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In narrow ruling, unanimous Supreme Court supports Catholic Social Services in Philadelphia foster care case

The United States Supreme Court unanimously sided with Catholic Social Services in its claim against the City of Philadelphia, saying the city cannot exclude the faith-based agency from a foster care contract merely because it does not serve LGBTQ clients.

The case, Fulton v. City of Philadelphia, stopped short of revisiting another key court ruling that some advocates had hoped the court would overturn. That 1990 case, Employment Division v. Smith, found that the First Amendment is not violated when neutral, generally applicable laws conflict with religious practices. This less demanding standard previously had applied only in specific contexts such as prisons and the military.

In separate concurring opinions on the Philadelphia case, justices addressed the decision not to revisit Employment Division. Justice Amy Coney Barrett, joined by justices Brett Kavanaugh and Stephen Breyer, wrote questioning what would replace Employment Division. Justice Samuel Alito, joined by justices Clarence Thomas and Neil Gorsuch, lamented the court’s unwillingness to revisit Employment Division in this instance.

Nevertheless, the court’s majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts takes a narrow approach to the Philadelphia case.

The case

The essence of the case is that the City of Philadelphia adopted a non-discrimination policy that prohibits working with contracted partners that discriminate on the basis of religion, sexual orientation and other protected categories.

Because Catholic Social Services — a longtime provider of child care services in the region — would not meet the nondiscrimination requirements of the city, its contract to provide certain foster care services was allowed to expire, even though the city still worked with Catholic Social Services on other issues.

The faith-based agency sued, claiming discrimination by the city. That case wound its way through several lower courts, eventually landing at the Supreme Court for oral arguments the day after the 2020 presidential election, with new justice Barrett freshly installed on the court and tipping the scales to a decidedly conservative majority.

That majority didn’t matter in this case, however, as all nine justices came to the same conclusion but in somewhat different ways.

The narrow, unanimous ruling

In the majority opinion written by Chief Justice Roberts, the court affirmed that “the contractual non-discrimination requirement imposes a burden on CSS’s religious exercise and does not qualify as generally applicable.”

“So long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so.”

Roberts explained: “So long as the government can achieve its interests in a manner that does not burden religion, it must do so.” And in this case, allowing Catholic Social Services to continue its role as one of several providers of foster care services can be achieved without burdening the agency over its religious beliefs.

“Maximizing the number of foster families and minimizing liability are important goals, but the city fails to show that granting CSS an exception will put those goals at risk. If anything, including CSS in the program seems likely to increase, not reduce, the number of available foster parents,” Roberts wrote. “The city offers no compelling reason why it has a particular interest in denying an exception to CSS while making them available to others.”

Further, Roberts wrote: “CSS seeks only an accommodation that will allow it to continue serving the children of Philadelphia in a manner consistent with its religious beliefs; it does not seek to impose those beliefs on anyone else. The refusal of Philadelphia to contract with CSS for the provision of foster care services unless it agrees to certify same-sex couples as foster parents cannot survive strict scrutiny and violates the First Amendment.”

While the ruling does not sanction discrimination against LGBTQ persons, it does signal that faith-based organizations may be allowed to discriminate if other organizations providing the same services do not discriminate. A key component of the Philadelphia case is that Catholic Social Services is one of several organizations that contract with the city to provide the same services. Others within that group gladly work with LGBTQ parents.

While the ruling does not sanction discrimination against LGBTQ persons, it does signal that faith-based organizations may be allowed to discriminate if other organizations providing the same services do not discriminate.

Applauding the decision

“Today’s decision recognizes that diverse foster agencies will help diverse families thrive,” said a news release from Beckett Law, the firm representing plaintiffs Sharonell Fulton and Toni Simms-Busch, two foster mothers working with Catholic Social Services.

“I am overjoyed that the Supreme Court recognized the important work of Catholic Social Services and has allowed me to continue fostering children most in need of a loving home,” Fulton said in the release. “My faith is what drives me to care for foster children here in Philadelphia and I thank God the Supreme Court believes that’s a good thing, worthy of protection.”

“Our foster-care ministry in Philadelphia is vital to solving the foster care crisis and Catholic Social Services is a cornerstone of that ministry,” said Simms-Busch. “The Supreme Court’s decision ensures the most vulnerable children in the City of Brotherly Love have every opportunity to find loving homes.”

A surprising outcome with little application

Amanda Tyler, executive director of Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, pointed to the narrow scope of the court’s ruling.

Amanda Tyler

“Chief Justice Roberts produced a unanimous result in favor of Catholic Social Services that focuses on a particular aspect of this government contract,” she said. “The majority found that the city of Philadelphia’s nondiscrimination policy was not ‘generally applicable,’ pointing to a contractual provision that allows the prospect of a government official granting exceptions. This approach was somewhat surprising because there was no evidence that the city had ever granted an exception or that Catholic Social Services had asked for one.

“The Court’s decision does not require religious exemptions in all future cases involving government contracts and nondiscrimination policies. That is a good thing because nondiscrimination provisions often protect religious liberty in government services. It is disappointing that the court rejected the city’s compelling interest in the equal treatment of prospective foster parents and foster children, particularly in the context of government contracts voluntarily entered into by religious contractors.”

BJC had filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the city in this case, arguing that when faith-based groups voluntarily administer a government-funded program, those groups must work within the government’s own guidelines.

Celebrating a narrow ruling

Those who advocate for full inclusion of the LGBTQ community, meanwhile, celebrated the narrowness of the court’s ruling.

“Today, the Supreme Court decided that Philadelphia had to allow Catholic Social Services to exclude LGBTQ families from its publicly funded foster care program. But the narrow decision, which turned on the specific facts of the case, means that religious extremists did not get the sweeping free pass they were seeking to discriminate wherever and however they want,” said Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

“The narrow decision, which turned on the specific facts of the case, means that religious extremists did not get the sweeping free pass they were seeking.”

“Nine justices could agree on this decision because it was so narrow. The court concluded that because Philadelphia allowed individualized exemptions from its non-discrimination requirements in its foster care program, it had to exempt Catholic Social Services. Significantly, the court declined to rewrite the First Amendment to grant a broad license to discriminate in the name of religion. The court also acknowledged the importance of non-discrimination laws and specifically respected the dignity of LGBTQ people.”

A similar message came from the Human Rights Campaign, where President Alphonso David said: “Though today’s decision is not a complete victory, it does not negate the fact that every qualified family is valid and worthy — children deserve a loving, caring, committed home. We celebrate the LGBTQ families who are dedicated to providing homes to the thousands of children in the child welfare system.”

This story will be updated as new information becomes available.

 

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SBC calls for ‘immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise’

One resolution against abortion wasn’t enough for this year’s Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting.

After messengers (voting members) to the SBC gathering in Nashville on June 15 adopted a strongly worded resolution opposing abortion and calling for continuation of the Hyde Amendment that has prohibited federal funding for abortions, they eagerly adopted a second — and stronger — resolution the next day calling for the “immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise.”

That second resolution is the most strident language ever used in an SBC resolution against abortion and is so strongly worded that the SBC’s own Committee on Resolutions had declined to bring it forward.

That second resolution is the most strident language ever used in an SBC resolution against abortion.

The fight to consider the resolution

According to SBC practice, messengers are allowed to submit proposed resolutions in advance of the annual meeting. Those resolutions are then reviewed by the Committee on Resolutions, which often combines similar ideas into single resolutions or declines to advance all the suggestions. Within the SBC, resolutions are non-binding but generate lots of news as the sentiment of the gathered body that year.

This year, a small group of pastors organized a campaign for a resolution on “abolishing” abortion in America. Hundreds of members from a small number of churches reportedly bombarded the Resolutions Committee with suggestions for the same language.

Nevertheless, the strongly pro-life Resolutions Committee declined to advance that language for reasons that were not publicly explained.

However, one messenger, William Ascol of Oklahoma, made a motion to require the Resolutions Committee to report out the resolution on abolition of abortion. That motion passed, and the committee was forced to present the resolution as submitted.

Nine co-authors

The resolution in question listed nine co-authors: William Ascol, Bethel Baptist Church, Owasso, Okla.; Brett Baggett, Ekklesia, Muskogee, Okla; David Van Bebber, First Baptist Church, Buffalo, Mo.; Blake Gideon, First Baptist Church, Edmond, Okla.; Darrick Holloman, High Point Baptist Church, Mayfield, Ky.; Dave Hughey, Geyer Springs Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ark.; Jon Speed, First Baptist Church, Briar, Texas; Derin Stidd, Harmony Baptist Church, Frankfort, Ind.; and Russell Threet, First Baptist Church, Mena, Ark.

