Which issue drew more ink? SBC on Trump-era rifts, race, #ChurchToo abuse, gay marriage

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Here’s a question for GetReligion readers, including journalists: Are you surprised that the Southern Baptist Convention still believes sex outside of marriage is sin and, yes, that marriage is defined — by two millennia of Christian teaching — as the union of man and woman?

All of you who are surprised, please raise your hands.

There shouldn’t be many hands in the air on that one.

Now, would you say that SBC action on that question is, well, sexier than the decision by the national convention’s executive committee to oust two congregations for violating guidelines on sexual abuse, following in the wake of many #ChurchTwo revelations (especially in major Texas newspapers)?

Meanwhile, SBC President J.D. Greear offered up a blistering speech to the executive committee in which he addressed what he called demonic attacks on SBC unity, attacks centering on two hot-button topics — racism and (to be blunt) Donald Trump-era politics.

Of these four issues, want to guess which drew mainstream-press headlines? That’s the question that host Todd Wilken and I discussed during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in or head over to iTunes to subscribe.

According to the Associated Press, the biggest news was that totally predictable decision linked to marriage and sex. Meanwhile, I am happy to report that The New York Times produced a story that, while the headline was predictable (“Southern Baptists Expel 2 Churches Over Sex Abuse and 2 for L.G.B.T.Q. Inclusion”), was updated to become a solid look at the tensions surrounding Greear and some of these issues. We will come back to both of those stories.

But first, I think GetReligion readers need to read a large chunk of the (edited) text from the Greear broadside. (Click here for Baptist Press coverage and, most of all, here for a file that includes the full video.)

The key: Greear sets out to affirm the 1980s SBC move to the right on issues of biblical authority, while repudiating what he calls the “leaven of the Pharisees” emerging on the SBC’s right flank. The following is long, I know, but essential to understanding what is happening right now in America’s largest Protestant flock:

Most of you know that almost immediately after I began to lead our Convention, the character assassinations, false accusations, innuendos and exaggerations began.

For example, it was said I was going to turn us all into Calvinists and that I didn’t care about baptisms — even though I don’t call myself a Calvinist and our church (The Summit Church) has led our state convention for many years in baptisms, baptizing more than 7,000 in the last 10 years. In 2017, we launched an enormous evangelism initiative (Who’s Your One?), which I then passed on to the Convention, and in the last decade, we (the Summit Church) have sent out more than 1,300 members to plant nearly 400 autonomous churches in North America and around the world.

Then people said I was going to gut state conventions. But the Summit has been the top CP giving church in our state for years.

Now, closer to the current headlines:

It was then said I was going to soften our stance on biblical sexuality — even though I publicly affirmed the Danvers Statement and helped edit the Nashville Statement. In fact, my clarity about the sinfulness of homosexuality has resulted in my being targeted in malicious ways by LGBT advocates in my community.

Some bloggers said I was privately funded by George Soros with the agenda of steering the SBC toward political liberalism – even though Al Mohler’s podcast is the only one I listen to every day, I regularly read the Federalist, First Things and National Review, and I consider the invitation by a Republican senator to pray over the Senate on the day they confirmed Amy Coney Barrett to be one of the greatest honors of my life. As for George Soros, I couldn’t pick him out of a lineup, and if he has ever sent a check, trust me, I haven’t seen it.

My office has gotten calls from people who say they’ve heard that I am friends with Nancy Pelosi, that I am a Marxist, or that I’m a card-carrying member of Black Lives Matter.

I expected a lot of this. After all, I realize that slander often comes with the position. But look at what our convention’s culture has become. Having these kinds of slanderous accusations made against our leaders has become the norm.

That isn’t smoke. There are fires all over the place, many of them rooted in fights over Trump-era conspiracy theories and decades of discussions about whether the SBC is a “Southern,” truly national or even global body.

There has been coverage of that speech. Click here for a Religion News Service report that, we can hope, ran in some newspapers.

The key is the Associated Press report that, of course. That’s the story that, in shortened form (alas), will run in American newspapers that choose to address these issues at all. The headline is OK: “Southern Baptists divided over politics, race, LGBTQ policy.

But here is the summary paragraph at the top of the story that was the focus of lots of discussion in the podcast.

On the agenda are two items reflecting those divisions: A recommendation that a church in Kennesaw, Georgia, be ousted from the SBC because it accepted LGBTQ people into its congregation, contravening Southern Baptist doctrine; and a report by an executive committee task force criticizing the widely respected leader of the SBC’s public policy arm, the Rev. Russell Moore.

