I’m not crying. You’re crying.
— Denny Burk (@DennyBurk) June 16, 2021
It certainly was an interesting way to start a podcast (click here to tune that in) about press coverage of the 2021 national meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Here’s the gist of what “Crossroads” host Todd Wilken wanted to know: If journalists were going to write that the Rev. Mike Stone — who lost his bid to become SBC president — was “right-wing” and “ultraconservative,” then why didn’t they pin “left-wing” and “ultraliberal” labels on Bishop-elect Megan Rohrer, the first trans/queer/gender fluid bishop in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America?
Think about it this way: Stone and the new Conservative Baptist Network — many flew pirate flags — set out to attack the already conservative (theologically speaking) leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention, saying that it was not conservative ENOUGH on several issues. In other words, the goal was to move the SBC further right and away from recent pronouncements by the convention.
Meanwhile, Bishop-elect Rohrer is an open advocate of the CURRENT teachings of the ELCA. In the context of this denomination and its doctrines, Rohrer is part of the ruling class.
Now, is Rohrer “ultraliberal” in the context of American culture? How about liberal mainline Protestantism? How about other Lutheran bodies? Was Stone “ultraconservative” in the context of today’s SBC?
You can see the struggle here. Are journalists supposed to label religious leaders in the context of the wider culture or of their own flocks? I have argued that this depends: I go with the “flock” framing when discussing news events that are taking place inside a given “flock.”
As I argued the other day (#SBC21: Press wrestles with Twitter-niche labels as Southern Baptists choose a new leader), most of the religion-beat pros who gathered in Nashville tried to be very cautious when describing the various groups under the conservative SBC umbrella. The exception was the New York Times, which offered a kind of acid-flashback return to the SBC civil wars of the early 1980s.
The key was the labeling in this early headline — “Southern Baptists Narrowly Head Off Conservative Takeover” — and then this overture:
NASHVILLE — In a dramatic showdown on Tuesday, Southern Baptists elected a moderate pastor from Alabama as their next president, narrowly heading off an attempted takeover by the denomination’s insurgent right wing.
The election of the pastor, Ed Litton, was the result of what was effectively a three-way standoff for the leadership of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. In the first round of voting on Tuesday afternoon, Southern Baptists rejected a prominent mainstream candidate and onetime favorite for the presidency, Al Mohler Jr., who received 26 percent of some 14,000 votes.
The race then headed for an immediate runoff vote that pitted an ultraconservative pastor from Georgia, Mike Stone, against Mr. Litton, who has largely avoided the culture wars.
In terms of SBC history, is Litton truly a “moderate”? Does he support abortion rights? How about women serving as senior pastors?
For journalists and news consumers seeking more information, I would recommending reading this Religion News Service feature: “Who is Ed Litton, the new Southern Baptist Convention president?” It was written by Bob Smietana, who has several decades of experience in Nashville and SBC culture. Here is a crucial chunk of that:
In his news conference, Litton described himself as both theologically and politically conservative. Like Stone, Mohler and other candidates, he is an inerrantist and a complementarian — believing the Bible is without error and that men and women have different roles in the church and family.
Some critics of Litton have referred to him as “moderate” or liberal. The term “moderate” was used during the Southern Baptist conflicts over the Bible and theology of the 1980s and 1990s to refer to those who opposed inerrantists and other conservatives. Many of the moderates formed the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a more progressive denomination that ordains women as pastors.
The current debates among Southern Baptists are among varying conservative camps.
Now, it is true that Litton has a somewhat nuanced stance on the ordination of women. Here is Smietana’s take on that:
Like other Southern Baptists, Litton affirms the denomination’s statement of faith, which declares “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” In the past, however, Litton’s wife, Kathy, has helped him preach about marriage during church services.
”My wife is a great teacher, and she helps me communicate to our people,” he said.
Some Baptists, including [Southern Baptist Seminary President Al] Mohler and Stone, believe only men can preach during worship services. Litton said there is room in the SBC’s statement of faith for local churches to make that decision for themselves.
Please not that this is similar to debates in Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. In both of these ancient churches, women cannot be ordained to the priesthood — but there have been discussions about whether women can address congregations after a Mass or Divine Liturgy, as opposed to delivering sermons during the rite itself.
Now, there is another subject that needs to be discussed, in terms of press coverage of the showdown in Nashville.
Let’s state the state the question in the blunt manner that is common among critics of the convention’s current leadership: Has the SBC gone “woke” on Critical Race Theory?
