On Tuesday, Southern Baptists from across the nation met in California for a tumultuous annual convention fraught with drama, division and decisive choices. The SBC is reeling from an independent investigation that exposed decades of ignoring, dismissing and disparaging sexual abuse victims in churches, and this week’s convention seems destined to determine just how the SBC will react to that investigation.
Ultimately, rural Texas pastor Bart Barber claimed victory over Florida pastor Tom Ascol. The two represented very different ways forward for the SBC. Ascol warned the SBC about its ongoing “leftward drift” on social and political issues, decrying hot topics like critical race theory and women in the pulpit. He was openly critical of Guidepost Solutions, the independent firm that conducted the investigation, and cautioned against the firm’s proposals for reform.
Meanwhile, Barber has been open to Guidepost’s proposed reforms and has signaled room for dialog on women pastors, racial justice and other issues the SBC has traditionally avoided. His victory, by a margin of 61 to 39 in a runoff election, suggests the SBC may be moving towards change. Indeed, on the same day, the SBC voted to approve a database and a new task force to oversee the implementation of reforms.
But that change won’t come easy. A group known as the Conservative Baptist Network, which backed Ascol’s candidacy, loudly and defiantly fought for an ultraconservative direction, staging counter-meetings across from the official gatherings and inviting guests like far-right firebrand Charlie Kirk to speak on stage. While their preferred candidate did not prevail, the Conservative Baptist Network does not look to be going away anytime soon.
The SBC is losing members, but it remains the largest Protestant denomination in the U.S. and is often viewed as an American bellwether for evangelical and, in some ways, political conservatism. The New York Times spoke to Jules Woodson, a sexual abuse survivor who has spoken out about the youth pastor who sexually assaulted her when she was a teenager. She told the Times that she was heartened by the SBC’s decisions in Anaheim. “I’m feeling acknowledged, validated and encouraged,” she said. “This is a step in the right direction and for the first time in 24 years, I feel like true action to stop this systemic crisis has been set in motion.”