Ascol was the front man for the resolution, speaking most frequently and answering messenger questions about it. His brother, Tom Ascol, who is leader of a group of SBC Calvinists called Founders Ministries, had written about the proposed resolution earlier. In a post on the Founders Ministries website, he explained that the resolution was to have been submitted at the 2020 annual meeting, but that event got cancelled due to COVID.

“It is time for Southern Baptists to repent of their complicity in searing the conscience of a nation that has yet to cease the slaughter of unborn innocents,” Tom Ascol said in the post.

History of resolutions on abortion

The SBC in annual session has passed more than 27 resolutions about abortion since 1971, the most recent being at the 2019 annual meeting commending state legislatures for “pro-life legislation.”

The SBC in annual session has passed more than 27 resolutions about abortion since 1971,

The nature of those resolutions has shifted dramatically through the years. The first one, in 1971 — two years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling — called Southern Baptists to “work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.”

More recently, and especially since the so-called “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s, all SBC resolutions on abortion have opposed the procedure but typically with nuanced language.

Strong language

There is nothing nuanced about this year’s second resolution. And nor should there be, Bill Ascol told messengers.

“Scripture tells us to rescue those who are being taken away to death,” he said in asking messengers to vote for the resolution. “The Lord is weighing our hearts today.”

He introduced a woman standing beside him at the microphone as a “post-abortive mother” who “lives with the trauma and the scar that she murdered her own children” but has since sought God’s forgiveness.

He introduced a woman standing beside him at the microphone as a “post-abortive mother” who “lives with the trauma and the scar that she murdered her own children” but has since sought God’s forgiveness.

“Can we not rise and stop the holocaust?” he pleaded.

The text of the resolution acknowledges the many previous SBC resolutions on abortion but adds: “we have yet to call for the immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise.”

The resolution also states: “We affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law” and that “we humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion.”

An attempt to amend the resolution and slightly soften its language was adopted, but an attempt to kill the resolution by tabling it indefinitely failed.

The argument against the resolution

Messengers spoke both for and against the resolution.

Brett Baggett, one of the resolution’s authors, joined Ascol in defending the strong language. “Child sacrifice, which in our day is called abortion, must not be regulated,” he said. “Abortion must be eliminated immediately without compromise.”

“Abortion must be eliminated immediately without compromise.”

Sarah Hester, who described herself as a victim advocate for sexual abuse survivors in Marion, N.C., asserted it is “our job to protect victims of sexual abuse and (ensure) that they would not be victimized again by the atrocity of abortion.”

Women who face crisis pregnancies should not have to make decisions about whether abortion is appropriate in their circumstances, she added.

Those who opposed the resolution did so with repeated caveats that they, too, vehemently oppose abortion but found the language of the resolution objectionable.

Alan Branch of Liberty, Mo., said he opposed the resolution “because it advocates a particular political strategy” that would be discouraging to “godly politicians” who are trying to gain even a little ground against abortion.

“This is a poorly worded resolution,” he added. “I thought about trying to amend it, but as a seminary professor it would take me too many hours to straighten it out here on the floor.”

David Norman of San Antonio, Texas, opposed the resolution because he said it “requires that we walk back from every pro-life resolution we’ve passed.”

Ascol refuted that claim. “This resolution doesn’t walk anything back. It walks us forward toward the immediate abolition of abortion without exception and without compromise.”

The most impassioned argument against the resolution was given by a staff member of the SBC’s own Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which has been a staunch anti-abortion advocate.

“This resolution, while it is aimed in absolutely the right direction, is the wrong resolution.”

“This resolution, while it is aimed in absolutely the right direction, is the wrong resolution,” said Josh Wester, director of research for the ERLC. He noted the SBC is on record as being “resolutely against abortion” as a “heinous evil, a grievous sin.”

He objected to the absolutist language of the resolution that could discourage politicians and policymakers from doing what they can to reduce or eliminate abortions even if they are powerless to outlaw it entirely.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission was scheduled to give its annual report to the convention soon after the body had dealt with the abortion resolution. Interim Executive Director Daniel Patterson used his entire report to talk about abortion and how the ERLC is working against it, specifically by donating 50 units of imaging equipment to be used in clinics across the county in the fight to reduce abortions.

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Text of Resolution on Abolishing Abortion
As adopted by the SBC annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., June 16, 2021

WHEREAS, from the moment of fertilization, all humans are created in God’s image by, through, and for Jesus to the glory of God, and all souls belong to Him (Genesis 1:27; 4:1; 21:2; Isaiah 7:14; Colossians 1:16; Romans 11:36; Ezekiel 18:4), and

WHEREAS, as God’s image-bearers, all humans both display His divine worth, power, and attributes, and possess equal, objective worth before God, not varying based on incidental characteristics; such as ethnicity, age, size, means of conception, mental development, physical development, gender, potential, or contribution to society (Rom 1:19-20; Gen 1:27; 9:6; Matthew 18:6), and

WHEREAS, to murder any preborn image-bearer is a sin, violating both the natural law of retributive justice as set forth in the Noahic covenant, as well as the sixth commandment forbidding murder, and as such, is ultimately an assault on God’s image, seeking to usurp God’s sovereignty as Creator (Gen 9:5-6; Exodus 20:13; Proverbs 6:17), and

WHEREAS, God’s Word declares that all human life is a sacred gift and that His Law is supreme over man’s life and man’s law (Psalm 127:3-5; 139:13-16; Rom 2:15-16; Acts 10:42; 17:31; 1 Corinthians 4:5), and

WHEREAS, God commands His people to “rescue those who are being taken away to death” and holds them responsible and without excuse when they fail to do so (Prov 24:11-12), and

WHEREAS, God establishes all governing authorities as His avenging servants to carry out His wrath on the evildoer, and commands these authorities to judge justly, neither showing partiality to the wicked, nor using unequal standards, which are abominations (Psa 82; Prov 20:10; Rom 13:4), and

WHEREAS, in 1973, the Supreme Court of the United States rendered an iniquitous decision on Roe v. Wade, and in doing so deprived the innocent of their rights, and usurped God, who sovereignly ordained their authority (Isa 5:23; 10:1-2; Psa 2; Matt 22:21; John 19:11; Acts 4:19; 5:29, Rom 13:1), and

WHEREAS, in the Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court of the United States subverted the U.S. Constitution namely, the Preamble, as well as the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments without any legal authority (Article 6, Clause 2 “Supremacy Clause”), and

WHEREAS, governing authorities at every level have a duty before God to uphold justice asserting their God-ordained and constitutional authority to establish equal protection under the law for all, born and preborn, by intervening, ignoring, or nullifying iniquitous decisions when other authorities, such as the Supreme Court, condone such injustices as the legal taking of innocent life (Daniel 3; 1 Kings 12; 2 Kings 11; Jeremiah 26:10-16; 36:9-31; 37:11- 21; 39:7-10), and

WHEREAS, over the past 48 years with 60+ million abortions, traditional Pro-life laws, though well intended, have not established equal protection and justice for the preborn, but on the contrary, appallingly have established incremental, regulatory guidelines for when, where, why, and how to obtain legal abortion of innocent preborn children, thereby legally sanctioning abortion, and

WHEREAS, since 1980, the SBC has passed many resolutions reaffirming the importance of human life at all stages of development, but we have yet to call for the immediate abolition of abortion without exception or compromise, and

WHEREAS, our confessional statement, The Baptist Faith and Message, according to Article XV, affirms that children “from the moment of conception, are a blessing and heritage from the Lord”; and further affirms that Southern Baptists are mandated by Scripture to “speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death,” now, be it therefore

RESOLVED, that the messengers of the SBC meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, June 15-16, 2021, do state unequivocally that abortion is murder, and we reject any position that allows for any exceptions to the legal protection of our preborn neighbors, compromises God’s holy standard of justice, or promotes any God-hating partiality (Psa 94:6; Isa 10:1-2; Prov 24:11; Psa 82:1-4), and be it further

RESOLVED, that we will not embrace an incremental approach alone to ending abortion because it challenges God’s Lordship over the heart and the conscience, and rejects His call to repent of sin completely and immediately (Gen 3:1; John 8:44; Rom 2:14-15; 2 Corinthians 11:3), and be it further

RESOLVED, that we affirm that the murder of preborn children is a crime against humanity that must be punished equally under the law, and be it further

RESOLVED, that we humbly confess and lament any complicity in recognizing exceptions that legitimize or regulate abortion, and of any apathy, in not laboring with the power and influence we have to abolish abortion, and be it further

RESOLVED, that as Southern Baptists we will engage, with God’s help, in establishing equal justice and protection for the preborn according to the authority of God’s Word as well as local and federal law, and call upon pastors and leaders to use their God-given gifts of preaching, teaching, and leading with one unified, principled, prophetic voice to abolish abortion, and be it finally

RESOLVED, that, because abolishing abortion is a Great Commission issue, we must call upon governing authorities at all levels to repent and “obey everything that [Christ] has commanded,” exhorting them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance by faithfully executing their responsibilities as God’s servants of justice, and working with all urgency to enact legislation using the full weight of their office to interpose on behalf of the preborn, abolishing abortion immediately, without exception or compromise (Mark 6:18; Matt 28:18-20; Rom 13:4, 6).




