Last week’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention garnered more attention than others in recent memory.
Controversies mounting over recent weeks and months for Southern Baptists and evangelicals—from presidential politics to #ChurchToo—led to intense media coverage in the days leading up to and surrounding the meeting. Countless news outlets reported on the issues that would define the event, from the firing of longtime SBC leader Paige Patterson from the top post at a Baptist seminary, to Patterson’s last minute withdrawal from the honored spot of delivering the meeting’s opening sermon, to resolutions centered on the place of women in the denomination and the moral standards expected of pastors.
Because it is the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S., evangelicals more broadly have a stake in what happens within the Southern Baptist Convention. As past SBC president Adrian Rogers famously stated, Jonathan Merritt recently noted, “As the West goes, so goes the world. As America goes, so goes the West. As Christianity goes, so goes America. As evangelicals go, so goes Christianity. As Southern Baptists go, so go evangelicals.”
However, it wasn’t just outsiders who showed keen interest in last week’s assembly. Attendance by Southern Baptists at the meeting was just under 10,000, a significant increase above attendance over the past several years, which ranged around 4,000-6,000. This surge is even more significant when considering the denomination’s steady decline in membership over the past ten years.
Notably, by some accounts, the increased attendance represented a significantly more diverse body of people. Engagement by more women, minorities, and younger messengers surely contributed to the overwhelming number of votes for the new SBC president going to J.D. Greear, a pastor whose prophetic voice on behalf of women and minorities represents a new chapter for Southern Baptists, one solidly grounded on the foundation laid by previous generations.
Unable to attend, I pored over the Twitter feeds and news reports from home, knowing that this year’s meeting would, one way or the other, be a significant moment in Southern Baptist history. Before the meeting, Southern Baptists appeared divided on issues that in some cases represented years of accumulating, unbiblical attitudes and actions regarding women, racism, and power within the denomination. And while complete unity has never been a goal for a denomination founded on the distinctives of soul liberty and congregational autonomy, all of the resolutions recommended by this year’s committee passed enthusiastically. Although resolutions hold no binding power over member churches or affiliated institutions, they bear significant weight within a structure based on voluntary partnership. Resolutions express the will and values of the convention, not only to its members, but to the watching world—which is exactly why so many of us—particularly women—approached the meeting with nervous anticipation. The outcomes revealed we are not as divided as many of us feared.
While a number of resolutions on a range of topics would be voted on, for many SBC women, including me, those resolutions that would either affirm or overturn the voices raised in the preceding days relating to the treatment of women, as well as the status of those with the power to affirm or denounce their mistreatment, were of most pressing concern. The defeat or passage of key resolutions would send a clear signal that the convention would either return to the entrenched ways in which women have too often been dismissed and derided by too many influential SBC entities and leaders—or would turn from those ways and forge a new course going forward. I and countless other Southern Baptist women I heard from approached the meeting with a mixture of anxiety and hope.
In the end, hope won.
An early harbinger of hope was the election of J.D. Greear as president, in which he received 68% of votes cast. Many expected him to win, but not by such an overwhelming margin. Greear has been outspoken in his support of women, and particularly vocal in recent days about the need to protect women from abuse.
The first three resolutions voted on, and overwhelmingly approved, seem—if not wholly, at least partly, fueled by the Patterson controversy. The first two deal directly with the status of women, and the third, indirectly, in calling for pastors to be holy in pure in their “doctrine, speech, and conduct,” an issue central to some of the criticism of Patterson. Resolution 2, on abuse, offered the strongest rebuke to all who practiced or turned a blind eye to the mistreatment of women. The resolution beautifully and strongly laments the denomination’s failure to protect the abused and calls on all SBC churches to “implement policies and practices that protect against and confront any form of abuse.”
The final vote of this year’s convention was the failure of a motion to vacate the executive committee of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s board of trustees in response to the committee’s firing of Paige Patterson two weeks before. What emerged from the ensuing discussion were even more details about Patterson the board had thought needed not to be made public. The move by Patterson apologists backfired dramatically, making even clearer the wisdom of the executive committee’s decision.
But even beyond these important actions, women who attended, anxious at first, told me they felt welcomed and affirmed in various other ways. One shared that on the first day, a former seminary classmate saw her across the hall called out to her, hugged her and (knowing of her place on the frontlines of the recent controversies) said, “I’m sorry. I know everything has been really hard for you. It shouldn’t be this way.”
Even more significantly, as reflected in this meeting recap, many more women messengers spoke up strongly and clearly than ever before, particularly concerning the safety and welfare of female students at Southern Baptist seminaries, as well as questioning the power structures there that shut women out.
One woman told me that “the amount of men in general and also men in leadership who used their time over and over again to stop, point out shortcomings, take responsibility, apologize, re-set the bar, call up their peers, and affirm women was beautiful and encouraging …What I expected to be a very difficult week ended up being very, very sweet.”
While women’s status and welfare took center stage this year, they weren’t the only topics of the sixteen resolutions that were passed. Others made calls to address with Christlike care topics ranging from gun violence, opioid addiction, immigration, racism, and social media.
When the meeting ended, I was left feeling more hopeful about being a Southern Baptist than at any time in my nearly 20 years as a member of the denomination. When I asked Matt Willmington, one of my pastors at Thomas Road Baptist Church what he saw as the strength of the denomination today, he said, “Years ago the SBC fought for the preeminence of Scripture. Now they’re doing an even better job of fighting for the practice of all Scripture. God will bless that.”
I think this year’s annual meeting reflects this growth well, even if as we as a denomination and as evangelicals and the church universal, have much more work—and growth—ahead of us.
Dr. Karen Swallow Prior serves as professor of English at Liberty University and Research Fellow with the ERLC, among numerous other accomplishments. She is the author of Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More—Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist and the upcoming book On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books.