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Live updates: Southern Baptist Convention formally seeks forgiveness, apologizes to sexual abuse survivors

The Tennessean (Nashville) logo The Tennessean (Nashville) 6/16/2022 Liam Adams and Katherine Burgess, Nashville Tennessean

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Southern Baptists are holding one of their most consequential annual meetings in decades.

On the first day of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual gathering here on Tuesday, messengers, the denomination's voting delegates, approved a series of sexual abuse reforms, including a new way to track accused ministers.

In addition, the messengers picked a Texas pastor as the new president of the Nashville-based SBC, the nation's largest Protestant denomination. 

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The election was a bellwether for larger political divisions in the SBC.

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Follow along for the latest updates from the final day of the annual meeting.

Resolution apologizing to sexual abuse survivors approved

A day after an overwhelming majority of messengers approved recommendations for sex abuse reform, messengers approved two sexual abuse resolutions in a similar manner.

"We have failed to educate and thus adequately prepare church leaders to respond to abuse," said the first resolution, titled, "On lament and repentance for sexual abuse." 

The resolution asks abuse survivors for forgiveness "for our failure to hold perpetrators of sexual abuse adequately accountable in our churches and institutions."

The same resolution specifically apologizes to abuse survivors Christa Brown, Susan Codone, Megan Lively, Jennifer Lyell, Anne Marie Miller, David Pittman, Tiffany Thigpen, Debbie Vasquez, Hannah-Kate Williams and Jules Woodson.

The three-page resolution came from the SBC sexual abuse task force following the release of Guidepost Solutions' extensive report on systemic mishandling of abuse by SBC leaders, said Bart Barber, resolutions committee chair, in a news conference Wednesday evening.

The survivors named in the resolution are those mentioned in Guidepost's report, either by name or referred to by number. The resolutions committee reached out to the survivors and asked for their consent to be named in the resolution.

The resolution calls on Southern Baptists to "give of our time and resources to bind the wounds of the broken, hold accountable perpetrators of sexual abuse and those who seek to defend them, and care well for survivors of sexual abuse." 

Referencing a Bible verse relevant to the resolution, "I think the roadmap given to us there is to shun arrogance, to mourn and to take action," Barber said.

In what is still seen as a guiding resolution today, the SBC formally apologized in 1995 for backing slavery in the convention's early years.  

The other resolution, titled, "On support for consistent laws regarding pastoral sexual abuse," aims to offer a "practical step toward combatting sexual abuse in our convention of churches," messenger Griffin Gulledge said in a session Wednesday.

Gulledge was the original author of the resolution, which the SBC resolutions committee slightly altered. 

The resolution points out that many state laws do not clearly define pastoral sexual abuse.

"These laws make no exception for the consent of the victim since pastors and ministers are in a position of trust, which is broken when the one in authority engages in a sexual act with the victim," the resolution said. 

The resolution calls on state lawmakers to support legislation establishing clearer standards about pastoral sexual abuse. The resolution also calls on lawmakers to pass legislation shielding churches from liability if that church communicates with another church about a known abuser. 

"We support actions that protect the innocent within the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention from wolves in shepherd's clothing and embrace actions that empower churches to be able to report instances of abuse to appropriate authorities without fear of civil liability," the resolution said. 

Messengers urge overturn of Roe v. Wade

Awaiting a possible vote by the U.S. Supreme Court, Southern Baptists on Wednesday passed a resolution to encourage all members of their denomination to pray for the court to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 decision which established a constitutional right to abortion.

Messengers at the convention, however, did not go so far as to call for the criminalization of women who obtain abortions.

The resolution was one of more than 20 the convention has passed addressing abortion over the past 40 years, according to its text.

It included a call to pray for women, to oppose Planned Parenthood and to urge state legislatures to enact policies that oppose abortion.

But after that passed, a messenger attempted to bring a declined resolution “on equal protection of the laws for preborn children” out of committee. That would have asked messengers to require the same legal prohibitions and sanctions against homicide to apply to abortions.

Ultimately, messengers declined to bring that resolution out of committee.  

Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission survives vote

Messengers overwhelmingly rejected a motion to abolish the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy and ethics arm of the SBC. 

The vote followed a swift, yet dramatic debate. Two messengers spoke for the motion to abolish the ERLC. The commission’s acting president, Brent Leatherwood, and former president, Richard Land, spoke against the motion.

To defund the organization, Land said, “Would be like taking a cannon to destroy mosquitoes. The mosquitoes die but there are great, great calamitous consequences overall,” said Land, ERLC president from 1988-2013.

Land played an instrumental role in the commission’s advocacy against abortion. He was also the public facing figure of the SBC boycott of Disney that lasted from 1997 to 2005.

The ERLC, based in Nashville and Washington D.C., is a major organization advocating against abortion at the legislative and judicial level, among other issues. Abortion was at the center of Wednesday’s controversy.