SBC messengers rebuke Executive Committee’s attempt to control investigation of its response to sexual abuse crisis

In a rare and sharp rebuke of its top staff leader, the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday, June 16, said the SBC Executive Committee cannot investigate itself as its president, Ronnie Floyd, had attempted to do.

Floyd, who has been embattled since leaked letters from another denominational official surfaced portraying him as blocking attempts to address reports of sexual abuse in the denomination, stood as the representative figure of the Executive Committee, an 86-member board that handles the inner workings of the denomination.

The past chairman of the Executive Committee, Georgia pastor Mike Stone, also was singled out for critique in the letters leaked from Russell Moore, who recently resigned as head of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. As committee chair, Stone had led a controversial investigation of Moore and the ERLC. Messengers this year also rejected Stone as a candidate for SBC president, despite an orchestrated campaign on his behalf by the Conservative Baptist Network.

Ronnie Floyd (Baptist Press)

The question of how the SBC has or has not responded to serious allegations of sexual abuse by pastors and other leaders in SBC churches and institutions loomed large over this year’s annual meeting in Nashville. The meeting drew 21,474 registered attendees, including 15,726 “messengers,” as voting members are called. That was the largest crowd to attend an SBC annual meeting in 25 years, and the increased interest was driven by concerns about sexual abuse, about overreach by the Executive Committee and about the denomination’s future direction.

Stone and his allies in the Conservative Baptist Network portrayed the denomination as sliding once again into liberalism and in need of a second “conservative resurgence.” They also have been supportive of attempts to consolidate power within the Executive Committee.

Mike Stone (Baptist Press)

Messengers to this year’s meeting turned back every effort to consolidate more power in the Executive Committee — including passing a resolution that said the Executive Committee is not the “sole member” of the corporations of the various SBC agencies and institutions and therefore cannot overrule actions by trustees of those entities. That “sole member” right is reserved for the convention in annual session alone.

Messengers also rejected a new business and financial plan proposed by Floyd and the Executive Committee — a plan so unpopular that it was publicly opposed by the presidents of the six SBC seminaries.

Who manages the investigation?

All that pales in comparison, however, to the battle over who gets to investigate the Executive Committee over the allegations surfaced by Russell Moore and others.

Knowing an attempt would be made at the convention to call for an investigation, Floyd and the Executive Committee leadership took the unusual step Friday, June 11, of announcing they had hired an outside firm to investigate themselves and that the firm would report its finding back to them, not to the convention.

That news did not settle well with rank-and-file Southern Baptists represented at the convention.

Grant Gaines speaking for his motion to wrest control of a sexual abuse investigation from the SBC Executive Committee. (Baptist Press)

Grant Gaines, senior pastor of Belle Air Baptist Church in Murfreesboro, Tenn., attempted to force a workaround to this problem by making a motion on Tuesday, June 15, that would require the newly elected SBC president to appoint a task force to manage the outside audit of the Executive Committee and report back to the convention, not to the Executive Committee. The task force mandate would be to examine “any allegations of abuse, mishandling of abuse, mistreatment of victims, a pattern of intimidation of victims or advocates, and resistance to sexual abuse reform initiatives.”

The next day, the SBC Committee on Order of Business, which processes all motions made from the floor, attempted to refer the Gaines motion back to the Executive Committee and not let messengers vote on it.

While that move might appear curious to outsiders, it follows a longstanding pattern of the Committee on Order of Business, which routinely refers to various SBC agencies and institutions motions made about their internal workings. The idea is that the convention-elected boards of trustees are capable of managing such oversight on their own.

In this case, however, the accusations are that the Executive Committee has failed to manage its own affairs properly and needs to be reviewed from outside the organization. Thus when the Committee on Order of Business said it would refer the call for an investigation to the very body needing to be investigated, messengers to the convention revolted.

The effort to refer the motion rather than vote on it

Adam Greenway (Baptist Press)

When on Wednesday morning, June 16, the chairman of the Committee on Order of Business, Adam Greenway, listed the Gaines motion among a number of motions being referred to various entities, Gaines went to a microphone and declared to messengers his dismay over this ruling.

“Brothers and sisters, serious allegations have been made against our Executive Committee on matters related to sexual abuse,” he said.  “And these allegations are not just coming from a former entity president. Even more significantly than that, these allegations are coming from several church sexual abuse survivors who experienced abuse within our Southern Baptist churches and who have alleged that they brought their cases to the Executive Committee, and the Credentials Committee, only to feel that they were brushed off, disregarded and turned away.

“These are not the kind of allegations we can sweep under the rug,” he continued. “These are horrific allegations that we must get to the bottom of and that we must investigate in a thorough and in an unbiased manner.”

The Executive Committee investigating itself is not good enough, Gaines said. “In order for this investigation to be truly external, independent, and unbiased, then we can’t have the Executive Committee setting the terms of the investigation themselves. They can’t be the ones to hold themselves accountable for cooperating with the firm of this investigation and they can’t report the findings themselves. It is very simple. Since they are the ones being investigated, they can’t be the ones in control of the investigation.”

“It is very simple. Since they are the ones being investigated, they can’t be the ones in control of the investigation.”

Gaines — apparently believing he had no further recourse — publicly appealed to Rolland Slade, current chairman of the Executive Committee, “to prioritize this, to not even wait until your next meeting of the Executive Committee in September, to call a special called meeting as soon as you possibly can, preferably before you leave Nashville.”

A short time later, an unidentified messenger went to a microphone and asked if it would be possible for the convention in session to overrule the referral of the Committee on Order of Business regarding the Gaines motion. The chair said yes, if a two-thirds majority of messengers voted to do so.

The motion was made, and SBC President J.D. Greear, who was presiding, rapidly took a show-of-ballots vote on the motion to overrule the committee’s referral. A visual scan of the room showed well more than the two-thirds majority needed.

Greenway then announced that consideration of the Gaines motion would be scheduled for that afternoon.

Debate time arrives

When Wednesday afternoon’s debate time arrived, Floyd was given a chance to respond to the motion. He spoke only five sentences: “I want all of you to know, I hear you. The Executive Committee respects the messengers. We need this deliberative process. We know that this will make our convention stronger. And that is what I want.”

He neither opposed nor endorsed the Gaines motion.

Other messengers rose to speak for and against the motion, including Troy Bush of Tucker Ga., who serves a church that has been scarred by allegations of abuse by a former staff member — a situation he said the Executive Committee knew about and chose to ignore.

“I demand to know the whole truth regardless of what idols must tumble to dust.”

“Because the Executive Committee did not follow through and do what we would consider the minimum level of inquiry … we believe the Executive Committee does not have the ability to handle this task force and investigation alone,” he said.

Brent Epling of Charleston, W.Va., made a fiery speech endorsing the motion: “How can we expect any vision of ours to be successful if we will not deal with our own sins? … I demand to know the whole truth regardless of what idols must crumble to dust.”

After a period of debate, messengers overwhelmingly approved the Gaines motion, which will wrest control of the already announced investigation from the Executive Committee and put it in the hands of a task force to be named by new SBC President Ed Litton.

Fate of other motions

While the attempt to refer the Gaines motion notably got overruled by messengers, the recommendation of the Committee on Order of Business to refer many other motions was sustained.

These included motions to conduct an assessment of the extent of sexual abuse cases across the SBC (referred to the ERLC), to study ways to “abolish abortion” (ERLC), to study the use of puberty blockers as medical treatment for transgender children (ERLC), to expand and coordinate ministry to the deaf (International Mission Board and North American Mission Board), to make Nashville the permanent site of the annual meeting (Executive Committee), to study the spiritual and theological essence of the Enneagram (NAMB), and to rename the SBC the Great Commission Baptist Convention (Executive Committee).

