The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Southern Baptists adopt resolutions on abuse and affairs, in a season of grappling with gender

Attendees worship after a sermon by the Rev. Steve Gaines, the outgoing Southern Baptist Convention president, at the 2018 annual meeting of the denomination in Dallas on Tuesday. (Rodger Mallison/Star-Telegram/AP)

DALLAS — The Southern Baptist Convention, in the midst of a national and denominational reckoning on gender, voted at its annual meeting on Tuesday to condemn abuse in strong terms and to affirm women’s roles in the church. But the nation’s largest Protestant denomination also showed signs of ongoing bitter division over the firing of a high-profile Baptist leader during the #MeToo moment.

Over the past two months, this 15-million-member conservative evangelical movement has been rocked by scandal, including the firing of a revered leader in the denomination who was supposed to deliver a key sermon at this very meeting. Instead, the denomination is meeting without ousted seminary president Paige Patterson in attendance — and with a new focus on the treatment of women, the issue shaking up institutions from Hollywood to Congress.

The voting delegates, who number more than 9,000, will debate a sure-to-be-contentious motion Wednesday afternoon: a delegate’s call for the dismissal of the entire board of trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the body that fired Patterson after an accusation that he did not report an alleged rape. Other delegates proposed similar motions, including one that called for the resignation of the trustees and another that asked them to reconsider their decision to fire Patterson.

On Tuesday morning, meeting officials released the list of resolutions to be voted on during the packed two-day conference, chosen from dozens of proposals. Before the Patterson scandal erupted this spring, gender was barely on the agenda. Now, it occupied the first two resolutions.

Both passed late Tuesday. One emphasized “the dignity and worth of women,” highlighting Southern Baptist women’s roles — but saying women should serve churches in “biblically appropriate ways,” which Southern Baptists take to mean women cannot be ordained as senior pastors. The resolution calls modern culture “increasingly confused in matters of gender and sexuality.” It cites specific scriptural references, including one that says “wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”

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A second resolution called for Southern Baptists to condemn “all forms of abuse” and to contact civil authorities in such cases, and for the abused to “separate themselves” from abusers (though it was silent on the question of abuse as grounds for divorce, which divides some Southern Baptists). Patterson’s scandal erupted after an 18-year-old video surfaced showing him calling for an abused woman to return to her husband. He refused this spring to apologize for the sermon.

Other resolutions passed Tuesday acknowledged the theological justifications that Southern Baptists have used in the past to allow racism, saying “residue” of such teachings remain in their churches. Another called for immigration reform that does not necessarily welcome amnesty but honors both secure borders and a “pathway to legal status,” and it focuses on the importance of family units.

Another resolution preached that pastors should not have extramarital affairs, following the resignation on grounds of sexual immorality of several Baptist pastors — including the then-head of the denomination’s executive committee, Frank Page, and earlier, one of Billy Graham’s grandsons. The denomination has also recently seen prominent Tennessee pastor Andy Savage resign after admitting to a years-ago sexual encounter with a teenager, and longtime Baptist leader Paul Pressler accused of sexual abuse.

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The denomination made a surprise announcement Monday that Vice President Pence will speak at the gathering Wednesday. Steve Gaines, the outgoing Southern Baptist Convention president, said in a statement that Pence’s speech would “express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”

Pence, an evangelical Christian, is popular among Southern Baptists, who tend to be Republican and have been among the strongest supporters of the Trump administration. But his invitation to speak has been denounced by numerous delegates to this meeting, including five who made motions on the floor proposing that elected officials should not be invited to Southern Baptist meetings at all and that Pence’s speech should be replaced by a time of prayer or a sermon. The motions to disinvite Pence were turned down, and the others were postponed until next year.

In more intimate politics, the Southern Baptists elected as president of the denomination on Tuesday a pastor hailed as a leader of a younger generation of evangelical Christians. J.D. Greear is a 45-year-old North Carolina pastor known for inspiring young congregants to go on missions and launch churches.

“He’s a new face for a traditional theology,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. “Think about how Pope Francis, depending who you ask, hasn’t really changed Catholic doctrine — but he has put a different face on that. Greear is sort of a new generational face.”

Delegates decisively chose Greear over author and former Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Ken Hemphill, 70, by a vote of 5,410 to 2,459.

Greear was described by many attendees as a candidate for a younger generation. Ken Whitten, the Florida pastor who formally nominated Greear, said in his speech: “I believe this is a critical moment and a watershed election in the life of our convention. … The day dictates that we become more generationally inclusive and relationally and racially diverse.”

The pastor who nominated Hemphill, on the other hand, argued that age should not hold such sway: “This election is pivotal. It cannot simply be about our making a statement to the younger generation. If we say, ‘Old guys, time for you to let go. You’ve had your chance,’ we will undermine our unity,” Brad Jurkovich said.

Among the attendees at the convention who voted Greear in, many mentioned his history of mission work. “I love that there is a young generation that is very selfless,” said Nate Templin of Colorado. “Every generation has its thing, right? They feel like their calling in life is to serve people. My generation was, ‘Fight the man,’ Gen X. This generation actually likes people.”

Others suggested, however, that Greear was able to marshal the support of older voters as well because he maintains ties to traditional Southern Baptists. Patterson, who was revered for decades for his role as an architect of the denomination’s conservative shift, was Greear’s doctoral adviser and remained a mentor to him.

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The 10-member resolutions committee that decides what will be voted on receives dozens of proposed resolutions before the annual meeting and generally selects fewer than 10 to go to the floor.

The committee appears to have taken ideas, for the measure on abuse and the one exhorting pastors not to have affairs, from a proposal written by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Jason K. Allen. Allen’s draft was signed before the meeting by a lengthy who’s who of Southern Baptist men, including the presidents of the five other denominational seminaries, current and former denominational presidents and both candidates for the office this year, and executive directors of state-level Baptist conventions.

Allen’s resolution endorsed the Baptist principle of complementarity, which says God called for women to be submissive to male leadership in the family and the church. It then condemned immorality by Baptist leaders, including extramarital affairs and mishandling of abuse.

“It speaks to a world that perhaps is wondering what Southern Baptists clearly believe about these issues,” Allen said Monday of his effort.

Delegates voted late Tuesday not to take up a resolution against the phrase “social justice.” “Social justice is deceptive, in that well-meaning Christians become unwittingly drawn into such ideology under the false assumption that social justice equates to standing up for people’s rights and compassion,” the failed resolution said, arguing that in fact “social justice” is “Marxist,” “evil” and “destroys lives.”

It is hard to predict which ideas will gain traction at the meeting, and which will prove unexpectedly contentious. At last year’s meeting, debate over a resolution to condemn the white supremacist alt-right — just as the convention condemned Planned Parenthood and gambling at that same meeting — proved surprisingly acrimonious before the resolution ultimately passed.

Dwight McKissic, the pastor behind that alt-right resolution, was behind the new resolution on race. Their resolution deals with the denomination’s history as a slavery-supporting entity, which Baptists formally apologized for in 1995.

“Here’s the distinction. They adopted, in 1995, an apology for slavery itself. But when you pick up the Bible and misuse it to argue for slavery, those are two separate offenses,” said McKissic, the pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Tex. “That has never been acknowledged, that they abused the Bible.” That changed Tuesday afternoon, when this year’s resolution on the misuse of theology passed without dissent.