Southern Baptist gathering suggests changing of guard?

The recent annual meeting of Southern Baptists suggests that a generational shift is taking place in the denomination that may moderate its longtime religious-right stance, writes Jonathan Merritt in The Atlantic (June 16). The election of 45-year-old pastor J.D. Greear from North Carolina as president of the denomination is viewed as a changing of the guard by some observers. In a campaign video, Greear called for “a new culture and a new posture in the Southern Baptist Convention.” According to Keith Harper, a Baptist historian, the recent termination of influential denominational and Christian-right leader Paige Patterson as president of Southwestern Seminary “closed the book on the Patterson-Pressler era” (referring to another embattled SBC leader, Paul Pressler). Greear has promised to lead the denomination down a path that would include efforts both to repent of a “failure to listen to and honor women and racial minorities” and “to include them in proportionate measures in top leadership roles.” Merritt adds that, “If the meeting in Dallas is any indication, his vision is resonating with a large number of the next wave of Baptist leaders.” The Patterson era’s statements on the subordination of women to men was replaced this year when the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the denomination’s public-policy arm, hosted a packed #MeToo panel discussion. Several leaders publicly suggested that women must be included in top levels of leadership.

“Multiple prominent leaders even insinuated that it may be time to elect a woman as SBC president, a notion that would have been considered unthinkable, if not heretical, even a decade ago,” Merritt writes. The SBC pastor’s conference, which takes place on the first days of the gathering, was led by a black pastor, and six out of 12 speakers were people of color. Three anonymous sources within the denomination also told Merritt that it is seriously considering a black candidate to become the CEO of the Executive Committee, which oversees the denomination’s day-to-day operations at its headquarters in Nashville. “By elevating women and distancing themselves from partisan engagement, the members of the SBC appear to be signaling their determination to head in a different direction, out of a mix of pragmatism and principle,” Merritt concludes. Even though the SBC’s inviting Vice President Mike Pence to address the gathering might be considered more in the mold of the Christian right, the Nashville Tennessean newspaper (June 13) reports that there were wide misgivings about mixing politics and faith. At about the time the speech ended, Greear tweeted that the denomination had sent a “terribly mixed signal…make no mistake about it, our identity is in the gospel and our unity is in the great commission. Commissioned missionaries, not political platforms, are what we do.” Those reactions were in keeping with earlier efforts by some to prevent Pence from addressing the convention and to stop public officials from speaking at future meetings.