 

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Outgoing SBC president affirms conservative values while decrying legalism

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Mike Stone and Ronnie Floyd should step down | Opinion by Maina Mwaura and David Phillips

Leaked letters and charges of covering up sexual abuse set the stage for a potential investigation of the investigators inside SBC




SBC steers a decidedly conservative course but rejects the most far-right agenda while putting Executive Committee and Ronnie Floyd on notice

While affirming bread-and-butter conservative issues on the first day of its annual meeting June 15, the Southern Baptist Convention turned back attempts at harder-line positions desired by the most conservative bloc of the body.

That included a narrow rejection of a presidential candidate backed by the Conservative Baptist Network, a group that had called for a second “conservative resurgence” in the SBC to root out perceived liberalism.

Messengers to the SBC annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., also rejected a new business and financial plan proposed by the SBC Executive Committee, which has been accused of consolidating too much power and mishandling controversial issues. And they further slapped the Executive Committee by passing a resolution interpreting that only the convention in session — and not the Executive Committee — is the legal “sole member” of the various agencies and institutions of the convention.

More than 15,000 messengers — as voting members at the SBC are called — registered on the first day of this year’s convention, making it the largest annual gathering in 25 years. It also lived up to expectations as being one of the most controversial of the past two decades.

Presidential race

In a four-way race for the convention’s presidency — a one-year term that can be renewed if elected to a traditional second year — messengers chose a candidate billed as a uniter and healer.

While Litton was presented as a unity candidate, Stone ran as a purity candidate.

Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Ala., was chosen over Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga.; Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and Randy Adams, executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention.

Litton was nominated by Fred Luter, pastor of Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans and the first and only Black person to serve as SBC president.

Saying the SBC has “reached a tipping point” with declining membership numbers and baptism numbers, as well as declining trust in each other, Luter said Litton is a “uniter” who has “uniquely shown his commitment to racial reconciliation.” Litton also “brings a compassionate and shepherding heart,” he added.

In the first round of voting, Litton and Stone rose to the top and were sent into a runoff. In the initial ballot, Adams received 4.71% of the vote, Mohler received 26.32% of the vote, Litton received 32.38% of the vote, and Stone received 36.48%. SBC bylaws require a candidate to receive more than 50% of the vote to be elected.

Mike Stone (Baptist Press)

On the second ballot, Stone received 47.81% of the vote and Litton 52.04%. However, the actual gap between the two was 556 ballots.

While Litton was presented as a unity candidate, Stone ran as a purity candidate. He was billed by the Conservative Baptist Network as someone who would hold the line against any and all forms of liberalism or accommodation to culture.

Stone was nominated by Dean Haun, pastor of First Baptist Church in Morristown, Tenn. Haun compared Stone to the biblical character David standing up to the giant Goliath.

“We need a champion who will go into battle believing in the authority and sufficiency of Scripture,” he said, adding that Stone has a “stainless steel backbone.”

Prior to the convention, Stone had come under fire for his recent role as chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, where he was accused of blocking attempts to respond to the problem of sexual abuse in the denomination. Stone was particularly singled out by Russell Moore, who recently resigned as head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, as one of his chief tormentors. Stone led a highly controversial Executive Committee investigation of Moore and the ERLC.

Rebuke of Ronnie Floyd

Stone’s defeat as a presidential candidate paralleled several hard blows against the Executive Committee and its top staff leader, Ronnie Floyd — himself a recent two-time SBC president.

Messengers’ overwhelming rejection of the proposed business and financial plan was a serious blow to Floyd, who has served as president of the SBC Executive Committee only two years.

And although messengers did approve a Vision 2025 plan crafted by Floyd and the Executive Committee, they first amended it to include a new objective not in the Executive Committee’s draft: “That we prayerfully endeavor to eliminate all incidents of sex abuse and racial discrimination among our churches.”

That amendment was proposed by messenger Benjamin Cole of Plano, Texas, who has been a frequent and vocal critic of Floyd’s leadership. Cole is a Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who now works as a crisis communications consultant. He also blogs anonymously as “The Baptist Blogger.”

Ronnie Floyd (Baptist Press)

Cole penned an opinion piece for Religion News Service that ran June 15, in which he said Floyd is in over his head as the top paid leader of the SBC.

“On Floyd’s watch, the 15-million-member SBC has been convulsing and hemorrhaging from a series of self-inflicted wounds and circular firing squads,” Cole wrote, later adding that Floyd “represents a dying good-ole-boy network that’s resistant to transparency and accountability.”

He concluded: “To many, including some of his peers, Floyd is seen as the proverbial dog who caught the car: He finally got the job he always wanted and doesn’t know what to do with it.”

While multiple motions and resolutions made at the convention on Tuesday took aim at Floyd and the Executive Committee, some messengers praised Floyd and the committee. Among those was Malachi O’Brien, pastor of The Church at Pleasant Ridge Harrisonville, Mo. O’Brien spoke in favor of adopting the Executive Committee’s new strategic plan and called Floyd “the greatest leader I’ve ever known.”

For his part, Floyd introduced the Vision 2025 plan with a fiery sermon about the perils of a literal hell, drawn from the book of Revelation.

He spoke of a literal lake of fire, “eternal and everlasting separation from God,” and “eternal and everlasting torment and punishment” as motivation for the SBC to adopt his new strategic plan. “An eternal lostness exists, and eternal hell is waiting. So we must do all we can to reach people so their names will be written in the Lamb’s book of life.”

Rejection of business and financial plan

Messengers’ rejection of the new business and financial plan put forward by Floyd and the Executive Committee was a rare example of an SBC entity proposing a detailed plan not adopted by the convention in annual session.

Two of nine recommendations presented by the Executive Committee were voted down, and a third was later declared moot because of those actions.

Recommendation 7 would have granted the Executive Committee more oversight in order to “strengthen the financial accountability” of SBC entities and would have allowed the Executive Committee power to escrow Cooperative Program funds from any entity not complying with a 10-point checklist.

Rolland Slade, chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, presents the committee’s report to the SBC annual meeting June 15. (Photo: Baptist Press)

The six SBC seminary presidents even opposed the plan, as illustrated by Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin, who went to a microphone to oppose it. His comments were met with applause and whistles from messengers.

“I am chair of the Council of Seminary Presidents and speak on behalf of all six of us opposing this recommendation,” he said. “This would jeopardize our standing with our accrediting agencies … because they already wonder about oversight. They ask, how does this keep outside interference? And we always say the money comes from our churches who hold us accountable through our trustee system.”

Vance Pitman, pastor of Hope Church in Las Vegas, also opposed the plan: “This proposal would be an unprecedented expansion of the Executive Committee’s powers and would put itself between the local churches and the entities we are trying to support with the Cooperative Program.”

Also rejected was a proposal to amend the 10 ministry assignments given to Lifeway Christian Resources. Among those was a plan to transfer responsibility for college student ministry from Lifeway to the North American Mission Board.

Strongly worded resolutions

Any doubt that the SBC has gone soft on key doctrinal and cultural issues was laid to rest by the report of the Committee on Resolutions, which put forth 10 nonbinding resolutions addressing abortion, race and sexuality among other topics.

The resolution on abortion was not strong enough for some messengers.

However, the resolution on abortion was not strong enough for some messengers, with a supermajority of two-thirds approving a mandate that the resolutions committee bring forth on Wednesday a second resolution on abolishing abortion in America. The committee had declined to advance that resolution and instead focused on what it considered a combined statement on abortion and the Hyde Amendment.

Under SBC processes, messengers are allowed to submit proposed resolutions well in advance of the annual meeting, although resolutions acted on by the convention must come from the committee.

A listing of every name of someone who submitted a resolution to the committee ran across five pages of the Tuesday Bulletin at the convention and included hundreds of names.

Most resolutions advanced by the committee received considerable debate and multiple attempted amendments on the floor. Despite tensions in a crowded and hot room at the Music City Convention Center, most messengers attempted to demonstrate good humor as they made their points. President J.D. Greear, who presided over the resolutions debates, set the tone with his own cordial approach and occasional humorous comments.

A resolution on “Baptist unity and maintaining our public witness” encouraged messengers to “pursue holiness, act with the aim of love, engage others with charity, and consider one another in how we represent ourselves, our churches, our convention, and, above all, the gospel of Jesus Christ in our speech and conduct at all times and in all places.”

That desire and the overall good humor of the body was tested at several points during debate on resolutions.

Resolution on race

The first flare-up came during debate on a resolution titled “On the Sufficiency of Scripture for Race and Racial Reconciliation.”

