Reflections on “Attending” the SBC 2021 Convention in Nashville

by | Jun 17, 2021 | Theological Issues | 0 comments

No, I wasn’t present in Nashville this week, so technically I didn’t attend, but thanks to the modern technological advances, I was able to watch much of the meeting from the comfort of my home in Minneapolis. I tried to follow the elections, the resolutions, and the reports given, although I didn’t hear the convention sermon or the worship parts much. As an SBC baptized, married, and trained church historian, I would like to offer a few outsider thoughts on what I observed. I will try to be objective, though doubtless, objectivity is hard to come by.

Entering into this convention, the SBC had a number of major issues before them, some left over from 2019 (the convention did not meet last year due to COVID), e.g. the infamous Resolution 9, and some more recent issues, e.g., the public departure of Russ Moore from the leadership of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, ERLC, and his public letter (ostensibly written as a private letter) outlining abuse and criticisms he suffered as he tried to do his job. Also before the Convention was controversy over the work of the Executive Committee (this is the group of people who manage the convention affairs between annual meetings) and its actions (appropriate or insufficient) in dealing with the very ugly side of SBC life—sexual abuse among partnering churches. Secondary issues before the Convention included the alleged misconduct of former Southwestern Seminary president Paige Patterson which was set out by Southwestern in their annual report, included in the SBC 2021 Book of Reports. These are in addition to new issues that SBC messengers chose to raise such as a resolution for the SBC to take an absolute stand against abortion, rather than approaching its mitigation incrementally. All of this was almost secondary to the major issue of the convention—the presidency. Who would be chosen to lead Southern Baptists for the next two years? Presidents serve annual terms but ordinarily get a second term without contest.

The question of the presidency loomed large this year for a couple of reasons—complementarianism/egalitarianism was on the table in the background because of the public departure of Beth Moore and because of the announcement that Saddleback, an SBC church, recently ordained three women. Will the next president lead the Convention toward reaffirming its complementarian stand or will that individual take another posture? Of the four men nominated, two men were unequivocal in their stand for complementarianism—R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and Mike Stone, a GA pastor and former chairman of the Executive Committee. Ed Litton, who was elected with a greater than 50% majority on the second ballot, affirms the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, which does not allow for women as pastors, but in his AL church, Litton has occasionally shared his pulpit with his wife Kathy. The question of women preaching in the church pulpit has been agitating in recent SBC life since Beth Moore’s Mother’s Day sermon of 2019. Mohler argued that the biblical restriction against women as pastors includes women in the preaching role. Yet Litton appears to disagree with this position, despite his affirmation of the BFM2000. Tom Buck, pastor of First Baptist of Lindale, TX highlighted on Twitter Litton’s views here and here. Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Seminary, is a strong supporter of Ed Litton.

A second issue that did not sit well with strong conservatives is the refusal by the Convention and its leadership to repudiate CRT. Resolution Two (see p. 7) was adopted but without any clear language contra CRT. James Merritt, former president of the SBC and pastor of Cross Pointe Church in the Atlanta area declared “I want to say this bluntly and plainly: if some people were as passionate about the gospel as they were critical race theory, we’d win this world for Christ tomorrow.” Those who wished for a separate amendment to revoke Resolution 9 from 2019 were overruled because those responsible for following proper meeting procedure declared that a previous resolution was the view of those present at the time it was passed and therefore it couldn’t be reversed by a later generation. The resolution against CRT and Resolution 9 in 2019, seeking to rescind it, was presented by Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist of Cape Coral, FL, on behalf of 1300 co-signers, but this never made it to the convention floor. You can read about the issues here. There was a heated exchange on day two of the convention when Ascol’s motion was ruled out of order.

Another contentious issue was a resolution from the floor by Bill Ascol, Tom’s brother, calling for the SBC to demand “immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise.” Considered by the left leaning Baptist News Global as the resolution against abortion with “the most strident language ever used,” it was initially not brought forward by the resolutions committee. Bill took the microphone and moved that the chair call for a 2/3 vote that would bring the motion forward. That vote passed and the motion was put before the messengers. After extensive debate for and against, many over the issue of incrementalism in anti-abortion activity, the motion carried. The original resolution was amended, in part to read, “RESOLVED, that we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion,” inserting the single word alone. The amended motion passed. However, many thought that the resolution as passed was wrongheaded. “It would state plainly and unequivocally that any measure, any method, any move that falls short of total abolition of abortion is to be taken off the table,” said Josh Webster, chair of research at the ERLC. For a discussion on the implications of the resolution, see here (start at 31.30). The early part of the video has Tom Buck sharing his views on the issues at the convention.

Finally, the convention endorsed an outside investigation of the Executive Committee and the SBC leadership. This investigation was announced immediately before the convention as a consequence of Russ Moore’s very public letter, ostensibly intended to be private, charging many around him of essentially driving him from the convention. At issue was the handling of sexual abuse allegations in the highest levels of SBC leadership. Last Sunday, eight sexual abuse survivors called for an open and transparent investigation by an outside agency. This action was partially precipitated by a refusal of SBC leadership to deal with a GA church whose former minister perpetrated sexual abuse. The allegations against the church were dismissed by the officials, despite credible evidence of sexual abuse presented to them. Although the motion for the investigation passed, some spoke against it arguing that the churches should be sufficient to handle their own sin issues. Just days before the motion passed, the executive committee itself refused to take more action in self-investigation.

The convention this year was an intense one. Whatever one thinks of JD Greear, he handled the pressure well, even if he didn’t please everyone. Now the gavel (Greear replaced the Broadus gavel because Broadus was a slave owner) passes to Ed Litton. It remains to be seen just where the SBC is headed. Will the strong conservatives like the Founders men, who really saw few of their goals accomplished this year, remain loyal to the SBC? Will the SBC become more welcoming of women in their pulpits? Was enough done in Nashville to keep prominent African American pastors in the convention? Dwight McKissic threatened to leave if Mohler or Stone was elected. Will the SBC change its approach to the handling of sexual abuse within its ranks as survivors demand? There are many good and godly men and women in the SBC. Any group as large as their movement is bound to have problems. I hope the SBC will strengthen what remains.

Jeff Straub

Jeff Straub

Church Historian

Jeff is an experienced professor of Christian history and theology. He regularly travels internationally to train Christian leaders. When stateside, he publishes in the field of American religion. Research interests include Baptists and slavery, racism, Pentecostalism, and global Christianity. Jeff has taught around the world including Canada where he resided with his family for his first nineteen years of ministry; Romania, Russia and the Ukraine in Europe; India and a limited access country in Asia; and Zambia and Kenya in Africa.

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