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The Real Problem for the Southern Baptist Convention

current events women in ministry Mar 25, 2023

One of my favorite scenes from the first Star Wars movie, A New Hope, features a confrontation between Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fischer, Darth Vader, played by David Prowse, and the evil Empire Governor Moff Tarkin, played by British actor Peter Cushing.

Tarkin is threatening to display the power of the newly constructed death star by destroying the Princess’s home planet of Alderaan, unless she divulges the location of the Rebel Alliance Home Base. Six-foot-one Cushing and Prowse, at six-foot-six, both tower over the petite, five-foot-one, Fisher. She stares up at them the entire scene.

Just before Governor Tarkin gives the final order to destroy the planet, Princess Leia says to him through gritted teeth, “The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.” Tarkin responds angrily, “Not after we demonstrate the power of this station.” With a single blast from the Death Star, Tarkin eliminates an entire planet of innocent and unsuspecting people. His power to destroy is unquestionable.

The only way the Empire knew to keep their members in place, was to demonstrate the one power they had — the power to eliminate. It was the fear of elimination, they thought, that would keep the star systems in line. They were wrong.


The Great Ejection

Five brilliant star systems in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Empire have been eliminated. With a click of the mouse, the Saddleback Church, based in Lake Forest, California; Calvary Baptist Church in Jackson, Mississippi.; Fern Creek Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky; New Faith Mission Ministry in Griffin, Georgia, and St. Timothy’s Christian Baptist Church in Baltimore, Maryland, are no longer welcome in the Southern Baptist family of star systems.

This is only the beginning.

The Rev. Mike Law, pastor of the Arlington Baptist Church, in Virginia, has now presented the SBC executive and credentials committees with a list of 170 women he claims are serving as “pastors” in SBC churches. He is asking that the congregations they serve be formally expelled at this summer’s annual meeting.

The more you tighten your grip the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Curtis W. Freeman in a recent Religious News Service article astutely presented the SBC dilemma.

“Messengers at this year’s annual meeting in New Orleans on June 11-12 have two options: They can rescind the action of the Executive Committee and reinstate Saddleback and the four other congregations, or they can continue down the road of ejecting the disorderly churches with their 170 women pastors.”

In other words, the SBC delegates either tell the Executive Committee they were wrong in expelling Saddleback and the others, or they eject the 170 churches indicted by Rev. Law. As Freeman so aptly observes, it’s either a “great confession,” or a “great ejection.” The former seems highly unlikely.


The Real Problem

Thirty years ago I was a rookie pastor in Corpus Christi, Texas. One day I had lunch with another pastor in town. He wasn’t much older than me but was already a rising star in what was then a new Southern Baptist Convention under new Fundamentalist management.

By the time the entree hit the table, it was obvious that he had asked me to lunch in order to recruit me. I was told that as a highly educated Hispanic, I would go far in the new SBC. The new SBC was looking for potential leaders like me. My colleague assured me that he could get me on an influential SBC committee (he had no idea how much I loathe committee work).

“What about women in ministry?” I asked him.

He shook his head. The twenty-year fight for control of the SBC was all about the inerrancy of Scripture, he assured me. The fighting was over. The inerrancy of Scripture would be the only litmus test for cooperation, he promised.

I nodded and thanked him for lunch. A few months later, he got the plumb assignment he had been hoping for at a very prestigious church. I never heard from him again.

I have no ill will towards him. He was earnestly passionate about the new direction of the SBC. By all accounts, in the intervening years, he has been an effective pastor and leader. He has risen high in the Southern Baptist world. He has been a good and faithful servant and has genuinely made a difference for Christ.

He’s not to be blamed for misjudging me. He had no way of knowing that I could no more be a Fundamentalist than a frog. I just don’t have it in me. Nor is he to be blamed for misjudging the SBC. So many have.

And that brings us to the horrifying problem for the SBC today. It’s not women pastors, any more than it was the inerrancy of Scripture thirty years ago.

It’s the thing that my pastor friend and so many like him misjudged — the deadly spirit of Fundamentalism. It was in its infancy that day we met for lunch, but now has saturated the fabric of SBC life, metastasizing over thirty years of free reign.


The Fundamentalist Fuel

The brand of Fundamentalism that now defines Southern Baptists' life runs on three fuel sources: Cannibalism, Paranoia, and Tribalism. Fundamentalism cannot survive without all three.



