Lament, Power, and the Future of the SBC

Less than a month ago, my dad dropped dead of a heart attack. This was shocking, unexpected, and disorienting for our family. As much as we wanted to pretend it didn’t happen or distract ourselves with other things, we have been helped through the process by talking about it, expressing our emotional responses, and letting each family member grieve in his or her own way. We knew we were going in the right direction when my 3-year-old said, “I miss Grandpa. I feel sad. Grandpa was a pilot. Grandpa died. He’s dead now.”

Perhaps because the loss of my dad was so fresh on my heart, I was hoping the SBC Annual Meeting in Dallas would offer our family of churches an opportunity to state difficult realities and express our emotional responses to them. In the last three months we have taken one leadership hit after another in front of a watching nation. Frank Page, the CEO of our Executive Committee, resigned due to an adulterous relationship. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Seminary, was fired because of (among many other things) mishandling two cases of sexual violence. Paul Pressler, Patterson’s fellow architect of the conservative resurgence, is being sued on charges of predatory behavior against young men. And three seminary professors from our Southern Baptist seminaries have resigned due to (stated or implied) moral failures. Save Pressler, all of these have been exposed in the last three months.

So when we gathered in Dallas for our annual meeting, I expected that some part of our meeting would include a time of lamentation, of repentance, of expressing our brokenness over the sin in the camp. Because healthy families talk about our losses. We tell the truth. We communicate. We discuss what is going on, even when it isn’t pretty or easy.

But instead, we didn’t hear any of these fallen brothers even mentioned. Their disgrace thrust them into some Voldemortian category of “he who must not be named.” It was like they did not exist and nothing happened. Rather than having space to lament the moral blight on our denomination, we learned Monday afternoon that Vice President Mike Pence initiated a visit to the meeting on Wednesday to commend us “for our contribution to the moral fabric of our nation.” At the risk of redundancy, let me reiterate. Two high-level leaders who were supposed to be on the platform leading our gathering were absent because of moral failure, yet this was eclipsed by the fact that we accepted Vice President Pence’s offer to praise us for our moral uprightness.

This burdened my heart deeply. Healthy families grieve. Healthy families talk about reality and set an appropriate tone based on that reality. We don’t plan circuses when we should be at the funeral home. We don’t just go on, business as usual, as if nothing happened. We process. We feel. We hurt. And we figure out what needs to change to move forward in a healthy way.

So on Tuesday morning I began planning a time of lamentation, repentance, and prayer for renewal in our family of churches. And on Wednesday, while Vice President Pence delivered what turned out to be a political stump speech, a group of pastors joined together to cry out to God, to express our broken hearts over the state of our convention, to listen to God’s word, and to repent from our own sins based on God’s holy standard. We prayed for our President and our Vice President; we prayed for our denomination; and we prayed for ourselves, knowing that the same weakness and struggle that brought down our fallen brothers exists in us as well.

One of the texts that we listened and responded to is James 3, which contrasts demonic wisdom from below with Spirit-birthed wisdom from above. This text broke us, because even as we gathered in quiet protest to the way our annual meeting had turned into a political rally, James’ words pierced our hearts about our propensity to become cynical, jagged, arrogant, and bitter. You stand up and say, “It shouldn’t be that way, it should be this way” and it is easy for that process of working toward the right way of doing things to turn into what James calls “bitter jealousy and selfish ambition.” Our ambition for the power to move things in the right direction can subtly morph into the ambition for power for its own sake.

At the end of the day, I think that is what I was grieving most in Dallas. I owe a debt of gratitude for the conservative resurgence and the biblical faithfulness it has yielded. But in the last year, the two primary architects of the resurgence–Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler–have been exposed for abusing power in very different but seriously damaging ways. The old adage that “power corrupts” has been on display in those who used power to bring about change for the better in the SBC. If we do not learn from their failures, we will be bound to repeat them.

I do not pretend to know how a denomination so unwieldy and loosely held together as ours is to maintain humility while we hold firmly to God’s unchanging truth. But I know how God is calling me to lead the SBC church for which I will give an account. It has everything to do with atmosphere.

On our drive from D.C. to Atlanta for my dad’s funeral, the AC started going out in our van (our dog also had to be put down–it was quite a week). The light indicated that the AC was on, but it seemed like something changed in the type of air coming out of the vents. Before long, complaints were registered from the way, way back and the reality was unmistakable: the AC was definitely not on, light notwithstanding. Thankfully the problem was temporarily addressed by turning the AC off and on multiple times. But to avoid precipitous rises in temperature, my wife and I developed a keen nose for when the atmosphere in the van shifted from the cold, dry, conditioned air to the cool, moist, recycled air. The change was subtle but consequential.

In the same way, the shift from James 3’s wisdom “from above” to the wisdom “from below” is frighteningly easy. You don’t have to convert to Satanism to exhibit “earthly, unspiritual, demonic” wisdom. You simply have to take whatever power you have and start using it for yourself instead of for others.

The stories emerging about Paige Patterson’s litigious responses to actions by his board of trustees and, most ominously, his request to meet with a rape victim to “break her down” serve as cautionary tales of what power can do to any of us. We must train our fellow leaders to sense the first hint–subtle and atmospheric though it may be–of bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in our use of power. The only hope I have for our denomination is if it is led by those with a finger on the trigger, ready to repent at a moment’s notice when our power is driven by anything but the wisdom that is “first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17). God help us.