ANAHEIM, Calif. — Southern Baptists packed the ballroom of a cavernous hotel on Sunday to hear a warning: Don’t cooperate or compromise with the devil. And this week, as their huge denomination gathers for its annual meeting and to elect a new president, the urgent warning was aimed at their fellow Southern Baptists.
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The host of the Part prayer rally, part campaign rally on the first night of the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was the Conservative Baptist Network, an upstart group that some observers have likened to the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. The network was formed two years ago in response to issues of institutional racism and sexual abuse as priorities in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
In the Southern Baptist Convention – where women are not allowed to be senior pastors – same-sex marriage is opposed and 70% of its almost 14 million members vote Republican – CBN leaders and supporters say the situation is an emergency. This week, they hope to elect a president who agrees.
“Soon it will be women preachers, social justice, then racism, then [critical race theory], then victimization because the world is a ball and chain, and when you’re addicted, it will take you to the bottom. They hate the truth,” MacArthur told a crowd that swung, into the night, between stunned silence and cheers of “It’s true!
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The SBC tends to reflect the state of white evangelicalism in America, and some pundits said CBN’s gathering at the conference and the appearance of MacArthur, whose church is not Southern Baptist, reflected the new bedfellows of that time.
“In the past certain issues that divided evangelicals, such as speaking in tongues, end-time theology, Calvinism – all of those things have receded, and now it’s those social and political issues that define allegiances” , said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvinist. Academic historian who writes on gender and religion. “It seems that a tough patriarchy goes hand in hand with Trump and Trump politics. It is a faithful political and patriarchal alliance. And that’s where you see MacArthur finding common ground with CBN.
Nearly 10,000 Southern Baptists are expected to vote on trade issues Tuesday and Wednesday, including revisions to sexual abuse policies.
After messengers at last year’s meeting approved an investigation into the SBC’s executive committee’s handling of sexual abuse complaints, the convention hired a third-party investigative firm, whose major report released last month documented a cover-up of abuse by Southern Baptist leaders for years. That company, Guidepost Solutions, posted a tweet this month supporting the LGBTQ community, drawing criticism from some Southern Baptist leaders.
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As in many institutions, more and more white evangelicals are questioning their leaders and ready to break. Among their battles: Is recognizing institutional racism akin to embracing critical race theory, and is it unbiblical?
Some recent SBC presidents have mirrored much of their membership, especially younger ones, in beginning to focus on issues such as poverty, racism, and sexism, rather than sexual and gender mores. mainly conservative. And the right flank doesn’t like it.
Benjamin Cole, a longtime SBC member and SBC politics columnist on the Baptist Blogger site, said he thinks the conservative Baptist network is more about divisiveness and political power.
“When it comes to the CRT, the women in the ministry, whatever the issue, I’m not saying they don’t have legitimate concerns, but they’ve exaggerated the issue so much in order to mobilize the uninformed to fight this spectrum of Marxism and liberalism,” Cole said. “I think there’s a broad consensus within the SBC about the things that matter. But in all democratic organizations, not all registered voters decide. It’s the passionate crowd that counts.
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Tom Buck, an outspoken Texas conservative, said Sunday that he was not an official CBN member, but was there and supported the group. He said an SBC vote in 2019 calling critical race theory and intersectionality useful “analytical tools” is evidence of a problem.
“Anything you raise will be problematic,” he said. “There is what I would call a lack of trust and commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture.”
He said the group was also important because of what he called an increase in the number of women preaching. Asked to name one of the 47,000 SBC churches with a female senior pastor, Buck said he knows of a few with female assistant pastors.
Buck said that as he considered the revisions to sexual abuse policy the convention might bring, he was concerned that the accused would not be sure of who their accuser was and could be treated as guilty until to the contrary. He calls current standards, which say any pastor who allows “unrepentant” sex offenders to stay in their church should be kicked out of the SBC, sufficient.
“And it’s not just sexual abuse, but there are many other issues with people living in unrepentant sin that need to be addressed,” Buck told The Washington Post.
Leading contenders for SBC president this week include Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who is not a CBN member but was endorsed by the group on Sunday and spoke at the prayer rally. Bart Barber, a Texas pastor who has held various leadership positions at the SBC, is also in the running.
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The size and influence of the conservative network is difficult to assess. The group does not publish any data on its members or funders, and its spokesperson, Louisiana pastor Brad Jurkovich, did not return calls or emails for comment.
Last week, a Louisiana judge ordered Jurkovich to turn over 10 years of financial records to former members of his church who claim he failed to tell church members that funds intended to support the missionaries were instead used to support the CBN.
Several longtime observers and SBC members say Ascol and Barber are in many ways similar in their conservative beliefs. And generally speaking, in American Christianity, the two leading candidates would be considered theologically side by side, said Griffin Gulledge, a Georgia pastor who views Ascol as divisive and politically motivated.
“It’s their political commitment” that sets them apart, he said, and sets Barber apart from CBN management. Ascol has appeared on secular conservative media shows in recent weeks, and MacArthur has been represented by Jenna Ellis, an attorney for former President Donald Trump.
“What is it really when it comes to this? The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. It is very powerful and influential and has widespread power in think tanks and the like places,” Gulledge said. “There are those who see [the SBC] as a center of influence for American culture and politics and I don’t want to lose it to someone who doesn’t view it as a political tool.