An overview of faction warfare in the SBC

About 40 years ago, two factions of the Southern Baptist Convention began pulling each other apart over the role of women. By the 1990s, the sexist faction had mostly won, ensuring Southern Baptist culture would remain rooted in the past.

Then in 2019, something happened that no one could possibly have foreseen.

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In February, the top-ranked Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) did something that’s almost unprecedented: they apologized and offered a monetary settlement to Jennifer Lyell, who for years had been abused by an SBC seminary professor. This apology and settlement represent some of the most definitive actions the SBC has ever taken regarding any sex abuse claim since journalists first exposed their mega-scandal, “Abuse of Faith,” three years ago.

I don’t think the timing of this action is accidental. But you can bet that Jesus didn’t have anything to do with it. Instead, this apology represents only one small part of intense faction warfare in the SBC–warfare that almost nobody outside of the evangelical Christ-o-sphere even knows about.

A recent history of the Southern Baptist Convention

About 40 years ago, the SBC began tearing itself apart in a schism.

Starting in the 1970s, two factions crystallized around the growing advances of feminism. One faction wanted the SBC to embrace social progress by, among other things, allowing women to assume pastoral and top leadership roles within SBC member churches. The other wanted those positions to remain a boys’ club only—no ickie girls allowed.

Just as the conflict got thorniest, a theory arose called complementarianism. Under this theory, Jesus only wants pastors and top leaders in any Christian groups to be men. He only authorizes women to teach and lead other women and children, but never, ever men. Sure, it was just plain old sexism, but SBC leaders presented it as Jesus-blessed and Jesus-commanded. Officially, Jesus’ orders make sexism not actually sexist at all.

(“Christian love” operates under strikingly similar logic. Many of the most toxic Christians fully believe that their abusive and judgmental behavior becomes an example of divine love if they just say that Jesus ordered it. In their Orwellian opinion, normies just need to adopt toxic Christians’ redefinitions. Then, it’ll all make perfect sense!)

Through a convoluted series of shockingly-earthly political maneuvers, the sexist faction planted sympathetic cronies throughout all of the SBC’s top denominational leadership positions. And then, those top leaders decided that no, the SBC would remain a boys’ club forever. A huge number of SBC churches left in outrage over it, but those remaining promised to abide by the new rules.

By the end of the 1990s, the schism was mostly done.

The victors called it the Conservative Resurgence. They thought everything would be fine forever more.

But it wasn’t.

Sex abuse mega-scandal sparks a new schism

As it turns out, designating half the human race as fundamentally inferior to the other half doesn’t always sit well with the voluntary members of any club–no matter how much Jesus frosting that club’s sexist leaders slather onto their crap cake.

And stripping voices and power from any group of people within an authoritarian system (like the SBC) only guarantees their abuse. Indeed, such a group finds itself utterly powerless to stop the abuse or even discuss it, much less find any justice for it.

I’d been hearing restive commentary from various evangelicals for years as they slowly figured out these harsh truths–and, of course, tried in vain to square those truths with the notion of an omnimax, loving god.

And then, their mega-scandal exploded onto the front pages of news sites. That mega-scandal, dubbed by journalists “Abuse of Faith,” uncovered a systemic pattern of sexual abuse, with leaders both perpetrating that abuse and shuffling lower-level ministerial predators from church to church whenever their abuse came to light. Making matters worse for the SBC’s leaders, that pattern seemed to reach to the very uppermost levels of their denomination.

In response, the SBC’s top leaders coalesced into two distinct factions. This time around, the squabble has formed around not only sexism, but also racism and anti-LGBTQ bigotry.

The new factions in the SBC

I call the first SBC faction the Old Guard. Its members insist that the SBC must maintain the pure olden ideals of the Conservative Resurgence–with the new additions, of course. Many of their leaders, like Al Mohler and Paige Patterson, either were the architects of the original schism or gained power through allying completely with them.

A subfaction of the Old Guard is even more rigidly authoritarian, -ism addled, and Calvinist. They despise most of the regular Old Guard for not being hardcore enough. If the United States ever becomes a Republic of Gilead, we’ll have these guys to thank.

The leaders of the second faction, which includes J.D. Greear and current SBC president Ed Litton, act like they totally truly really want to make progress in resolving the SBC’s deep and abundant systemic flaws. However, real progress would require the SBC to make huge, sweeping changes to their denomination and its structures of power. This faction’s leaders don’t really want to do any of that. Instead, they want their faction’s pew-warmers to think they do, while doing nothing substantive. That way, their faction can get its own leaders into positions of power. So I call them the Pretend Progressives.