Several messengers had submitted resolutions seeking to rescind a 2019 SBC resolution that allowed the use of Critical Race Theory so long as it was not understood to contradict Scripture or the SBC’s doctrinal statement, the Baptist Faith and Message. Soon after, then-U.S. President Donald Trump issued a broadside against Critical Race Theory and all forms of diversity training in the university or workplace. SBC leaders quickly followed suit, and Critical Race Theory became a hot topic from the pulpit and in Baptist conversations.

An overhead view of the exhibit hall at the SBC annual meeting in Nashville. (Baptist Press)

When the six SBC seminary presidents in late November 2020 came out with a strongly worded statement denouncing Critical Race Theory, they faced a firestorm of protest from Black pastors, many of whom see this academic construct as a helpful way to highlight systemic racism.

Thus, this year’s Resolutions Committee attempted to craft a resolution about Critical Race Theory without using those words. The resolution as presented affirms “our agreement with historic, biblically faithful Southern Baptist condemnations of racism in all forms” while rejecting “any theory or worldview that finds the ultimate identity of human beings in ethnicity or in any other group dynamic.”

It further rejects “any theory or worldview that sees the primary problem of humanity as anything other than sin against God and the ultimate solution as anything other than redemption found only in Christ.”

That was not enough for some messengers, who opposed the resolution outright or hoped to amend it before it was adopted.

Kevin Apperson, pastor of North Las Vegas Baptist Church in Nevada, spoke against the resolution, saying its language was “ambiguous” and “unclear.” He said the resolution appeared to be about Critical Race Theory without ever calling it by name.

He opposes Critical Race Theory, he said, because it is “an ideology that tells me I am inherently guilty because of the melanin content of my skin.”

“If we do not have the courage to call a skunk a skunk, let’s not say anything.”

“Two years ago, we approved Critical Race Theory as a teaching tool, and now we need to address it by its name,” he said. “If we do not have the courage to call a skunk a skunk, let’s not say anything.”

This drew a sharp and impassioned retort from James Merritt, a Georgia pastor who is a former SBC president and this year’s chairman of the Resolutions Committee. He portrayed debate over this resolution as a marker for which mentality within the convention will prevail — evangelism or legalism.

“It’s time to find out who we are and where we’re headed,” he said. “I want to say this bluntly and plainly. If some people were as passionate about the gospel as they are about Critical Race Theory, we’d win this world to Christ tomorrow. … Let’s just settle this issue once and for all. … We reject any theory that says the problem is anything other than sin and the solution is anything other than salvation. … There’s a world watching out there. This is exactly what they want …. Let’s give ’em something to talk about. We can either build bridges and tear down walls or we can build walls and tear down bridges.”

After Merritt’s speech, another messenger called the question, and the resolution was adopted as written.

Resolution on abortion

The committee’s proposed resolution on abortion — a favorite topic of SBC revolutions over many years — couched its language around support for the Hyde Amendment, a 1976 federal policy preventing tax dollars from being used to pay for abortions or health benefits that include coverage of abortion.

In its budget proposal to Congress, the Biden administration has proposed eliminating this amendment, which the resolution decried as “advocating to make taxpayer money available to fund abortion procedures.”

The resolution classifies “any effort to repeal the Hyde Amendment as morally abhorrent, a violation of biblical ethics, contrary to the natural law, and a moral stain on our nation.”

And then it concludes with an assertion that the SBC “should work through all available cultural and legislative means to end the moral scourge of abortion as we also seek to love, care for, and minister to women who are victimized by the unjust abortion industry.”

That last paragraph drew critique from Josh Rice, associate pastor at Reformation Baptist Church in Centerton, Ark. He sought to strike the words “love, care for, and minister to women who are victimized by the unjust abortion industry” with “preach the gospel and urge repentance from all men and women guilty or complicit in the sin of abortion.”

While grateful for the resolution and sharing its support for the Hyde Amendment, Rice said the language about women being victimized “interferes with the gospel by softening sin and, therefore, eliminating the ability of the law to tutor the need for confession and repentance.”

“Women who obtain abortions, although their situation may be tragic and horrible, they are by the law murderers.”

He added: “Let me be clear. Women who obtain abortions, although their situation may be tragic and horrible, they are by the law murderers, and, therefore, should seek repentance and we should not be so arrogant to presume that their circumstance excuses their need for salvation from their sins.”

Committee member Dana Hall McCain of Dothan, Ala., spoke passionately and emotionally in response to Rice’s proposed amendment. She spoke of her own work counseling pregnant women who are considering abortion.

Dana Hall McCain speaks to a proposed amendment on Resolution 3 during the 2021 SBC annual meeting June 16. (Baptist Press)

“Before I entered into that task, I would have been very tempted to adopt language more in line with what you just proposed, and so I sympathize with the position that you hold,” she said. “However, what the Lord has shown me sitting in those rooms across from broken women is that so many of them have been victimized by the sin of others, by generational sin, by parents who never took them to church and preached the gospel to them the way mine did to me.”

She added: “Yes, abortion is sin. … But I am also telling you that when we take a punitive and hard-hearted position toward women who are at a crossroads that usually a whole lot of people’s sin brought them to, we are not having the mind of Christ toward those women.”

The amendment was defeated, and the resolution was adopted.

Resolution on LGBTQ inclusion

This year’s resolution against the LGBTQ community took the form of opposing the Equality Act, a piece of anti-discrimination legislation currently before Congress. It labels same-sex attraction a “sin” and quotes previous SBC resolutions on sexuality and gender.

“God’s design was the creation of two distinct sexes, male and female …, which designate the fundamental distinction that God has embedded in the very biology of the human race,” it declares. And: “The Bible gives us clear instruction and boundaries with regard to what constitutes God-honoring expression of human sexuality.”

This resolution drew several amendments, most of which were accepted by the committee as friendly amendments. All the amendments sought to insert more restrictive language than the committee had proposed.

Jared Moore of Crossville, Tenn., asked that the phrase “sexual orientation or gender identity” be changed to read “sexual or gender identity,” eliminating the word “orientation.”

“When we use language like ‘sexual orientation,’ we imply no possible culpability as if this is something that happens totally regardless of one’s will,” he said. “And that’s what the culture means when they use this language. Instead, I have suggested that we change it to ‘identity,’ which when we are sharing the gospel, we are talking about our identity being in Christ, and God gets the last word about changing people.”

“I added heterosexuality because it is the only sexuality designed by God according to Genesis 2.”

He also proposed changing a phrase about “God’s good design in sexuality as clearly expressed in Scripture” to substitute the word “heterosexuality” for “sexuality.” His reasoning: “I added heterosexuality because it is the only sexuality designed by God according to Genesis 2.”

The committee accepted his amendments.

The committee also accepted a proposed amendment by Byron Talbot of Athens Tenn., who added this phrase: “and invite all members of this community to turn from their sins and trust in Christ and to experience renewal in the gospel.”

The committee also accepted an amendment offered by Andrew Walker of Louisville, Ky., naming professionals who are not clergy but would be “wrongly targeted by the Equality Act.”

Resolution on spiritual abuse

More debate ensued over a resolution titled “On Abuse and Pastoral Qualifications” that was the Resolutions Committee’s response to concerns about sexual abuse in SBC churches.

Noting that Scripture commands that pastors are to be “above reproach” and “blameless,” the resolution declares that “any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor.”

While no one rose to object to the intent of the resolution, some messengers questioned the language and the broad brush of the resolution.

Mike Hibbard, pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Fulton, Mo., said he agrees with the intent and abhors “any sort of abuse, especially sexual abuse.” But a permanent disqualification “does not regard God’s transformational power and forgiveness. This comes dangerously close to compromising the autonomy of the local church.”

Likewise, Phillip Bramblett of Rocky Mount, Va., said he is himself a victim of sexual abuse as a child but thinks the language of the resolution is too broad.  “I hate sexual abuse as much as anyone, but we shouldn’t elevate it to a sin (that is unforgivable). This resolution is too blunt.”

After additional debate, the resolution was adopted as presented by the committee.

 

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SBC Executive Committee declines to entertain the idea of broadening the scope of its investigation of itself

As an anticipated 17,000 messengers descended on Nashville for the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting June 14, the SBC Executive Committee defended its decision to pre-emptively investigate itself and refused to broaden the scope of that investigation.

Meanwhile, a North Carolina pastor who previously had announced an intention to ask the full convention to launch an investigation into the Executive Committee’s response to matters of sexual abuse in the denomination said he will amend his motion in light of what the Executive Committee already has done.

