I care about the Southern Baptist Convention. I was brought up in an SBC church, heard the gospel and was baptized there, and have spent a significant portion of my adult life worshipping and serving in an SBC church. This body is not just an ideological football to me, to be kicked around like a any political party or secular institution.
But the problem is that America’s largest protestant denomination conducts itself like any political party or secular institution much of the time, and that makes it really, really hard. And heartbreaking.
These days, the main fight within the convention is between two factions: generally younger pastors and seminarians (many of whom have Calvinist theological leanings), who value diversity and racial reconciliation within the church, and who espouse a high view of women, even if they stop short of desiring to ordain women for pastoral leadership. On the other side are largely older Southern Baptists, who give major side-eye to Calvinism and see the desire to do better by minorities and women as a symptom of liberalism.
You see, the SBC is controlled by the president and a couple of key committees. In order to dictate the agenda and narrative, the ideological war horses will broker back-room deals to gain control of those positions, trading busloads of presidential votes at the annual meeting for things like trustee seats at key SBC institutions.
The swamp’s got nothing on the SBC.
Last week I published a piece at Religion Dispatches on Jimmy Carter’s visit to Liberty University. In his commencement speech at Liberty, Carter mentioned his attempts, in the years after his presidency, to bring unity to the Southern Baptist convention. Here is what I wrote:
Carter urged Liberty graduates to fight “discrimination against women and girls in the world.” He lamented the divisions over doctrine in his own denomination—the Southern Baptist Convention—and told a story about how he made efforts, in the years after he left the office, to heal divisions in the Convention. Carter’s attempts, he said, failed because Southern Baptist leaders were unwilling to compromise on the status of women in the church. (It’s hard to think about Carter’s comments on this front without reflecting on the recent controversial remarks of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Paige Patterson).
The conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention made the role of women an important piece of their so-called “takeover” in the late 1970s. Today it is the place of women in the church that may lead to its implosion.