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Opinion: Can the Southern Baptist Convention Be Saved?

By Karen Swallow Prior
southern baptist convention
Choir members are silhouetted as they get ready for a worship service at the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Fred Rogers, the TV children’s show host, was famous for saying, “Look for the helpers.” 

“When I was a boy,” he once explained, “and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”

I’ve been thinking about Mister Rogers’ words in the context of some particularly scary things in the news lately — namely, the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent release of the report of its sexual abuse task force, followed by the convention’s annual meeting where the report’s recommendations were voted on and accepted.

In his address to the SBC meeting before the vote, Bruce Frank, a Southern Baptist pastor and chairman of the task force, offered stirring, convicting words to the thousands assembled.

The 300-page report detailing failure after failure to act is both “heartbreaking and horrifying,” Frank said. But, he continued, “The question before us today is — is it humbling?”

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Are we humbled? This is exactly the right question for the Southern Baptist Convention in this moment.

It is the right question for all powerful institutions and people in this moment and always.

Quoting the New Testament’s Letter of James, Frank offered the assembly this challenge: “’Humble yourselves before the Lord.’ Not pray for humility, but do it. The pattern in the Bible is either we humble ourselves or God will humble us, by putting us in a humiliating circumstance.”

The sex abuse report has indeed been a humbling circumstance for the Southern Baptist Convention. Of course, the greatest devastation has been borne by those who have endured the abuse, and understanding this, the messengers overwhelmingly approved the recommendations.

It was a momentous decision. Yet it was a decision years overdue and one that represents just one step in a long journey the denomination faces in better handling sexual abuse cases in its midst.

The SBC is not the only place, nor the only denomination, facing the #MeToo #ChurchToo problem, of course. Yet, the SBC plays an outsized role within the larger culture because of its present as the largest Protestant denomination in America and its past as a denomination founded on the defense of the evil institution of human slavery.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s sexual abuse task force holds a press conference during the SBC’s annual meeting in Anaheim, California, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Religion News Service)

Some question whether an institution whose very roots are so immoral cannot — perhaps even should not — be saved.

It is a question worth asking, and certainly one answer is no.

But I envision another possibility.

I believe that such a past, such a present offers the ground for genuine humility — the kind that recognizes and accepts our shortcomings and the consequences for them. The kind that heals moral blind spots so a better future can be seen and grasped.

The root word of humility is earth: ground. Humility literally grounds us.

Humility is the opposite of pride.

Pride is the first sin, the deadliest sin, the sin of Lucifer, the fallen angel.

God gives grace to the humble. And the Southern Baptist Convention needs grace more than ever. That means our humility is needed more than ever, too.

As with every other precious gift, counterfeits abound. False humility is no exception. False humility takes many forms. One form especially relevant in the context of institutional abuse is to “portray helplessness during situations in which we have power.” In rejecting the guise of helplessness, the decision by the Southern Baptist messengers to begin taking actions within the control of the convention is the embodiment of humility.

Two individuals celebrate the passing of a recommendation from the sexual abuse task force during the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Anaheim, California, Tuesday, June 14, 2022. (Photo by Justin L. Stewart/Religion News Service)

It looks a little like the perfect picture of humility given in the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Philippians.

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death —
        even death on a cross!

Humility is obedience — obedience to the point of death.

Just as true humility is rare, false humility is common. False humility seeks to manipulate and control in service to self rather than others.

With declining numbers not only in the SBC but in the church in America as a whole, with more and more people deconstructing their faith and even deconverting, we who remain must cling to obedience and humble ourselves. In so doing, we get ourselves out of the way in order to fully reveal the mercy and justice of a holy God.

“Look for the helpers” is good advice that is timeless. Thank you, Mister Rogers.

But I think the advice that’s really needed right now is to look for the humble.

The humble are the ones who can truly help.

This piece was originally published by Religion News Service.

Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior, Ph. D., is Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and a columnist at Religion News Service. She lives in Virginia.



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7 Responses

  1. “False humility seeks to manipulate and control in service to self rather than others.”

    I appreciate this article by Karen Pryor Swallow.

    What makes a difference going forward is whether the SBC takes humble action that comes from true repentance – lamenting decades of turning away from those who were crying out for help.

    If simply a response to outside pressure, seeking to get out of a negative spotlight, then nothing but false humility.

  2. Thank you, Karen. Much to chew on in this excellent article.

    I didn’t know that the word “humility” has its root in the word for “ground”.

    That, alone, gives me much to work on as I try to shed more of myself in exchange for more of Christ.

    I really appreciate this gifted writing.

  3. Wishful thinking.
    If people can continue to minimize and overlook egregious immorality in their political leaders, they can continue to overlook egregious immortality in their faith leaders. Southern Baptists, where are your tears and where are the piles of idols on your altars?

  4. I hope the SBC asks “Why?” Why did the EC cover up sexual abuse? Why did thousands of regular SBC congregants look the other way and fail to protect abuse survivors and warn other churches about abusers? The cover-up of abuse is a problem and it’s a symptom of a problem. Without asking, “Why?” I think it will be hard to truly change.

  5. Very thoughtful and beautifully written piece by Karen Swallow Prior. The “immoral roots” concept, tho, is a struggle for me. I don’t know anything at all really about the founding of the SBC. So many human traditions serve as channels of grace without benefit of a perfectly pure beginning, or at least, so it seems. Abraham married to his half sister (shudder) comes to mind. Paul and Barnabas splitting up and going two directions because they couldn’t get along. The founding of the Anglican church in order that Henry VIII could obtain a divorce. I wish I had more and better examples. And now to read about the beginnings of the SBC…

    1. I would edit if possible but to clarify, I don’t believe that the nation of Israel or the New Testament church are merely “human traditions”. I’m hardly the first to notice that on the human level tho, Israel and the church have had many issues, let us say, over the course of history but that only highlights all the more to me that “Salvation is of the Lord” and not of man.

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