There are several facts to consider here. First of all, African-American congregations are a growing presence in the SBC. The same goes for Latino and Asian churches. If you added up all of the Black, Latino and Asian SBC churches, you’d have a denomination larger than the Episcopal Church. (See this fine Christianity Today feature: “Why Black Pastors Still Stay Southern Baptist.”)
The question for Southern Baptists seems to be this: What is a doctrinally “conservative” stance on the secular school of thought known as CRT?
There seem to be three logical options:
(1) CRT is worthless and dangerous — all of it. Period.
(2) CRT is a secular system that cannot be allowed to contradict scripture. But Black church leaders have found that some parts of Critical Race Theory resonate with the realities of their lives and deserve discussion.
(3) CRT is just fine — all of it. Period.
In terms of theology, those in camp No. 2 appear to be saying that the inerrant Bible teaches (a) that racism is a sin, (b) all of God’s creation is broken by The Fall of Man and thus (c) this includes all (repeat ALL) cultures, institutions and systems. Thus, systemic racism affects our lives today, along with many other sins.
With that in mind, read — carefully — this passage from the #SBC21 coverage at The Tennessean. This is long, but essential:
Southern Baptists took on critical race theory … and thrust themselves squarely into the debate over systemic racism and the ongoing legacy of slavery in America.
During its annual meeting in Nashville, the Southern Baptist Convention approved a measure rejecting “any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic.”
Although it didn’t name critical race theory directly, the nonbinding statement came as debates over it are sweeping the nation — from churches to statehouses and classrooms.
Critical race theory teaches racism is ingrained in U.S. institutions and that white people benefit from it. Many conservative Southern Baptists are adamantly opposed to the theory, calling it incompatible with Baptist beliefs and criticized the resolution for not explicitly naming it.
During debate on the resolution, James Merritt, a Georgia pastor who chairs the committee that presented the measure, fired back at those critics. He said he found a lot about race and racial reconciliation in his Bible.
“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,” Merritt said.
The resolution was worded not to limit itself to just one theory, but to settle the issue “once and for all,” he said. The issue, Merritt said, is any theory that teaches that “our problem is anything other than sin and our solution is anything other than salvation.”
Meanwhile, this Religion News Service piece — by religion-beat veteran Adelle Banks — is essential reading, for those willing to dig deeper than Twitter. Here’s my question: Did you see any of this in your local newspaper?
The crucial starting point was a rather nuanced SBC statement from two years ago:
As expected, Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor and president of Founders Ministries, called for the rescinding of Resolution 9, which was adopted at the 2019 meeting and concluded, “Critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture — not as transcendent ideological frameworks.”
He also requested the Executive Committee budget be “amended to prohibit any funds being allocated to any institution agency or entity that in any way supports promotes or advocates, any tenets of critical theory, critical race theory, or intersectionality.”
Greer, noting “I am no advocate of CRT,” ruled the motion out of order in part because “it would be impossible to administer this.” Ascol appealed Greear’s ruilng and a vote by show of hands sustained the president’s ruling.
Later in his presidential address, Greear seemed to attempt to put the debate about CRT into context.
“The vast majority of Southern Baptists and of the convention leaders, both Black and white, recognize that CRT is an ideology that arises out of a worldview at odds with the gospel,” he said. “And it is clear that as a convention we need to clarify and strengthen our position on it. But we should heed the counsel of our leaders of color who tell us that our denunciations of justice movements fall on deaf ears when we remain silent on the suffering of our neighbors.”
The messengers passed a resolution, “On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation,” which did not specifically refer to critical race theory. Instead it said “we reject any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic” and “we reject any theory or worldview that sees the primary problem of humanity as anything other than sin against God and the ultimate solution as anything other than redemption found only in Christ.”
Let me end with one of the actions taken during #SBC21 that didn’t receive much ink — a change at the legal foundations of the convention’s life. Here is the language from the official Baptist Press report, which I use here because it contains lots of specific language from the motion that was approved:
An amendment to Article III of the SBC Constitution added to the definition of a cooperating church that it “does not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse” and “does not act to affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.”
The amendment took effect immediately, having received its first required messenger approval at the 2019 SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala.
How will this play out in the future?
Stay tuned. But that, to me, seemed like a rather important story that can be seen as a commentary on hot-button issues linked to CRT and race. Was that action “conservative” or “woke”?
Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others. And here is a final thought for the day, care of the logical mind of Ryan Burge:
From my vantage point, the largest threat to the Southern Baptist Convention is not CRT, female pastors, or the nones.
20% of all born-again Christians in 1988 were SBC, today it's 10%.
— Ryan Burge 📊 (@ryanburge) June 18, 2021