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Southern Baptists Take Sides Ahead of Nashville Meeting

A recent call to investigate the Executive Committee over abuse responses is the latest issue up for debate. Opposing factions in the SBC both say its future is at stake.
Southern Baptists Take Sides Ahead of Nashville Meeting
Image: Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
SBC annual meeting in 2018.

In the two years since Southern Baptists gathered as a convention, tensions around racial and political issues escalated. But just a couple weeks before their upcoming annual meeting in Nashville, another topic has taken center stage, as new documentation alleges high-ranking leaders in the denomination resisted its efforts to address abuse.

Some Southern Baptists are calling for an investigation of the Executive Committee (EC) after a series of leaked material has suggested that its leaders—one of whom is the conservative pick in the current race for SBC president—worked to hamper efforts to hear from victims in their own terms and to investigate churches with credible claims of cover-up.

“What those docs did kind of reoriented and shifted what the conversations and priorities were going to be going into the convention this year,” said Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines, who along with North Carolina pastor Ronnie Parrott announced plans to make a motion at the June 15–16 meeting calling for a third-party investigation into the EC.

Over 16,000 Southern Baptists have registered to come, double the attendance at the 2019 conference and the largest crowd at an annual meeting in a quarter century. And outsiders are paying attention to what happens among the country’s biggest Protestant denomination because many of the issues at hand reflect broader divisions in the church and the US at large.

The recent revelations shared online could cause some Southern Baptists to scrutinize the place of prominent figures in SBC leadership and demand greater accountability for the body tasked with handling denominational business outside the convention. Or, as the newly formed Conservative Baptist Network brings ideological divides within the denomination to the forefront, the revelations could lead members to become further entrenched in their existing alliances.

Two letters written by Russell Moore and recordings provided by his former colleague Phillip Bethancourt were recently posted online and describe Moore’s clashes with members of the Executive Committee—namely Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd. Stone, a Georgia pastor and founding member of the Conservative Baptist Network, was chairman of the EC at the time, while Floyd remains its president.

According to the materials, Moore and his colleagues faced pushback and veiled threats, including an investigation led by Stone, for their approach to the abuse issue, such as the decision to allow advocates such as Rachael Denhollander to criticize the SBC response at events held by the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). (The ERLC had led the SBC effort to train churches in “Caring Well” for victims, and Bethancourt—who left the agency last year to pastor an SBC church in Texas—was part of the denomination’s advisory group on sexual abuse. Moore left the ERLC at the end of May and will begin at CT in July.)

The reports of stonewalling abuse victims and downplaying the authority of the credentials committee (the group tasked with recommending if a church should be disfellowshipped over abuse) weren’t unheard of. A group of outspoken victims and advocates have been pleading for reform in the SBC since the #MeToo movement and the Houston Chronicle investigation that uncovered hundreds of cases of criminal abuse among SBC leaders in 2018.

“But because it was from Russell Moore, a departing entity head, it carried more weight. … People took notice. Now you see prominent Southern Baptists calling for an investigation of the EC. They don’t have the option of ignoring this,” said Adam Blosser, a pastor in Virginia. After years of raising concerns about EC business alongside fellow bloggers at the site SBC Voices, Blosser said the recent revelations prompted him to act to bring change to the EC; he’s running for recording secretary, a position that has been held by John Yeats for 24 years straight.

For some pastors, Moore’s letters confirmed what they’d worried was taking place in closed-door meetings of SBC leaders. For others, it was a wakeup call that they should have been listening to the victims’ stories all along. “We were shocked,” said Gaines. “We shouldn’t have been. These survivors, their stories are out there.”

But for those who have been critical of Moore, who described being attacked and decried as a “liberal” while at the ERLC, the timing of the release is more reason for suspicion.

Stone is running for president of the SBC with the backing of the Conservative Baptist Network. In a video, he denied the implications of the leaked letters as “inaccurate” and “slanderous.”

He said the materials represent an “attack” by Moore and insisted the members of the EC who were being scrutinized had done “the very best thing … that we could do with the limited resources that were available to us at that time and that still are very limited tools available to ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

While Stone has spoken out as a survivor of child sex abuse and considers himself committed to the issue, he and others in the Conservative Baptist Network have challenged what they see as unbiblical theology in the efforts to address abuse.

They’re concerned that such campaigns presume guilt on the part of the accused and misrepresent a denomination where the vast majority of leaders are not predators. The network is also linked to Paige Patterson, one of the most influential figures in recent Southern Baptist history, who was fired over mishandling reports of rape. (Patterson himself was the subject of another recent bombshell, a report from his former seminary saying he had taken property and donor lists after his termination.)

