The best of times and worst of times

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The year 2018 will prove more significant in the history of the Southern Baptist Convention than was 1979, the date generally regarded as the beginning of the so-called “Conservative Resurgence.” The election in Houston of Adrian Rogers over five other nominees — including prominent Texas leaders Robert Naylor and Abner McCall — presaged a new wave governance for SBC entities and a determined rightward shift both politically and theologically.  Twelve years later, the turn was “accomplished and secure.”

But the election of J.D. Greear in 2018 marked not only a significant generational shift — even more dramatic than the challenge to the Patterson/Pressler coalition by Jim Henry in 1994 — but it also marked a substantial shift away from the anti-Calvinism, anti-charismatic, anti-everything, quasi-misogynist, contrarian trajectory being bullied into existence over the past fifteen years from the presidential home at Southwestern Seminary and its increasingly eccentric occupants.

To be sure, the conflict was coming one way or the other, though nobody anticipated how swiftly and definitively the dominoes would fall. Well, maybe a few people knew what was going on. Maybe they planned it all, move by move, like a game of chess.

Whatever the case, the SBC of the last half of 2018 is a different world than the SBC of the first half. The conflict — as always happens when there is conflict — served the purpose of throwing back the curtains and letting the light shine on events, personalities, and institutions that desperately needed the illumination and disinfectant that sunlight brings.

With that in mind and in no particular order, we give you our ten worst and ten best Southern Baptist moments in 2018:

The 2018 Ten Worst Moments in the Southern Baptist Convention:

Number Ten:  On Aug. 21, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley preached a sermon entitled “The Baptist Blues.”  In the sermon, Kelley bemoaned that he didn’t “recognize the Southern Baptist Convention anymore.” He used the sermon to lash out against declining baptisms, the #MeToo movement, Calvinism, and made oblique accusations about the moral character of unnamed bogeymen. Kelley’s sermon betrayed an alarming emotional instability and immature judgment that jolted seminary trustees. Within weeks, Kelley vacated the presidency to become Chancellor during an interim period while a presidential search committee finds a successor.

Number Nine: On Sept. 13, IMB president David Platt announced he would step down from his leadership of the mission board effective Sept. 27. Months earlier, Platt had offered his resignation, but promised to stay on as president until a successor was named. Meanwhile, Platt had become senior pastor of McLean Bible Church outside D.C., an arrangement that proved untenable. So the trustees asked Platt to step down sooner than originally planned so the IMB could have “an organizational transition”

In his Sept. 26 farewell address, Platt noted his “hate” for “the politics of the SBC,” a day-to-day convention reality that includes “jockeying for position, continual self-promotion, backroom deals followed by spin in the front room, strategizing like brothers are your enemy, feeling like others see you as their enemy . . . getting to the point where you wonder if you can trust anymore even as you start to wonder how trustworthy you’ve become.”

We rank this event among the worst not because Platt, unlike Kelley, missed the mark, but rather because his diagnosis is so startling in self-awareness and honesty. That Platt found institutional change from within no longer worth the effort makes this a low moment for the SBC in 2018. That he experienced constant sniping from Fort Worth throughout his four year tenure is also sad. We wonder to what degree his Feb. 12 decision to leave the IMB might have been different had he held out a few more months.

Number Eight: The expulsion of the Raleigh White Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., marked a low moment for the SBC this year. Truly, the church needed to be expelled for unrepentant bigotries, including the denial of restroom access to an African-American girl. The fact that churches still exist where racism is tolerated serves as a sobering reminder that despite all the statements and resolutions of the past two decades, the Southern Baptist Convention still has work to do.  That the convention so resoundingly supported the expulsion of a racist church shows welcome progress, but the fact that the action was needed in the first place should cause tremendous grief.

Number Seven: The presidential nomination speech for Dr. Ken Hemphill, the former president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, given by Louisiana pastor Brad Jurkovich, was one of the worst moments of 2018. Originally, Jurkovich feigned — if not pledged — neutrality in the run-up to the convention. But by the time Dallas came around, Jurkovich was smarting from the termination of Paige Patterson and clumsily positioned both himself and his candidate as the vehicle for “traditionalist” protest. The nomination speech had several cheap shots, and was altogether unbecoming. Ken Hemphill deserved better. And Brad could have done better.

