Tensions are running high in the Nashville-based Southern Baptist Convention as the denomination gathers here for its first annual meeting since the pandemic began.
On the one side, a number of high-profile leaders have shown more liberal leanings on issues like women’s roles in the church and have been criticizing the SBC’s response to allegations of sexual abuse. That’s prompted more conservative factions to push for what they consider a course correction.
On Thursday, the divide appeared to deepen when a Texas pastor released audio from a pair of 2019 meetings in which top Baptist leaders clashed. In one clip, the president of the SBC’s executive committee, Ronnie Floyd, criticized the then-head of its policy division, Russell Moore, for organizing a conference that gave a platform to sexual abuse survivors.
“What do I say to the executive committee when Rachel’s come after them?” Floyd asked — a reference to Rachel Denhollander, a critic of the SBC executive committee who spoke at the conference. “What am I supposed to say to that?”
“I would say two things,” Moore replied. “We didn’t script anybody in terms of what they can say or not say … And, No. 2, I would say, let’s not do stupid stuff again.”
The audio was recorded and released by Phillip Bethancourt, the pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas, and an ally of Moore. In a letter that accompanies the audio, he says he released it to refute statements by Floyd and other SBC leaders.
— Phillip Bethancourt (@pbethancourt) June 10, 2021
Moore resigned recently as president of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. In a 4,000-word letter written a year before his resignation and released last week, Moore defended his stances on sexual abuse, racism and several other matters. He also complained of “threats from white nationalists and white supremacists, including within our convention” and that the formation of an SBC task force to investigate him was an attempt at intimidation.
The task force later found that Moore had become a “significant distraction” and blamed him for the loss of donations to the denomination.
Drifting from affiliation
A recent study by an arm of the denomination may indicate at least one worry as the meeting begins. Lifeway Research recently polled protestant pastors on their opinions about the importance of denominations.
While an overwhelming majority of pastors say they still find value in belonging to a national group right now, most expressed pessimism about the future of those connections. And, the study pointed out that there has been a trend of denominations splitting and individual congregations dropping their affiliation over hot button issues.
Bethancourt says the tapes show the SBC leaders have placed priority on the denomination’s finances. Floyd can be heard to say that he’s “not scared by anything the survivors would say” but he wants “to preserve the base” of SBC members.
“That’s what I would say to y’all. As you think through the strategy, do everything that you can do remember the base,” Floyd tells Moore.
In a statement, Floyd responded by saying the audio clips “mischaracterize” his statements as “an effort to avoid addressing the reality of sex abuse.”
“The Convention was — and still is — divided over methods of response to sexual abuse. However, the SBC is not divided on the priority of caring for abuse survivors and protecting the vulnerable in our churches,” he says. “These discussions reflect leaders engaging in a scriptural process of coming together with others who have differing opinions on complicated issues and of discussing those differences honestly with a goal of how to best move forward.”
Meanwhile, Bethancourt says the upcoming gathering of the SBC could be decisive for the denomination.
“Southern Baptists are at a crossroads as we head to the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville,” he writes. “I don’t know which direction Southern Baptists will choose. But I do believe these ancient words: the truth will set you free. The future of the SBC will only stand if it is built on a foundation of truth.”