Without Annual Meeting and Amid Decline, Southern Baptists Continue to Debate Race and Women’s Roles

Messengers hold up SBC abuse handbooks while taking a challenge to stop sexual abuse during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex, June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Alabama. RNS photo by Butch Dill

The Southern Baptist Convention will not hold its annual meeting as it regularly does each June. But issues its members have long grappled with — including race and the roles of women — continue to be points of controversy in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

In December, Founders Ministries, a neo-Calvinist evangelical group made up primarily of Southern Baptists, premiered a documentary called “By What Standard?: God’s Word, God’s Rule.”

The film includes selective footage of discussions around last year’s meeting about whether women should preach, juxtaposed with Founders Ministries head Tom Ascol speaking of motherhood as “the highest calling.” Much of the almost two-hour film that has had some 60,000 views online chronicles the passage of resolutions at the 2019 meeting, from one on “the evil of sexual abuse” to another on “critical race theory and intersectionality.”

Two months after the film’s release, the Conservative Baptist Network was founded, calling itself an alternative for dissatisfied Southern Baptists who might otherwise leave the denomination or stay and remain silent.

“A significant number of Southern Baptists are concerned about the apparent emphasis on social justice, Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, and the redefining of biblical gender roles,” the network declared in its first news release.

The new network was launched at a time when the SBC continues to face decline. The SBC peaked in 2006 with 16,306,246 members. New statistical data released Thursday (June 4) shows 14,525,579 members in 2019, a decline of nearly 1.8 million members in 13 years. Membership is at its lowest level since 1985.

Some of the recent debate in the denomination has focused on the role of women in the church, including whether or not women can preach in Sunday morning worship services.

Much of the debate has focused on how the denomination speaks about race.

Before the recent events triggered by the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis under the knee of a police officer, Southern Baptists had been debating the meaning of critical race theory in particular.

Ascol said his primary regret about the cancellation of this year’s meeting — which had been scheduled for June 9-10 in Orlando, Florida, but was scrapped because of the coronavirus pandemic — is that he can’t walk to a microphone on the convention floor and ask for a reconsideration of what has come to be known as “Resolution 9.”

Thomas Ascol of Founders Ministries. Video screengrab

The resolution, passed at the SBC’s annual meeting in 2019, states that “critical race theory and intersectionality should only be employed as analytical tools subordinate to Scripture — not as transcendent ideological frameworks.” It also notes that “while we denounce the misuse of critical race theory and intersectionality, we do not deny that ethnic, gender, and cultural distinctions exist and are a gift from God.”

Still, the resolution remains controversial.

“The Southern Baptist Convention needs to go on record saying that we rescind that resolution because we are opposed to racism and, because we are opposed to identity politics, we need to rescind Resolution 9,” Ascol said. “And I was looking forward to that opportunity.”

According to Southern Baptist polity, each meeting’s resolutions represent the thinking of the messengers, or delegates, attending that particular gathering. A new resolution could be adopted. But historically, old ones aren’t removed.

“That resolution that was passed will always be in the record books,” said Jon Wilke, media relations director for the SBC Executive Committee.

Glenn Bracey, an assistant professor in Villanova University’s Department of Sociology and Criminology, said critical race theory centers on a critique of conversations about race.

It calls for a  focus on structural racism in institutions and “white collective activities around maintaining domination.” He said intersectionality focuses on ways social structures or laws leave some people without protection or subject to additional exploitation because their identities, such as being both black and female, intersect.

Pastor Stephen Feinstein, the California pastor and U.S. Army Reserve chaplain who originally proposed the contested resolution, said he hopes it “could be used to hold accountable anyone who actually does push CRT in SBC institutions.”

Feinstein said he believes critical race theory is “a true threat to biblical Christianity.” He said reactions to his original version and the final adopted one have fascinated him.

“Those who hoped to use my original proposal as proof that the SBC has been taken over by Marxists quickly turned against me as if I was a sell-out,” he said. “Yet, those who are committed to social justice (as defined by progressivism) also vilified me. Honesty makes enemies on both sides.”

Bracey is an investigator with the Race, Religion, and Justice Project, which is studying Christianity and race in contemporary America.

The project’s researchers found in 2019 that 38% of white practicing Christians surveyed say the country “definitely” has a race problem, compared with 78% of black practicing Christians and 51% of the general population. Thirty-five percent of evangelicals — not broken down by race — gave the same response.

Bracey said the reaction to the resolution, including the stances of the two subgroups of Southern Baptists, reflects a white-male-dominated denomination with a “long and troubled” racial history, one that dates to a defense of slavery.

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Source: Religion News Service