Number Six: Three words: Break her down.

Number Five:  At the authorization of SBC President Steve Gaines, the annual meeting allotted time for an in-person speech by Vice President Mike Pence. The convention basically has three groups of pastors: one that would cash in their children’s college fund for the chance to visit the White House and take a selfie with the president; another that strongly opposes integrating into the convention schedule anything that smacks of partisan politics; and a third that would rather be in the donut shop no matter who is speaking. We’ve always had trouble stomaching the admixture of partisan politics and the annual convention. It still horrifies us to think of the applause given to Condoleeza Rice at the 2006 annual meeting when she referenced killings in the War on Terror. Hosting Pence forced a debate that probably needs to be had, but he really offered nothing of substance and the convention has better things to do than listen to Republican politicians give stump speeches.

Number Four: The speeches of SWBTS trustees during the 2018 debate on the Hatley Motion together constitute one of the worst moments of the year. Texas trustee Bart Barber, whom we appreciate for many reasons, revealed that he was the last hold-out to terminate Paige Patterson. He argued, though, that it had to be done in the end to protect the trustees’ “spine.” But it’s not the spine of the trustees that is in question; it’s their brains.

South Carolina trustee Wayne Dickard spoke in favor of the Hatley motion. Somewhere in the mix — in case you forgot — Ronnie Floyd offered his two cents. But the whole debate revealed something that gets lost in the praise choruses for Bart Barber: Southwestern’s trustees failed the convention. The only reason Paige had to be fired is because they let him run the seminary down for so long.  Did enrollment declines never matter?  Financial problems? Wasteful spending? Millions in fake Dead Sea Scrolls? Wrongful terminations? The seminary had become a dumpster fire, and somehow we are supposed to praise the trustees because they finally woke up after the place was nearly destroyed?

Put another way: If you had an employee that oversaw a division of your company that had 15 years of verifiable decline, meteoric spikes in expenses, and you knew he was diverting money from needed improvements to build himself a new office and retirement home, would you let it drag on for fifteen years? Hardly. But that’s what Southwestern’s trustees did, and the fact that the whole ordeal came to the convention floor the way it did is evidence of their dereliction.

Number Three: We’re just going to say it outright. The social media accounts of too many Southern Baptist leaders are just plain silly. But at least the vast majority of them do not post photos of their nose hairs or male breasts on Instagram. We’re all for transparency and authenticity, but when it crosses the line into selfies of your sinus cavities and gynecomastia, it’s gone too far.

Number Two: The committees appointed by SBC President Steve Gaines. At times, it looked like everything Gaines did was part of a coordinated effort to make the Dallas convention into the Paige Patterson show: convention sermon, evangelism task force; proteges chairing the key committees, etc. Along the way, his nomination committee fumbled the ball on several fronts. An SBC president cannot be asleep at the switch when it comes to his appointments.

Number One:  The absolute worst moment of 2018 occurred on the evening of May 30th. The SWBTS Executive Committee called Paige Patterson in the middle of the night while he was overseas to tell him he’d been terminated. Of course, we think he should have been relieved of his duties more than 10 years ago. But the whole ordeal — from special called meeting that involved a promotion to “emeritus” status followed by an Executive Committee meeting that reversed course completely — revealed the complete dysfunction of the seminary’s trustee governance. Because they failed to keep the president in check, closely monitor his spending, and perform the basic functions of trustees on behalf of the convention, they painted themselves in a corner and had to knock down the walls to get out of it.  It was a shameful series of failures that led to a shameful, painful end for everyone involved. The convention deserves a complete account of what has transpired, and the fact that such a report has not been given is indicative that root problems have not been addressed.

Paige should have been fired for dozens of reasons long before it became evident how grossly he’d mishandled student rape. That it went on as long as it did is on the trustees. That those same trustees are now responsible to select Patterson’s replacement doesn’t give us much confidence.

Stay tuned for the 10 best SBC moments of 2018…