If Dr. King were alive, he would be utterly amazed that the Southern Baptist Convention, this year will be hosting a party in his honor in Memphis, Tennessee. When he penned “The Letter from The Birmingham Jail,” King had his “Christian and Jewish brothers” in mind, including Southern Baptists, when he wrote the following words in April 1963:
While confined here in the Birmingham city jail, I came across your recent statement calling our present activities ‘unwise and untimely.’
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.’
The Clergyman in Birmingham also referred to King as an “outside agitator.”
In April 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr., was gaining national fame and spoke in Chapel at the flagship theological seminary, among the Southern Baptists’ six seminaries, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. As historian, Taylor Branch, wrote in his biography of King, concerning the response of powerful Southern Baptists who opposed Martin Luther King’s visit and Southern Seminary’s invitation to Martin Luther King:
Within the church [SBC], this simple invitation was racial and theological heresy, such that churches across the South rescinded their regular donations to the seminary.
During his lifetime, Dr. King experienced criticism, rejection and at best, “lukewarm acceptance” from the Southern Baptist Convention.
Fast forward to today. Over 3500 (primarily Southern Baptists) have registered in Memphis in 2018 to celebrate the life and legacy of Dr. King, who was assassinated by an Anglo son of the South on April 4, 1968. What a difference 50 years make! The SBC attitude toward King has gone through a metamorphosis over the past 50 years, as the entire Convention has made substantial and measurable progress on the racial front.
In 50 years, the SBC has moved from castigating to celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. In 50 years, the SBC has moved from denying Blacks seats at the table of leadership, to electing Fred Luter as the first African American President of the SBC in 2012 and H.B. Charles as President of the Pastors Conference in 2017. In 50 years, the SBC has moved from viewing Blacks almost exclusively as a missions project, to engaging Blacks as mission partners and co-laborers. In 50 years, the SBC has moved from opposing the Civil Rights movement to passing resolutions overwhelmingly in favor of denouncing the Confederate Flag and the Alt-Right. Within 60 years, the SBC has moved from non-admittance of Blacks in Southern Baptist Seminaries, to appointing Walter Strickland as Vice President of Kingdom Diversity and Professor of Theology at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Within 50 years the SBC has shifted from the highest ranking Black in the SBC Executive Building headquarters being the “head custodian” to, Ken Weathersby, serving as a Vice President of the Executive Committee. The SBC passed a resolution acknowledging the historic election of President Barack Obama in 2009. Dr. Russell Moore, Dr. Frank Page, Dr. Danny Akin, Dr. Fred Luter, Dr. Steve Gaines, Dr. Ronnie Floyd, Dr. James Merritt and a host of others, have worked diligently to move the ball down the road in advancing God’s Kingdom Agenda for racial inclusion and empowerment in the SBC. Yet, there is a vocal minority in the SBC that has registered opposition to the 50 Years King Celebration, as did their forbearers, 50 years ago, perhaps for different reasons though.
The SBC ERLC has spoken out against police brutality and in favor of comprehensive immigration reform under the prophetic and transformative leadership of Dr. Russell Moore. Never would this kind of prophetic advocacy occur during King’s lifetime. The SBC has by word, deed and repentance, earned the right to legitimately celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr.
The largest racial hurdle the SBC has yet to overcome is the exclusion of Blacks and other minorities serving as an entity head. Entity heads also constitute the Great Commission Council of the SBC. How can you have a Great Commission Council that reflects only one ethnicity within the Convention? Currently, with two entity head positions vacant, the all-White Great Commission Council should soon change, in the spirit of Martin Luther King’s dream.
Doctrinal and moral concerns are the two most common objections raised regarding reasons to suggest that the SBC ERLC not honor and celebrate the 50th year death of Dr. King.
Many have called attention to some writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. recorded in his dissertation for his Ph.D. work at Boston University that reflects liberal theological leanings.
