(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.
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.
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.)