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Professor and Author Karen Swallow Prior to Leave Prominent SBC Seminary

By Josh Shepherd

Well-known author and columnist Karen Swallow Prior has announced that she will leave her faculty position at a prominent Southern Baptist seminary, saying that she does not “share the same vision for carrying out the Great Commission.” 

Prior, author of several books including On Reading Well, was hired at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. in fall 2020, as Research Professor of English and Christianity and Culture. She is also a regular columnist for Religion News Service and has written for national publications including The Atlantic, The New York Times, and Vox

She announced her impending departure in a Twitter thread. “While I adore my students and colleagues at SEBTS, it has become clearer through heartfelt discussions with leadership and much self-reflection over the past few years that the institution and I do not share the same vision for carrying out the Great Commission.”

Prior continued: “It has also become clear to me that I am simply not well-suited to the politics of institutional life in the SBC. Therefore, I have made the difficult decision not to return to SEBTS in the fall. I don’t know what the Lord has next for me, but I’m excited to see how he directs my steps.”

In a statement to The Roys Report (TRR), Prior affirmed her present congregational affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). “I currently continue to be a member of an SBC church and have made no decision one way or the other regarding that,” she said. 

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Liberty University Standing for Freedom Center
Founded in 1971, Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. is one of the nation’s largest Christian universities (Photo: Flickr / Taber Bain)

Prior had previously been the Chair of the Department of English and Modern Languages at Liberty University, where she started as an assistant professor in 1999. The latter part of her tenure at Liberty coincided with scandals that consumed former Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. and multiple sex abuse lawsuits brought against the evangelical school. 

Before her departure and since then, Prior has called for transparency and accountability of Liberty’s leadership and board of trustees.

She spoke at a November 2021 press conference alongside abuse victims and advocates. “Liberty will cease to be God’s university when it puts profits before people,” said Prior. “Liberty will cease to be God’s university when it puts the interest of the institution . . . before the stewardship of souls.”

Prior also has been outspoken in her criticism of former President Donald Trump. And in 2019, she urged conservative evangelicals to “disentangle their faith from Trumpism.”

In 2022, Prior was accused by SBC pastor Tom Buck of leaking a draft of an article written by Buck’s wife, describing her past abuse. Prior denied leaking the document, and was eventually cleared of the allegation by SEBTS President Danny Akin.

Reactions of affection and antagonism 

Many friends and supporters offered an outpouring of affection to Prior upon the announcement. 

Author K.J. Ramsey wrote, “This had to be such a hard decision. I applaud your choice to honor your integrity.” Similarly, Louisiana Baptist pastor Michael Linton stated: “Tragic and awful how such an incredible person was treated, and our convention is poorer for our loss.”

Attorney and abuse victims’ advocate Boz Tchividjian tweeted: “You will land in a better place. A community where you will be valued, respected, and genuinely appreciated. You have so much to offer to so many inside and outside Christendom.”

Some were antagonistic in their comments. Phil Johnson, executive director of John MacArthur’s Grace to You ministry, tweeted a meme that stated, “Bye, Felicia.” Prior shot back: “Go home.”—a reference to MacArthur’s shaming remark to former SBC-affiliated Bible teacher Beth Moore.

Florida Baptist pastor Dean Inserra called out the many unkind commenters online. “Shame on all you folks quote tweeting this with negative and nasty responses of celebration and personal attacks. Seriously. What the heck is wrong with you people and what do you gain?” he asked.

Others saw Prior’s announcement in light of trends impacting the SBC at large. Prominent Texas Baptist pastor Dwight McKissic noted the SBC’s recent disaffiliation of Saddleback Church among other events, concluding in a tweet: “The SBC is far from the Kingdom, with regards to gender, race, equality, & empowerment matters.”

In her regular column, Prior has often remarked on current issues facing the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. 

Last year, she wrote an op-ed published days after the contentious SBC Annual Meeting held in Anaheim, California. “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,” she wrote. 

“In so doing, we get ourselves out of the way in order to fully reveal the mercy and justice of a holy God.”

*Karen Swallow Prior has been a speaker at the Restore Conference, which is sponsored by The Roys Report.

Freelance journalist Josh Shepherd writes on faith, culture, and public policy for several media outlets. He and his wife live in the Washington, D.C. area with their two children.



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24 Responses

  1. Sad to hear that KSP no longer “has a vision for carrying out the great commission.” It seems like that’s often where the slippery slope takes you when you start to embrace some of the ideas on the more progressive side.

    1. You misquoted her and drastically changed the meaning of what she said with your additions and omissions.

      1. I’m not really sure what you mean? Southern Baptist Seminary has a vision to see the great commission carried out (which is extremely straightforward in what it entails), and she said “she does not share the same vision for carrying out the Great Commission” (I included the whole quote so that you don’t maliciously accuse me again of misquoting, ommiting or adding again…not sure what that was about), meaning she does NOT have a vision for seeing it carried out. That’s really the only way to take it at face value, unless she just worded her statement poorly and meant something entirely different.

