CJ Rhodes DMin
Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship as a Force for Social Justice
By Pastor John Faison
[excerpted and edited from the Introduction chapter of his DMin dissertation]
The Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International (FGBCFI) is a predominantly Black Baptist, neo-Pentecostal movement founded in 1994 by Bishop Paul S. Morton, Sr. along with twelve pastors from across the United States in order to offer Baptist churches “the right to choose” to engage in the full expression of spiritual gifts.
At the core of its ethos, FGBCFI seeks to bridge the gap for Baptists between Calvary and Pentecost. From the movement’s founding, Bishop Morton’s contention was that because the Baptist tradition focused solely on Jesus’ death on the cross but gave minimal attention to the coming of the Holy Spirit, it limited the believer’s power to live an overcoming life.
Therefore, FGBCFI welcomes all expressions of the Holy Spirit, including glossolalia, laying on of hands, and casting out demons, while still maintaining Baptist structures, beliefs, and polity. Furthermore, FGBCFI provides a much more progressive approach to faith expression than traditional Baptist denominations. For example, the Fellowship welcomes charismatic worship in all settings, the presence of women in all tiers of leadership (including Pastors, Overseers, and Bishops), and the extensive use of technological innovation in all activities. This unprecedented freedom for Black Baptist churches has been extremely appealing to churches and pastors longing for more progressive worship spaces and structures. At its apex, FGBCFI grew to over 1 million members with approximately 5,000 congregations in the United States and overseas.
In 2013, a significant and historical change occurred within FGBCFI. After leading the organization for twenty years, Founder and Presiding Bishop Paul S. Morton named his successor: Bishop Joseph W. Walker, III. In June 2015, Bishop Morton officially retired and passed the mantle of Presiding Bishop to Bishop Walker. It was the first time the founder of a large, predominantly Black reformation in the United States named a successor and retired from leadership. Consequently, the transfer of leadership from Bishop Morton to Bishop Walker is a paradigm shift. Most importantly, since his retirement Bishop Morton has relinquished his role and has been an ardent supporter of Bishop Walker’s leadership, both publicly and privately.
It is important to note the stark contrasts in the personalities and leadership styles of the founder and successor. Bishop Morton retired from Presiding Bishop at sixty-five; Bishop Walker became Presiding Bishop at forty-seven. The generational differences also yield philosophical and theological variances. Bishop Morton, who never obtained formal theological training, focused primarily on the personal salvation of individuals and empowering them to lead Spirit-led lives. That focus did not include the pursuit of justice as a Spirit-led function of the Church. On the other hand, Bishop Walker, a graduate of both Vanderbilt Divinity School and Princeton Theological Seminary, has built his episcopal leadership on the platform of SHIFT: a strategy that promotes Sustainability, Holiness, Innovation, Family, and Transcendence. One of the major tenets of Transcendence is “to be an advocate for social justice through solution-oriented strategies.”
FGBCFI is a product of the Black Church tradition in America. While the Black church is not a monolith, Lester A. McCorn states the term is “a socio-theological referent for those Black religious institutions that originated from the Black African-American religious experience.” As a result, the Black church tradition has been the central location in American society where African-Americans found both freedom from the painful expressions of systemic oppression and the power to fight these expressions through the “liberation message of the Gospel.” Consequently, FGBCFI should be engaged in the fight against injustices in our nation and world with prophetic voice and action. However, that has not been the case.
FGBCFI, like many other predominantly African-American denominations or movements, has historically focused on individual spirituality and moral piety, while practicing a strategy of silence on the social issues that greatly affect its largest constituency. This is not abnormal. Black theologians have long lamented, “Black churches compromise the controversial demands of liberation ethics in the gospel message for an accommodational religious life in white America.” This expedient strategy led to growth for FGBCFI, particularly in the 1990’s during the peak of televangelism and the meteoric rise of the megachurch movement.
