High regard for women woven throughout SBC meeting

DALLAS One hundred years after women were first seated as messengers at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Hot Springs, Ark., dialogue on women’s roles, dignity and worth infused the 2018 SBC meeting in Dallas. Substantive discussions of abuse and the #MeToo movement informed speeches and panels, while a #ChurchToo rally outside the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center aimed to raise awareness. 

The emphasis was precipitated by recent events including the termination of Paige Patterson as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president emeritus in light of allegations including the mishandling of a sexual abuse complaint while he was employed at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

SBC President-elect J.D. Greear spoke on women’s issues following his election, affirming that churches must be safe places for women to report abuse and that governmental authorities must be notified.  

Resolutions and motions

Two SBC resolutions addressed the dignity and protection of women. 

Resolution 1, on the “dignity and worth of women,” recognized the “significant role in ministry, evangelism, and disciple-making” of women in Scripture and acknowledged their historical contributions to SBC missions and churches, calling for the encouragement of women’s “diverse gifts, callings and contributions” in “biblically appropriate ways.”

Resolution 2, decrying “abuse” and affirming the church’s responsibilities to properly address it, passed with the following italicized changes: “We deplore, apologize, and ask forgiveness for failures to protect the abused, failures that have occurred in evangelical churches and ministries, including such failures within our own denomination.”

Joy Aull, the Alabama messenger who proposed the added language, said her work with victims convinced her the SBC must “validate their experiences by asking forgiveness.”

Jason Duesing, chairman of the Committee on Resolutions, told reporters the resolutions were crafted in response to the committee’s receiving numerous proposed resolutions on both topics.

The committee also wanted to acknowledge the centennial anniversary of women as convention messengers, thus prompting the first resolution, Duesing explained, adding that the committee was not surprised by the request to add words of apology to the resolution on abuse.

Additionally from the convention floor, two motions on protecting churches from sexual predators were referred to the Executive Committee, as was a motion asking the EC to study biblical authority for a woman to serve as SBC president. 

From the seminaries

All six SBC seminary presidents discussed female students and faculty, specifically focusing on issues of sexual abuse and misconduct, during their reports.

Jeffrey Bingham, interim president of Southwestern, announced to applause that his “priority is to create a safe environment and a campus culture that protects and cares for the victims of abuse,” adding, “At Southwestern we denounce all forms of abuse, all behavior that enables abuse, all behavior that fails to protect the abused and all behavior that fails to protect those that are vulnerable to abuse.” Bingham said he had instructed faculty and staff to complete a course in sexual harassment by July 31 and that the seminary was consulting with third-party agencies to develop proactive responses. 

All of the presidents of the other five seminaries issued statements deploring abuse and pledging safety on campus.

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin affirmed his institution’s commitment to a “complementarian understanding of gender roles” in church and family. New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary President Chuck Kelley said women do not serve as preaching professors at NOBTS, though both the associate dean of undergraduate studies and associate dean of graduate studies are women.

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler Jr. said every professor in the school of theology must be qualified to be a pastor of a Southern Baptist church. 

“That means that every faculty member in the school of theology and every faculty position is going to be filled by a man,” he said. “And we say that without an apology. 

“But at the same time, we have other schools and other programs in which there are many women who are on the faculty and wonderfully serving.”

Mohler said he thinks that distinction is “really important,” and he added that “there is not a man in this room who is not indebted to women who have taught him.”

#MeToo and the SBC

During the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission report, ERLC President Russell Moore announced an upcoming women’s summit and the entity’s partnership with LifeWay Research to conduct a study on the extent of abuse in churches. 

In the exhibit hall, an SBC Voices podcast discussion on sexual abuse featured a panel including LifeWay author Beth Moore, Russell Moore and Matt Carter, pastor of Austin Stone church, for a conversation concerning child abuse and women’s issues. 

Carter said he now more carefully prepares sermons, with victims in mind: “One of the last things we want to do is open up new wounds for these women who have been traumatized.”

Beth Moore emphasized the benefits of assisting victims: “In every bit of this being exposed, God is doing something wonderful for the church,” because as women receive help, this spreads to their “spheres of influence” and makes the whole church “healthier.” 

She also noted that since assault and abuse involve misuses of power, proper power must be used “immediately for the victim and her safety,” stressing the importance of reporting incidents to authorities and providing female advocates to assist in counseling. 

Moore later cautioned against confusing sexual “immorality” with “criminality,” adding that “both require repentance to be restored, but one calls the police.”

All three panelists expressed the need for firm policies and third-party assistance in handling abuse incidents. 

“It starts with your staff,” Carter said, confirming volunteers and staff underwent a weeklong training recently and that the church consulted with the organization MinistrySafe this spring, an indirect reference to the well-publicized resignation of a Stone pastor accused of mishandling a sexual assault case at a prior church. 

Carter also said his staff created videos chronicling stories of victims to create a “safe environment” empowering women to seek help.

Calling for a balance of grace and justice, Russell Moore cautioned against abusers using “grace as something to hide behind,” and added that “repentance and restoration never entitle someone to any particular type of leadership.”

The ERLC also sponsored a panel discussion on “Gospel Sexuality in a #MeToo Culture” featuring Russell Moore, author and speaker Trillia Newbell, LifeWay author Jamie Ivey, MinistrySafe founder and attorney Kimberly Norris, and James Merritt, former SBC president and current pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Sugarloaf, Ga.

Newbell recounted an experience which she, as an 18-year-old college coed, was molested on a band trip by an older male student. The university took appropriate steps; the man was convicted and jailed, yet the experience affected Newbell for years. 

“It is time for this whole subject matter to come out of the closet in evangelical contexts. Stop putting on the happy evangelical face,” Norris stated.

Moore echoed remarks he made earlier in the podcast, “Abuse is not a public relations issue to be managed,” adding that Jesus “exposes sin in order to redirect and to heal it.”

“God has given us an opportunity to stand up and say wrong is wrong and we will no longer be silent and [will] do what Jesus wants us to do.,” Merritt said.

“If a woman doesn’t feel her voice will be heard in the church, she is less apt to say what has happened to her,” Ivey added, affirming the need for women in leadership positions in church. 

Outside the convention center, some 50-60 participants rallied at lunchtime June 12 to raise awareness of abuse. 

“We’re just here to come alongside the church, encourage them to get involved, to lift up women the way Jesus did,” rally speaker Carolyn Deevers told reporters. Deevers said she was abused by her former husband, a pastor in another denomination.

Another rally speaker, Mary DeMuth, an abuse survivor who attends a large local SBC church, told the TEXAN she had not experienced abuse in her own church and that we “must be careful about judging all SBC churches,” but that the issue must be taken “seriously.” When assured the subject was being addressed inside the SBC, she called the news “encouraging.”

At the SEBTS-sponsored women’s leadership breakfast featuring author Jen Wilkin, who spoke on the “terrifying and exhilarating” experience of being a woman in ministry. “It must never be about you moving into a new space. It is always about the woman who is sitting in the pew who doesn’t know she needs advocacy,” Wilkin said before speaking on heroic women of Scripture. 

SBC Dallas 2018 in many ways became the unofficial “convention of the woman,” a century after women gained the right to vote in the convention, an achievement which occurred two years before the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote in the United States. 

—This article also contains reporting by Tom Strode, David Roach and Tammi Reed Ledbetter.

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