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Southern Baptists Prepare To Meet To Elect A Leader Following A Rocky Year

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

The Southern Baptist Convention is the largest evangelical group in the U.S. and one of the most politically influential. Starting Sunday, the convention meets to elect a new president. It's been a tumultuous time. The SBC has faced accusations of sexual abuse, gender inequality and racism.

Dwight McKissic is pastor of the Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas. He says he's troubled by the move within the SBC to ban the teaching of critical race theory at its seminaries.

DWIGHT MCKISSIC: You have a majority of white men telling Black preachers what we can and cannot say and what's compatible or incompatible with the Baptist faith and the message based on their opinion. That's hugely problematic and a throwback to slavery times where the white slave master had to approve of sermons by the Black preacher.

MCCAMMON: On the gender equality front, the SBC forbids women from being pastors, although some congregations have ordained them.

Beth Allison Barr is a history professor at Baylor University.

BETH ALLISON BARR: My optimism is very low that the SBC is going to move on the issue of women preaching, teaching or leading.

MCCAMMON: Outgoing president J.D. Greear has been accused by some Southern Baptists of being too liberal on some issues. And the denomination's chief ethicist recently resigned.

Wheaton College professor Ed Stetzer spoke with Rachel Martin about what's at stake.

ED STETZER: I don't think it's too strong to say it's a crossroads. Southern Baptists are the largest Protestant denomination in America. Over 15, perhaps close to 20,000 messengers will descend on Nashville. And they will vote on a series of issues, including a president that, I believe, will set the future course of the denomination in ways that could be very positive or very negative. But it's certainly a watershed moment.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: So let's talk about what that crossroads looks like. There have long been issues with how the SBC deals with sexual abuse claims. This is one kind of fault line right now. And this was what provoked the resignation of Russell Moore - right? - the chief ethicist at the SBC. Can you tell us what happened?

STETZER: Yeah. I think there were some accusations of mishandling of abuse claims. I am one of those calling for an independent, third-party investigation of the handling of these claims both by the executive committee and by the credentialing committee to ask the hard questions about what went wrong, what was handled well. There have been some accusations and some counteraccusations made. And I think, at this point, the only way to get to clarity is an independent, third-party investigation.

MARTIN: Moore himself wrote scathing letters to the SBC leadership. What did he say? And what was the response?

STETZER: Yeah. I think some of the response is still in play. There's been, you know, people who have said no, this is absolutely not true. There are others who've corroborated this as well. And you got a case where, again, we need that investigation. I think the other part of the conversation is the issue in and around race - racial reconciliation, critical race theory, racial tensions and more. And I think that'll be a key part of both the resolutions, which are sort of statements of the convention at a given meeting, and the presidential election as well.

MARTIN: So let's talk about race. I mean, this is also something that Russell Moore addressed in his letters to the leadership. He wrote specifically, accusing some on the executive committee of, quote, "raw racist sentiment behind closed doors." That is damning, Ed. Is he right?

STETZER: Yes. I think there are places where, behind closed doors, there are raw racist sentiment expressed. And I think also, too, probably the bigger challenge is the question of - where are Southern Baptists going to be, and where are Southern Baptists going to go in and around conversations of racial justice? I think now, as this has become a major issue in our culture - again, we have states banning the teaching of critical race theory or the 1619 Project - I think this is reflected in Southern Baptists, who are more conservative than the population as a whole.

However, most pastors and leaders that I know, particularly Anglo pastors and leaders, have listened to the lived experience of African American sisters and brothers and say, it's different than mine. And how do we account for that? So I think Southern Baptists have to find a way to account for the reality that systemic racism does continue to exist and, simultaneously, probably to distance themselves from some ideas, like some parts of critical race theory, that Southern Baptists, other evangelicals and conservatives, in general, are rejecting right now. But I imagine that's going to be a big topic of discussion.

MARTIN: So figuring out how to deal in a more honest way with sexual abuse claims, addressing race and figuring out what to do about equity for women in church leadership - isn't that also a factor here?

STETZER: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. So with the departure of my friend Beth Moore, publicly so, from the convention - and we do know that men and women both can be - and boys and girls both can be targets of abuse. But this also disproportionately impacts women. These are the women's voices that were silenced in some of these conversations, so absolutely.

Now, the challenge is I don't think that Southern Baptists, like Catholics, like Mormons, like lots of other religions, are going to change beliefs and practices regarding men and women in ordained leadership, in pastoral roles. But there has to be an acknowledgment that there have been ramifications and implications of that that have to be addressed. And you can't just say, let's not worry about these things, let's focus on evangelism, when there are predators in your midst who are preying on people sexually.

MARTIN: And I imagine the SBC wants to grow, right? And so they have to figure out answers to these questions in order to meet the demographic changes of this country...

STETZER: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To attract younger people who see these issues in very different ways, oftentimes, than the older leadership. And that's, I imagine, what's at stake with this meeting and this next election.

STETZER: Yeah. And Southern Baptists are perpetually at war with themselves. Every year, there's a controversy. And that has alienated a lot of people. Southern Baptists are remarkably declining numerically. And so I do think, as one who is an evangelical Christian, that the message of Christ crucified and resurrected changes everything. But it can't just be, OK, that's the only thing we talk about, when there are significant issues of race - that relates to our understanding of the Scriptures - significant issues of abuse - that relates to understanding of Scriptures.

And if we're going to be people of the Bible, which is what Southern Baptist and evangelicals, in general, would say, then we have to deal with all of the parts of the Bible, including the parts of the Bible that right now are speaking prophetically to this movement about issues of race, about issues of abuse and, really, about issues of focus. And my hope is that Southern Baptists will, at this watershed moment, make the right decisions.

MARTIN: Ed Stetzer, we appreciate your time, as always. Thank you so much.

STETZER: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF POPPY ACKROYD'S "TRAINS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.