Baptist Battles Redivivus, Pts. 1 and 2

The crisis of trust presently convulsing the 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention owes itself to various precipitate causes. To be sure, some of the antecedent events were inevitable.  Large organizations, particularly religious ones, often struggle through a season of self-reflection, redefinition and conflict during generational transfers of leadership.

Such conflicts are both ancient and organic. The Bible is full of such stories: Isaac and his two sons; Saul and David; David and Absalom; and so on. Church history — from the time of the Apostles until the present day — is replete with examples. 

Think of how the Church of England, for instance, splintered into numerous factions long after the death of Henry VIII. Or more recently, how the First Baptist Church of Dallas burned through a handful of successive pastors following the non-retirement of its legendary patriarch, W.A. Criswell.

But this week, the evangelical world has watched with a mixture of disbelief and disgust as the Executive Committee of Southern Baptist Convention devolved into a confused parliamentary boondoggle complete with sobbing litigants, aggrieved survivors, a former White House lawyer, and a sneering parliamentarian who perched and plotted on the shoulder of the Committee’s kindhearted chairman like Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin. 

It was part Shakespearean tragedy and part Puccinian opera, all of it worthy of a short story jointly written by G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor.

In a word, it was ecclesiastic trainwreck.  Had someone the foresight to sell tickets and stream online as pay-per-view, the circus it became could have generated impressive revenues for the convention’s mission-sending agencies and other ministries.

But like so many other things associated with Southern Baptists, nobody in charge was thinking ahead.

At the center of this unfolding drama is the Rev. Ronnie Floyd, a religious leader whose record as a successful megachurch pastor and church growth visionary has now been eclipsed by his serial bungling of sex abuse and his torturous manipulation of the convention’s polity to amass power for his Committee, and thus for himself and his chief aide-de-camp, a part-time lawyer whose only substantive credential is his derivative connection to the late Adrian Rogers.

Adding speed to Floyd’s very public denoument is a reportedly tone-deaf management style that has sent some of his most able staff members looking elsewhere for employment, his use of mission dollars to splash his own airbrushed image on almost every convention publication, and his intensified defiance of the convention’s overwhelming rebuke of his agenda at last summer’s annual meeting.

In fairness, the convention has never really warmed to Ronnie Floyd in his more than four decades of denominational ladder climbing.  When he’s lost, he’s lost big.  When he’s won, it was by a hair. 

None of which has ever seemed to deter the Rev. Floyd, a man whose minimalist dietary habits and fancy dress have always seemed strangely out of place in a convention full of potluck preachers wearing off-the-rack suits and orthopedic shoes.

This week, Floyd’s eccentricities and ambitions were on full display. His sallowed skin and sunken cheeks peeked out of his pressed collar and designer coat. At a moment when nobody was asking him to speak, he assayed the rostrum and gripped the podium and reminded us all of his own piety and proximity to the Almighty.

Today, less than 24 hours after the close of what some believe to be the penultimate scene of Floyd’s final act on the convention stage, the denomination has hit a seven day pause.  An intermission, if you will, to let the good people at home refresh their beverages and evacuate their bladders and prepare themselves for what comes next.

And what comes next, as with so many great tragedies of Western literature, promises to be either a final redemption for Floyd’s ministry as he climbs from the ash heap of his own self-immolation or a triumphant resurrection of integrity that will have a generation of Southern Baptists saying of him, “his last act was his best.”


Part II

On the other hand, Floyd’s short tenure at the Executive Committee could end catastrophically, an anticlimax —  of sorts — that would doubtlessly reinforce the Arkansan’s perennial impulse to put himself at the tipping point of any denominational development. So determined to lead something, anything, everything in fact, Floyd’s exit path may ironically result in a true moment of leadership. A voluntary departure could, in fact, make it easier for the convention to recover from the failed experiment in ecclesiastic centralization that has marked Floyd’s tenure in Nashville. 

Of course, the convention will recover on its own, in time.  That, perhaps, is the hardest part for Floyd: the growing realization that Southern Baptists don’t need him — or really even want him — to lead them. More painful is the sobering possibility that they never did.

Either way, the disastrous executive leadership of Ronnie Floyd at Southern Baptists’ national headquarters will likely be, in the final reckoning of Baptist history, a mere footnote. His denominational epitaph could well read, “Ronald Wayne Floyd, a Baptist preacher who might have brought healing during a painful season of convention life had he not gotten in his own way.” Twenty years hence if they mention him in their classrooms at all, Seminary professors may point to the Floyd era in Southern Baptist life as the most recent example of why Baptist polity works, in the tortured end.

Even a good leader, with skill and finesse and native insticts, would not succeed in making Baptists a hierarchical people who look to Nashville for their vision. Southern Baptists are a sturdy and passionately independent people. They are both indomitable and resilient. They have survived their own bastard birth as slaveholders. They have survived the Civil War and the Great Depression. They have survived Klansmen and Klan sympathizers. They have survived official misconduct, fraud, and most recently, they have survived the political machinations and theological manipulations of one Leighton Paige Patterson.

In the coming days, the Executive Committee officers may yet salvage Ronnie’s legacy and “vindicate” him, to use the recent words of one of the committee’s more obdurate trustees. But if that occurs, it will be a byproduct of their determination to salvage the Executive Committee itself.

And if Ronnie is still in office come Anaheim and the Task Force’s recommendations open a path toward mission recovery for the 47,000 church denomination, Floyd will doubtlessly present himself to the messengers as the man who saved the convention. But we will all know better.

That distinction — the man who saved the SBC from itself and the incompetence of would-be leaders — will likely fall to Rev. Bruce Frank, the task force chairman who managed to steal the show in Nashville and demonstrate a profoundly biblical truth: namely, that the Lord raises up his own prophets, in his own time and way.

And he ususally plucks them from relative obscurity rather than bestow the prophets’mantle on men who’ve forged their ministerial credentials in the palace court. Unlike Floyd, Chairman Frank is unemcumbered by four decades of familiarity. If the convention is now experiencing Ronnie fatigue — and it is — Bruce Frank may prove the antidote we’ve been waiting for.

To be continued…

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