Fundamentalism needs an internal threat and a mechanism for the elimination of that threat. It feeds on fighting an enemy from within.

I’ve seen the euphoria on the faces of pastors when the perceived heretic is thrown out of the system. Like a scene out of Game of Thrones, their chests swell with pride at the elimination of the “heretical” enemy. The dopamine rush is powerful and addictive.

I’ve also witnessed the devastation on the lives of good men and women who had given their entire adult lives to the work of the SBC only to be tossed away like yesterday’s garbage because their conscious would not permit them to champion Fundamentalist dogma.

I’ve lived to see thousands of young people look behind the veil, see it for what it is, and walk away. And now half the world’s population will be barred from any SBC pulpit because Fundamentalism is hungry and needs another pound of flesh.

The more you tighten your grip the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

If you agree with the SBC’s stance on women as pastors, you will probably bristle at my argument and applaud the actions of the Executive Committee. I understand. Enjoy the victory while it lasts. Some day they will find fault in one of your convictions and come for you.

It’s just a matter of time. Fundamentalism always feeds on its own.



Fundamentalism needs an external enemy and an anxious membership.

Rallying Christians under one banner is a bit like herding cats. Fear and paranoia are handy tools for keeping everyone in line. Fundamentalism demands that everyone is kept in line.

Internal enemies are sometimes difficult to produce, but external enemies abound. They are easy targets because they can’t, or in most cases have no desire to, fight back.

It’s the reason Southern Baptists are best known for what they are against. When the people in the pew start to ask questions, the SBC’s response is to organize a boycott, a sit-in, or a letter-writing campaign — any fear-based distraction will do and any foreign bogeyman will fit the bill.

It’s also the reason Fundamentalists are easy prey for conspiracy theories. Like Pavlov’s dogs, they are conditioned to gobble up any message that strikes fear in their hearts and identifies a clear and present external enemy.



Fundamentalism needs a pure aesthetic and a rhetoric of conformity.

Fundamentalism secretly loathes that which is different or complex. It sees the world in black and white, us and them, the righteous and the wicked. It draws stark lines and makes confident pronouncements.

This is the primary reason I could never be a Fundamentalist. I see shades of gray in everything. I spend hours teasing out the complexities of almost any issue (or biblical teaching). I relish nuanced readings of Scripture. Something deep within me bristles at dogmatic pronouncements (even when I agree with them in substance).

None of these things make me any better than my Fundamentalist friends. They just make me different. And different is never good in the world of Fundamentalism. Fundamentalism needs purity and simplistic dogma because the Fundamentalist tribe cannot survive without homogeneity and a rallying cry that boils any issue down to a first-grade level.

Anyone who challenges the tribe is seen as a threat to the tribe’s existence and is therefore silenced or eliminated. The problem with those who would seek to purify the church is that they always end up looking more like those who crucified Jesus than those who followed him.

This was never more clearly on display than in the 2022 Sexual Abuse Report which chronicled the horrific, calloused, and hypocritical behavior of top SBC leaders who worked to stonewall, discredit, and even demonize abuse victims who came forward.

According to the report, Father Thomas Doyle, a priest and canon lawyer who first warned of the looming Catholic sex abuse crisis, warned SBC leaders that they were going down the same road as the Catholics.

His warnings were ignored.

Father Doyle characterized the SBC leadership’s response to his warnings “as dismissive, stating that such reactions are standard for people in church leadership positions, who tend to place the needs of the institution before their Christian obligations.”

This only happens in a culture like Fundamentalism where the institution becomes more important than people, and “the ends justify the means.” Fundamentalism will protect the tribe, no matter the human cost. It will seek to purify its own ranks periodically to assure homogeneity and conformity. 

The more you tighten your grip the more star systems will slip through your fingers.


Your Spiritual Instincts (or The Triumph of the Holy Spirit)

I was only sixteen years old when I sat mesmerized in that theater and witnessed the Empire’s power to destroy a planet, but I knew at that moment that the Empire would lose. I knew instinctively that the heartless and arrogant would never win. It took 20 years and an entire franchise of movies to prove my teenage instincts right.

I didn’t take my friend’s offer of fame and fortune in the new, Fundamentalist-controlled SBC. My instincts told me I wouldn't be happy and it wouldn't end well. It’s taken about 30 years for the SBC Empire to prove my instincts right.



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