Southern Baptist Convention

Everybody sing: Why can't a Southern Baptist be more like a Methodist? Or a Lutheran? Or ...

Everybody sing: Why can't a Southern Baptist be more like a Methodist? Or a Lutheran? Or ...

Long ago, a leader in the “moderate” wing of the Southern Baptists used an interesting image as he described how the national convention carried out it’s work.

The Southern Baptist Convention, he told me, really wasn’t a “denomination” in the same sense as United Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans are part of national denominations. Southern Baptists — including those on the doctrinal left on a few issues — really do believe in the autonomy of the local church.

Then there are the ties that bind at the regional level, in Southern Baptist “associations.” Then there are the state conventions (in a few cases, there are more than one — as is the case in Texas Baptist life— because of doctrinal differences). Then, finally, there is the national Southern Baptist Convention that meets once a year to do its business, including selecting boards for the giant agencies and programs built on donations to the Cooperative Program.

Note that word “cooperative.” Hear the Baptist, congregational, “free church” sound of that?

In the end, this Baptist moderate said, the whole SBC idea is like a hummingbird. On paper, it should not be able to fly — but it does.

This is the subject at the heart of this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) about sexual abuse in America’s largest non-Catholic flock. Why can’t the SBC just create a national institution of some kind to ordain clergy, or approve and register ordinations done by churches, and then force local churches to hire and fire clergy and staff with the mandatory guidance of this national agency?

This new institution would then be responsible for tracking and shutting down clergy accused of sexual abuse. Somehow. It would warn churches about predators , if there is legal reason to do so. Somehow.

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Friday Five: Dodger blues, religious freedom threat, Bathsheba raped?, judge's faith, Chick-fil-A hero

Friday Five: Dodger blues, religious freedom threat, Bathsheba raped?, judge's faith, Chick-fil-A hero

This week in news from the baseball gods: They sure don’t seem to like the Los Angeles Dodgers (or the Atlanta Braves).

In the National League Championship Series, I’ll be rooting for the Washington Nationals to defeat the St. Louis Cardinals (I’m a Texas Rangers fan, after all, still dealing with whiplash from what the Cardinals did in the 2011 World Series).

On the American League side, I must decide whether to support the Houston Astros (the Rangers’ division rival) or the New York Yankees (the Evil Empire). Hey, is it possible to root against both?

Meanwhile, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Did you catch that headline, via the Deseret News’ Kelsey Dallas? “During LGBTQ rights town hall, top Democrats call for limits on religious freedom.”

It’s a must read.

Already, this story — including Beto O’Rourke pledging to strip the tax-exempt status from churches that refuse to change their doctrines to accept same-sex marriage — is causing an uproar in conservative media. And it’s drawn attention elsewhere in the mainstream press, too.

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#RNA2019 awards honor nation's top religion writers -- many of these names will be familiar

#RNA2019 awards honor nation's top religion writers -- many of these names will be familiar

In a post last year, I described Emma Green’s piece for The Atlantic headlined “The Jews of Pittsburgh Bury Their Dead” as one of the best religion stories of 2018.

“It’s remarkable in a number of ways,” I wrote. “The strength of the idea and the implementation of it. The quality of the writing and the specific details contained therein. The depth of the religious knowledge and the ability to convey it in understandable prose.”

Green has established herself as one of the nation’s preeminent religion journalists, and it could be argued — especially after Saturday night — that she occupies that top spot all alone, especially in magazine work blending news reporting and commentary.

Here’s what I mean: At the Religion News Association’s annual awards banquet here in Las Vegas, Green got plenty of exercise walking back and forth from her seat to pick up first-place awards.

She won top honors in three categories: for the Supple Award for Excellence in Religion Feature Writing, for Excellence in Religion News Analysis and for Excellence in Magazine News Religion Reporting. A video of the awards banquet can be viewed online.

At some point, RNA typically posts links to all the winners’ stories, but I don’t see that as I’m typing this. However, I believer hearing reference to Green’s extraordinary story that I mentioned above.

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The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

The church vs. the Sexual Revolution: What is 'purity culture' and why is it in the news?

THE QUESTION:

What is “purity culture,” and why is it in the news?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A particular U.S. Protestant campaign born in the 1990s sought to urge teens and young adults to follow the age-old Christian (also Jewish, Muslim, etc.) teaching against sexual relations before marriage. Outsiders and opponents called this the “purity culture” movement, and it’s currently in the news and the subject of intense online debate.

