(AP) — Divisions over race, politics, gender, and LGBTQ issues are roiling America’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, ahead of a meeting of its executive committee next week.
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. Among the grievances against Moore: His outspoken criticism of Donald Trump during Trump’s 2016 election campaign and his presidency.
Jim Conrad, the pastor of Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, said he’s at peace with the likelihood that his church will be “disfellowshipped” by the executive committee during its meeting Monday and Tuesday. But Conrad sees broader challenges for the SBC as its stances on various sensitive issues are questioned from inside and outside.
“The problem the SBC is facing right now is this: In order to work with them, you’ve got to be in lockstep agreement with them on every point. Nine out of 10 won’t get you by,” Conrad said. “That’s just a shame. They’re going to limit themselves in terms of who’s able to work them.”
Some of the most volatile topics facing the SBC aren’t on the executive committee agenda but have fueled passionate blog posts and social media exchanges in recent weeks. Among the issues:
— Some Black pastors have left the SBC and others are voicing their dismay over pronouncements by the SBC’s six seminary presidents — all of them White — restricting how the subject of systemic racism can be taught at their schools.
— Several prominent SBC conservatives, citing church doctrine that bars women from being pastors, have questioned why the denomination’s North American Mission Board has supported a few churches where women hold titles such as children’s pastor and teaching pastor. The board says it seeks to persuade such churches to change those titles.
— The leadership continues to draw criticism from victims of church-related sexual abuse over promises made in 2019 to combat that problem. Activists say inquiries related to sex abuse should be handled by independent experts, not by the SBC’s credentials committee.
Moore has been president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, or ERLC, since 2013. Though staunchly conservative on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, he has gained an audience outside the SBC with his speeches and writings, including criticism of Trump, condemnation of Christian Nationalism, and support for a more welcoming immigration policy.
After the Jan. 6 storming of the U.S. Capitol by Trump supporters, Moore wrote on his blog, “This week we watched an insurrection of domestic terrorists, incited and fomented by the President of the United States.” If he were a member of Congress, Moore wrote, he would vote to remove Trump from office even if it cost him his seat.
The task force’s report on Moore doesn’t demand his ouster but urges him and other ERLC leaders to refrain from opposing specific candidates for political office and to limit their public comments to positions already established in SBC doctrine and resolutions.
Mike Stone, the task force chairman, said the ERLC under Moore’s leadership has been a “significant source of division” jeopardizing contributions to the SBC from its 47,000 affiliated churches.
Moore, who has declined public comment on the report, is likely to retain his post, at least for the short term.
Conrad, however, expects his church to be ousted, based on a letter he received Feb. 8 from the credentials committee asserting that Towne View Baptist “is not in friendly cooperation” with the SBC. Towne View began welcoming LGBTQ worshippers in October 2019 after a same-sex couple with three adopted children asked Conrad if they could attend, a decision he defends as the right thing to do.
“The alternative would have been to say, ‘We’re probably not ready for this,’ but I couldn’t do that,” said Conrad, pastor there since 1994.
Conrad has the option of appealing an expulsion, but he’s making plans to affiliate at least temporarily with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which allows its churches to set their own policies regarding LGBTQ inclusion. Conrad says about 30% of his congregation — which now numbers about 125 — left his church over the issue, forcing some budget cutbacks, including a pay cut for Conrad.
“But we have had overwhelmingly positive feedback from the community,” he said. “Letters, emails, Facebook messages, phone calls — people telling their own story of rejection by their church and how grateful they’d be to find a place where they’re welcome.”
The most recent disfellowship of an SBC church occurred a year ago when the executive committee ousted Ranchland Heights Baptist Church of Midland, Texas, because it employed a registered sex offender as pastor. In 2019 the SBC leadership pledged strong action on sex abuse after news reports that hundreds of clergy and staff had been accused of misconduct over the previous 20 years. But critics remain dissatisfied.
Susan Codone, a professor who directs the Center for Teaching & Learning at Mercer University, was at the SBC’s national meeting in 2109 and shared her story of being abused as a teenager by the youth minister and pastor at her Southern Baptist church in Alabama. She now says the SBC’s credentials committee has failed in its response to allegations of abuse by pastors and staff.
“The chair of the committee, Mike Lawson, told me he is often worried about angering pastors with potential decisions,” Codone. “His reversal of victimhood is unacceptable since the committee members are not the victims of this bureaucracy — those filing the reports are the real victims.”
Lawson said many SBC churches were implementing anti-abuse policies, including staff training and victim-support programs,
“We know that in some cases, despite our best intentions or desires, we are unable to uncover all the answers, heal the hurts of those who’ve suffered unspeakable harm, or restore the dignity taken by those in trusted positions,” he said.