A subfaction of this group really does want progress and clamors for exactly those changes. This subfaction includes people like my friend Christa Brown, various Black pastors and reformists like former SBC President Fred Luter, and countless other sex abuse survivors. They’re the only real losers in this new schism.

No, for real, the flocks want to end sex abuse

But a strange thing happened along the way to the SBC’s 2019 Annual Meeting that summer:

Abuse of Faith.”

Earlier that year, journalists had uncovered hundreds of silenced, ignored survivors of sex abuse. SBC ministers of various kinds had committed this abuse. And the journalists had uncovered something else, too: these ministers’ higher-up leaders had, in turn, covered up their abusive underlings’ crimes and quietly shuffled them elsewhere–where they quickly found fresh victims.

It all sounded eerily reminiscent of the child-rape mega-scandal of the Catholic Church. And it already seemed just as pervasive and far-reaching.

The leaders of the SBC, including their then-President J.D. Greear, must have thought they were living through their own worst nightmares.

It all sounded eerily reminiscent of the child-rape mega-scandal of the Catholic Church. And it already seemed just as pervasive and far-reaching.

Thanks to a huge wave of sympathy and outrage, the survivors of this abuse found their voices. At the 2019 Annual Meeting, they loudly demanded real reforms. A lot of the Annual Meeting’s attendees realized that they agreed with these protesters. And they, in turn, demanded action. These protests attracted widespread secular media attention (like here).

That year, for the first time, SBC leaders had to pretend to care about sex abuse survivors. It must have been just excruciating for them.

And their pretense has only intensified since then.

The factions collide over ‘Abuse of Faith’

Since “Abuse of Faith” came out three years ago, the SBC’s two factions have constantly clashed with each other over how to handle the mega-scandal.

The Pretend Progressives have cried lots of crocodile tears. But at the same time, they’ve given abuse survivors a platform to share their stories, even though they’ve also tried their best to avoid doing anything definitive to any SBC power structures. Their crowning triumphs to date:

  • Selecting people for a committee to examine the problem, even though their enemies stalled any progress that committee might have made. Many of these committee members have mentioned wanting systemic change, which might explain why many have been frustrated over what they correctly recognize as stonewalling behavior from the top leaders of the SBC. But they’re having trouble recognizing how their own faction is stalling too.
  • Pushing for a weird voluntary initiative called Caring Well. Only a fraction of SBC churches have bothered with it. It’s mostly busy-work and demands for church leaders to Jesus harder.

Nothing this faction has done has led anywhere yet. But it’s kept a whole lot of people busy and all that activity makes the outraged flocks think that progress is being made. That’s just as good, right? Right?

It’s hard to escape the feeling that this faction champions abuse survivors because it’s good for business.

And the Old Guard tries hard to avoid everything

Meanwhile, the Old Guard has focused on hardening SBC rules regarding sex abuse. In 2019, Al Mohler strongly supported such a strengthening of an existing SBC bylaw, which would allow the denomination to kick out any member church that mishandled abuse claims.

As Kristen Du Mez points out, though, he’d spent years supporting fellow evangelicals who turned out to be sex abusers–and he ferociously supports the exact doctrine, complementarianism, that makes abusers’ lives so easy and risk-free. He still claims he totally had nooooo idea about all the sex abuse going on under his own nose.

And his Old Guard pal, Paige Patterson, lost his cushy seminary job and perks precisely because he’d grievously mishandled sex abuse claims. Oh, and Patterson is on record as asserting in 2008 that the sex-abuse survivors demanding accountability from the SBC were even worse than the sex abusers themselves.

Worse, the Old Guard has consistently tried to defang any efforts to even begin investigating this SBC mega-scandal. For ages, they and their lawyers tried to gain control of that abuse committee’s proceedings. The hardcore Old Guard subfaction, which includes such terrifying theocrats as Mike Stone, even claims that the SBC should not even be investigating sex abuse in member churches at all.

The SBC shakeup over ‘Abuse of Faith’

Everything came to a head in mid-summer last year.

The SBC’s Executive Committee finally hounded Russell Moore out of office. Moore, one of the Pretend Progressives, finally got tired of what he considered psychological warfare committed against him by Old Guard leaders.

In retaliation, right before the 2021 Annual Meeting, he released a couple of letters he’d written earlier about the racism and sexism he’d observed in top-level SBC leaders.

As you might guess, his enemy faction came off very unfavorably in these letters.

Mike Stone, who was running for the SBC presidency that year, lost by a small margin to Ed Litton–the Pretend Progressives’ surprising candidate. Rightly or wrongly, Stone blamed his loss on those leaked letters. In retaliation, he hypocritically began litigation against Moore, though he eventually dropped it.

