This week, one of the most important religious groups in America will meet. The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), an umbrella group for about 15 million Americans who identify with churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist evangelical Christian tradition, will be holding its annual meeting June 12 and 13 in Dallas, Texas.
The meeting, which will include “messengers,” or delegates, from churches all across America, functions as a kind of organizational meeting for the Southern Baptist community at large. Messengers will elect a new SBC president, administer finances and budgets, and vote on “resolutions,” which, while often technically nonbinding, express the cultural or political stance of the Southern Baptist community.
All of this makes the SBC a particularly important bellwether for Christianity in America. The SBC is the second-largest religious bloc in America, just behind the Catholic Church, and it’s the largest evangelical Christian group. And this week’s event will likely challenge the SBC — and evangelical America more broadly — to deal with some of the major cultural and political shifts of the past year.
The #MeToo movement, in particular, is likely to be at the forefront of people’s minds. One of the most prominent absences on the floor this week will be that of Paige Patterson, the onetime SBC president and, until recently, president of the highly influential Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Patterson was ousted from his job after a series of allegations emerged over his treatment of women. He has been accused of making lewd remarks in sermons, justifying spousal domestic abuse in both sermons and private conversations, and discouraging victims of rape from coming forward.
Despite his ouster from Southwestern, until as late as last Friday, Patterson was still expected to deliver the meeting’s annual sermon; he has since stepped down, saying in a statement, “I do not want my role as a preacher to detract in any way from the important business of our convention.”
The evangelical community has been weathering #MeToo for a while
While Patterson is the most high-profile evangelical figure to be hit by accusations in the wake of the #MeToo movement, he’s far from the only evangelical Christian to have made headlines for sexual misconduct. Earlier this year, megachurch pastor Bill Hybels stepped down from his wildly popular nondenominational megachurch Willow Springs over accusations of inappropriate fraternizing with church underlings.
Late last year another pastor, Andy Savage, stepped down from his Tennessee church after it came to light that he had engaged in inappropriate sexual contact with a minor as a youth pastor. Similar revelations came to light about Paul Pressler, a former Texas state judge who allegedly molested boys as a youth pastor.
In the Hybels and Savage cases, no criminal charges are pending; Pressler has a civil suit pending against him, although the statute of limitations has run out on criminal charges.
It remains to be seen how #MeToo will affect the meeting this year. Last year, political concerns over racial justice came to the forefront of the meeting when a controversial resolution to “condemn the alt-right” failed to initially be taken to the floor, only to ultimately be reconsidered and all-but-unanimously passed. (Messengers can submit resolutions to the committee, which has final say over whether these resolutions will be taken to the floor; the selected 2018 resolutions will be announced tomorrow.)
Historically, these resolutions have been a way for the SBC to contend with its politics. For example, in 2015, the SBC passed a resolution for racial reconciliation, apologizing for its role in American racism. (The story of the SBC has long been inextricable from its historic closeness with American slave owners.)
A year later, it passed another resolution condemning the use of the Confederate flag. Southern Baptists have historically been overwhelmingly white — up to 85 percent. However, the congregation has been diversifying in recent years, with more black and Latino members joining the SBC.
This year, resolutions specific to the #MeToo movement have been proposed, although it remains to be seen whether they’ll make it to the floor. Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Seminary, has proposed a resolution “on the dignity of women” that seems designed to condemn some of Patterson’s actions, including his tacit condoning of abuse.
“We can work against our matrimony-shattering ‘no-fault’ divorce culture and shore up marriages,” Allen’s resolution reads. “But this needed work never means asking women to suffer abuse. Yes, God through our prayers and the power of the gospel can change even the vilest abuser, but wives aren’t called to endure suffering from his hand in the meantime.”
Pastor Dwight McKissic, who spearheaded last year’s resolution to condemn the alt-right, has also proposed a resolution. This time it’s on racial justice, imploring evangelicals to “maintain and renew our public renunciation of racism in all its forms, including our disavowal of any attempt to distort or misappropriate the Bible to justify this evil.”
However, not all proposed 2018 resolutions reflect Allen and McKissic’s stance. Texas pastor Gary Arnold has proposed a resolution denouncing “social justice” on the grounds that it’s code for Marxism. “Social justice activism should be considered evil in that it is a vehicle to promote abortion, homosexuality, gender confusion,” Arnold writes, later adding, “social justice destroys lives by convincing people they are victims who are right to magnify even the most minor of offenses, and to note every disagreement or slight as a ‘microaggression,’ and to complain rather than obey scripture and ‘count it all joy.’”
None of these resolutions necessarily have binding status. The SBC is composed of autonomous churches that run their religious institutions in a largely decentralized manner. By and large, however, resolutions tend to have important symbolic status in the SBC, and both reflect and shape SBC culture.
Overall, however, evangelical leaders have increasingly spoken out about Paige Patterson, and about male abuses of power more generally. Al Mohler, a well-known theologian and president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an impassioned blog post in May: “Judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention. The terrible swift sword of public humiliation has come with a vengeance. There can be no doubt that this story is not over.”
It’s important not to oversimplify #MeToo in the evangelical community
That said, it’s important not to conflate the evangelical community’s response to the #MeToo movement with a more liberal outlook on social issues overall, says John Fea, a historian of religion at Messiah College whose book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, deals with the modern religious right. Many of the women speaking out against Patterson, he notes, like most Southern Baptists overall, still espouse a complementarian theology: namely, the idea that men and women are biblically ordained to have different roles from one another in the church or family.
“They are opposed to Paige Patterson covering up the abuse and they’re opposed to these masculine leaders exercising inappropriate power over them,” he told me over the phone, “but they’re not willing to change their position on the complementarian stuff. They still don’t believe that women can be ministers ... they still believe their husbands are the heads of the household. It’s a little more nuanced than what a lot of the press is writing about.”
Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at evangelical Liberty University who has been vocal in speaking out against Patterson, agreed — arguing in a telephone interview with Vox that a biblical, complementarian position on the roles of men and women was not at all incompatible with #MeToo.
“We adhere to a complementary view of male and female and roles within the family and understanding that properly applied, that view is actually empowering to both men and women and a gift to the church,” she says. “But complementarianism has been applied [too] broadly ... the problem is not adhering to what Scripture teaches, the problem is extrapolating it more broadly in ways that are extrabiblical or unbiblical.”
Understanding #MeToo within the Southern Baptist Community’s reckoning involves understanding the ways that elements of evangelical culture about gender and sexuality, and attitudes about gender roles, have contributed to a toxic and sexist environment for some current and former evangelicals. For others, they remain an important part of a faithful and biblical life.
It remains to be seen the extent to which #MeToo will play a formal role in the speeches and resolutions passed this week. But it’s worth noting that the outcry against Patterson, and against sexual abuse in the evangelical community more generally, has brought many “progressive” and “conservative” evangelicals alike to a point of reckoning.
The question is: Where do they go from here?