General story Institutions Opinion

A reckoning for Southern Baptists, and an opportunity

Paige Patterson speaks on Feb. 15, 2018, at the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by Sarah Chelf/SWBTS

(RNS) — Even for an outsider like me, it’s hard to watch the Southern Baptist Convention grapple with sexism and sexual misconduct among its leaders.

Faced with newly emboldened women speaking out about sexist attitudes toward rape, stories of pain, trauma and abuse in the denomination’s institutions, many SBC insiders were timid in their responses and unwilling to call out their former president, Paige Patterson.

Now, as the SBC annual meeting in Dallas June 12-13 approaches, a near daily drumbeat of bad news is setting the stage for a dramatic reckoning. Last week, Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was pushed aside following widespread criticism for counseling a wife to stay with her abusive husband and for making inappropriate remarks about women’s appearance.

A week later, he was fired outright after a North Carolina woman accused him of mishandling her allegations of being raped by a fellow student while Patterson was head of another seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. 

Paige Patterson preaches at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on March 9, 2016, in Fort Worth, Texas. Photo by A. Covington/SWBTS

While the media seldom have acknowledged it while reporting on the recent revelations, there is more troubling news for the denomination: baptisms, membership and attendance have all been dropping in Southern Baptist churches in recent years. 

Will the SBC’s #MeToo moment accelerate its decline? Or could it be the start of a revival?

My advice: Don’t write off the Southern Baptist Convention.

Times will be tough for a season, but expect to see a leaner, more focused denomination emerge in the future. A generation of smart, savvy leaders is coming into prominence.

Russell Moore, president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has called for the denomination to end its identification with the Republican Party and the religious right.

J.D. Greear, a candidate for the SBC presidency, is the pastor of a megachurch in North Carolina that does not even use the word Baptist in its name. He is a leader of  the denomination’s recent embrace of Calvinist theology and public witness.

Both are popular with younger evangelicals, who show themselves to be more ideologically diverse, with a healthy Christian skepticism of partisan politics. 

The new SBC will be no less adamant about marriage, gender roles and sexual ethics. It will remain resolutely committed to complementarianism, the belief that women and men have equal value but different roles in church and family life.

But these new, cheerful warriors will navigate a skeptical, secularizing culture with an adeptness that eluded their elders. 

For now, however, the generational change remains incomplete. Patterson is a hero of the SBC’s “conservative resurgence,” a tumultuous institutional power play in the 1980s and early 1990s that systematically removed all moderates from positions of influence.

In a very real way, the reigning elite still owe their positions and power to the movement Patterson led. SBC leaders are famously unapologetic about their resurgence, even though its fallout was detrimental to many pastors, agency staffers and missionaries who were not on board with the takeover faction’s rhetoric or methods.

R. Albert Mohler Jr. Photo courtesy of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

As Patterson lost his presidency last week, however, R. Albert Mohler Jr., longtime president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., issued a strong statement that soberly grasps the implications of what is happening. He sees the judgment of God on the SBC.

More than ever, it seems that Mohler is the de facto head of the denomination. But even he wondered, “Has the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC come to this?” Even more stunning, he continued, “This is exactly what those who opposed the Conservative Resurgence warned would happen.”

The headlines will likely get worse for the SBC. As of this writing, Patterson has not excused himself from the keynote address to the annual meeting this month, and may even take the opportunity to defend himself.

Yet faith has a way of bringing light from darkness. The Bible says, “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5)

Whatever happens in Dallas, the SBC is being transformed before our eyes. The new generation of leaders is savvier, more compassionate and earnestly wants to do right by women. The power of prayer and grace were manifest Monday (May 28), when the woman who reported being raped to Paige Patterson as a student 15 years ago wrote that “Our history isn’t our future.”

Southern Baptists will continue preaching the gospel, baptizing new believers, and planting churches as though the  eternal destiny of souls hangs in the balance.

Because they believe it. If they winsomely and compassionately address today’s failings and challenges, they will find mission fields ripe for the harvest.

(Jacob Lupfer, a frequent commentator on religion and politics, is a writer and consultant in Baltimore. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Jacob Lupfer

6 Comments

Click here to post a comment

  • Maybe the Great Kibosh is hitting its targets:

    Putting the kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • “The new SBC will be no less adamant about marriage, gender roles and sexual ethics. It will remain resolutely committed to complementarianism”

    If this turns out to be the case, the future of the SBC (much like the future of the Catholic Church) will depend on the distribution of dogma-addicts in the general population. If there are enough dogma-addicts (and human nature being what it is, there probably will be), then the SBC will survive, although it may be a much “smaller, holier” Church, to use BXVI’s phrase.

  • Wait, what? Although “the Conservative Resurgence in the SBC [has] come to this” – “the judgment of God on the SBC” – still, “our history isn’t our future” as Southern Baptists – so long as we “winsomely and compassionately address today’s failings and challenges”?

    Not much of a “judgment of God on the SBC” after all, then. Hardly “a reckoning for Southern Baptists”, looks like.

    Nothing really holy to see here, folks. Not even at “the SBC annual meeting in Dallas June 12-13”.

    So: “Will the SBC’s #MeToo moment accelerate its decline?”

    Yes.

    “Or could it be the start of a revival?”

    No.

  • But from the beginning, it was not like this. While Adam was asleep, God took a rib from his side to make a woman. So woman was not made from the crown of the head so she lord over man, nor from the sole of his foot so he step on her. She was taken from his side so she can be his helper. And it was good even though Adam never figure out her because she was formed when he was dreaming.

    After the fall the world became darkened with the new ruler of the world, the animals kill, the jungle rule, the curse, the ground, the sorrow, the evil days, the thorns, the sweat, back to dust. So the devil want to tear up the photos and deface all images of the previous devotion – the man and woman.

    So Jesus, Son of God became the Son of Man to be the sacrifice to reverse all curses and save us from sin. So He came to find His own bride on the cross. He, the eternal LORD, received all these dust, sweat, thorns, evil day, sorrow, curses, strikes, pains, suffering, the curse so we are blessed, loved, lifted, up, marvel,….
    Jesus Christ the only true hero had “But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” flower the church with the washing and cleansing of His beloved on His side in the eternal. Amen.

  • Oh yay, another Christian who thinks atheism is TOTALLY a religion too.

    Does it ever get old, being wrong about absolutely everything? The reason your religion is losing so many people is seen in your comment: it is dishonest, mischaracterizing its tribal enemies to make its adherents feel bigger and stronger. We see its dishonesty, and thus we reject it. You can’t honestly engage with atheism. You can’t even define it accurately. I wonder if you’ll ever see why you can’t, or if you’ll ride the Lies Train all the way to complete irrelevance.

    Your dishonesty is part of the broken system you serve. It’s a sign, a symptom. It’s all I need to know that your religion’s claims are false. One would think you wouldn’t broadcast it like this, but here we are, right? Christians like you are in it for tribal superiority–nothing else. But the more you talk, the more people you alienate.

ADVERTISEMENTs