The largest Southern Baptist Convention gathering in decades opened Tuesday amid debates over race and sexual abuse, a concerted effort to push the conservative denomination even further to the right and a bellwether election to pick its next president.
Nearly 15,000 church representatives were on hand as the meeting began with prayers for unity. Immediately after, debate began on the hot-button controversies that have roiled the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Members heard an impassioned plea for survivors of sexual abuse and were asked to consider competing resolutions on critical race theory, an academic theory on structural racism that has been a target of religious and political conservatives.
Tennessee pastor Grant Gaines, speaking with an abuse survivor at his side, proposed a task force that would oversee a sweeping review of the denomination's response to sexual abuse -- a broader investigation than the one announced last week by the SBC's Executive Committee.
"I stand with SBC church abuse survivors, and right now I'm standing beside one such SBC church abuse survivor," Gaines said.
Other representatives proposed actions that would repudiate critical race theory, including one that would rescind a 2019 resolution that said the theory could be a useful tool.
The SBC's resolutions committee floated a resolution that didn't specifically name critical race theory but rejected any view that sees racism as rooted in "anything other than sin." The committee also reaffirmed a 1995 resolution apologizing for the history of racism in a denomination that was founded in 1845 in support of slavery, and it apologized for "condoning and/or perpetuating individual and systemic racism in our lifetime."
Separately the committee proposed a resolution declaring that "any person who has committed sexual abuse is permanently disqualified from holding the office of pastor." SBC churches are self-governing, and critics have said the denomination hasn't done enough to exclude congregations that mishandle abuse.
In the upcoming vote for president, Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor, is the preferred candidate of a new group within the denomination that calls itself the Conservative Baptist Network. Some network members have adopted a pirate motif on Twitter while declaring their intention to (hash)taketheship.
Stone has been campaigning hard, speaking in churches around the country, and the network has been encouraging supporters to attend the annual meeting as voting delegates. As of Tuesday, 14,827 church representatives were registered, making it the denomination's largest meeting in 25 years.
Also vying for the presidency is Albert Mohler, who leads the denomination's flagship Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. He's not part of the new conservative network but has angered some Southern Baptists for endorsing Donald Trump last year and for signing a statement denouncing critical race theory.
A third candidate, Alabama pastor Ed Litton, was among an ethnically and racially diverse group of Southern Baptists who signed a statement asserting that systemic injustice is real. He is supported by Fred Luter, the only Black pastor ever to be denomination president.
Litton and Mohler have not run aggressive campaigns like Stone.
The Southern Baptist Convention is structured as a loose network of independent churches that pools money for tasks like missions and evangelism. The role of president is primarily a bully pulpit, but the president does have the power to make committee appointments that can then set the direction of the denomination.
That's what happened in the 1980s when a group carried out what they called the Conservative Resurgence, pushing out more liberal leaders and helping forge an alliance between white evangelicals and Republican conservatism. The recent charges of liberalism in high places have stunned many in a convention where leaders have to affirm a deeply conservative statement of faith. Among other things, it declares that marriage is between one man and one woman, that human life is sacred and begins at conception and that only men should be pastors.
At least one prominent Black pastor has said he will leave the SBC if Stone is elected. An effort to repudiate critical race theory, supported by Stone, has already led to the departure of some Black pastors over what they said was racial insensitivity from overwhelmingly white leadership.
The role of women in ministry could also pop up after bestselling Christian author Beth Moore left the denomination earlier this year. Beyond the issue of women pastors, some members believe that women should never preach to men or even teach them in Sunday school. Conservative Baptist Network members have accused Litton of being too egalitarian. And the Southern Baptist church founded by Rick Warren, author of "The Purpose Driven Life," recently ordained three female ministers.
The issue of how to handle sexual abuse allegations blew up recently thanks to leaked letters from the SBC's former top public policy official and secret recordings of meetings. They purport to show some leaders tried to slow-walk efforts to hold churches accountable and to intimidate and retaliate against those who advocated on the issue. Stone is specifically called out as pushing back against accountability efforts, an accusation he has called outrageous.
An announcement by Southern Baptist Executive Committee president Ronnie Floyd on Friday that the body is hiring a third party to investigate the allegations hasn't satisfied everyone. Some pastors are demanding an independent task force, saying they don't trust that committee to oversee an investigation of itself.
"It is hard to imagine that a body of believers of the Lord Jesus would vote to limit in any way an investigation to find the truth when there are serious allegations related to sexual abuse," Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary president Danny Akin tweeted on Monday. "Praying our Convention charts the right course tomorrow."