Ronnie Parrott

Ronnie Parrott, lead pastor at Christ Community in Huntersville, N.C., said he would amend his motion to ask the convention to take oversight of an investigation announced by the Executive Committee late on Friday, June 11.

As it stands now, the powerful Executive Committee has hired an outside firm to investigate the Executive Committee and report back to the Executive Committee — a move widely seen as pre-emptive to motions planned by Parrott and others at the annual meeting in Nashville June 15-16.

On June 11, Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd — who is himself one of the people to be investigated — announced that he and the committee’s president already have hired an outside firm, Guidepost Solutions. This same firm is engaged in reviewing the management and culture of what previously was known as Ravi Zacharias Ministries, which was all but ruined by revelations that its namesake founder had been credibly accused of multiple cases of sexual abuse.

Advocates for accountability within the SBC — who claim the Executive Committee has covered up and failed to take seriously allegations of sexual abuse within SBC churches, agencies and seminaries — have expressed no concern with Guidepost Solutions doing the audit of the SBC. They and others have, however, questioned the propriety of the Executive Committee hiring the auditors and having control over what they report.

Thus Parrott said he will amend his motion to “transfer oversight of the independent third-party review” to a task force appointed by the newly elected president of the SBC. He further will stipulate that the task force be comprised of “members of Baptist churches cooperating with this convention and experts in sexual abuse and abuse-related dynamics.”

Parrott’s motion likely will be opposed by the Executive Committee, which wants to retain control over the investigation. One of the comments Floyd made in a secretly recorded conversation released late last week was about his desire to prevent anything critical of the Executive Committee from being given a platform.

Parrott previously served seven years on staff with Floyd at a Baptist church in Springdale, Ark.

A failed attempt to broaden the scope

During the June 14 meeting of the Executive Committee on the eve of the denomination’s largest annual meeting in 25 years, one member attempted to get the Executive Committee itself to expand the scope of the Guidepost investigation and create more transparency in the process.

Jared Wellman, pastor at Tate Springs Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, presents a motion during the Executive Committee meeting Monday, June 14, 2021, in Nashville, Tenn. Wellman’s motion called for an independent committee to lead a probe of the denomination’s handling of sex abuse cases. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Texas pastor Jared Wellman wanted to present a motion to the Executive Committee that would do some of the same things Parrott is suggesting. Wellman’s suggestion would have asked the newly elected SBC president (or his designee) “to appoint a task force independent of the Executive Committee” and that would include “individuals not directly involved in the investigation.”

His recommendation also would have made this independent task force the recipient of the Guideposts report prior to it going to the Executive Committee. A public report of “all the findings and recommendations” could not be “vetted or edited” by the Executive Committee prior to its release.

Further, he asked to expand the scope of the investigation to include “all paid, appointed or elected leaders or staff, previous or current of the Executive Committee, convention, and convention entities” with “no limit to who can be interviewed.”

Because Wellman’s motion was not on the stated agenda for the June 14 meeting, adding to the agenda required a two-thirds supermajority vote, which it failed to get. In other words, Executive Committee members avoided debating and voting on the actual motion by declining to allow it onto the agenda.

The power and limitations of a floor motion

They will not have such control when the full group of perhaps 17,000 “messengers” (as SBC voting members are called) gathers June 15 and 16. The president of the convention, pastor J.D. Greear, has authority to rule on how to receive motions that are made from the floor. That task also falls to the Committee on Order of Business, which receives all motions made from the floor and schedules them for debate and vote, sometimes with recommendations for referrals to other SBC agencies.

Adam Greenway

This year’s Committee on Order of Business is chaired by Adam Greenway, current president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Greenway has sought transparency and accountability within a denomination that enabled his predecessor, Paige Patterson, to lead in ways that have been characterized as heavy-handed, self-serving and abusive. Southwestern’s trustees recently accused Patterson, in writing, of theft of seminary property.

What role Greenway will play in allowing or disallowing proposed motions to be debated on the floor of the convention remains to be seen.

During the heat of the so-called “conservative resurgence” of the 1980s and ’90s — led by Patterson — SBC presidents often avoided controversial motions by referring them to other entities to respond to or study.

Internal critics of the current Executive Committee leadership already have warned they will not tolerate parliamentary tricks this year.

The Baptist Blogger, an inside critic of the SBC’s power structures and an ally of Greenway, tweeted: “Messengers are smarter now than they’ve ever been. They will NOT be run over by the parliamentarian or the convention lawyers this time. Not ever again.”

Sexual abuse issues detailed

In 2018, the Houston Chronicle published a series of articles detailing hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in SBC churches nationwide, along with concerns about how abusive clergy moved from church to church with no consequences. Alongside this and the #MeToo movement, other people — mainly women — came forward to detail other situations where they faced abuse and were not believed or were further victimized when they reported it.

The SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, then led by Russell Moore, attempted to address this issue in its 2019 Caring Well Conference. According to Moore, he and the ERLC were chastised by Mike Stone, then chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, and other Executive Committee leaders for allowing comments critical of the SBC to be aired during the conference.

Moore’s concerns were detailed in two leaked letters he wrote and in several audio clips of private meetings that were recently released. This documentation sparked the present call for the Executive Committee to be investigated.

Meanwhile, another letter from 2019 surfaced this week, demonstrating the kind of thinking emanating from the Executive Committee at the time of the Houston Chronicle expose and the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference.

August Boto

August “Augie” Boto at the time was executive vice president and general counsel at the Executive Committee. At the same time, he was embroiled in scandal in Texas whereby Paige Patterson, recently fired as president of Southwestern Seminary, allegedly conspired with Boto and others to take over a private foundation and redirect its charitable giving away from the seminary and to Patterson’s own private foundation. Through a pre-trial settlement in February, Boto and others agreed to stand down and never again to serve on the board of a nonprofit organization in the state of Texas.

Writing a memo on May 19, 2019 — as final preparations were being made for that year’s SBC annual meeting and Executive Committee leadership was resisting calls for urgent action on the sexual abuse problems — Boto called the sexual abuse concerns “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism. It is not the gospel. It is not even a part of the gospel. It is a misdirection play.”

He singled out two of the most vocal critics of the SBC’s lack of response, Christa Brown and Rachael Denhollander, for their “victimizations.” Then he wrote: “They have gone to the SBC looking for sexual abuse, and of course, they found it.”

But this, he explained, “is the devil being temporarily successful.”

As messengers arrived in Nashville for this year’s annual meeting, Boto’s comments ignited even more controversy and more calls for the Executive Committee to be held accountable.

Abuse survivors speak out again

The day before the Executive Committee met in Nashville and refused to consider Wellman’s motion to expand the scope of the sexual abuse inquiry, eight survivors of sexual abuse within the SBC released a statement calling on messengers to take their concerns seriously.

They urged five actions:

  • Support planned motions regarding hiring an outside organization to audit and assess abuse and mishandling of abuse within the denomination.
  • Support expanding the scope of the Guidepost investigation into the Executive Committee to include the SBC Credentials Committee and “all paid, appointed, elected or volunteer staff or leaders of the convention, the Executive Committee and the Credentials Committee.”
  • Demand that the Executive Committee “waives all privileges, allowing Guidepost complete and full access to all data and information.”
  • Require that the Executive Committee commit that “any final report of the Guidepost investigation will be made public in full, without redaction or revision, except for the firm’s protection of the personal identifying information of abuse survivors.”
  • Suggest that any future investigations or audits regarding sexual abuse within the SBC include the services of GRACE, an independent group dedicated to recognizing, responding to and preventing sexual abuse in churches.

 

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Editing our narratives has the power to heal future generations

There’s a common thread to much of the social conflict we’re seeing in church and society these days, and it has to do with our willingness to edit our own stories. Let’s call it a hardening of the narratives.

One big story from the coronavirus pandemic stands out as an illustration. Have you heard anyone complain about what seemed like a changing story line on the efficacy of mask wearing? Yeah, this remains a big complaint especially among the deniers.

Here’s a summary of the critique: “First, you told us we didn’t need to wear masks, then you said we did. How can we trust you to tell us the truth?” Sound familiar?

Mark Wingfield

This also is the reason a certain segment of the population loves to hate Anthony Fauci and is now calling for his head after seeing archived emails that span the course of the pandemic, showing how even he changed his mind about masks as the evidence mounted. His cardinal sin appears to be that he changed his mind. God forbid.

What we witnessed over the months of the worst pandemic of modern history — something we had no track record to understand — was that science had to keep adapting as we learned more about the virus. At first, we reasonably thought it was transmitted on surfaces and not through the air. But with more time and evidence, we learned it was indeed transmitted through the air more than on surfaces; thus, masks were highly effective in stopping transmission.