That “purity” label is confusing because critics of the phenomenon are not just secularists or those who scoff at old-fashioned morality. Conservatives who likewise advocate the sexual “purity’ taught in Christian tradition raise some of the most pointed objections to this movement’s specific theology, techniques, and claims.

The cause originated in 1993 with sex education materials under the “True Love Waits’ banner issued by the publishing arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. Within just one year of existence a Washington, D.C. rally drew 25,000 youths and displayed 210,000 sexual abstinence pledge cards on the National Mall.

The movement appealed to many moms and dads who were wounded by the sexual libertinism that began in the 1960s and wanted more wholesome relationships for their own children, fretting over increases in sexually transmitted disease, unwed pregnancy and divorce. The pledges of abstinence until marriage were reinforced by wearing rings popularized from 1995 onward by The Silver Ring Thing organization, reconfigured last year as Unaltered Ministries. Instead of high school proms, some churches held “purity balls” where dads escorted daughters.

The movement is back in the news due to its primary celebrity guru, Joshua Harris, who at a tender age 21 wrote “I Kissed Dating Goodbye.”

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Friday Five: Neo-tabloid NYT, pro-life Dems, Matt Chandler's 'interview,' Jimmy Carter's pastor, gelatos

Friday Five: Neo-tabloid NYT, pro-life Dems, Matt Chandler's 'interview,' Jimmy Carter's pastor, gelatos

Greetings from the Zagreb, Croatia, airport!

I’m headed home after a Christian Chronicle reporting trip to this Central European nation.

My confession is this: I haven’t had time to pay a lot of attention to the news this week (many thanks to my colleague Julia Duin for producing several extra posts in my absence).

So, if I fail to mention something important, please help me out with details and links in the comments section. In the meantime, let’s dive into the distracted-by-international-travel edition of Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: With the caveat above, let’s just say that I was intrigued by a bunch of the topics I found scrolling through this week’s GetReligion posts.

Terry Mattingly’s piece on the New York Times going neo-tabloid over Jerry Falwell Jr., Donald Trump, South Florida real estate and a colorful array of supporting characters particularly intrigued me. Then there were pieces by tmatt (here) and Duin (here) on the haunted news coverage of pro-life Democrats. That tmatt piece followed up on a key theme in Julia’s post, pointing readers to coverage noting that journalists know where to find pro-life Democrats in the Bible Belt. Just look in church pews, especially in African-American congregations.

The Falwell-Trump story in the Times ignited liberal Twitter (look for the hashtag #Falwellpoolboy), but didn’t inspire significant mainstream coverage elsewhere. Stay tuned, and check out the GetReligion podcast on this topic — right here.

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You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

You think Southern Baptist life is complicated? Independent Baptist world is really wild

We should deal with Westboro Baptist Church question right up front.

Was the late Pastor Fred “God Is Your Enemy“ Phelps, Sr., a Baptist?

Certainly. He was a Baptist because his small, independent flock called itself “Baptist “ and he was its leader. So there.

Next question: Is former President Bill Clinton a Baptist? The odds are 100-1 that the answer remains “yes,” since Clinton has been a member of many Southern Baptist churches during his lifetime. In 2018, Clinton made a Charlotte pilgrimage to view the casket of the late Rev. Billy Graham, paying homage to the Southern Baptist evangelist who was one of his heroes — as a Bible Belt boy and as a politico with a complex private life.

So who gets to decide who is a Baptist and who is not? To adapt a saying by the great William F. Buckley, is there a way to definitively prove that Mao Zedong wasn’t a Baptist?

Here’s the newsworthy, but related, question right now: Who gets to say who is a “Southern Baptist”? That’s the topic that dominated this week’s “Crossroads” podcast conversation — click here to tune that in — in the wake of the national Southern Baptist Convention meetings last week. That gathering in Birmingham, Ala., made lots of headlines because of the complicated, often emotional discussions of how to fight sexual abuse in SBC congregations.

Since SBC churches are autonomous, leaders of the national convention — lacking the legal ties associated with the word “denomination” — can’t order folks at the local level to take specific actions, including on issues linked to the ordination, hiring and firing of ministers.

So how can the SBC get local pastors and church leaders to crack down on sexual abuse? That was the topic of a post I wrote called, “Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches.” Apparently, leaders at the national level have decided to adopt tactics that have been used at the “associational” (local or regional) level or in state conventions — “breaking fellowship” with congregations that cross controversial doctrinal lines. In the past, progressive Baptists protested when some associations and states used this tactic to deal with the ordination of women and, more recently, various LGBTQ ministry issues.

