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Thomas Gallatin / June 17, 2022

The Southern Baptists’ #MeToo Moment?

At its annual conference, the denomination addressed the sexual abuse scandal and other significant issues.

The largest protestant evangelical denomination in America, the Southern Baptist Convention, met in Anaheim, California, this week for its annual conference with anticipation high over several significant decisions to be made. Headlining the agenda was the fallout from the recently released investigation into the denominational leadership’s handling of sexual abuse allegations made against pastors and church staff over the last two decades. That investigation, conducted by an independent organization hired by SBC leadership, listed more than 500 pastors and staff who were determined to have been credibly accused of sexual abuse.

Regarding that issue, the convention voted on and approved two reform measures. Those reforms include the installation of a “mechanism to track credible accusations against ministers and pastors,” as well as the creation of an “abuse implementation task force.” Due in part to the SBC’s model of church autonomy, the investigation determined that credible accusations against pastors were not shared across the denominational leadership, leaving many unaware of just how big the problem was.

While the measures were overwhelmingly approved, not all were on board with the reforms and saw the decision as “an assault on our polity.” However, on the other side, the chair of the SBC sexual abuse task force, Bruce Frank, called the decision the “bare minimum.”

Meanwhile, the SBC also elected a new president to succeed Ed Litton, who, under a cloud of controversy over revelations that he plagiarized several of his sermons, took the unusual step of choosing not to run again. Bart Barber was elected, defeating the more conservative candidate Tom Ascol in a runoff election.

There was another election of note for president of the SBC’s Pastor’s Conference. In that race, pastor, teacher, and author Voddie Baucham, who has become a leading critic of critical race theory, was defeated by a young and relatively unknown pastor from North Carolina, Daniel Dickard.

Another issue facing the SBC was one of the denomination’s largest churches, Saddleback Church, which created controversy after it ordained three women as pastors. According to SBC doctrine, the office of pastor or teaching elder is limited to men. There was wide concern that Saddleback Church, which has stood by its decision, would be booted from the denomination.

“Are we to keep bickering over secondary issues?” asked Saddleback founding pastor Rick Warren. “Or are we going to keep the main thing the main thing?” The SBC elected to essentially issue a non-decision — to create a “study committee” to research the issue of the title of “pastor,” which for the time being keeps Saddleback Church within the SBC fold.

Yet as Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, insightfully contended, “My concern is as a churchman, theologian and someone who loves this convention … if we eventually have to form a study committee over every word in our statement of faith, then we’re doomed.” Back in 2000, Mohler served on a committee that drafted the Baptist Faith and Message in which it found that the word “pastor … was the most easily understood word among Southern Baptists.” In other words, there is no semantic mystery to the definition of the term. Furthermore, the New Testament is quite clear in limiting the office of teaching elder to that of men.

While the church has obviously been rocked by the gross sin of its male leaders, this non-decision by the convention on a highly significant scriptural issue does not bode well for the future of the SBC. Fidelity to Scripture is ultimately the deeper issue at stake in both church roles and treatment of other people.

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