The first story about masks was not an intentional lie; it was based on the best information available at the time. But as so often happens, we gained additional information and had to reconsider what was true. That’s not a sin. It is, instead, a salvation.

We see the same root hardening of a narrative at work in protestations over how we teach race and slavery in American history. Although the term “Critical Race Theory” has become the catch-all boogeyman for these concerns, the actual issue is a fear by white folks that they and their children are going to be made to feel guilty about the systemic racism built into our culture since slavery. They just don’t want to hear it.

“Truth be told, we can be proud of our country without having to believe we are God’s last great white hope for the world.”

Hearing this new story, this more accurate story, edits the narrative of our white lives. It requires us to reconsider the heroes of our national history as more complicated characters than we were originally taught. More painfully, it requires us to reconsider the myth of American exceptionalism that has been conflated with national pride for far too long. Truth be told, we can be proud of our country without having to believe we are God’s last great white hope for the world.

The story of our national history we were taught in school is incomplete at best. We can’t change that, but we can correct the story. We can edit the narrative to tell the fuller truth that is available to us. Again, no crime in that.

Yet, you would think such a reframing centered on truth is shaking the pillars of the earth itself, to hear the wailing.

This is nuts. Imagine a different scenario: You’ve been told from a young age that you carry a genetic marker that destines you to a fatal illness. But somewhere along in your 30s, new testing becomes available that clarifies your genetic makeup and you are told you will not, in fact, die from this inevitable illness. Would you decline the new information and demand to stick to the earlier, fatal diagnosis? Of course not.

Science (of which medicine is a part) is a study of things that we continually learn more about. And so is history. And so is theology.

I’m remined of the church member who came to me during our church’s intensive study on LGBTQ inclusion and said: “If I believe that what my parents and grandparents taught me about this was wrong, how will I know everything else they taught me isn’t wrong too?”

First, I suspect he was giving his parents and grandparents too much credit for having taught him anything at all about sexuality. And second, this illustrates the danger of living an unexamined life. When the very thought of reconsidering an issue based on new information threatens the whole of your identity, you’re living on shaky ground.

This inability or unwillingness to edit our stories as new evidence becomes available lies at the root of our national conflicts today.

A disclaimer: I can’t claim credit for this brilliant insight myself; in fact, I’ve struggled for some time to make sense of it all. Credit goes to Nesrine Malik, a columnist and features writer for The Guardian and author of “We Need New Stories: The Myths that Subvert Freedom.” She makes a compelling case for the benefits of editing our personal, cultural and national stories.

This is the exact challenge that will confront messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting this week. They are being asked on several fronts to edit the narratives they’ve been told — and such editing faces loads of fearful opposition.

“We can prevent future generations from feeling the need to apologize for our sins today.”

Edits are needed to the story of male dominance, racial equality, care for sexual abuse victims, trust in denominational leaders and even the lie of how the SBC was saved from liberalism and decline by the Pressler-Patterson coalition of the 1980s. Yet there is resistance to telling these stories more truthfully because the truth is hard and because too many in the SBC still believe the lies that created the erroneous narratives in the first place.

Remember that it only took the SBC 150 years to acknowledge it was founded in racism over the issue of whether a slaveholder could be appointed as a foreign missionary. Finally editing that story did not produce immediate or significant change, however, because the system was so built around the earlier narrative.

Do not be distracted by those who cry that it is unfair for them to be expected to apologize for the sins of their ancestors whom they didn’t even know. We cannot change what has happened, and we cannot sufficiently apologize for what others have done.

What we can do, though, is acknowledge the injustices that have happened and amend our current course in light of that information. We can prevent future generations from feeling the need to apologize for our sins today.

“Wokeness” — which seems to be a dirty word in the SBC — is not about turning back time. It is, instead, about redeeming our time, awakening to our present reality and changing the story toward a better ending while we can.

Our generation’s story is unfinished. Whatever foreshadowing or plot lines have preceded us, we have the ability to turn them to good rather than being predestined to perpetuate the sins of our fathers and mothers. That editing begins with knowledge, not denial.

Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.

 

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SBC Executive Committee hires a firm to investigate itself and report findings to itself

In what appears to be a preemptive move four days before the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting, the president of the SBC Executive Committee announced he has hired an outside firm to investigate his own agency and, purportedly, report the findings to the agency being investigated.

Two SBC pastors — joined likely by others — already have said they intend to bring a motion at the June 15-16 convention for the newly elected president of the SBC to name a task force to hire an outside investigator of the Executive Committee. Such a report would come back through the task force to the SBC in annual session, not to the Executive Committee itself.

Ronnie Floyd

Yet late in the day on Friday, June 11, Executive Committee President Ronnie Floyd — who has been named as one of those to be investigated — announced he and the Executive Committee have hired a firm to do their own independent investigation.

And the chairman of the Executive Committee said he’s OK with that, even though he realizes it might look inappropriate.

Rolland Slade

“I know there are folks who will not agree with the actions we’re taking. I want to ask them to be patient with us and join us in getting this right,” said Rolland Slade, pastor of Meridian Baptist Church in El Cajon, Calif.

And indeed, the response on social media to the Friday afternoon news drop was laced with suspicion.

Said the Baptist Blogger, a frequent inside critic of Floyd and the Executive Committee: “Can you name another moment in SBC history where an entity CEO announces he’s ‘vetting’ a firm to investigate his OWN trustees? This is so backwards it wouldn’t even pass the smell test in Northwest Arkansas.”

Dwight McKissic, an Arlington, Texas, pastor who also is an inside critic, similarly ridiculed the news: “This ill-fated decision by the EC deserves a MLK style protest. We cannot as a convention treat these victims with such disregard & disrespect to allow a review, as opposed to an investigation & something less than an independent investigation launched by the convention, not EC.”

Baptist Press, which is part of the Executive Committee staff managed by Floyd, released a story quoting “a statement to Baptist Press” from Floyd. In that statement to his own staff, Floyd said the firm he has chosen, Guidepost Solutions, “is one of the most reputable companies in the nation for uncovering facts and providing guidance for the future.”

A separate news release from the Executive Committee, not from Baptist Press, said the Executive Committee “is committed to serving Southern Baptists with integrity, excellence, transparency and accountability.”

Yet it is the lack of integrity, transparency and accountability that caused Floyd’s critics to call for an outside investigation. A firestorm of protest has erupted after two letters written by Russell Moore, former head of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, became public over the past two weeks. Moore makes serious allegations against Floyd and former Executive Committee Chairman Mike Stone, saying they stonewalled necessary responses to allegations of sexual abuse detailed in a 2019 series of articles in the Houston Chronicle.

In one of those recordings, Floyd says he’s not so much concerned about the sexual abuse victims themselves but instead wants to “protect the base” of the SBC constituency that supports him.

In addition to those two letters, one of Moore’s former associates at the ERLC released audio clips of meetings where both Floyd and Stone are heard resisting calls for reform.

In one of those recordings, Floyd says he’s not so much concerned about the sexual abuse victims themselves but instead wants to “protect the base” of the SBC constituency that supports him.

Despite these accusations, the Executive Committee’s Friday afternoon news release stated: “Under the direction of Dr. Floyd, the SBC Executive Committee has helped to lead the Convention to address the issues of sex abuse in Southern Baptist churches.”

In his “statement” to Baptist Press, Floyd added: “Our staff commits to transparency and cooperation. Caring for abuse survivors and protecting the vulnerable in our churches must remain a priority for Southern Baptists, and we want to communicate that clearly before a watching world.”

 

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‘Southern Baptist whistleblower’ offers audio clips to back Russell Moore’s claims

Calling himself a “Southern Baptist whistleblower,” a Texas Baptist pastor on June 10 accused Southern Baptist Convention leaders Ronnie Floyd and Mike Stone of lying about their previous closed-door comments regarding sexual abuse concerns in the denomination.

Phillip Bethancourt, pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas, released a public letter — linked with audio clips — that he says refutes claims by Floyd, president of the SBC Executive Committee, and Stone, a Georgia pastor who is running for SBC president and previously chaired the SBC Executive Committee.

Phillip Bethancourt

Bethancourt previously served seven years on staff of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, where he worked with the agency’s head, Russell Moore. Moore resigned that post at the end of May after coming under continuous attack from Stone and other conservative pastors within the SBC.

Over the past two weeks, two letters written by Moore have surfaced, documenting his extreme concern about the campaign against him, which he portrays as led by Stone and caused by resistance to the ERLC’s work to address charges of sexual abuse in the SBC. Moore’s letters also document racist comments made by other SBC leaders.