Messenger Joshua Scruggs, who initially made the motion against the ERLC, cited among his concerns a letter that Leatherwood signed from the National Right to Life that opposed any measures “seeking to criminalize or punish women” who have abortions. 

Some Southern Baptists endorse an “abolitionist” view of abortion bans, a view that supports criminal charges against a woman who has an abortion.

He introduced the motion to "remove an entity that had the unintended consequence of causing needless division among Southern Baptists and will continue to do so," Scruggs said.


Video: SBC leaders take next steps in sexual abuse scandal (CBS Dallas)

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Another messenger speaking for the motion criticized past ERLC presidents for using the organization to build a platform. 

This is not the first time the ERLC has gone toe-to-toe with more conservative Southern Baptists. The SBC Executive Committee, under former Chairman Mike Stone, created a task force in 2020 to evaluate whether the ERLC was causing Southern Baptists to withhold money from the denomination’s Cooperative Program budget.

The task force inquiry was born of frustration from Stone, a leader with the Conservative Baptist Network, and allies over former ERLC president Russell Moore’s outspoken criticism of former President Donald Trump.

Moore left the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission last year to take a job with Christianity Today. After, Stone sued Moore, alleging that the public leak of internal letters authored by Moore cost Stone the SBC presidential election in 2021. Stone ultimately dropped the lawsuit. 

The ERLC has also faced criticism under Land for defending religious liberty for Muslims, including supporting the right to build mosques.

But today is not the day to get rid of the ERLC, said Leatherwood, citing the highly anticipated U.S. Supreme Court decision that will potentially overturn Roe V. Wade.

It's a moment, Leatherwood said, "when our advocacy will be needed now more than ever.

Grassroots initiative proposed to bring racial healing

Southern Baptist leaders issued a call Wednesday to adopt a “kingdom race mindset” by following a three-point plan, part of an effort to seek racial reconciliation that has long been a supported by outgoing SBC President Ed Litton.

A grassroots initiative of local churches should be created to cross barriers of race, allowing people to meet with likeminded Christians to offer “a kingdom solution for the divisions that exist in our land,” Litton said. “The church should be on the frontline of bringing hope and healing in our communities.”

The initiative Litton announced was the “Unify Project,” asking Southern Baptists to pray for reconciliation, for unity and for transformation.

Then, Tony Evans, senior pastor of Oak Cliff Bible Fellowship in Dallas, announced “The Urban Alternative” with a three-point plan.

The plan first called pastors to “assemble,” developing community-wide fellowships that meet regularly to provide encouragement and to train and pray with one another. It also should host a “local solemn assembly at least once a year.”

The second step is that pastors “address.” This includes holding discussion groups, reading and discussing books and videos, and committing “to serving together to work for cultural transformation and biblical values.” They can hold community forums on social issues, meet with civic leaders and use the pulpit “to give an equal emphasis to the issue of justice,” according to an outline on Evans’ website.

Last, pastors are to “act,” meeting the needs of people experiencing homelessness, having church members distribute “Kindness cards," petitioning political leadership to bring about change, mentoring students at local schools and more.

“We think it’s time for the Southern Baptist Convention to deal with and confront the racial divide,” said Fred Luter, who was the first African American president of the Southern Baptist Convention and senior pastor at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans.

New abuse task force is 'first priority,' said SBC President elect Bart Barber 

Hours after messengers approved recommendations for sexual abuse reform, the messengers elected Bart Barber to be their next president. Overseeing those recommendations will be his “first priority,” Barber said in a news conference Wednesday morning.

One recommendation approved Tuesday is to create a sexual abuse reform implementation task force, the members of which Barber will appoint.

As of this moment, Barber doesn’t have an anticipated timeline for when he will appoint all the task force’s members due to his responsibilities as chair of the SBC resolutions committee. The final resolutions committee session is scheduled for Wednesday afternoon.

Barber said he will look for people who are trauma informed and understand survivors’ needs. He also will be looking for people versed in Baptist polity, or governance, a field Barber is considered an expert in. 

The task force will study convention-wide policy changes that is still in line with the SBC belief in church autonomy.

Texas pastor Bart Barber was elected as president of the SBC during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, California on June 14, 2022. (Photo by John McCoy) © John McCoy/For The Tennessean Texas pastor Bart Barber was elected as president of the SBC during the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting in Anaheim, California on June 14, 2022. (Photo by John McCoy)

California pastor to serve as first vice president

Victor Chayasirisobhon, president of the California Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Southern Baptist Church of Anaheim, will serve as the next first vice president of the Nashville-based SBC.

“His hope is that we will serve God as one convention, one kingdom, where we’re not separated by race or political agendas, but where we come together for the sake of the next generation who will continue to build on the legacy we leave behind,” Abel Galvan, senior pastor of Faith Fellowship church in La Palma, told Baptist Press when he announced his plan to nominate Chayasirisobhon.

