Leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest American Protestant denomination, are increasingly dropping "southern" from their denominational phraseology — and the word could be dropped for good.
What are the details?
According to the Washington Post, the denomination's leaders are concerned their name pays homage to the group's historic support for slavery. In fact, J.D. Greear, current president of the SBC, told the Post that denomination elders have weighed dropping "southern" from their name altogether.
Instead, the group is considering a name change to "Great Commission Baptists."
"Our Lord Jesus was not a white southerner but a brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugee," Greear told the Post. "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 name change would serve two purposes, according to the Post. Primarily, it would help the denomination reckon with its sordid racial history. But it would also give the group better footing for a global presence.
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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.
The SBC did not formally apologize for supporting slavery and racism until 1995, more than 100 years after slavery was abolished and decades after the Civil Rights era.
What was the reaction?
Nathan Finn, a Southern Baptist historian who is provost of North Greenville University, told the Post that the name change is not about southern embarrassment — but rather loving one's neighbor well.
"I'm not embarrassed to be a Southerner," Finn said. "It's about what that word conjures up for people, especially people of color. They're saying: 'That name is a hang-up. When my people hear that name, they think slavery.' God forbid we keep a name that evokes that."
However, author Jemar Tisby, whose book about the history of racism in American evangelical circles hit the New York Time's best-seller list this summer, cautioned against shying away from the "southern" moniker completely.
Tisby's concern, as he told the Post, is that a name change could make learning about the SBC's past more difficult.
"I don't know the denomination as a whole has done a good job of teaching its sordid history," Tisby said. "Changing the name now might make that even harder."