The Southern Baptist Convention’s (SBC) 2021 annual meeting begins in Nashville today, with a highly charged agenda that will force attendees to grapple with explosive issues like sexual abuse and race alongside the selection of a new president.
Roughly 17,000 Baptists pre-registered for the week, the highest number in decades.
Long-time Southern Baptist leader Dr. Ed Stetzer, notes that historically, the annual meeting is filled with controversy, but he believes this year’s will prove to be a “watershed moment.”
Many Southern Baptists are observing this week’s conflicts as a test that will determine where the denomination lands on some of the day’s most difficult social issues and how willing it is to demonstrate transparency at the highest levels of leadership.
Voting delegates known as messengers are expected to consider proposals for a third-party investigation into the SBC’s executive committee’s handling of sexual abuse accusations and interactions with survivors.
Yesterday, however, the SBC’s Executive Committee already shot down a motion from Pastor Jared Wellman. The motion sought to widen the scope of the investigation into alleged sex abuse within the church.
According to the Houston Chronicle reporter Robert Downen, Joe Knott responded to Wellman’s motion by saying “No one in the Southern Baptist Convention is in anyway in favor of any sort of child abuse or anything like that. It’s hideous to even contemplate that.” He added, however, that hiring a third party organization that’s out for “profit” and to give them “unlimited power to interview anyone in the Southern Baptist Convention is, uh, just a horrific thing.”
They’re also considering the issue of race and whether Critical Race Theory (CRT), which views racism as systemic, should be used to engage the issue.
An emerging conservative faction within the denomination, known as the Conservative Baptist Network, says it opposes racism but rejects CRT as unbiblical.
Stetzer, the executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, says given the denomination’s history, it’s especially critical that it distinctly opposes racism and cares well for racial minorities.
“For a denomination where far too many people were on the wrong side of the hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, Southern Baptists have an important responsibility to get this right, get this biblical and to do so in a way that honors men and women from different backgrounds, cultures and races,” he told CBN News.
The race for the presidency, a two-year term that Pastor J.D. Greear has most recently filled, will in large part indicate the denomination’s direction on these issues.
“This next president will set the tone as far as how we interact in the culture, how we relate to the world, how we drive towards missions and evangelism and church planting,” said Dan Darling, a former executive at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist public policy arm.
Four men, with differing views on race, are vying for the post.
Pastor Mike Stone represents the Conservative Baptist Network. He’s the immediate past chair of the Executive Committee and known for his opposition to CRT. He emphasizes the inerrancy and supremacy of Scripture and the importance of religious liberty.
Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, also opposes CRT. He’s emphasized the importance of the Southern Baptist’s Conservative Resurgence in the 1970s and ’80s and theological issues like the inerrancy of Scripture.
Alabama pastor Ed Litton has focused on racial reconciliation and has the support of Fred Luter, the SBC’s first black president.
Pastor Randy Adams is the fourth named candidate and has focused on reform, pledging to crush corruption in some SBC entities and rebuild trust.
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The last year has proved momentous for Southern Baptists. Prominent leaders like Dr. Russell Moore, the head of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, and Bible study teacher Beth Moore (no relation) have both left the SBC, citing racism as well as the mistreatment of women and abuse survivors by leaders.
The denomination has wrestled with the pandemic and ongoing membership decline.
Still, evangelicals like Darling, senior vice president at NRB, and Stetzer note that there’s plenty of good work happening in local churches that continues.
“Most Southern Baptists are faithful members in their churches. They’re going about their lives trying to live on mission, to reach their neighbors with the Gospel, to help people in their communities,” said Darling.
“I think there’s hope,” said Stetzer. “The North American Mission Board (NAMB) is planting hundreds and hundreds of churches, surprisingly high numbers even in 2020. The majority of church plants in the SBC are actually not predominantly Anglo.”