Now, was the issue in Georgia (and elsewhere) that a church “accepted LGBTQ people into its congregation” or that it embraced a married same-sex couple?

For many journalists, that is a distinction without any meaning. But, in terms of moral theology, there is an important issue there that way too many journalists have ignored for years. There are, you see, gays and lesbians who attend conservative congregations, in many traditions and faiths, because they truly believe the doctrines taught there and, thus, they believe that their own struggles with celibacy and sexual orientation are a part of life in a fallen, broken world. They are welcomed in many, many congregations. They also have their own critiques of conservative church life that need to he heard.

That’s heresy for many journalists who are not interested in that side of these debates.

Here’s a pass age from another example, care of The Nashville Tennessean and, thus, the Gannett wire reports, that raises a related issue:

The church located in the Atlanta suburbs first welcomed a gay couple to join the congregation as members in 2019. The Baptist Faith & Message, the beliefs uniting the network of churches, states that homosexuality is immoral and marriage is between one man and one woman.

The question raised here: Does the SBC — like many other traditional Christian groups — believe that “homosexuality,” as in same-sex attractions, is sinful or that homosexual behavior and activity is sinful (along with sex outside of marriage, in general)?

Once again, that is a distinction that many journalists and liberal believers will ignore. However, you can see — in another Religion News Service report — that it isn’t hard to simply quote what SBC documents say on the matter:

Towne View and St. Matthews were removed for “affirming homosexual behavior” in their standards for members and leaders.

That same direct quote appeared in the wide-ranging New York Times report mentioned earlier. This long passage points readers toward the various issues in play:

The Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee voted on Tuesday to expel four of its member churches, ousting two for policies that “affirm homosexual behavior” and the others for employing pastors who are convicted sex offenders.

“The last year has revealed areas of weakness in our beloved convention of churches,” J.D. Greear, the S.B.C. president, said in a fiery opening address to the committee on Monday night in Nashville. “Fissures and failures and fleshly idolatries. Covid didn’t produce these crises. It only exposed them.”

The next day, the committee “disfellowshipped” Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga., and St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., for church policies deemed accepting of homosexuality, in violation of the denomination’s statement of faith.

Later on, in this lengthy report, the Times dedicates a solid chunk of space the current clashes over race and politics.

I would urge readers, and reporters, to check out the whole Greear address on video.

In recent weeks, I have told a number of reporters what the SBC debates on race (along with discussions of conspiracy theories) deserve more coverage. On race, for example, it’s crucial to listen to voices in the few African-American churches that have left the SBC, along with voices from the many that remain. It wouldn’t hurt to talk to the Rev. Rolland Sade, a Black pastor from California, who is the chairman of the national SBC executive committee.

The conspiracy theory fights speak for themselves (see this recent “On Religion” column). However, YouTube includes legions of voices (see the video embedded in this post) that are dissecting or attacking Greear, or both, from the theological, political and cultural right. Click here for a small sample.

But here is some crucial language from the new Greear address. Why is this racism discussion not going to go away?

I made ethnic diversity a goal of my presidency because in the last 30 years the largest growth we’ve seen in the SBC has been among Black, Latino and Asian congregations. We must go the extra mile of not only condemning racism, but also welcoming our Black, Latino and Asian congregations, knowing this will change who we are.

For the better.

Our brothers and sisters of color are a huge part of our present and an even bigger part of our future.

Need more?

We need to have robust, humble, Bible-open-on-our-knees conversations about things like Critical Race Theory. For something as important as “what biblical justice looks like,” we need wise, biblical thinking. But we should mourn when closet racists and neo-Confederates feel more at home in our churches than do many of our people of color. (And, to be sure, for the vast majority of our churches, that’s not the case, and if it’s not true of your church, praise God!) But I have received the emails and phone calls and letters from people in our churches who do fit that description. And it should bother us that many in our convention show more passion to decry CRT than they do sorrow over the painful legacy of racial bigotry and discrimination. If we had, we probably wouldn’t be in this mess we are now in.

It’s not that clarity about the dangers of CRT is not important; it is. It’s that, as Jesus said, we’ve ignored some of the weightier parts of the law — justice and mercy and compassion.

That’s all for now.

Enjoy the podcast and, please, pass it along to others.

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