Now this strategy will be used with churches that fail to meet certain standards linked to preventing sexual abuse, caring for victims and handling future accusations. Thus, I wrote:

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Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Friday Five: SBC wrap-up, Catholic hotline, #ChurchToo, abuse lawsuits, cult ranch, VeggieTales

Southern Baptists in Birmingham. Roman Catholics in Baltimore.

Clergy sexual abuse scandals, obviously, high on the agendas in both places. Lots of reporters in the house, in both places.

Yes, the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and the spring general assembly of U.S. Catholic bishops made lots of headlines this week.

So we better dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer has a nice wrap-up of the SBC meeting, reporting on three ways churches will tackle abuse after the meeting.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey also has an interesting roundup, explaining that while the SBC took action, some question whether it’s enough.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Julie Zauzmer and Michelle Boorstein delve into the pros and cons of the Catholic bishops’ decision to create a hotline for reporting abuse.

Some of the GetReligion posts on the Baptists and Catholics this week:

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Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Kick 'em out? Southern Baptists seek ways to fight sexual abuse in autonomous local churches

Before we take a look at what appears to have been the key development at this year’s Southern Baptist Convention, let’s pause and discuss a few matters linked to how America’s largest non-Catholic flock does business.

One of the first things reporters learn (.pdf here), when they show up at national SBC gathering, is that the people attending are not “delegates” — they are “messengers” from local churches. Again, this is a sign of the degree to which Baptist identity is built on church authority residing in autonomous local congregations. The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention that exists when it is in session. It can vote to create a publishing house, or mission boards or an “executive committee” to do specific tasks in between conventions.

But SBC folks get testy when reporters assume that Southern Baptists are supposed to be organized like Presbyterians, Methodists or, heaven forbid, Episcopalians. What makes SBC meetings so wild is that all kinds of people in that big room can grab a floor microphone. With that in mind, let’s look at a crucial part of a New York Times story, focusing on efforts to handle sexual-abuse issues:

Thousands of pastors voted late Tuesday afternoon to address the problem in a concerted way for the first time, enacting two new measures they say are a first step to reform. Outside the arena where they were gathered, victims and their families protested what they considered an inadequate response.

The pastors voted to create a centralized committee that would evaluate allegations against churches accused of mishandling abuse. They also approved an amendment to their constitution that would allow such churches to be expelled from the convention if the allegations were substantiated.

“Protecting God’s children is the mission of the church,” the denomination’s president, J.D. Greear, said on Tuesday morning as he addressed the gathering. “We have to deal with this definitively and decisively.”

Wait a minute. SBC “pastors” voted to take these steps? Since when are all of the SBC “messengers” pastors?

The Times should correct that error immediately. It appears that the same mistake showed up in a 2018 Times story and I missed it at that time. As in:

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That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

That strong New York Times #ChurchToo horror story -- with clues pointing to big SBC issues

Throughout the 16-plus years that GetReligion has been around, I have received emails asking why the mainstream press has focused on clergy sexual abuse cases in the Church of Rome, but not abuse cases in liberal and conservative Protestant flocks.

That’s an important question and one that looms over the intense media coverage we are currently seeing — with good cause — at the Southern Baptist Convention meetings in Birmingham (click here for Bobby Ross Jr. round-up on preliminary coverage).

That is also the subject at the heart of a gripping #ChurchToo feature at The New York Times — “Her Evangelical Megachurch Was Her World. Then Her Daughter Said She Was Molested by a Minister” — linked to SBC debates about sexual abuse. It’s a solid, deep story about one controversy in a powerful congregation and it contains clues pointing toward larger issues that will, eventually, have to be covered in the national press.

You see, there are reasons that SBC leaders — the ones who truly want to act — have struggled to come up with a one-plan-fits-all proposal to crack down on the monsters in their midst. To understand why, I want to flash back to an important Joshua Pease essay that ran a year ago at The Washington Post. Here’s my commentary about that: “ 'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze.”

The following chunk of the Pease essay is long, but essential for those who want to understand the larger issues that lurk in the painful new piece at the Times.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates – especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

Journalists: Please read that passage two or three times. The Southern Baptists have a real problem, here, and it’s not going to go away. It’s a theological problem, as well as a legal one.

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