The first and second vice presidents preside in sessions at the request of the SBC president.

Chayasirisobhon received 50.13% of a total of 1,711 votes, winning against Brad Eubank, pastor of First Baptist Church of Petal, Mississippi, an abuse survivor and advocate who received 49.37% of the vote.

Expected eventfulness: Abortion resolution and Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission motion

Abortion will likely be at the center of conflict between messengers on Wednesday. 

One of those debates will be over resolutions, with a more conservative group of Southern Baptists likely pushing for a resolution with stricter language on abortion. The SBC resolutions committee has already prepared a resolution on abortion for the messengers to vote to approve. 

Southern Baptists largely oppose abortion, but a debate is intensifying in the convention between "incrementalism," or prohibiting abortion through a step-by-step process, versus "abolitionist," a perspective that supports criminal charges against a woman who has an abortion.

Supporters of the latter perspective submitted a resolution ahead of the annual meeting, but the resolutions committee did not accept it and instead put forward a different resolution.

Throughout the week, supporters of the "abolitionist" resolution have been passing out pamphlets of the submission that was rejected. Bill Ascol, one of the authors of that submission, indicated in a public comment during a Tuesday session his desire to bring back the submission at a Wednesday session. 

Meanwhile, messengers will debate a motion to "abolish" the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy and ethics arm for the SBC, which is based in Nashville and Washington D.C. 

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, which advocates against abortion at the legislative and judicial levels, has recently come under fire from some in the convention after its acting president signed a letter from National Right to Life that opposed any measures “seeking to criminalize or punish women” who have abortions. 

Motions on abuse response move forward

In addition to task force recommendations and resolutions, messengers, the voting delegates, introduced several motions aimed at responding to the sexual abuse crisis in the SBC.

Motions are proposals for action and were the key mechanism messengers used last year to call for a sexual abuse investigation into the SBC Executive Committee and a separate sexual abuse assessment. The investigation concluded in May with the release of Guidepost Solutions’ report, and the assessment will conclude in 2024.

At this year’s annual meeting, messengers introduced several motions centered on abuse response. 

One motion called for a day on the SBC calendar dedicated to abuse awareness. Another motion sought a review of the Baptist Press, the SBC newspaper, and its editorial independence. Guidepost investigators outlined a history of Baptist Press publishing stories that were harmful to abuse survivors partly due to influence by SBC Executive Committee staff.

The executive committee manages denomination business outside the annual meeting and is comprised in-part by about 30 staff. The committee oversees the Baptist Press.

Baptist Press publicly apologized to Jennifer Lyell in 2019 for one of its articles on Lyell’s story as an abuse survivor. The paper apologized to survivors Debbie Vasquez and Christa Brown last week for stories published in 2007 and 2019.

The two motions were referred to the executive committee, which will address the motions later this year. 

A controversy involving Tom and Jennifer Buck, figures with the more conservative camp of the SBC, led to another motion calling for an investigation into Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Administration and faculty at Southeastern, located in North Carolina, are among a group of SBC leaders the Bucks hold responsible for mishandling the their controversy.

The Buck controversy has become a talking point for some of the Bucks' allies in an attempt to criticize a less conservative faction largely seen as proponents of widespread abuse reform. The Buck motion was referred to Southeastern. 

Texas pastor Bart Barber will lead SBC as next president

Messengers on Tuesday night elected Texas pastor Bart Barber to lead the SBC.

Barber defeated Florida pastor Tom Ascol in a runoff election, with Barber receiving 60.87% of the final votes and Ascol receiving 38.88%. Out of the messengers gathered in Anaheim, 5,587 votes were cast with 14 disallowed.

"We need a man who can lead us through the battleground of our disagreements to the common ground of our cooperation," Matt Henslee, a Southern Baptist pastor from Texas, said of Barber in a nomination speech. 

Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Florida and the president of a Reformed Baptist group, was backed by the more conservative wing of the SBC.

Unlike Ascol, Barber does not think the problem of a "liberal drift" in the SBC is as serious of an issue as Ascol and allies have stated.

Ascol and Barber have both condemned the crisis of sexual abuse in the SBC following the release of Guidepost's report.

But Ascol is more of a proponent of addressing abuse through a local level in an effort to preserve church autonomy, a key SBC principle.

Barber has expressed support for certain convention-wide measures seeking to address abuse, an approach largely supported by abuse survivors.

Catch up on coverage

Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. Reach him at ladams@tennessean.com or on Twitter @liamsadams. Katherine Burgess covers county government and religion. She can be reached at katherine.burgess@commercialappeal.com, 901-529-2799 or followed on Twitter @kathsburgess.

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Live updates: Southern Baptist Convention formally seeks forgiveness, apologizes to sexual abuse survivors

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