Both Stone and Floyd disputed the content of Moore’s letters, with Stone saying Moore’s assertions were “absolutely slanderous,” “ungodly” and an “outrageous lie.” Floyd said he did not have the “same recollection” of events as Moore.

In his June 10 letter to Floyd and Stone, Bethancourt says he “cannot remain quiet in light of your responses, so I am compelled to do something no one would want to do — become a Southern Baptist whistleblower.”

Then he links to several audio recordings that appear to portray Stone and Floyd saying some of the things Moore accused them of saying, although supporters of Stone and Floyd quickly took to Twitter to say they saw no corroboration in the recordings.

“Your own words actually corroborate the claims in Russell Moore’s letters — the same claims you now suggest are false,” Bethancourt wrote to them. “I believe that when Southern Baptists hear you in your own words, they will be wise enough to recognize the truth.”

The audio clips are reported to be from two meetings Moore mentions — one an Oct. 8, 2019, debriefing in Nashville after the ERLC’s Caring Well Conference and one a May 9, 2019, meeting in Atlanta in advance of the 2019 SBC annual meeting.

The Caring Well Conference was the ERLC’s attempt to address the crisis of sexual abuse charges within the SBC that had been exposed through a series of articles in the Houston Chronicle. According to Moore, he and the ERLC were chastised by Stone and other SBC Executive Committee leaders for allowing comments critical of the SBC to be aired during the conference. Of particular concern were comments by Rachel Denhollander about a woman who then was an employee of Lifeway Christian Resources and had reported being sexually abused by a seminary professor. Denhollander said the SBC Executive Committee had mishandled the serious accusations and had instead turned the victim into a villain.

Ronnie Floyd

Bethancourt released an audio clip of a debriefing meeting with Moore where Floyd questions why Caring Well Conference speakers weren’t restricted in what they could say. Moore responds that the ERLC didn’t restrict speakers because “we are not in a criminal conspiracy to cover up what happened.”

In a second audio clip from the same debriefing, Floyd cites concerns by Executive Committee trustees about Denhollander in particular and wants to know how he should respond to criticism from his own board members. Moore suggests that the Executive Committee should “not do stupid stuff again.”

In a third audio clip, Floyd says he’s not worried about what abuse survivors might say but is instead concerned to “preserve the base.” Moore responds by saying that striving only to talk about how great the SBC is will “destroy the denomination’s credibility.”

The second set of audio recordings appears to be from an Atlanta meeting where Stone and Floyd and others were finalizing plans for the SBC annual meeting that would happen one month later. A key issue was the formation of a standing Credentials Committee with the power to remove churches that harbored sexual abusers.

In one of his leaked letters, Moore accused Stone of trying to “delay the formation of a credentials committee to assess churches reported to be mishandling sexual abuse.” He also said he had been in meetings with SBC leaders where abuse survivors were referred to as “crazy” or compared to “Potiphar’s wife.”

Mike Stone

In one audio clip, Stone says the Executive Committee’s Bylaws Workgroup had abandoned pursuit of a standing Credentials Committee and perceived themselves as victims of unjust criticism. He cites concerns about “a human factor where good people were thrown under the bus, trying to do their best, and now we’re asking the group to trust some of the ones that they feel threw them under the bus.”

In a second audio clip from that meeting, Stone complains that the creation of a standing Credentials Committee had been pushed on him and other Executive Committee leaders against their will and says they have been “bullied.” He calls such action “unseemly.”

By his own account, Bethancourt says Stone wanted a one-year delay in forming a standing Credentials Committee. “Seeing no other pathway ahead at that point, I noted in the meeting that, if the Executive Committee wouldn’t bring a proposal, I would personally bring a motion from the floor of the convention to pursue a standing Credentials Committee,” Bethancourt wrote.

Anticipating that some might question his own actions in recording these conversations, Bethancourt explains in his letter that the audio “was lawfully captured by me in the one-party consent states of Tennessee and Georgia” and was “appropriately captured in a manner consistent with the practice of the Sexual Abuse Advisory Group during major meetings and strategy sessions.”

He did not anticipate ever needing to release the audio, he said, but now feels compelled for the cause of truth.

“When a credible third-party investigation is launched, I would be willing to cooperate to provide the full audio along with other relevant information,” he wrote, referencing an anticipated motion at the annual meeting next week to investigate the Executive Committee.

As of Thursday evening, June 10, neither the Executive Committee nor Baptist Press had publicly acknowledged the day’s bombshell news. However, Floyd gave an interview to Religion News Service in which he called release of the audio recordings an “attempt to mischaracterize them” as trying to avoid the reality of sex abuse.

Southern Baptists want to care for abuse survivors but don’t agree on how to do that, Floyd told RNS. “However, the SBC is not divided on the priority of caring for abuse survivors and protecting the vulnerable in our churches.”

He also indicated to RNS that the leadership of the Executive Committee already is discussing its own plan to hire an outside investigator to review the actions of the Executive Committee. Two SBC pastors have indicated they intend to make a motion at next week’s annual meeting asking whoever is elected president of the convention to appoint a task force to hire a third-party investigator.

Floyd’s comment to RNS raises the possibility that he and the Executive Committee might attempt to manage the selection of an outside investigator, which would be a different approach than the motion to be made.

“Regardless of how some are attempting to characterize past action and future intent,” he said, “since last weekend the Executive Committee staff leadership has been in the process of talking with and potentially securing a highly credible outside firm with the intent of conducting an independent third-party review of the accusations recently levied at the SBC Executive Committee.”

This story was updated at 7:20 p.m. Central time June 10 to include a response from Ronnie Floyd.

 

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Southwestern Seminary changes name of its undergraduate college

A Southern Baptist seminary in Texas has changed the name of its undergraduate college for the second time since its founding in 2005.

The new name, Texas Baptist College, carries a state feel to it, yet neither Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary nor its undergraduate college are directly affiliated with the state Baptist convention that also goes by the moniker “Texas Baptists.”

The school’s new website address is www.texasbaptist.com, which is one letter different than the web address for the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which is www.texasbaptists.com or www.texasbaptists.org.

The BGCT is the historic convention of mainly Southern Baptists in Texas, although it includes a number of congregations that identify with the state convention more than with the national body or that identify with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or with one of the historic national Black Baptist conventions. A separate state convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, was formed in 1998 to serve those who feared the BGCT was not maintaining close enough ties to the Southern Baptist Convention.

The BGCT lists 10 colleges and universities among its partner institutions. Those include big names such as Baylor University, Dallas Baptist University, Hardin-Simmons University and Houston Baptist University, among others. The state convention relates to Southwestern Seminary — and therefore Texas Baptist College — only through its voluntary partnership with the SBC.

Southwestern Seminary President Adam Greenway announced the new name of the Fort Worth-based college June 9.

A news release quoted Benjamin Skaug, who became dean of the college Jan. 1, as saying, “Texas Baptist College exists to glorify God by providing trustworthy Christian higher education for more faithful kingdom service.”

The phenomenon of SBC seminaries — which traditionally have focused on graduate education — also housing undergraduate colleges is relatively new.

The phenomenon of SBC seminaries — which traditionally have focused on graduate education — also housing undergraduate colleges is relatively new. The trend began in 1994 at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, which launched what is today called The College at Southeastern.

That direct competition with the affiliated colleges and universities of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina helped turn those existing schools away from the state convention and its loyalty to the SBC.

This growth in undergraduate education came along at the same time as graduate-level seminaries were facing stagnant or declining enrollments. Although SBC seminaries previously had offered certificate and preparatory courses, they had not run full-scale undergraduate programs.

Today, Texas Baptist College offers seven degree tracks, including associate degrees in Christian studies or humanities, plus bachelor’s degrees in Christian studies, humanities, performance, worship studies, or music.

In its most recent report of enrollment data, which covers the 2019-2020 year, Southwestern reported 219 students in its undergraduate and certificate programs, which makes the school a fraction of the size of even the smaller BGCT-affiliated universities.

L.R. Scarborough

The Fort Worth college first was named The College at Southwestern, then in 2017 was renamed L.R. Scarborough College, an homage to the seminary’s second president. Greenway said the latest name change is not intended to disregard Scarborough’s legacy but to continue Scarborough’s emphasis on Texas Baptist education.

“L.R. Scarborough, among other things, was a preeminent Texas Baptist, one who was committed to reaching this state with the gospel of Jesus Christ and to perpetuating the best of our Baptist identity and distinctives,” he said.

 

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