Admittedly, Martin Luther King casts dubious questions and doubts on orthodox views of the virgin birth, deity of Christ, and the resurrection, reflected in his graduate school writings. I even recall reading that while in Sunday School as a youth at his father’s church, he raised questions concerning the validity of the gospel accounts of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Even John the Baptist, while in prison, sent word to Jesus, “Are you the Christ or shall we look for another?” Doubt and questioning usually take place at some point in the pilgrimage of every believer. Many of us simply have not recorded our thoughts or spoken aloud when battling with doubt. John the Baptist experienced days of doubt, but he died devoted to the belief that Christ was King of God’s Kingdom—so did Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Carl Ellis, reports that Martin Luther King applied to two conservative seminaries, and was rejected by both because of his color. He matriculated in the M.Div. and Ph.D. programs at liberal theological schools in the ‘40’s. Conservative schools simply were not enrolling Black students at the time. Dr. Ellis testifies that one of the schools that rejected Martin Luther King as a graduate seminary student also rejected him for the same reason. It’s really arrogant to criticize a man for embracing liberal theology, when you refuse to allow him to enroll in theologically conservative institutions. SBC seminaries did not enroll Black students until the ‘50’s, when they announced they would only enroll “highly qualified Negroes.” Not allowing Blacks to enroll in SBC seminaries was a practical denial of the faith, equally as problematic as King’s liberal theological leanings during his graduate work.
The good news after completing his Ph.D. and while pastoring the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, Dr. King returned to the faith of his father—Martin Luther King, Sr. Dr. King testified that he was returning to the “God that would make a way, out of no way.” That’s common phraseology in the Black church to refer to The God of the Bible. Furthermore, King announced that he was embracing his father’s God; again, which was also another way of expressing in Black theological circles that he was returning to orthodoxy. He made those statements on the heels of bombs being blasted at his home in Montgomery, potentially endangering the lives of his wife and children.
In one of his lesser known sermons, preached at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church on Easter Sunday, April 1957, in a message entitled “Questions That Easter Answers,” Dr. King made the following statements that ought to lay to rest his beliefs in orthodoxy:
Easter is a day above all days. It surpasses the mystery and marvel of Christmas with all of the glory of the incarnation. (MLK believed in the incarnation, which would include the virgin birth and Christ’s Deity.)
Through the resurrection of Jesus Christ we have fit testimony that this earthly life is not the end… (Martin Luther King’s confession of the resurrection in his own words)
…men through the generations have learned when they live close to Jesus Christ, that Easter can emerge, and that all of the darkness of Good Friday can pass away. (You cannot live close to Jesus, unless He is the living Lord.)
And this means that life is meaningful, that life is not doomed to frustration and futility but life can end up in fulfillment in the life and the resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
We thank you, this morning, for your Son, Jesus, who came by to let us know that love is the most durable power in the world, who came by to let us know that death can’t defeat us, to take the sting out of the grave and death and make it possible for all of us to have eternal life. We thank you, oh God. And God grant that we will be grateful recipients of thy eternal blessings. In the name and spirit of Jesus, we pray. Amen. (I am baffled as to how anyone can read Martin Luther King’s Easter 1957 sermon and prayer and conclude that he did not believe the gospel.)
Martin Luther King, Jr. shed his liberal views on Christology expressed during his graduate school years and preached the powerful Easter message in 1957 (previously referenced) that affirms the resurrection of Jesus Christ and His Lordship. It would certainly be appropriate for those claiming that Dr. King did not believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ to now acknowledge this misunderstanding.
Many are unaware that Al Mohler and Frank Page embraced liberal views on women in ministry while in graduate school studying under more moderate/liberal professors at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Later, as did Martin Luther King, Jr., they shed their liberal views and embraced a view on women in ministry more akin to the BF&M 2000.
The second objection to the King celebration has to do with his “alleged immoral lifestyle.” The reason I say alleged is because I am unfamiliar with any female or male, or their descendants or relatives, who have testified to a personal sexual encounter with Dr. King. That is not to say, one or more did not transpire, it is simply to say, I find it interesting that no one has come forth to claim such a personal encounter.
Nevertheless, my response to this objection will be relatively brief. I was recently asked: how can the church reconcile Martin Luther King’s adultery, plagiarism and doctrinal deviancy with a celebration?
My answer: Whatever sins Martin Luther King was guilty of were a matter between his God, his wife and children, his congregation and himself. The church does not have to reconcile King’s sins with any celebration of him. Just as the church does not have to reconcile the racism of W.A. and Betty Criswell, who are both on record unrepentantly claiming Africans were cursed and assigned to servitude. The Criswell’s will have to give an account to God for their racism. My father, knowing Criswell was a racist, loved to hear him preach and had several of his books in our home during my formative, ministerial years. I would celebrate Criswell today, not because of his sin, but because of his good. And that is why the SBC ought to celebrate Martin Luther King. I hope many others will join the celebration in Memphis as a testimony to the grace, goodness and redemption of God, in all our lives and as another major step in the SBC toward racial healing.
May the Spirit of God breathe upon The King Memphis Celebration! May Southern Baptists come from the North, South, East and West! Job well done SBC ERLC!