Notes from the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention

Notes from the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention June 16, 2019

This year I was honored to be asked to speak during a panel at the 2019 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Thus I had a front row seat to all of the festivities. Moreso I was made a messenger for my church. That meant that I was able to vote for the resolutions and offices. Here are some of my observations about that event in no particular order.

1) About 75 to 80 percent of the convention was about the sexual assault crisis. My panel dealt with racial reconciliation, and naturally I would like the see the Southern Baptists make more strides in that area. But we had to deal with the sexual assault crisis and do so decisively. Next year there can be a more balanced conference, but given the urgency of the sexual assault crisis, it was right to devote that much time to it this year.

By and large I think they did all they could at the SBC to address this issue. I would have liked to have seen an establishment of a list of all ministers who have been caught so that they cannot go from church to church. But they did emphasize calling the legal authorities and running background checks. That would use official sex predator lists to do the same thing. Nevertheless, there are offenses that do not rise to the level of illegality (such as consensual extramarital affairs) but do disqualify a minister from future employment. So I think having such a list of our own would be helpful.

A lot of good things were said about dealing with sexual assault during the conference. But, the key is follow through. As many people noted during the conference, it is worse to offer words with no follow through than to offer no words at all. So I, and others, will watch to see if the SBC does disfellowship churches that are not proactive in dealing with sexual assault accusations.

2) There was a lot of talk about the complementarian/egalitarian debate. Much more than I would have liked to have seen. For those unaware of this debate, the complementarian position is that God made men and women to complement each other and that they have different roles. The egalitarian position is that men and women should have equal access to all roles. The issue this usually comes out in is whether women can pastor a church. Complementarians say no and egalitarians say yes.

Personally I am about 95 percent egalitarian. I do not support putting a woman in the pulpit just to make a point about gender equality and some egalitarians would do that. But otherwise I have no problems serving under a female head pastor. But the SBC is quite complementarian. I knew this when I joined my current Southern Baptist church and decided that all I gained from the church made it worth putting up with this disagreement. After all, I am an independent thinker and unlikely to ever find a church that I agree with 100 percent of the time.

But I must admit that I tired of the constant insistence of complementarianism at the SBC. It is one thing to know that you disagree with this convention on this issue. It is another thing to go to event after event where there is consistent insistence on complementarianism. It seemed even more inappropriate given the theme of the SBC was the protection and valuation of women. The talks of complementarianism and egalitarianism was my least favorite part of the convention.

But stepping back as a sociologist, I think I understand why there was so much discussion of this topic. The current leadership of the SBC is trying to position this convention for the future. And they are doing a lot of good things along those lines. But given the history of the SBC, they still have to honor the conservative takeover that happened a few decades ago. They have to assure many of the participants that they are not returning back to the progressive theology that was cast out during that takeover. I think this emphasis on complementarianism is being used to signal that while the SBC is going to make some changes that the changes are not going to be more than what some members can bear. Consider it a type of virtue signaling.

3) The most controversial resolution dealt with critical race theory (CRT) and intersectionality. This has been the resolution debated about the most after the convention. Some have argued that this resolution signals an acceptance of CRT and intersectionality. This is wrong. The resolution merely states that there are insights to be gained from these concepts. The resolution also states a rejection of these concepts as worldviews and that the Bible is the ultimate authority.

Overall as one who appreciates, but critiques these concepts, I found the resolution to be fairly balanced. If I were to write the resolution, I would have included some of the insights of CRT and intersectionality in it. A Christian who has done some interesting writing on CRT also finds it balanced but wanted more of the limitations of it spelled out. Both of us are concerned with the simplistic approach some Christians have taken towards CRT and intersectionality. Some seem to act that admitting that there is any value to these theories is to have to uncritically accept them.

There is a certain level of anti-intellectualism among Christians, and to be honest within other groups, which argues for a binary thinking. Either an idea is pure and untouchable, or it is defiled with no redeeming value. CRT reminds us that racism is not merely individual or intentional but that we have to deal with the institutional elements of racism. Intersectionality helps us to see that different dimensions of disadvantages can have unique additive effects. There is no reason why we cannot understand these concepts and still complain about the excesses of these concepts.

As I stated, there is a new leadership at the SBC that wants to help us deal with modern society. This leadership understands that in modern society we cannot ignore the realities of institutional racism and different dimensions of inequalities. We need a more nuanced understanding of social reality that some of the critics of the resolutions are unwilling to have if this denomination is going to survive and thrive in the coming years. So although I felt the resolution did not go far enough, I was glad to see it pass.

4) The second most controversial resolution dealt with political involvement. The theme of the convention is the Gospel Above All. The gospel is above all secondary concerns, including our political affiliations. This does not sit well with some of those still tied to a cultural war mindset. They believe that the way forward is to keep fighting the cultural war and win political battles. That is a losing strategy, and I am glad to see the SBC take steps away from it.

I was at the conference last year when Vice President Pence was asked to come and speak. What a massive lost opportunity that proved to be. Rather than lament the revelations of the treatment of assault victims by a then popular seminary president, we showcased the second in command of a Republican administration. This indicates the type of Republicanism that has infested the SBC and which needs to be rooted out. I was happy to see this in the resolution and in the speech by the president of the SBC – J.D. Greear.

To be sure there are disheartening moments such as when a chaplain included the phrase “make America great again” in his prayer. But overall there is movement from the uncritical acceptance of Republicans to being what we Christians always should be – loving critics of both political parties. We must always be Christians before we are Republicans or Democrats or whatever. When I hear some Christians engage in politics, I do not always get the sense that they have adopted this priority.

Our Republicanism is driving away people of color and the young precisely at a time when the church needs to be more united. During my panel, I told the convention how disheartening it is to see my fellow Christian brothers and sisters unreflectively defend our president at every turn. It is one thing to vote for him. It is something else to not defend people of color when he talks about us in dehumanizing ways.

The future of the SBC, and Christians in general, in a post-Christian world is not going to be tied to political power. It is going to be tied to having strong communities and being able to reach out to those who want to be part of those communities. Anything that puts up a barrier to reaching out to others, such as political allegiances, has to be jettisoned. Our priority must be developing that community and not political victories.

5) Finally a point of personal privilege. I do wish the exhibit section stayed open for the entire convention. I promised my boys I would get them books, but by the time I got there, the exhibits, and bookstore, were closed. It is a blessing to have boys this young (4 and 2) who enjoy reading. But it did mean I had to take them to Mardels a couple of days after the convention.

I hope you have enjoyed some of my musings. No promise that I will be going to the convention next year. In fact, if I were to take a guess, I would say that I probably will not go. But if I do, then I will post notes from that convention as well.

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