From Street Preacher to SBC President: An Interview with Fred Luter

February 6, 2014

Fred Luter hadn't planned on becoming a multi-site preacher. But in the summer of 2005, Hurricane Katrina buried his church and his city under nine feet of water — and dispersed his congregation across the country. By January 2006, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church had recovered enough that it began holding worship services in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston. Luter, while living in Birmingham, Ala., spent his time traveling to these three cities — as well as across the United States — to minister to his church's displaced members.

“Fred Luter is a hero,” says Russell Moore, president of the ERLC. “He stood with conviction and compassion and shepherded his flock after Katrina, when he could have gone anywhere, had a comfortable ministry, and chalked the move up to the ‘calling of the Lord.’ He's never hesitated to persecute the Devil by preaching the poured out blood of the living Christ.”

“Fred Luter is one of the most loved and respected pastors in the Southern Baptist Convention,” adds Daniel Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Today, Luter carries out the dual role of preaching the gospel and leading America's largest and most diverse Protestant denomination as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Luter is the first African American elected president of the SBC in its 166-year history. “A descendant of slaves elected to lead a denomination forged to protect the evil interests of slaveholders is a sign of the power of a gospel that crucifies injustice and reconciles brothers and sisters,” Moore added. “The election of Fred Luter doesn't mean the question of racial justice is settled for Southern Baptists, but it is one small step toward our confessing that Jesus Christ and Jim Crow cannot exist in the same denomination, or in the same heart. One has got to go.”

In 2012 I had a chance to talked with Pastor Luter about his challenges as a minister, his view of racism in the SBC and why denominations still matter.

What did you do before you became a pastor?

In 1983, when I first received the calling to be a preacher I was working for a brokerage firm. I'd work for the firm during the week, and then every Saturday I'd be on different street corner preaching the gospel. My first job as a pastor came in 1986. Even though I had no pastoral experience the members of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church hired me to be their pastor. I've been there ever since.

What is the biggest challenge you face as a pastor of a large congregation?

Before Hurricane Katrina, our church had more than 8,000 members; today we have 4,500. A lot of churches in the area lost a lot of people. Even now only about 75 percent of the former residents have returned to New Orleans. So we have the challenge of losing half our members and having them be spread all over the country.

Another challenge we have as a church with a large congregation is trying to minister to each person individually and to not see them as just a number. But that's a problem for all churches, both large and small. Our congregations include a diverse group of folks—singles, young families, senior citizens—and they all have different needs. We want to help them become better than what they are, better servants of the Lord. But that's not an easy task.

The SBC was born in a climate of racism. But since 1845, and especially since 1940, there have been at least 31 SBC resolutions on race and racism. Is racism still a significant problem for the SBC?

People ask me all the time, “Why would you want to be Southern Baptist when their history is rooted in racism?” The truth is that when I became a Southern Baptist I wasn't even aware of the denomination's history. It wasn't until years later that I found out, and by then I was already involved in the association.

I look at it this way: All of us have a past. But it's not what happened in the past, but what is happening right now that matters most. I was in the convention in 1995 when the denomination repented and apologized for perpetuating individual and systemic racism. I thought that was a major step forward for racial reconciliation. I don't think racism is still a problem, because the convention has said that they want to make it a racially diverse community. The SBC reaches out to all different races and culture.

Is self-segregation of congregations still a problem? If so, what can we do about it?

I get asked that question a lot, because I am often the first African American preacher in Anglo churches. Local churches often reflect their communities. Where neighborhoods are predominately Anglo or African American, the churches tend to be predominately Anglo or African American. Where neighborhoods are changing in racial diversity, we see more racial diversity in the churches.

There are a lot of cultural issues, ranging from the way people dress to the style of worship, that lead people to choose a particular congregation. You can't force people to come to your church. But the doors need to be open to everyone. At Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, 99 percent of the congregation is African American. Now I would love for our church to be more diverse, say 50-50 between Anglo and African American. But it just doesn't happen. We are in the “hood,” so the people in the neighborhood are African American. We have Anglo guests every Sunday, and every last one of them will tell you they feel welcome. That's the key. We can't force people to come to our churches, but when they do come they should feel welcome.

Denominationalism has been on the decline for the last 50 years. Many evangelical churches are moving toward aligning with networks or other non-denominational organizations. Why is it important for the SBC to remain a denomination?

Because we can do more together than we can do apart. When Hurricane Katrina hit, volunteers from SBC churches around the country came by the hundred of thousands to our city and helped whoever needed to be helped. They helped to remove debris and rebuild homes. One particular church in Tennessee came to New Orleans more than 20 times to help. Often, these were Anglo churches coming to help their brothers and sisters in African American churches.

When the government was slow in their response to rebuilding the city, the local newspaper editor — who, I believe, is Catholic — wrote that if Southern Baptists were building New Orleans, we would have been rebuilt a long time ago. That is a great testimony. That is one reason why we need to stay a denomination — we don't want to lose the reputation for compassion that we have built over the years.

Note: This article originally appeared at The Gospel Coalition.

Joe Carter

Joe Carter is the author of The Life and Faith Field Guide for Parents, the editor of the NIV Lifehacks Bible, and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator. He also serves as an executive pastor at the McLean Bible Church Arlington location in Arlington, Virginia. Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24