If you are going to watch religious leaders play high-stakes chess, it helps to know that the rules are quite different in various churches, denominations and other large religious institutions.
Why can't Catholics act more like Episcopalians? Well, there are different doctrines, different rules. Why are Global South believers, and folks in growing sections of the U.S. Sunbelt, so much more powerful in the United Methodist Church than in the Episcopal Church? There are different rules shaping the conventions that make the rules.
Long ago, I watched United Methodists elect new bishops while gathered at the historic Lake Junaluska Conference Center in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. It was easy to watch the clergy engage in face-to-face negotiations about candidates while gathered under the giant trees surrounding the open-air sanctuary. Every now and then the politicking would pause, and everyone would bow their heads as a prayer was read for the Holy Spirit to guide the voting. When the prayer was over it was back to business.
Now, the Southern Baptist Convention game is played on several levels -- as journalists are learning during the debates about the future of the Rev. Paige Patterson, in the wake of debates about his statements about domestic abuse, divorce, women, etc.
You have the public game, of course, with activists on both sides doing that thing they do in their own media forums. Then you have the fact that -- as a seminary president -- Patterson ultimately answers to the trustees of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (click here and dig into the story). Those trustees are selected by the SBC, through its elected leaders. The SBC meets once a year as a convention to do business.
Note the word "convention." This is not a denomination or "Church." It is a complex association of congregations, with local associations, state conventions and then the big national SBC meetings once a year. There are actions the SBC can only take during the two days in June that it does business.
Rest assured that the most important meetings in this current affair are taking place behind closed doors and in conference calls. At that level, almost all flawed, oh-so-human institutions are alike. Every now and then, however, SBC leaders release public statements that are read like Russian tea leaves.
This brings me to that Baptist Press item at the end of this last week, with the headline: "Gaines addresses Patterson, racial diversity, SBC." This was not a news report, but a written, formal statement by the Rev. Steve Gaines, the current SBC president. He leads the powerful Memphis-area Bellevue Baptist Church.
Journalists will, of course, focus on this large section addressing the Patterson crisis. After some words of praise for Patterson's leadership in the SBC past, there is this:
I have talked with him in person and by phone regarding his comments and told him that I disagree with the counsel he gave to a woman who was married to an abusive husband. I personally believe that if a husband abuses his wife physically, the wife should immediately: 1) notify the police and follow their instructions, 2) remove herself and her children physically from the abusive husband under the protection of police for her safety, and 3) notify the family's pastor so the church can engage in church discipline toward the abuser. The church should also seek to come alongside the woman and help her in any way possible to ensure her protection and care.
Regarding Dr. Patterson's more recent remarks about a teenage girl, I believe they were improper. While I love him and appreciate him, I disagree with what he said. Preachers should never refer to women in any way that could be considered demeaning. SBC pastors must do everything we can to protect all women from being subjected to any form of abuse.
On behalf of the SBC, I ask for the forgiveness of all women who have been hurt by these comments and the issue of ill treatment of women within churches in particular. I believe we should esteem and regard women in the same way Jesus did during His earthly ministry. Women are created in the image of God and are of great value and worth. The church especially is no place for misogyny or disrespect for anyone.
This is certainly interesting, but not remarkable.
For those following this intense game of SBC chess, here is the section of this public statement that matters the most. This is a reminder of the official rules of the game.
Journalists: Let us attend.
Some have called for me to stop Dr. Patterson from preaching the Convention Sermon in Dallas. The SBC president does not have the authority to make that decision. Neither does the SBC Committee on Order of Business. It was the messengers of the 2017 SBC meeting that selected Dr. Patterson to preach the 2018 Convention Sermon. There are only two scenarios in which Dr. Patterson will not preach the Convention Sermon: 1) the messengers of the SBC vote at the annual meeting in Dallas for him not to do so, or 2) Dr. Patterson personally withdraws from that responsibility. In either case, the alternate preacher, Dr. Kie Bowman, would preach the Convention Sermon.
Some have asked how our SBC process functions regarding SBC entity heads and to whom they are accountable. All SBC employees, including presidents, answer ultimately to their respective trustee boards. SBC trustees are elected by and accountable to the SBC churches, not to the entity heads. SBC messengers from our churches elect all SBC trustees at our annual conventions. Ultimately, the trustees have the right to decide all matters regarding any SBC entity, including matters related to any entity president. The trustees alone are invested with ultimate authority by the SBC.
Southwestern Seminary's trustees have a special meeting planned for Tuesday, May 22. I encourage all of you to pray for that meeting and to trust this process prescribed by our SBC Bylaws that ensures that all proceedings will be handled fairly and in a suitable setting.
Near the end -- after a call for fasting and prayer before the June 12-13 convention, in Dallas this year -- there is one more reminder about SBC polity.
Pray for our SBC trustees. They are accountable to the Lord and to our SBC churches, not to the employees of the SBC entities.
Journalists: Let us attend -- the Dallas meetings, if at all possible during these hard economic times in religion-beat life.