Southern Baptists Need a Dose of Pope Francis

Dwight A. Moody

Southern Baptists good use a good dose of Pope Francis.


Francis was elected 2013 by cardinals of the Roman Catholic Church to push the world’s largest religion in a new direction, away for its focus on doctrinal conformity and ethical rigidity and toward pastoral mercy and global inclusion. Last week, the pope made good, again, of his mandate, by appointing 14 new Cardinals. He passed over more traditional leaders, including anybody and everybody in the United States, and selected men from such unlikely places as Japan, Pakistan, Madagascar, and Peru. Even the one man chosen from Rome is the priest responsible for the papal ministry to the poor of the city.


This strategy of diversity stands in stark contrast to the recent announcement by authorities of the Southern Baptist Convention. The program committee of their annual meeting, in Dallas in June, released the order of business. Forty-one different persons are named as platform presenters or speakers; only one woman, the executive director of the Woman’s Missionary Union. Their annual Nominating Committee issued their recommended slate of persons to be installed as trustees at their six seminaries, five agencies, and two committees. There were 69 new persons selected for trustee positions. Of these, nine were women and two were persons of non-Anglo heritage.


A closer look reveals that the six seminaries have 25 new trustees coming on board; only Gateway, the seminary in California, has a woman added: three to be exact.
This is particularly important given what is happening at the schools. Last week the trustees at Southwestern Seminary in Texas pushed their president into retirement. His name is Paige Patterson and they awarded him very valuable perks, including title, responsibility, housing, and compensation. They did this because women have come forward with testimonies of his indifference and intimidation in response to their stories of abuse.


Over the weekend, other stories from other women came to light and this week the leaders of those same trustees met to revise their retirement deal with Patterson. They deleted all the perks. Every one of them. Thus, the very man who led the campaign to take over the Southern Baptist Convention because it was, among other things, too affirming of women in the church, found himself discredited and discharged from his duties, because he was too dismissive of women in the church. It is an ignominious end for any institutional leader.


But one man’s dismissal will not solve the problem of the Southern Baptist Convention. From their very beginning in 1845, Southern Baptists have built their religious empire on the subjection of some demographic: African Americans, Native Americans, Women, Roman Catholics, and Muslims, and in our day, progressives and, it seems, immigrants of all kinds. This need to marginalize and dominate some group is part of the DNA of the Southern Baptist Convention. What they need is their own version of Pope Francis, a leader who will stretch the boundaries and include the forgotten, who will reach out in all directions to empower those on the margins, who will put aside the formal doctrines of exclusion and judgment and tap the shoulder of unlikely people in unlikely places: women, immigrants, dissenters, progressives, even outright liberals. Pope Francis, by touching the weak, the marginalized, the disposed, and the suspect has blessed all the people of the world—red and yellow, black and white. He has embodied the spirit and the strategy so needed in the Southern Baptist Convention.


But that would involve not just the retirement of a few leaders or a resolution or two at their annual meeting; it would detail actual repentance, a turning around and a turning away from ideas, values, and practices that have been at the center of the Southern Baptist enterprise. It remains to be seen whether the men who control things at the Convention believe repentance is a Christian virtue, not just for others, but for themselves.