Emerging Voices | The Un-Baptist Spirit Within the Southern Baptist Convention

An un-Baptist spirit is permeating the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.

This spirit has a thirst for power and control at the expense of allowing local churches to live out God’s call for their congregation. This same spirit has been at work in the widespread covering up of clergy sexual abuses within Baptist life and the wider church universal.

In the SBC, this spirit has found fertile ground to hamper attempts to quell this evil.

In mid-February, a leader resigned from the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force after facing criticism for reporting to the SBC’s Credentials Committee two congregations who invited Johnny Hunt to preach and lead retreats.

Some SBC leaders appear disinclined to hold accountable predators and those who harbor them, but they are eager to remove congregations from the convention for calling women as pastors.

One week after this resignation, the SBC removed five congregations – Calvary Baptist Church, Fern Creek Baptist Church, New Faith Mission Ministry, Saddleback Church, and St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist Church – for affirming the women sent to them by God as minsters.

That evil spirit has led the SBC’s Executive Committee to demonstrate that sexual predators are more welcomed into ministry than women called and equipped by God.

This evil spirit has long been at work in the church. Though hardly the first to hold to views backed by this spirit, W.A. Criswell espoused this spirit as he participated in Bill Moyer’s “The Battle for the Bible,” a nationally televised event from May 1989.

In this program, Criswell advocated for his own brand of literalistic readings of scripture, rejecting the pillar of Baptist doctrine “that each of us is free to interpret the scripture in submission to the holy spirit” by calling it “a ruse.”

He instead advocated for this hermeneutic: “If you will let the holy spirit say to you in your heart what I’m reading here in the Bible is the literal truth, and if the holy spirit is allowed to teach you … you’ll come out saying the same thing I do.” What were Criswell’s highlighted beliefs in this interview?

“What should a young woman do if she sincerely believes she’s been called by God to be a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention?” Moyers asked.

“She is mistaken,” Criswell replied. “God never called her. Her own personal ambition, or longing for recognition or a thousand other things lead her into that persuasion.”

A literal reading of 1 Corinthians 14:33b-36 offers a clear refutation of the views espoused by Criswell that continue to dominate the SBC today: “‘As in all the churches of the saints, the women in those churches are to keep silent; for they are not permitted to speak, but are to be submitting to themselves just as it says in the [Mosaic] Law…’ What? Are you the one from which God’s word came out of? Or are you the only one to which God’s word came to?”

Paul here is quoting a belief of the Corinthian Christians that made its way to him. He then rebukes them; a pattern replicated elsewhere in 1 Corinthians. He rhetorically asks the Corinthians if they themselves have a monopoly on God’s word, which they, of course, do not.

On the coattails of Criswell, the SBC leadership has taken Paul’s sarcasm-laced repudiation of the Corinthian’s questions “literally” to preserve their own grip on power in their rejection of God’s plans for the kingdom.

Pastors Linda Popham, Linda Smith, Minnie Washington, Gwennette Watson and Stacie Wood lead the churches ousted by the Executive Committee on Feb. 21, 2023.

Each of these women were vilified by the Executive Committee, which protects and makes excuses for men who embody evil through their well-documented patterns of abuse.

All the while this committee, comprised predominantly of men, cannot perceive that they themselves are not the one from which God’s word came out of, nor that they are the only ones to which God’s word came to.

If only the Executive Committee would allow the Holy Spirit to guide its understanding towards God’s interpretation, rather than towards conformity with their peers, then these (and other) women God has called could continue building the kingdom.

Instead, these are pitiful acts of “virtue” signaling by the Executive Committee that once again seeks to flex its own power against the design of God’s Kingdom and against the victims of the predators they work hard to protect.

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series focused on engaging the emerging generations of faith leaders. If you know anyone who might be interested, encourage them to submit an article for consideration to [email protected].

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