In his response, Floyd originally said he didn’t have “the same recollection” of his conversations with Moore and Bethancourt, then after the audio was released, shared additional context and apologized “for any offense” caused by his remarks. Moore has not spoken out about the leaked documents.

Floyd said in a statement Thursday that the EC staff is also now looking into hiring an independent firm to investigate, then on Friday announced that they had hired Guidepost Solutions to conduct an independent review. (Guidepost is also currently working with Ravi Zacharias International Ministries.)

The motion Gaines and Parrott plan to make in Nashville is backed by big names in the SBC such as pastor James Merritt and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Danny Akin. It would make the incoming president of the SBC the one to appoint the task force to commission this investigation, rather than allowing the EC to set the terms of its own review.

“The most important thing that’s going to be decided is the presidential election,” said Blosser. “I don’t think that’s normally the case, but this time, more than choosing a candidate, they’re choosing a vision for the future.”

This is the first SBC presidential election since the formation of the Conservative Baptist Network. The three most prominent leaders in the presidential race—Stone, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, and Alabama pastor Ed Litton—offer different approaches to the issues plaguing the convention today, and no one has emerged as a front-runner.

Southern Baptists say it’ll depend on the makeup of the outsized crowd in Nashville. The Conservative Baptist Network has been lobbying its supporters to turn out for months, while a recent uptick in registration may have come from attendees who want to be there because of the abuse issue making headlines again.

During a two-year term, there’s only so much influence an SBC president can have over the convention, whose 47,000 churches are autonomous. He’s largely a figurehead speaking and casting vision—and appointing members to the committees that keep denominational business going. To make a real shift in the SBC, experts say, it takes back-to-back presidents with shared priorities.

Outgoing president J. D. Greear appointed the most diverse slate of committee members in SBC history and made strides in sexual abuse initiatives and racial justice efforts. Litton’s supporters see him building on Greear’s legacy, while Stone would represent a reversal.

Mohler, who originally was going to run in 2020 and stayed in the race for 2021, is the best-known name of the three and has some appeal to “both sides,” having both criticized the existence of the Conservative Baptist Network in the past and rallied fellow seminary presidents to sign a statement condemning critical race theory (CRT) as incompatible with Southern Baptist beliefs.

The slate of resolutions for this year’s annual meeting won’t be released until Tuesday, but many Southern Baptist leaders expect there to be at least one resolution and possibly also a motion from the floor to clarify the denomination’s position on CRT. A 2019 resolution on the issue has been condemned by conservative critics as an endorsement.

The divides on many of these topics—abuse, CRT, EC leadership, Paige Patterson, Russell Moore—map atop each other. Though the recent leaks shifted the conversation ahead of the meeting, many of the supporters and critics find themselves in the same corners.

“For those at the extremes, the recent flurry has no impact. However, those who were not paying attention (I believe) are beginning to do so,’” said pastor and former missionary Jeremy Parks, who wrote about Patterson’s influence on the upcoming presidential election. “They will probably show up and simply say, ‘No, let’s go in a different direction.’”

Leaders in the conservative subgroup, which numbers at least 6,000 members, have also spoken about the importance of the convention’s direction. They allege that the SBC is drifting and blame leaders like president Greear, who leads The Summit Church in North Carolina; Dhati Lewis, who heads up the SBC’s church-planting Send Network; and Akin at Southeastern. Each were referenced in a video clip the Conservative Baptist Network posted Wednesday.

“Some of the leaders in our Southern Baptist family have become enamored with cultural ideologies and cultural tends that are unbiblical, and they’re wreaking havoc,” said Brad Jurkovich, a Louisiana pastor and spokesman for the network. “We are indeed dividing and drifting.”

Meanwhile, Greear told the Baptist Press on Friday, “If we don’t say we’re a Great Commission Gospel people, we’re not only going to lose our [pastors of color], but the next generation of Southern Baptists.” He says this year’s annual meeting will be a defining moment determining whether the gospel determines its mission or if it will instead be a geographical, cultural, and political voting bloc.

Akin, who has attended every annual meeting but one over the past 40 years, said the division within the denomination doesn’t compare to the level of animosity during the Conservative Resurgence in the ’80s, when 30,000 to 40,000 Southern Baptists attended its annual meetings. But it’s still a mess, he said.

“One of the reasons we are a mess right now is that unfortunately social media has provided an outlet for people to misrepresent—maybe misunderstand but misrepresent—one another. And as a result of that, there’s a lot of suspicion and a lot of questioning that really shouldn’t be taking place,” said Akin.

He pointed out that the high-profile departures of Russell Moore and Beth Moore, along with the recent revelations around Paige Patterson and the Executive Committee, have impacted Southern Baptists going into the convention.

