Southern Baptists meet amid controversies as convention gears up for the future

This week was the first meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention since the dawn of the #MeToo movement. And in its wake the SBC has endured three recent scandals where top Baptist leaders were forced to step down because of inappropriate sexual behavior.

But the largest Protestant Christian denomination in the United States, and arguably the most conservative, politically, has an eye on the future.

At their meeting in Dallas, members elected 45-year-old Pastor J.D. Greear as their new president, the youngest leader in almost four decades.

“It’s exciting and humbling I think there’s something happening in the SBC,” Greear said after he was elected.

The boyish pastor of popular megachurch The Summit, bested longtime, old guard Baptist preacher Ken Hemphill in a 69 to 31 percent vote. But Greear insists it’s not about getting rid of the old.

Instead, he sees himself as a bridge builder, one who understands the needed emphasis on diversity and engaging a younger demographic.

“We don’t want, especially the younger generation, for them to feel like this is their fathers or grandfathers convention,” he said. “We want to engage and we want to show up and we want to be responsible for the institutions that help lead the way out in mission.”

The new era also sees a larger role for women, but not in the pulpit, as the SBC still holds to traditional gender roles.

And that doesn’t sit well with critics who blame that “good old boy” attitude for the scandals that forced the recent departure of three prominent SBC leaders: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary head Paige Patterson, SBC Executive Committee President Frank Page and Memphis Pastor Andy Savage.

At a protest outside the Kay Bailey Hutchison convention center, one angry participant said, “When it comes to abuse, both physical, sexual, emotional, all of that, it’s really important that the church takes a stand. And large churches like the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s really important that they actually have things in place in their churches where the pastors and the leadership can help.”

Greear agrees.

“We have to be very clear that some things are not only immoral, they are also illegal,” he said. “And because they are illegal and we, as Southern Baptists believing the Bible, believe that God gave government authorities to them for our protection and to be obeyed wherever we can, with good conscience.”

Adding to strife at the convention was the last minute addition of Vice President Pence, the self-titled Evangelical Catholic who invited himself to speak.

Raw video: Vice president speaks at Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, Texas.

One member offered a motion to disinvite the vice president.

“What is said in Washington echoes around the world and having him – Mr. Pence – come further hinders our work,” the member said.

During his speech, Pence stressed a message of prayer but also a fair dose of politics, listing the administration’s accomplishments including the recent summit in North Korea. He then asked for members continued support.

“As I stand before you today I say with confidence, jobs are back, confidence is back…and under President Donald Trump,” he said.

But there’s plenty more work ahead.

Although the Southern Baptists have seen an increase in the number of churches, which is now over 47,000, there’s been a continuing decline in the number of baptisms and members. The hope is the new president will help turn those numbers around.