritage as a Southerner. Unfortunately that social animosity carried over to Sunday mornings.
But thank God – and I mean that literally – that the times are changing. We’ve seen a shift over the past decade across our larger Southern Baptist Convention to intentionally pursue racial reconciliation. I believe the election a few years ago of the very capable Fred Luter as SBC president and now Michael Ellis as our TBC president – and several other black church leaders who have been selected to lead within our denomination – marks a shift for the better. And here’s why: A man’s soul has no color. He’s either lost or not. He either needs to hear the gospel of Jesus, or he has received the gospel and needs to share it with someone else. A man is to be measured by his standing with Christ, not the color of his skin as he stands before other men.
It is not our prerogative to withhold the gospel from any man, and certainly not because of his skin color. In fact, our Savior receives the greatest amount of glory when people of different races lead one another to the neutral and level ground at the foot of the cross, where all condemned men may receive God’s grace extended through Christ.
Is this not our calling as disciples? For me, the definitive word on race relations comes from two passages of Scripture. The first is 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away, and look, new things have come. Everything is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: That is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed the message of reconciliation to us. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, certain that God is appealing through us. We plead on Christ’s behalf, ‘Be reconciled to God.’”
I believe we are seeing races reconciled to Christ, national news notwithstanding. I believe on the grassroots level beyond the camera lights, whites and blacks – and other races – are finding common ground in the church at the cross. I’m not the only one who thinks so. Bartholomew Orr, the godly pastor of Brown Missionary Baptist Church in Southaven, Miss., believes the same. Bro. Orr is African-American and says he sees a more intentional effort by white and black churches to come together. Brown Missionary is located right near the state line and is one of the more recent African-American churches to join our TBC network of churches. Brother Orr cites the strong doctrinal unity found among Southern and Tennessee Baptists and our Great Commission focus as reasons why he wants his congregation to connect with like-minded believers.
But we are seeing that same movement with churches of many races. Hispanic churches by the droves are becoming a part of our state convention. We had a Burmese church join this past year and we have churches of other ethnicities affiliating. That leads me to the second verse of Scripture that defines how we are to approach race relations.
“After this I looked, and there was a vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were robed in white with palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: Salvation belongs to our God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Revelation 7:9-10).
If we are going to reach Tennessee and reach the nations with the gospel of Jesus Christ, then we as Christians must embrace the Apostle John’s diverse vision of heaven and pursue it. The greatest remedy for racial tension is the gospel lived out through lives bent on a ministry of reconciliation.
That’s a milestone for which we should all strive.
It’s a joy to be with you on this journey.