NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination, has narrowly agreed to let churches use an alternative name less connected to the South and the group’s past ties to slavery, leaders said on Wednesday.
The proposal to allow affiliated churches to refer to themselves as “Great Commission Baptists” won approval from 53 percent of the 4,800 ballots cast at the convention’s annual meeting in New Orleans.
“If it helps us with our mission, I think it will be great,” said Brad Howard, pastor of Barton Baptist Church in Lucedale, Mississippi. “I’m hoping it will benefit some of our congregations.”
The passage marks another step in the predominately white Christian denomination’s efforts to become more diverse and inclusive. On Tuesday, the convention elected New Orleans pastor Fred Luter Jr. as the first black president in its 167-year history.
Facing no opposition, Luter received broad support as he was tapped to lead the 16-million member convention.
But the recommendation to add Great Commission Baptists as an informal alternative for congregations in the convention prompted debate. Convention leaders held a ballot vote Tuesday after a show of hands was inconclusive.
Leaders of ethnic Southern Baptist congregations and churches outside the South said it would be helpful to have a different way of describing themselves in order to have broader appeal.
Some said the convention’s ties to slavery upon its founding in 1845 posed a barrier for growth. Southern Baptists split from the First Baptist Church in America in the pre-Civil War days over slave ownership.
Attempts to change the name date back to 1903, and outgoing Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright appointed a task force in September to study the question again. The convention’s executive committee opted against a wholesale name change earlier this year, but favored giving churches the option of using the alternative moniker.
Patti Swaggert, of Colyell, Louisiana, disagreed with the proposal, saying on Wednesday that use of the new name could “change who we are.”
“I feel like, if you joined the Southern Baptist Church, then you intended to be Southern Baptist,” she told Reuters. “You don’t go to a Methodist church and ask them to change it to Catholic.”
But Todd Littleton, pastor of the Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma, said allowing use of the Great Commission Baptists name on a voluntary basis could help to expand the reach of a church that has long been identified with one section of the country.
Writing by Colleen Jenkins; Editing by Vicki Allen