The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has a lot to talk about at its two-day annual meeting kicking off today in Dallas. This year, amid the standard business of elections, entity updates, worship sets, and messages, leaders of America’s largest Protestant body have brought unprecedented attention to the women in its churches and its pastoral response to abuse.
2018 also marks the 100th anniversary of women attending the SBC annual meeting as messengers. At least two proposed resolutions up for consideration directly address the role of women in the complementarian denomination. But unofficially, the conversation is much bigger than that.
Many have awaited this national Southern Baptist gathering—the first since what some have deemed the #MeToo movement’s entry into evangelicalism—as grounds to engage an issue its leaders can no longer downplay.
At the start of the year, Southern Baptists watched as a decades-old, unreported sexual assault at a Houston Baptist congregation led to the resignation of two pastors, including the perpetrator Andy Savage, who went from being infamously applauded by his congregation to apologizing for his past immorality in a matter of weeks.
Months later, Executive Committee president Frank Page vacated the SBC’s top leadership role over an inappropriate relationship. And in recent weeks, longtime SBC figurehead Paige Patterson was forced out of his presidency at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over his mishandling of abuse allegations after weeks of controversy over his past remarks toward women.
Like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Al Mohler, who wrote last month that “judgment has now come to the house of the Southern Baptist Convention,” prominent leaders have pushed each other to speak and act during this public reckoning for their movement.
“The world is watching. We need to convey to the world that we care for women more than we care for our positions of power,” said Austin pastor Matt Carter, speaking Monday on a panel on abuse in the lead-up to the conference. “The church has hidden behind those power structures for too long.”
A pastor who oversaw Savage stepped down this year from Carter’s church, The Austin Stone, after the allegations became public. Carter appeared alongside Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission president Russell Moore and Bible teacher Beth Moore, who last month called out sexism in the SBC in a viral open letter.
The popular author and speaker—herself an abuse survivor—commended Carter and Russell Moore for their resolute positions on reporting allegations to authorities, offering more resources for women to seek counsel, and spotlighting the stories of women who have undergone abuse.
But she also acknowledged the barriers that keep victims from trusting the church, even as leaders grow more open and more eager to help.
“In every case of abuse or assault is a misuse of power … it has turned on her and has done her wrong,” she explained. “By the time you’re in a church context, she’s already intimidated by power. Especially if there are not female voices, it’s just exaggerated the fear she might not be understood or not be heard.”
As they attempt to assure that the women within their denomination will be trusted and cared for, Southern Baptist leaders have been forced to recognize that this hasn’t always been the case.
“Sinful men have in Scripture and the history of the church wronged women, abused women, silenced women, objectified women by ungodly comments and ungodly acts, preyed on women, left women unprotected, failed to report injustices and evils committed against women to civil authorities established by God, and failed to act out of the overflow of the image of Christ,” reads one popular resolution submitted for today’s meeting, written by Jason K. Allen, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Allen’s submission, entitled “On Affirming the Dignity of Women and the Holiness of Ministers,” condemns comments and behaviors that disrespect women within the denomination and calls for better responses to misconduct.
“Especially as we reel from events of recent days, the value of women inside the SBC needs to be proclaimed from the biggest stages we’ve got,” said Sarah Short, who’s attending the meeting from the Summit Church in North Carolina. (Her pastor, J. D. Greear is running for SBC president). “Our brightest and most revered leaders need to say it with their mouths and our convention needs to adopt it as a resolution. It’s time.”
Another line of the draft text states, “To the shame of the Southern Baptist Convention and the very obscuring of the glory of God, a number of Southern Baptist leaders, professors, and ministers have since our last annual gathering sinned against the Lord and against women by their ungodly behavior and language.”
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