        1. oh my word… Inference: she has a vision for carrying out the Great Commission, but it differs with the “how” of Southern Baptist Seminary’s vision.

    2. I took her comments to mean that she has a different understanding of what is involved in carrying out the great commission than the school’s leadership, not that she doesn’t believe it should be carried out.

      1. If that’s what she meant she definitely worded it poorly. But also, if that is indeed what she meant, the church has had a clear idea of how the great commission was to be carried out for over 2000 years now….how is it that suddenly people are starting to disagree on what that actually means?

        1. Gus –

          It’s because some movements and churches have used “the end justifies the means” to bully, manipulate, control, and scare people into salvation – all in the name of “the Great Commission.”
          I understand what it means to want to win people to Christ, but disagree with the vision (e.g., the methods and ways) of doing so. I also understand what it’s like to have people twist my disagreement with the vision into “so you don’t agree with what Christ calls us to do?” I used to blindly walk right into that manipulation. Not anymore.
          That’s not what that means at all.

  2. I’m puzzled by all these people’s interpretation of “The Great Commission” that includes exchanging memes and barbs on Twitter. From a marketing standpoint, I guess having an combative Twitter persona that generates “buzz” makes sense, though.

    Best wishes to Ms. Swallow Prior in her further career endeavors.

  3. To quote Webster’s 1913 Dictionary is “Retrograde” the opposite of “Woke”? In many ways it seems to be? ????

    Number 3 seems to be the best description❗????
    Re″tro‐grade (?), a. [L. retrogradus, from retrogradi, retrogressus, to retrograde; retro back + gradi to step: cf. F. rétrograde. See Grade.] 1. (Astron.)
    Apparently moving backward, and contrary to the succession of the signs, that is, from east to west, as a planet.Hutton.
    And if he be in the west side in that condition, then is he retrograde. Chaucer.
    Tending or moving backward; having a backward course; contrary; as, a retrograde motion; — opposed to progressive.“Progressive and not retrograde.” Bacon.
    It is most retrograde to our desire. Shak.
    Declining from a better to a worse state; as, a retrograde people; retrograde ideas, morals, etc.Bacon.

  4. I see Ms. Prior elected not to share precisely how her vision of the Great Commission differs from that of SEBTS. Many people, I for one, would take an interest in this deliberate elision. Perhaps more of us should differ with SEBTS –or differ with her. I would ask; however, the one and only time we ever talked by phone, she hung up on me. Nothing like engagement.

    James Lutzweiler
    Archivist (1999-2013), Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

  5. I read Karen Swallow Prior’s comment in the light of Rick Warren’s recent comment that his disagreement with the SBC is based in his belief that women are permitted to teach because teaching is part of fulfilling the Great Commission. I assumed that Dr Prior was saying that she was more aligned with Pastor Warren in terms of that issue.

      1. Sorry if my comment was poorly worded, Scottie. Some people seemed to be confused by how a Southern Baptist could have a disagreement with some SBC leaders framed in terms of the Great Commission. I was simply trying to make the factual point that this did not confuse me because just a few days ago I had read a report of one of the most prominent Southern Baptist ministers in America framing his disagreement with some SBC leaders in terms of the Great Commission.

  6. Well, to be fair, the Southern Baptist Convention is in such disarray right now, that I’m not sure that they even have a clear vision of carrying out the Great Commission to share.

    1. Really? Please show where KSP states something unbiblical. And don’t post a link to a so-called discernment blog distorts what she says. Post link to primary source.

      1. No it was a few interviews. I am not nor is anyone else the final authority on what is “so-called”. She was on with RC Sproul Jr. Some of her responses were concerning from a Biblical standpoint. This platform would not allow me to go into detail. I would exceed the word count.

    2. As someone who read literally hundreds of actual liberal scholars while pursuing a doctorate, let me just say that so many of those accused of being “liberal” in the SBC are nowhere near being actual theological liberals. If you study actual liberal theology, you’ll recognize this fact. We can disagree over various cultural issues, we can even express concern over where such thinking may lead, but throwing around the “liberal” label against fellow evangelicals—no matter our disagreements—is nothing more than demonizing. Both sides unfortunately can be guilty of demonization, but no matter who is guilty, it calls for repentance.

      1. I’m not talking about “liberal” as views devoid of the gospel. The issue is “victimhood”. Biblical theology synthesized in systematic theology of hamartiology (study of sin and its affects) and doxology. Luke 7:36-50, is a case study of a woman (She is one of the greatest examples in scripture). She easily could have been a victim. Her adoration eclipsed her ability to be a victim. Christ identified her as valuable and as sinful. Victorious comes to mind. The victimization of the church is divisive and contrary to one’s identity in Christ. Like a math formula~Psalm 139:13-16+Ephesians 2:8-10+Philippians 1:6+Isaiah 45:7+Hebrews 12:1-2+James 1:2-8+Philippians 2:5-8+Romans 8(whole chapter)=Antithesis of a victim. Read the texts.

    3. This brought about a chuckle. KSP is so far from being a liberal (culturally or biblically) that only the grossly misinformed could accuse her of such.

      Wishing her all success wherever her journey takes her next.

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