The findings of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force report are earth-shattering, even if not surprising to those familiar with the SBC and its doctrines. In response, Russell Moore called this moment “the Southern Baptist Apocalypse.”
Moore knows well the people in leadership positions in the SBC and was himself deeply involved in the convention and The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He served as an initial signatory of the “Nashville Statement,” which includes 14 articles addressing matters related to God’s “design” for marriage, gender and sexuality.
Moore served seven years as president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission and resigned last summer, citing in part the efforts of the Executive Committee to resist transparency on sexual abuse allegations. Moore was also reprimanded and apologized in 2016 after he criticized SBC support for then-presidential candidate Donald Trump, a person who bragged about sexually assaulting women in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.
Moore is quite right to use the word “apocalypse” for the investigative report. He is right to insist the word “crisis” does not properly convey the weight of the findings. But the choice of the term “apocalypse” is perhaps more apt than Moore allows.
“The choice of the term ‘apocalypse’ is perhaps more apt than Moore allows.”
Although “apocalypse” has made its way into our cultural parlance in movies, TV shows and comic books, the term derives from the Greek apocalypsis, which means “revelation” or “disclosure.” The cognate verb apocalyptō conveys the meaning “reveal, uncover or disclose.”
The content in the report is indeed revelatory, but a closer look at how this moment amounts to an apocalypse demands further attention.
Scholars of ancient Judaism and early Christianity use the term “apocalypse” to describe a genre of literature and the adjective “apocalyptic” to characterize a world view influenced by themes in apocalyptic literature. Daniel chapters 7 through 12 and the book of Revelation offer prime examples of apocalyptic texts. In fact, the title of Revelation derives from the first line of text: “The apocalypsis (revelation) of Jesus Christ.”
Often characterized as “crisis literature,” apocalypses unveil “heavenly secrets in visionary form to a seer for the benefit of a religious community experiencing suffering or perceiving itself victimized by some form of deprivation,” according to Paul D. Hanson in “Apocalypses and Apocalypticism.” But scholars well read in the ancient milieu are quick to remind us that apocalypses did not simply show something to readers via strange visions they could not see with the naked eye; these texts also served a function for the audience. Authors hoped the revealed knowledge would influence readers to act, to remain faithful to God amid suffering and hardship, to adjust their lives in response to that revelation.
Although applying the word “apocalypse” to the current moment might be a stretch in terms of the technical scholarly definitions, describing this moment as an “apocalypse” underscores the gravity of the report and invites those in the SBC to reassess belief and practice in light of what is revealed.
‘Rot in a culture’
“The Southern Baptist Apocalypse” arising from the Guidepost report means the SBC should not continue unabated. Moore points to the disconnect between belief and practice and the need for reflection when he writes:
Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that mobilizes to exile churches that call a woman on staff a “pastor” or that invite a woman to speak from the pulpit on Mother’s Day, but dismisses rape and molestation as “distractions” and efforts to address them as violations of cherished church autonomy? In sectors of today’s SBC, women wearing leggings is a social media crisis; dealing with rape in the church is a distraction.
This “culture” Moore references exists and operates based on an underlying theology woven into the SBC from the Executive Committee down to local congregations. The breathless surprise in Moore’s essay is remarkable given a theology that elevates males and relegates females. As Rachel Denhollander points out in a special edition of Moore’s Christianity Today podcast, The Russell Moore Show, such a theology fosters a culture in which women are viewed as objects of male desire and tools for male use.
“The breathless surprise in Moore’s essay is remarkable given a theology that elevates males and relegates females.”
While Moore hints at the need to reconsider theological commitments, he does not say so explicitly. But if this is an apocalyptic moment, then SBC leaders cannot lament and call out the “culture” without also redressing the theology that makes that culture possible.
The SBC doctrinal commitments include a hierarchical anthropology that, according to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, is part of the divine organization of human relationships set out from the beginning of the cosmos. For instance, a portion of Article XVIII. “The Family” says of a woman in a heterosexual marriage:
She being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.
Articles three and four of the “Nashville Statement” published by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood similarly express the hierarchical relationship between men and women:
WE AFFIRM that God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.
