Gnashville, Part II


The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, long regarded as a consistent element of stability, decorum, and caution in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, has devolved for the moment into something unruly, erratic, and altogether unprofessional.

The Executive Committee’s general counsel, Augie Boto, is not entirely to blame. He had some help from two Georgia pastors, EC Chairman Mike Stone and Bylaw Workgroup Chairman Ken Alford. Add to the mix a few years of insufficiently vetted appointments, and we have arrived at this moment of imminent ecclesiastic disaster.

Simply put, the present committee is ill-equipped, under-staffed, and — we hate to say it so plainly — too morally-compromised to perform the investigative and oversight functions it has arrogated to itself without convention authorization. Never in the history of the Executive Committee has so foolish an action been taken as hastily as the recent report of the Bylaw Workgroup. Add to that the misguided — not to mention poorly constructed — constitutional amendment that is now headed to the convention floor, and a perfect storm has been set in motion for the annual meeting in June.

Unless, that is,  cooler heads and more sensible members of the committee prevail before messengers start arriving in Birmingham.

Here are a few of the fundamental miscalculations of the Bylaw Workgroup as we see them:

  1. The Bylaw Workgroup has proceeded on a purely pragmatic basis without first establishing a framework that is consistent with historic Baptist ecclesiology and within the ministry assignment authorized by the Southern Baptist Convention.
  2. The Bylaw Workgroup, having established an inadequate framework for its actions, has acted hastily to resolve a crisis of its own making in a way that introduces confusion rather clarity about the Southern Baptist Convention’s determination to prevent sex abuse.
  3. The Bylaw Workgroup, operating on a false narrative of urgency propagated by the current EC Chairman, has been manipulated into an ill-advised action without full examination of the precedence that would inform a more prudent course.
  4. The Bylaw Workgroup, in an explicit determination to preempt the convention in Birmingham, has fallen prey to the most predictable unforced error in Baptist life: don’t attempt to get ahead of the messengers or reduce their options to redress a convention crisis.

So let’s explore each of these.

  1. Either autonomous congregationalism is the New Testament model for church governance, or it is not. But if it is the way Jesus intended to govern his church, then autonomous churches are the best way to protect children, not the worst. It has become readily apparent that the Executive Committee is run by second-rate lawyers and not first-rate theologians. Lawyers are necessary, to be sure. But the Southern Baptist Convention’s identity is first and foremost a confessional organization with a missiological function. It is not a trade association for ambulance chasers or municipal barristers. The Bylaw Workgroup failed the convention this month by seeking legal counsel before it sought theological counsel. That Augie Boto was sitting at the table and not Albert Mohler, for instance, is telling. Moreover, the Executive Committee is neither charged with the responsibility of “investigating” churches and ministers nor “reporting” on their findings apart from explicit convention authorization. You simply cannot have a convention board of trustees approving new job descriptions for themselves, then acting on those new job descriptions in the same meeting, without the approval of the sole member. Imagine what would happen if the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission had, for instance, determined to investigate individual churches and issue public reports about those churches? Ever hear the word “escrow?”
  2. There is no question that ALL the confusion surrounding the SBC’s response to the sex abuse crisis is a result of the Bylaw Workgroup’s foolish actions. For nearly a year, the Sex Abuse Advisory Council convened by J.D. Greear has been working methodically, cautiously, and with determination to formulate a plan of action that respects Baptist ecclesiological commitments, addresses the concerns of victims and victim advocates, and equips churches to do a better job of protecting innocence. In fact, the Executive Committee appropriated convention funds to support the work of this group. Why on earth the Bylaw Workgroup decided that a handful of Executive Committee trustees, acting within the space of a week, were better equipped to frame a response for the convention than the advisory council convened by the elected president of the convention and already drawing on the input and expertise of convention leaders at state and national levels, as well as non-Southern Baptist advisors from the legal and licensed counseling communities, is beyond explanation. Mark our words, if the Executive Committee persists in its present course, they will turn the convention floor in Birmingham into a referendum on their actions. In that referendum, the EC will lose.
  3. We sat in the Bylaw Workgroup meeting before they went into executive session to scold J.D. Greear. On numerous occasions, EC Chairman Mike Stone insisted that action MUST be taken at that meeting because (1) the EC needed to send a message and (2) there would not be time during the June meeting of the committee to recommend a constitutional amendment. On both counts, Mike Stone is either uninformed or purposefully deceptive. On the first count, the message coming out of the EC was already clear after the presentation by J.D. Greear. His ten-point plan had already won support across the convention and from victims and victim advocates. By insisting on his own script, Stone proved unwilling to allow the elected convention president to define the convention response and seemed stubbornly insistent that his own agenda prevail. He is singularly responsible for the clumsy language of the proposed constitutional amendment, and he alone insisted that it be approved concurrent with the release of J.D.’s ten-point plan. During the Bylaw Workgroup meeting, Stone said over and over that the June EC meeting would not have sufficient time to consider a constitutional amendment. He insisted the committee must act during the Feb. 2019 meeting. But Stone has not done his homework; or Augie didn’t do it for him.  In 1992 — the last time the convention considered a constitutional amendment of this nature — the matter was brought to the Bylaw Workgroup by Gen. T.C. Pinckney during the February meeting. The bylaw workgroup did not originally act on Pinckney’s proposed amendment, so the Virginia trustee brought his recommendation to the full committee which, in turn, requested the Bylaw Workgroup to draft language. Then, in the June 1992 meeting, after the workgroup had worked carefully through proposed language, the EC approved the amendment and it went to the convention floor the next day. Stone’s insistence that the EC act in haste to approve his proposed language was not only ham-fisted, it was sloppy both in text and tone. Now the EC is spending countless hours doing damage control that could otherwise have been used to craft appropriate language and consider all options for convention action with plenty of time at the June meeting to get it right. Instead, we are left with more confusion, anger, frustration, and new questions about the Executive Committee’s competence at both the trustee and staff level.
  4. Simply put, a constitutional amendment is not the only option that messengers should consider in Birmingham. And we can guarantee you, dear reader, it is not the only one they will be given a chance to consider.

Stay tuned . . .

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