“I believe it would be very helpful to clear the air, get the truth out, and have a third-party investigation of the Executive Committee,” he said. “Whoever’s told the truth should be affirmed in their truth telling, and whoever does not tell the truth ought to be exposed.”

The 86-member Executive Committee is the denomination’s primary body in charge of business outside the meetings and had initially formed a “work group” to consider the reports of abuse coverup with the SBC. As Russell Moore’s letter points out, the group quickly exonerated 7 of 10 churches listed by Greear in the wake of the Houston Chronicle investigation in 2018.

The credentials committee, formed the following year, had become the designated place to report congregations for wrongdoing that would disqualify them from being “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC, which is a voluntary affiliation and not a hierarchical body. In the past two years, just three churches—all of whom knowingly employed pastors convicted of serious sex crimes and offenses—were disfellowshipped over abuse.

Several more victims, including Jules Woodson, say they have had their reports of abuse passed over by the committee without clear explanations for the review process. The committee has declined to share the names of churches submitted or total number of reports it receives.

Advocates and victims have long challenged the idea that the SBC, the country’s biggest denomination, with billions in revenue, did not have the means or authority to do what they were pleading for: to penalize abuse and cover-up and to help survivors.

Victims have criticized the scope of the credentials committee, which defines its work as reviewing and not investigating claims. They say it has not done enough to look into credible reports of abuse and has not provided clear guidelines around its process.

“There was absolute refusal by Ronnie [Floyd], most EC members and the credentialing committee, to address the issue of abuse, or even discuss best standards. No one wanted these men to emerge as strong leaders more than the survivors who desperately needed their leadership,” Rachael Denhollander tweeted this week in a string of messages backing Moore’s letters and criticizing the approach she saw from the EC. Denhollander is not Southern Baptist but has participated in SBC advisory groups and advised SBC victims.

Some Southern Baptists see church autonomy and efforts to provide accountability and oversight as being at odds.

“However, what we also know is that too often churches have covered it up. Churches have not been transparent, and therefore, a minister who commits sexual abuse in one location has had access to move to another,” said Akin. “[The SBC] has a responsibility to police itself to the degree that it can. … I think we just started. There’s even more we probably can do to ensure, to the best of our ability, that sexual predators are not given ready access to continue their sexual predation.”

Parrott, one of the pastors planning to move to investigate the EC, says resisting sexual abuse reform in the denomination is serious. “The public witness of the SBC matters for our cooperative mission together. We need the truth to prevail so that we can move together, unified around the gospel and the Great Commission.”

“Gospel Above All” was the rallying cry for Greear’s presidency, meant to unify the 14-million-member body around their shared priorities. But it didn’t work. “Southern Baptists in large part are ready to walk into the future. But we are spending a lot of time tolerating those who would rip us apart,” he said earlier this year, complaining that intra-SBC attacks and CRT claims have distracted from his work and their mission.

Critics of the Conservative Baptist Network, those who don’t believe their claims of doctrinal drift, worry that a Stone presidency would lead some pastors to leave the SBC and possibly to an eventual split in the denomination. Some African American pastors such as Dwight McKissic say they are on their way out if the SBC doesn’t course-correct on its stance on racial justice and CRT.

While the average member of a Southern Baptist church may not be familiar with the Conservative Baptist Network by name, and may not follow denominational happenings enough to track who’s leading the Executive Committee or running for SBC president, the stances that these leaders promote reach broad swaths of evangelicals.

Jacki King, part of the steering committee for the SBC Women’s Leadership Network and the wife of an SBC pastor in Arkansas, described how a member of her church came to her worried that Southern Baptists were no longer recognizing distinctions over gender. The member had come across such claims from outlets such as the Capstone Report and The Todd Starnes Show, which amplify concerns raised by the Conservative Baptist Network.

King had to explain that what the member read wasn’t an accurate characterization of the ERLC’s position, which still affirms male and female distinctions as created by God. “If they’re only hearing what’s coming up from certain Twitter accounts, they could think the SBC is going liberal,” said King.

At their first gatherings after COVID-19 shutdowns, King says the women she knew were eager to “process everything that’s happened online,” particularly Beth Moore’s decision to leave the denomination.

Greear has been leading weekly prayer for the past three weeks as the denomination prepares for its own, large-scale efforts to come together and process.

“We are gathering together. In fact it’s been two years since we could do this, and we’d probably be naïve if we didn’t realize that that absence of being together has contributed in a large way to a lot of that discord people are feeling with one another,” Greear prayed on Wednesday. “We want to pray that God would put in us that supernatural love, that sense of fellowship and unity in the body of Christ.”

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