Southern Baptists Begin Convention in Dallas at a Crossroads. Which Path Will They Take?

Russell Moore preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2011.
Russell Moore preaching at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2011.
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The 2018 annual meeting, as the denomination's yearly shindig is called, probably could've come at a better time for the Southern Baptist Convention. This week's events at the Kay Bailey Hutchinson Convention Center downtown come fresh on the heels of a series of scandals centering on  Paige Patterson, the former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary Pastor whom the seminary's executive board fired May 30 for mishandling rape allegations made by female seminarians.

Before he was fired, Patterson planned to give the meeting's keynote sermon Wednesday. Last week, he decided to give up his prime speaking slot. Despite Patterson's decision, the convention has been forced to talk about the role of women in its churches and administrative organizations this week, thanks to activism from evangelical women's groups and dissent from within the convention.

"There's a feeling of great gravity and weightiness here [at the convention]," says Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. "I think there's a special sense of sadness, seriousness and resolve to see a new start, to seek the face of the Lord in a different way."

Moore is a rising star in conservative evangelical circles, representative of younger Southern Baptists who feel the church should operate with greater independence from the Republican Party and the political system in general. That differentiates Moore, who became a prominent voice against Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election, from previous Southern Baptist Convention leaders like Richard Land, his predecessor at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, and Patterson, who helped build the church into a conservative political juggernaut in the 1980s.

"Russell Moore says, 'We're not the moral majority, we're a prophetic minority. We need to be able to speak up more independently and be less worried about the success of the Republican Party and maybe even the success of the American nation and be more worried about having a prophetic witness that's true to Scripture,'" Baylor University history professor Barry Hankins says. "That's the generational change that's happening in the way that Southern Baptists, at least younger Southern Baptists and evangelicals, deal with the culture."

Moore's view of the role of Southern Baptists in wider society might differ from that of older church leaders more closely aligned with Trump, but that doesn't mean that Moore's positions are any less vulnerable to critiques from advocates for women and victims of sexual assault and harassment.

Southern Baptists in general and Moore specifically believe strongly in the doctrine of complementarianism, which states that men and women have separate, specific roles to fill within society and the church. Men are viewed as having been appointed by God to head the family and the church, so women are restricted from certain leadership roles — like being the pastor — of Southern Baptist churches.

Ashley Easter is an advocate for victims of abuse within the church and a self-described Christian feminist. She  helped organize a rally at the annual meeting Tuesday in support of reforms such as creating a registry for ministers who commit sexual abuse. Churches that practice complementarianism, rather than egalitarianism, in which men and women are considered equals with regard to their roles in the church, leave the door open to potential abuse.

"The theology of mainstream Southern Baptist Convention churches does support a unilateral submission of wives to husbands," Easter says. "When we look at Scripture, when we look at Ephesians 5:21, we see that the Bible calls for mutual submission of husbands and wives, men and women, and that it shouldn't be a hierarchical thing.

"Abuse is always motivated by a lust for power and control, and patriarchal systems ... where one person has the deciding factor in the power and control over another — I think we will see abuse in those types of circles. Not everybody who ascribes to complementarianism or calls themselves patriarchalist will enact abuse, but I certainly think the system of patriarchy is itself abusive."

According to Moore, any problems the church has with regard to abuse don't arise from complementarianism, a principle he says the Southern Baptist Convention is deeply committed to.

"I can't think of a single Southern Baptist I know that would want to change what we consider to be a Biblical teaching," Moore says. "I think, though, that we who are complementarians have a special obligation to highlight the equality of women as created in the image of God and the dignity of women as created in the image of God. Do we think that there are some offices and vocations that are reserved for men and women differently? Yes, but that does not mean, that should never mean that women are not gifted or invaluable to the mission of the church."

The trouble for Moore and other Southern Baptist leaders, Hankins says, is that they aren't often challenged by women in positions of authority.

"The challenge is that in the complementarian system, by definition you don't have women in positions of theological authority. You end up with men working around men in most contexts — I know they do put some women on boards — but, for example, in the seminaries, you don't have female theologians and female biblical scholars and female pastors, so the men in those positions work almost exclusively with other men," Hankins says.

"The challenge is to develop ways to be sensitive even in the language one uses to talk about these issues. ... Patterson, in addition to being insensitive to these issues over the years, the way he talks about them isn't very helpful, either. Complementarian evangelicals have to find a way of sensitizing themselves to these issues because there just isn't enough opportunity for the male leaders to be around women who are their equals."

Moore says a conversation needs to happen "at great velocity" in the church in the next couple of months. The approach the church decides to take coming out of the convention and during the remainder of 2018 could signal the direction Southern Baptists will take in their approach to society at large in the coming years.

If it elects to make radical changes and move away from the religious-right monolith, it could lose its influence in the Republican Party, Hankins says. If it goes the other way, following the path blazed by leaders like Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, it risks being co-opted by a Republican Party with a morally corrupt leader, he says.

"Aside from the particular issues surrounding Patterson and other male leaders, the SBC is in an identity crisis as to how to relate to culture and politics. Is the convention trying to shore up a quasi-Christian culture, or should Southern Baptists act as a prophetic minority in a secular, decadent, post-Christian culture?" Hankins asks. "If one takes the first position, then latching onto Trump to maintain influence in the Republican Party makes sense. If one takes the second position, then Trump is part of the problem."

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