Southern Baptists are still Southern Baptists: But the future is starting to look more complex

So what happens next, in terms of the big issues at the 2018 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention?

Obviously, there were several hot topics addressed on the floor during the Dallas meetings. However, most of them were linked, in one way or another, to two basic issues -- reactions to the #SBCToo crisis and how Southern Baptists handle political issues and the politicians who seek some kind of symbolic blessing from the nation's largest Protestant flock.

Sure enough, the Southern Baptists were -- #DUH -- the topic we discussed during this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in or sign up for the podcast using iTunes.

Host Todd Wilken and I spent quite a bit of time talking about (a) why the folks voting at SBC meetings are "messengers," not "delegates," (b) why the SBC is a "convention," not a "denomination" and (c) how those two realities affect real issues in the lives of real Southern Baptists.

In particular, I noted that the SBC's legal structure -- emphasizing local congregations, rather than a national hierarchy -- may present challenges to those seeking concrete, national structures to warn churches about church leaders who have been accused or convicted of sexual abuse.

Now, we recorded this podcast before the release of a fine Religion News Service story by veteran reporter Adelle Banks, that wrestled with that very issue. The headline: "Southern Baptists mull what’s next on confronting abuse." This is a must-read story, for those looking ahead on the #MeToo issue. Here is a crucial chunk of this story:

The alleged untoward behavior by Southern Baptist leaders forced many of the messengers, as delegates to this meeting are called, to grapple with how to rein in abuse while respecting the autonomy of the convention’s local churches. One step that the messengers took was to pass a nonbinding statement that suggested that “church and ministry leaders have an obligation to implement policies and practices that protect against and confront any form of abuse.”
The convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission announced that it will partner with a research firm to study the extent of abuse that is occurring in churches. The commission also has been referred a request from a messenger to evaluate the feasibility of establishing an “online verification database” of known sexual predators among ministers and other church personnel. It is scheduled to respond to that request at next year’s annual meeting.

Ah. But would the creation of a national SBC agency tracking abuse create the potential for lawsuits against the entire SBC, as opposed to local congregations or the trustees of individual SBC agencies or schools?

Banks has covered SBC events many, many times and she found a veteran "moderate" Baptist expert to connect the dots in this church polity puzzle.

Historian Bill Leonard said that a national database would be a challenge for the fiercely independent Southern Baptist congregations.
“It gets at the heart of both the freedom and the problem of Southern Baptist congregational autonomy,” said Leonard, professor of Baptist studies at Wake Forest University’s Divinity School in Winston-Salem, N.C. That autonomy, he said, “has often limited the ability to monitor the personal, moral and ethical life of candidates for ordination.”
Even proponents of the database are cautious about what it would mean for local churches’ independence. Oklahoma pastor Wade Burleson, who first suggested that churches share abuse information at an annual meeting more than a decade ago, noted that it would need to be maintained “in a manner consistent with our traditions of church autonomy and redemptive ministry.”

It's clear that the leaders of SBC seminaries are now VERY aware of their need to help future ministers understand their legal responsibilities when handling allegations of abuse. Over and over during the Dallas meetings, SBC conservatives stressed the need for church leaders to recognize that allegations of domestic violence and sexual abuse are matters of criminal law, as well as painful displays of sin and human brokenness.

This issue isn't going away.

Ditto for the shock waves from this tweet by the SBC's new president, the Rev. J.D. Greear -- the SBC's first Generation X president.

The subject? The obvious split among Southern Baptists in reaction to Vice President Mike Pence's decision to offer SBC messengers a generic Donald Trump stump speech. This is an issue so important that it even forced The New York Times to produce a story about the SBC meetings in Dallas.

The full text of that much-discussed Greear tweet:

I know that sent a terribly mixed signal. We are grateful for civic leaders who want to speak to our Convention -- but make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the Great Commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.

Then there was the more-than-symbolic moment when Greear put his arms over the shoulders of the two men joining him at the top of the SBC's elected leadership -- first vice president A.B. Vines, pastor of New Seasons Church in San Diego and second vice president Felix Cabrera, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Central in Oklahoma City.

So you had a young megachurch pastor in faded blue jeans and white running shoes standing between an African American pastor and a Latino pastor. Let's call it Southern Baptist Convention: The Next Generation. Does anyone have a good copy of that photo? It's not on the Baptist Press website (that I can find). But there is this one (edited), that was taken later

 

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It's crucial to understand that -- in terms of theology and cultural issues -- we are talking about a set of very, very conservative men. If any of these Southern Baptist leaders climbed up on a box and started preaching on the campus mall at a blue-zip-code state university, well, the diversity police would probably call 911.

How will their voices shape Southern Baptist efforts to speak in the public square? Will we see more efforts to address hot-button moral and religious issues as issues, as opposed to partisan photo ops? 

For example, is this chunk of SBC resolution No. 5 "liberal," or "conservative"?

RESOLVED, That the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Dallas, Texas, June 12–13, 2018, affirm the value and dignity of immigrants, regardless of their race, religion, ethnicity, culture, national origin, or legal status; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we desire to see immigration reform include an emphasis on securing our borders and providing a pathway to legal status with appropriate restitutionary measures, maintaining the priority of family unity, resulting in an efficient immigration system that honors the value and dignity of those seeking a better life for themselves and their families; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we declare that any form of nativism, mistreatment, or exploitation is inconsistent with the gospel of Jesus Christ; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we encourage all elected officials, especially those who are members of Southern Baptist churches, to do everything in their power to advocate for a just and equitable immigration system, those in the professional community to seek ways to administer just and compassionate care for the immigrants in their community, and our Southern Baptist entities to provide resources that will equip and empower churches and church members to reach and serve immigrant communities; and be it further
RESOLVED, That we encourage pastors to address immigration issues with their local churches and to exhort their congregations to serve their local immigrant communities; and be it finally
RESOLVED, That we affirm that all immigrants are either brothers and sisters in Christ or people whom God loves and has given us an opportunity to reach with the gospel where otherwise they may never have heard. 

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