The 2017 Southern Baptist Imbroglio Pt 1.

Winston Churchill reportedly quipped of the United States: “Americans can be trusted to do the right thing, after exhausting every other option.”

Truer words have never been used to speak of the Southern Baptist Convention, particularly when it comes to the issue of racism.


This week, amid what should have been an otherwise peaceable, well-scripted annual meeting that garnered few, if any, headlines outside of the religious news services, the resolutions committee and its chairman, Dr. Barrett Duke, made an unforced error the likes of which no denominational precedent can be found.

Trust me. I looked for one.

Yet it’s not supposed to happen this way. Perhaps an exposition of some arcane ecclesiastic parliamentary minutiae is in order.

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention is entrusted with the authority to appoint ten persons to serve on the annual resolutions committee, including the chairman of the committee, each year. The bylaws of the convention stipulate that at least two of the members shall have served on the committee during the prior year, presumably to ensure both confessional continuity and a nuts-and-bolts grasp of how the committee’s work is done. Or in the case of this year’s committee, not done.

Additionally, three of the members must concurrently serve on the SBC Executive Committee, presumably for two reasons: (1) to supply the committee with the institutional knowledge of convention affairs that is almost exclusively the province of the Executive Committee and (2) to ensure that the SBC entity charged with the actual day-to-day planning and management of the annual meeting has representation during the committee’s deliberations.

This year, SBC President Steve Gaines named Duke, the executive director of the Montana state convention and former head of the Washington office of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, as chairman. The “continuity” members who served on last year’s committee were: the national president of the Women’s Missionary Union (WMU), Linda Cooper; Dr. Jason Duesing, the provost of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the former Chief of Staff to Southwestern Seminary President Paige Patterson; and the vice president of communications for the National Religious Broadcasters, James Smith. But more about Mr. Smith later.

The SBC Executive Committee members named to this year’s committee were Ken Alford, a pastor from Valdosta, GA, who previously served as chairman of the North American Mission Board (NAMB), Roland Slade, a pastor from El Cajon, CA, and Linda Cooper, whose service on this year’s committee met both the Executive Committee requirement and the continuity requirement described above.

Other members rounding out the committee were Dr. Matthew McKeller, a current Southwestern professor of preaching, former trustee board officer for the seminary, and one of five SWBTS faculty members who recently posted a controversial and racially insensitive photo to Twitter; Dr. Jeffrey Riley, a current professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and a Southwestern seminary alumnus; Dr. David Leavell, a Tennessee pastor and the son of long-time New Orleans seminary president, Landrum Leavell; and Felix Cabrera, a Hispanic pastor from Oklahoma City.

Thus, the Resolutions Committee of the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention was formed. Five white men with earned Ph.D. degrees, one veteran journalist, one woman (and the only layperson on the committee), one Hispanic pastor, one African-American pastor, and one former SBC board trustee chairman.

That this august group of experienced convention operators, the vast majority of whom have spent their entire professional lives in full-time vocational ministry, would have so misread the convention messengers, so miscalculated the public embarrassment their inaction would cause, and so misunderstood the cultural, theological, and personal significance that repudiating alt-right white supremacy would mean, begs any number of questions.

From my distant position in Washington, D.C., viewing via live, though inconsistently available webstream, I asked myself a few of them:

How can they be that tone deaf?

Have they not learned anything from past stupidities?

Who on the committee was pushing the hardest against the McKissic resolution?

Who from the Executive Committee staff or the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission failed to warn the convention president, or the committee itself, of the price the convention would pay for rejecting this already-public resolution?

Who from outside the committee was pressuring them NOT to act on the McKissic resolution?

Why didn’t the committee reach out to McKissic, as typically happens in cases like this, before the convention report to seek more explanation, greater clarity, or consider the possibility of alternative wording that would satisfy both a majority of the committee and the resolution’s author?

Rather than being concerned about the original text of the resolution, as the committee chairman stated, were there possibly other reasons that certain members of the committee would oppose this or any resolution submitted by McKissic?

What can be done to prevent this sort of inexcusably ham-fisted denominational folly in the future?

Given that SBC bylaws require that two of this year’s committee members serve again next year, how should SBC President Steve Gaines proceed to make sure the culprits of this year’s resolution meltdown are not given a similar opportunity next year?

Did the convention parliamentarian not see this coming? Did he adequately advise the committee, the convention president, and the messengers? If so, how did the wheels come off so quickly and calamitously?

Others have written reliable and thorough play-by-play accounts of what occurred, and now it is all history. In my next (and final) post about this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, I will seek to answer these questions.

Stay tuned . . .