During deliberations last week on how the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee would handle an investigation into its (mis)handling of sexual abuse, the committee’s president and CEO, Ronnie Floyd, invoked prayer and fasting in his arsenal of weapons to argue against a completely transparent inquiry.
There are plenty of examples of prayerful fasting for a cause, but Floyd, the author of a 2010 book on the power of prayer and fasting, would probably recognize the parallel to a moment some 2,500 years ago, when the Jewish scribe Ezra prayed and fasted to convince the Jewish people to save themselves at a time when their sinful behavior was threatening their very existence.
In 538 B.C., the Persian king Artaxerxes sent Ezra to ensure that the conquered Judeans followed the law of God, empowering him with a very large stick: Ezra could order the execution, banishment, imprisonment or confiscation of possessions of anyone who refused to “obey the law of your God and the law of the king.”
Instead of strong-arming the Judeans into repentance, Ezra fasted, prayed and waited for the people to respond. His tack produced nearly unanimous repentance.
Floyd’s prayer and fasting, on the other hand, has convinced him to do the opposite of Ezra and prevent the Southern Baptists from repenting, despite their devout wish to do so.
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In June, the delegates at the SBC annual meeting voted overwhelmingly to appoint a task force to oversee an independent third-party investigation into the SBC Executive Committee’s record on dealing with sexual abuse in the denomination’s churches. The motion, against the wishes of the Executive Committee members on stage, was clearly a rebuke to the committee’s repeated attempts to subvert the churches’ efforts to address the sexual abuse crisis publicized by the Houston Chronicle in early 2019.
The messengers’ mandate specifically included the condition that the committee members waive attorney-client privilege.
SBC politics and polity get confusing quickly, but the key point in the current debate is that the SBC is a bottom-up organization. All the power rests with the churches of the convention, whose will is expressed through the messengers chosen to represent the churches at the annual meeting. The group of 86 people on the Executive Committee, elected by the messengers to act for them between annual meetings, “is subject to the review of the Convention.”
This fact goes against the false claims by Executive Committee member Joe Knott that the messengers “do not have the power to tell us to do anything.” The Executive Committee is subject to the messengers — it must do what the messengers direct it to do. It’s that simple.
Nonetheless, the Executive Committee has now voted twice on a motion to waive attorney-client privilege, and twice the committee voted against doing so. Rather than facilitate the people’s desire to do what is right, Floyd and other Executive Committee members have defied the will of the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention and are fighting tooth and nail to ensure that, in the words of the Gospel of John, “(evil) deeds may not be exposed.”
A growing minority of Executive Committee members are arguing for Floyd and others on the committee to do what is right, including Executive Committee chair and California pastor Rolland Slade and the prominent Tallahassee, Florida, pastor Dean Inserra.
That minority voice represents the express will of the churches, and I hope and pray that their voice will win out. I hope and pray that, like the scribe Ezra 2.5 millennia ago, they will facilitate the action that must accompany our repentance for the decades of sexual abuse and coverup of that abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Russell L. Meek (PhD, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a writer, editor and lecturer in Old Testament and Hebrew at Ohio Theological Institute. You can follow him on Twitter at @russ_meek.