A kinder, gentler SBC? - Word&Way

A kinder, gentler SBC?

News accounts suggested Southern Baptist messengers walked away from a quieter, gentler annual meeting last week than most people might have guessed with potentially divisive, even explosive, issues surfacing.

Bill Webb

For example:

• Despite predictions from SBC leadership, messengers did not explicitly call on churches that host or sponsor Boy Scouts of America troops to sever those ties but — through a non-binding resolution — (1) expressed “support for those churches and families that as a matter of conscience can no longer be part of the Scouting family” and (2) encouraged churches and families “that seek to remain in the Boy Scouts to impact as many boys as possible with the life-changing gospel of Jesus Christ.”

At issue was the recent decision by Boy Scouts of America leadership to welcome openly gay Scouts. Scouts still ban openly gay leaders. In the wake of that decision, several prominent SBC leaders either predicted or called for a mass exodus of Southern Baptist churches and Scouts from the organization.

However, the resolution affirms “the right of all families and churches prayerfully to assess their continued relationship with the BSA.”

• The report of a high-profile advisory group of Calvinist adherents and non-Calvinists was presented during the pre-convention pastors’ conference and suggested the simmering theological tensions between the groups could be lessened with an agree-to-disagree approach that one messenger said puts the primary focus upon missions and evangelism, not theological disagreements.

Many in attendance credited Executive Committee President Frank Page, who called for the advisory group, for the process that led to the final report, “Finding a Way Forward,” which was not only presented but discussed in a question-and-answer session at the pastor’s conference.

“I am not naive. I know there are still differences,” Page said. “There are people on this group that have strong wills, strong opinions. I am among that group. But I just want to see us work together so men, women, boys and girls can be won to Jesus.”

“There has been a lot of talking about one another, and I decided it was time to talk to each other,” Page said during a panel discussion June 10 at the Cooperative Program booth in the exhibit area.

• Messengers adopted a resolution calling on church members to be diligent in reporting alleged child sex abuse to legal authorities.

The non-binding resolution reminds messengers of the “legal and moral responsibility to report any accusation of child abuse to authorities in addition to implementing any appropriate church discipline or internal restoration process.”

It calls on Southern Baptists to “cooperate fully with law enforcement officials in exposing and bringing to justice all perpetrators, sexual or otherwise, who criminally harm children placed in our trust.”

Messengers approved an amendment from the floor by Georgia pastor Peter Lumpkins, who proposed the original resolution behind the resolutions committee’s statement to encourage denominational leaders and employees to “utilize the highest sense of discernment in affiliation with groups and/or individuals” that have questionable policies or practices to safeguard children from criminal abuse.

The resolution comes in the wake of recent reports of high-profile Baptist leaders voicing support for a pastor named in a lawsuit alleging a significant abuse cover up, failing to report an admitted child molester to law enforcement authorities and refusing to share findings of internal investigations into abuse allegations with police.

The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), which staged an awareness event outside the convention meeting hall, called it a “feel good” public relations move that “basically protects no one.”

SNAP has petitioned the SBC to track accounts of clergy abuse and to make that information available to churches throughout the convention, while the SBC has repeatedly declined, calling such moral violations local-church matters.

Observers said debates on various matters before the convention was courteous and respectful. This was in contrast to many annual sessions over the past three decades. One reason may be the level of participation, barely 5,100 registered messengers, about a 10th of the record 45,000-plus during the height of the SBC controversy a generation ago. It may suggest weariness with conflict.

While resolutions have no effect other than to state the feelings or positions of messengers gathered at specific annual meetings, the Scouting decision reflects at least some openness in allowing churches to make their own relationship and ministry decisions. The Calvinism report suggests a desire to acknowledge what will be a continuing-to-simmer issue but one that might be less divisive in days ahead. The abuse resolution calls for congregations to make the right legal and moral decisions, even though the convention still does not have a mechanism in place to better protect congregations from repeat predatory attacks by clergy and others.

These steps represent improvements, though incremental, and give Southern Baptists some blocks to build upon.

Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.