As Southern Baptists meet in Dallas, generational shifts lead to a moment of #MeToo reckoning
By Charles Scudder
June 10, 2018
|Ted Elmore, a prayer strategist for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, sees big changes ahead for his denomination.|
Growing up in the 1960s, Ted Elmore considered the turmoil that roiled a generation to be a spiritual cry for help.
Now a prayer strategist for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, he sees growing pains of another sort.
As the national organization prepares to gather in Dallas for its annual meeting this week, the #MeToo movement has made its presence felt firsthand among Baptists.
Leaders and congregants are debating the role of women in ministry. Prominent Baptists are speaking out against some of the most deeply held beliefs of the denomination. Paige Patterson, once a glorified leader enshrined in a stained-glass portrait, has been removed from key roles in a controversy over his treatment of women.
"This convention," Elmore said, "will likely be a turning point in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention."
Don't expect any seismic shifts, however. Southern Baptists are still Southern Baptists, after all.
Other church leaders and observers say most of the dialogue likely will be a confirmation of the denomination's commitment to the Bible's "inerrancy," or absolute truth. That includes a theology of “complementarianism,” which places men and women in separate roles and reinforces patriarchal authority, said Karen Seat, a religious studies professor at the University of Arizona.
“It is so ingrained in the system now,” Seat said. “I don’t anticipate [major change] unless it’s a total shakedown of the power structures.”
Elmore, 70, said he recognizes he’s a part of an older generation in the SBC. Passing over the reins to younger leaders means difficult conversations and growing tensions.
“We’re all broken somehow, and occasionally that brokenness shows up in the church,” Elmore said. “I don’t understand all the things that happen or don’t happen. The thing I’ve learned over the years is that I can trust Him.”
On Tuesday and Wednesday, 15,000 Southern Baptists are expected to attend the convention’s annual meeting at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. It’s the first time the annual meeting has been in Dallas since 1997.
Among this year’s proposed resolutions up for vote: a document “affirming the dignity of women and the holiness of ministers,” submitted by Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president Jason Allen.
The resolution denounces “not only sexual impropriety and abuse but also anyone who would facilitate or knowingly cover up such acts.” It notes that “to the shame of the Southern Baptist Convention ... a number of Southern Baptist leaders, professors and ministers have since our last annual gathering sinned against the Lord and against women by their ungodly behavior and language.”
It does not mention Patterson by name, but the resolution is clearly drafted at least in part in response to the controversy surrounding the Southern Baptist leader.
Patterson was criticized in recent months for comments he made from the pulpit seen as demeaning to women. In one sermon, he made remarks about a 16-year-old girl, saying she “was nice.” In another, he said he encouraged a woman to stay with her abusive husband.
He was fired from his role as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth for allegedly counseling a student at another seminary to not report a rape to police, said seminary board of trustees chair Kevin Ueckert.
On Friday, Patterson stepped down from the role of convention speaker at the Dallas meeting. In a letter to SBC president Steve Gaines, he said the decision was "an effort to protect my family as much as I can.”
Patterson also denied wrongdoing in a letter to Southern Baptists and said that he would not attend the meeting in Dallas.
"Recently, I have been accused, publicly and privately, of a number of things — none of which I acknowledge as having done in the way portrayed," Patterson wrote.
In the 1980s, conservative SBC leaders including Patterson orchestrated a systematic takeover of the convention’s leadership. Throughout the decade, Patterson fought against more moderate members in what supporters called the “conservative resurgence.”
A major focus for that movement were proclamations that although men and women are created equal, they should serve separate roles at home and in the church. Therefore, women could not be ordained and had to submit to their husbands’ authority at home.
That’s not to say the SBC is without internal tensions among conservative leaders. In one camp, there are leaders who focus on the inerrancy of the Bible and try not to consider political movements and social justice issues. In the other is a younger group of Baptists who are more sensitive to those concerns.
One resolution up for vote this year, submitted by a pastor from Cuero, Texas, calls such social justice rhetoric “anti-biblical” and encourages churches and seminaries to avoid “Marxist-based social justice” ideas and education.
“I would say being true to the Bible is having a social conscience,” said Mark Wingfield, associate pastor at Dallas’ Wilshire Baptist Church. “In this moment, what will happen to the SBC?”
In 2016, Wilshire split from the Baptist General Convention of Texas over Wilshire’s acceptance of LGBT members. Wingfield, who was raised in the Southern Baptist Convention, said he sees this ongoing tension being exacerbated by recent controversies, including Patterson’s removal.
“There’s this tension that the Trump era has brought to the surface in the SBC,” Wingfield said. “There’s got to be a day of reckoning someday.”
But that tension likely doesn’t mean wholesale change. Younger Baptists may be more willing to discuss the role of women in the church, but they still aren’t likely to change the theology of complementarianism, said Barry Hankins, a professor of religious history at Baylor University.
“What you’ll see is an internal debate of the role of women,” he said. “What I don’t think you’ll see is a change in the basic theological principles.”
#MeToo marks a shift
Keeping women out of leadership roles has caused continued tensions, Hankins said. Many Baptist leaders — especially those of Patterson’s generation — have never served alongside women. Many seminary students have not been taught by women, either. Not having that influence can lead to insensitive statements and actions, Hankins said.
“Sometimes they just say things that are tone-deaf,” Hankins said. “That’s an issue they’ll continue to struggle with.”
During the conservative resurgence, Patterson in particular was a fighter who prided himself on strong statements that often upset the status quo. As his generation is phased out of Southern Baptist leadership, some of those older comments have come back to bite.
Patterson’s fall from grace in particular is noteworthy because of his dominant role as a hero of the faith.
“It’s amazing. I mean really, really amazing,” Wingfield said.
The reaction to the Patterson controversy has also been illuminating for observers of the faith. After the earliest allegations against Patterson came to light, thousands of Baptist men and women signed a letter calling for “decisive action” against the leader.
It marked a shift indicative of the #MeToo era. In the past, some women left the church over these issues, but now they are trying to exert influence within the church for change. The fallout showed a contradiction between Patterson’s statements and “the Bible’s elevated view of womanhood,” the letter said.
“I think that’s healthy, I really do,” Elmore said. “Every so often we turn corners and a whole new generation comes along. While they have respect for the older generation, nobody wants my past for their future.”