WE DENY that the divinely ordained differences between male and female render them unequal in dignity and worth.
WE AFFIRM that divinely ordained differences between male and female reflect God’s original creation design and are meant for human good and human flourishing.
WE DENY that such differences are a result of the Fall or are a tragedy to be overcome.
There is a sleight of hand at work in doctrinal statements like these. The writers and signatories affirm equality of men and women before God and at the same time claim God ordained differences between men and women that result in women having “the God-given responsibility” to submit to and “serve as helper” of the husband, which means “managing the household and nurturing the next generation” (staying home and raising children). Women are forbidden from serving as senior pastors and discouraged from holding authoritative positions that place them in leadership over men.
“There is a sleight of hand at work in doctrinal statements like these.”
As the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 indicates in Article VI. “The Church”: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” While claiming equality, these statements simultaneously proclaim the relegation of women, a relegation embedded in creation itself, ordained and fixed into divinely organized human relationships.
The rot of male domination
To reframe Moore’s own questions above: Who cannot now see the rot in a culture that maintains theological commitments as of utmost importance that tell men they hold power and authority over women by God’s design and that women must remain under the authority of men? Who can be surprised when those with such an anthropology then end up with pastors who dominate women and male leaders who lie and abuse and suppress the voices of women to keep the power they believe God granted them?
Moore recounts teaching his students over the years about the “conservative resurgence” (in non-conservative contexts the event is referred to as the “fundamentalist takeover”), which began at Café du Monde in New Orleans when Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler mapped out their conquest on a napkin. Patterson and Pressler now find themselves at the center of the SBC apocalypse, as Moore notes. The trustees fired Patterson as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary after he suppressed claims from a rape victim; Pressler is involved in a civil lawsuit that alleges he raped young men. Does Moore (and others) still speak in positive terms about the Café du Monde meeting? Does he still think this represents a reclamation of “commitment to the truth of the Bible and to faithfulness to its confessional documents”? Does he see any connection between the grabs for (male) power and the destruction unleashed on so many lives in intervening years?
“Patterson and Pressler now find themselves at the center of the SBC apocalypse.”
To be clear, I affirm much of what Moore has said and done in recent history. I also understand it easy to write retrospectively about events in which I was not involved and critique the decisions of others. We all hope we would have taken different steps if we were in positions of power, but we never can be sure; power, after all, is intoxicating.
But I also hope Moore and others still in the SBC become allies of those who suffered at the hands of male domination and exploitation. The letter from the Sexual Abuse Task Force expresses hope that the report will be a step toward “publicly repenting for what has happened in our convention.” The missive further exhorts members “to respond to this report with deep repentance and a commitment to the ongoing moral demands of the gospel as it relates to sexual abuse.” Acknowledging a lack of accountability among leadership and the refusal to respond to warnings, the task force recommends steps to address the matter and assist church associations to respond to sexual abuse. Let us hope this moment exacts the self-reflection and repentance the letter intimates by pulling back the curtain on theologies that support a culture of abuse, a point made in a conversation between Christy Stroop and Jessica Johnson.
In the past few days, we also learned of the death of Rosemary Radford Ruether. As a Catholic theologian, Ruether offered a strong voice in the Christian feminist movement (see the moving tribute from Mary E. Hunt). Every semester, students in my classes read portions of Ruether’s Sexism and God-Talk and discuss how she pushed for the full humanity of women and the importance of their voices. Students always resonate with Ruether’s insistence that any theology that does not affirm the full humanity of every person is not redemptive.
We can only hope the revelation of the abuse perpetrated and allowed by SBC leadership will lay bare that a theology that relegates women leads to harm and silencing of female voices. An apocalypse demands not simply the recognition that things are not as they appear, but that those who possess that revelation now re-interpret their present circumstances and change their behavior. If this is “the Southern Baptist Apocalypse,” then it demands re-thinking theological tenets and institutional structures, and invites revising belief and practice.
Scott C. Ryan serves as assistant professor of religion and biblical studies at Claflin University in Orangeburg, S.C.
How the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy became a litmus test | Analysis by Rick Pidcock