The topics on the first official day of the Southern Baptists’ annual meeting Tuesday spanned from the fate of a seminary's trustee board to whether to withdraw an invitation to Vice President Mike Pence.
The meeting is the best reminder that the Southern Baptist Convention is a voluntary affiliation of local churches without a strong top-down hierarchy, with opinions that vary considerably for a denomination considered strictly conservative. The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States.
The convention elected a new president, and it wasn’t close: J.D. Greear, pastor of the Summit Church in North Carolina, beat Ken Hemphill of South Carolina with 68 percent percent of the vote. Greear’s win is seen as a victory for the younger generation of Southern Baptists.
The business took place in Exhibit Hall F of the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center, a sprawling space with the ambiance of an airplane hangar, packed with rows of chairs (padded, an amenity), four broadcast screens and a stage with a piano and bleachers for a choir to sing the national anthem. But the most important feature were the open microphones, scattered throughout the hall and marked by foot-high number signs for official messengers — those sent by their local churches — to come and propose their motions.
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The first messenger to offer a motion wasted no time in wading into divisive territory. Vice President Mike Pence, a Republican, had just announced the day before he’d be speaking at the convention on Wednesday, its last day. Garrett Kell, a pastor from Alexandria, Virginia, made a motion to replace Pence’s speech with a time for quiet reflection and prayer.
“Whether rightly or wrongly, this current administration provokes strong reactions and in some cases great hostility in many regions of the world,” he wrote in his motion. “By publicly aligning our workers with this, or any administration, we are putting our workers at risk of being the recipients of anger against the administration.”
It was voted down by about a 60-40 margin.
The announcement of Pence’s impending speech irritated many attendees. Pence was too divisive for a convention already reeling from sexual abuse issues, people said. For that matter, sexual abuse allegations against President Donald Trump made it such that inviting his second-in-command was the wrong message to send to women.
Some were disgusted with recent news stories showing how the administration took children crossing the border away from their parents, finding the practice un-Christlike. Others thought politics simply didn’t belong at the annual meeting.
With the downfall of Kell’s motion, several more followed to propose that the Southern Baptist Convention withdraw invitations to politicians altogether at its annual meetings, save perhaps host mayors.
Then, inescapably, came reactions to the firing of Paige Patterson, a Southern Baptist giant until he was brought down over allegations he mishandled sexual abuse allegations. He was fired from Fort Worth’s Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in late May by the school’s executive board of trustees.
Three people brought forth resolutions to fire Southwestern’s executive board, a resolution met with echoing ooos but seconded. (Nearly every motion gets a second.)
One of the motions on removing the Southwestern executive committee will be discussed on the floor at 2:45 p.m. Wednesday. Any messenger will be able to grab a mic and voice his or her opinion.
Even as some attendees were seeking retribution for how they feel Patterson was wronged, others were pushing for the church to do better by abuse victims.
Wade Burleson, a popular Southern Baptist blogger and pastor, proposed a motion for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission to study ways to create a predator database, a conversation he’d tried to start in 2007.
“For some reason men think they have authority over everyone else,” he said later outside the convention center, standing in the middle of a group of women holding anti-church abuse signs at the For Such a Time as This Rally in response to abuse in the church. But that isn’t how the New Testament portrays Jesus, he said.
As the rally continued outside, a panel in the convention hall run by Baptist 21, an organization that bills itself as trying to be a leading voice for pastors in the 21st century, dealt with questions facing pastors that came back again to abuse in church. A hot topic: Complementarianism, an ideology many in the Southern Baptist Convention subscribe to that posits there are separate roles for men and women and puts men as the primary leaders.
“If you want to be a sinful abuser, complementarianism is an ideology you could grasp on to and own to justify your sinful behavior,” said Albert Mohler, president of Kentucky’s Southern Theological Seminary. “Let’s just own that.”
But that’s not how complementarianism is supposed to be, he said. And if it’s distorted, call it the same thing you’d call any other distortion of a Biblical doctrine: Heresy.