But times have changed. Since 2012, the United States has been jolted into remembering the realities of its social inequities, perhaps first brought to the surface by the killing of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of his shooter, George Zimmerman. Since that time, countless other racially-charged incidents have occurred in cities across America, some between civilians and several involving law enforcement, resulting in the deaths of Black Americans. Jacksonville, Florida; Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore, Maryland; Chicago, Illinois; Waller County, Texas; Baton Rouge, Louisiana; and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, to name a few, are sites of our modern day freedom struggle.11 Many of these incidents were recorded on smartphones and distributed virally through social media; yet, in most cases, the killers were given little to no legal consequences. Additionally, many of these occurrences failed to even produce charges against the perpetrators. The heightened awareness of these events has increased the conversations around the conditions in the African-American community that give rise to these tragedies: racism, gentrification, generational poverty, ineffective urban schools, unemployment, mass incarceration, urban nihilism, and the list goes on. In addition to these major issues, America elected a new President on November 8, 2016. Donald J. Trump ran on the platform of “Make America Great Again.” This dog whistle phrase was an attempt to capitalize on the fears of White Americans who ardently believe they lost power during the presidency of Barack Obama and are projected to become a minority in America by 2044.12 Donald Trump’s victory almost ensured that many of the Obama administration victories for minorities and marginalized communities would be rolled back. Since his presidency, there has been a public resurgence of white nationalist hate groups, now commonly referred to as the Alt-Right. These events have increased angst and trauma within these minority communities; but they have also increased the scrutiny on the Black church’s response to them. Responses like the FGBCFI’s historic strategy of silence ignore the impact of these events, while also indicating its detachment from the communities it seeks to serve.
To this day, FGBCFI serves as a liberating ecclesiastical space for many Baptist churches and believers. Undoubtedly, the vibrant legacy of FGBCFI’s founding can co-create a sustainable future for the promotion of justice and equality. Full Gospel’s love for liberation must extend beyond its own organizational history and make an impact in the world for those the marginalized and oppressed. James Cone, the father of Black liberation theology, states, “Love’s meaning is not found in sermons or theological textbooks but rather in the creation of social structures that are not dehumanizing and oppressive.” We must become just as concerned with liberation in the public square as we are with liberated worship expressions in the church.
Under the leadership of Bishop Joseph Walker, III, Full Gospel has a unique opportunity to return to the prophetic roots of the Black church. In order to do this, we must intentionally create strategies, structures, and systems that enable the fellowship to become a voice for social justice.
John Faison is the Senior Pastor of Watson Grove Baptist Church (The Grove), a growing, multigenerational, multisite church with campuses in Nashville, TN and Franklin, TN. A native of Boykins, Virginia, Pastor Faison holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Virginia State University in Petersburg, Virginia, a Master of Arts in Practical Theology from Regent University in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and a Doctor of Ministry from Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio. In denominational life, he serves as the Assistant to the Bishop of Social Action for the Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship.
 Estrelda Y. Alexander, Black Fire: One Hundred Years of African American Pentecostalism (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2011), 368.  “We Believe,” Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International, accessed August 28, 2018, http://www.fullgospelbaptist.org/about/. 1  Alexander, Black Fire: One Hundred Years, 368.
 “A Relevant Change Impacting Generations. SHIFT,” Full Gospel Baptist Church Fellowship International, accessed August 28, 2018, http://www.fullgospelbaptist.org/about/.  “A Relevant Change.”  Lester A. McCorn, Standing on Holy Common Ground: An Africentric Ministry Approach to Prophetic Community Engagement (Chicago, IL: MMGI Books, 2013), 9.  Dale P. Andrews, Practical Theology for Black Churches: Bridging Black Theology and African American Folk Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), 36.
 Andrews, Practical Theology for Black Churches, 84.  Trayvon Martin was a sixteen-year-old unarmed Black male who was shot and killed while walking home through his neighborhood in Sanford, FL on February 26, 2012. The shooter, George Zimmerman, was a White, armed neighborhood watch volunteer. The case gained national attention via social media and brought scrutiny to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter in July 2013. 11 Killed: Jordan Davis (Jacksonville, FL), Michael Brown (Ferguson, MO), Freddie Gray (Baltimore, MD), Rekia Boyd (Chicago, IL), Sandra Bland (Waller County, TX), Alton Sterling (Baton Rouge, LA), Philando Castile (Falcon Heights, MN). 12 US Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Census Bureau, Projections of the Size and Composition of the U.S. Population: 2014 to 2060 by Sandra L. Colby and Jennifer M. Ortman. Report P25-1143, March 2015, accessed November 16, 2016, https://www.census .gov/content/dam/Census/library/publications/2015/demo/p25-1143.pdf.  James Cone, “Black Theology and the Black Church: Where Do We Go From Here?,” in Black Theology: A Documentary History, 1966-1979, ed. Gayraud S. Wilmore and James H. Cone (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1979), 352.