The Southern Baptist Convention voted at its annual meeting on Tuesday to condemn abuse in strong terms and to affirm women’s roles in the church.
Over the past two months, this 15-million-member conservative evangelical movement has been rocked by scandal, including the firing of a revered leader in the denomination who was supposed to deliver a key sermon at this very meeting. Instead, the denomination is meeting without ousted seminary president Paige Patterson in attendance — and with a new focus on the treatment of women, the issue shaking up institutions from Hollywood to Congress.
The voting delegates, who number more than 9,000, will debate a sure-to-be-contentious motion Wednesday: a delegate’s call for the dismissal of the entire board of trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, the body that fired Patterson after an accusation that he did not report an alleged rape.
Other delegates proposed similar motions, including one that called for the resignation of the trustees and another that asked them to reconsider their decision to fire Patterson.
Before the Patterson scandal erupted this spring, gender was barely on the agenda. Now, it occupied the first two resolutions.
Both passed late Tuesday.
• One emphasized “the dignity and worth of women,” highlighting Southern Baptist women’s roles — but saying women should serve churches in “biblically appropriate ways,” which Southern Baptists take to mean women cannot be ordained as senior pastors.
• The other called for Southern Baptists to condemn “all forms of abuse” and to contact civil authorities in such cases, and for the abused to “separate themselves” from abusers (though it was silent on the question of abuse as grounds for divorce, which divides some Southern Baptists). Patterson’s scandal erupted after an 18-year-old video surfaced showing him calling for an abused woman to return to her husband. He refused this spring to apologize for the sermon.
Other resolutions passed Tuesday acknowledged the theological justifications that Southern Baptists have used in the past to allow racism, saying “residue” of such teachings remain in their churches. Another called for immigration reform that does not necessarily welcome amnesty but honors both secure borders and a “pathway to legal status,” and it focuses on the importance of family units.
Another resolution preached that pastors should not have extramarital affairs, following the resignation on grounds of sexual immorality of several Baptist pastors — including the then-head of the denomination’s executive committee, Frank Page, and earlier, one of Billy Graham’s grandsons. The denomination has also recently seen prominent Tennessee pastor Andy Savage resign after admitting to a years-ago sexual encounter with a teenager, and longtime Baptist leader Paul Pressler accused of sexual abuse.
The denomination made a surprise announcement Monday that Vice President Pence will speak at the gathering Wednesday. Steve Gaines, the outgoing Southern Baptist Convention president, said in a statement that Pence’s speech would “express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”
Pence, an evangelical Christian, is popular among Southern Baptists, who tend to be Republican and have been among the strongest supporters of the Trump administration. But his invitation to speak has been denounced by numerous delegates to this meeting, including five who made motions on the floor proposing that elected officials should not be invited to Southern Baptist meetings at all and that Pence’s speech should be replaced by a time of prayer or a sermon. The motions to disinvite Pence were turned down, and the others were postponed until next year.
It is hard to predict which ideas will gain traction at the meeting, and which will prove unexpectedly contentious. At last year’s meeting, debate over a resolution to condemn the white supremacist alt-right— just as the convention condemned Planned Parenthood and gambling at that same meeting — proved surprisingly acrimonious before the resolution ultimately passed.
Dwight McKissic, the pastor behind that alt-right resolution, was behind the new resolution on race. Their resolution deals with the denomination’s history as a slavery-supporting entity, which Baptists formally apologized for in 1995.