And the crescendo

Amid this upheaval, the abuse committee’s members–and the mild-seeming new SBC President, Ed Litton–made some bold moves.

They absolutely demanded an outside investigator. And they wanted a fully transparent investigation, meaning they’d publicly reveal everything it unearthed.

Then, they told the Old Guard of the Executive Committee that all of this was happening with or without their approval or cooperation.

In response, a bunch of Old Guard guys immediately quit their cushy, top-level SBC jobs. These included Ronnie Floyd, one of the most powerful men in the whole SBC.

By the year’s end, the Pretend Progressives had won a whole bunch of fights like this.

And now: The SBC and its apology

Not long ago, I wrote about why authoritarians hate giving apologies. Apologies destroy authoritarians’ self-image. It’s a lot like narcissistic injury, and it produces, in response, something very similar to narcissistic rage.

However, fervent Christian authoritarians face additional ego injuries. To them, being wrong is very much like sinning. Correctness in both behavior and thinking mean much more to them than to people outside that culture. See, if Jesus is telling them how to behave and what to think, then if they do something so wrong as to require an apology, they clearly weren’t hearing Jesus correctly or obeying him as they should have. That’s the kind of suspicion that ends an authoritarian Christian leader’s rise to the top, right there.

Apologies, to authoritarian Christians, also mean bending their necks and knees at least temporarily to their enemies. If winning indicates their membership in Team Jesus and his approval of them, then losing means the dead opposite of both. Authoritarian Christians live in fear of having to do what they perceive as groveling–even especially to their own leaders in their own tribe.

Even the Pretend Progressives’ leaders (perhaps excepting their reformist subfaction, of course) are authoritarians. They’re simply less out-and-out about their authoritarianism. They still buy completely into all the culture-war ideals of the Conservative Resurgence. They just think there’s a nicer, more Jesus-y way to oppress their inferiors. If they can just find it, they clearly think, can avoid making any sweeping changes to things.

That’s why today’s news caught my interest in such a major way. The Pretend Progressives have won a series of definitive victories over the past year or so, yes. But even they’re not ready to meaningfully address the SBC’s sins and flaws.

A sex abuse victim speaks up

In March 2019, a then-Lifeway employee, Jennifer Lyell, disclosed her sex abuse at the hands of a Baptist seminary professor. In her heartbreaking account, she tells us that the year before, in 2018, after she first heard about Paige Patterson’s scandal, she quickly told her boss that she, too, had been sexually abused–by one of her own seminary professors.

The tenured SBC professor she named, David Sills, began abusing her on a mission trip in 2004–and continued to do so for “more than a decade” afterward. Sills was a big name in the SBC at the time for his missionary focus.

The seminary in question? Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), which is headed by none other than Old Guard leader Al Mohler.

In response to this electrifying statement to her boss, she says, she received what she considered excellent support and care from SBC leaders.

Under Al Mohler’s questioning, Sills characterized his abuse of Lyell in a very complementarian way: as “inappropriate sexual activity.” Despite Sills’ attempt to minimize years of grooming and abuse, Mohler soon forced him to resign his SBTS position, as well as his positions on various SBC missionary committees.

So that at least was good.

How secrecy protects SBC sex abusers

However, nobody in the know told anybody else why David Sills had suddenly resigned.

For her own part, Jennifer Lyell didn’t want to talk about it. She asked for secrecy. Her abuser was now officially out of ministry, after all. Problem solved, right? Ultimately, that’s what she’d wanted. In addition, she loved many members of his family, especially his grandchildren, in that emotionally-wrenching, complex way of those suffering from long-term grooming and sex abuse. She wanted to spare them the pain of knowing that their PawPaw was a sex abuser.

Then, she heard about Sills getting another ministerial position.

Yes, David Sills had found a missionary job through a non-SBC group. Lyell hadn’t realized the previous year that a cloak of secrecy would only protect him at future victims’ expense. Thanks to that cloak, he’d been able to find another position with this unwitting group. And it would likely get him in contact with lots of potential new victims.

So she publicly revealed what had happened the previous year.

And then, her nightmare began.

Southern Baptists attack a sex abuse victim

Her boss at Lifeway and other folks familiar with the case contacted that non-SBC missionary group. In response, they removed Sills from his new job. So that was good.

But Lyell faced Southern Baptists’ fury for daring to talk about her experience.

After her statement about the events of 2018, various Baptist sites tried to skew this clear-cut case of abuse by a mentor and teacher as a “consensual affair.” In complementarians’ eyes, that made her culpable in her own abuse. I also suspect that the SBC’s current intense focus on evangelism and recruitment made them more protective of men like Sills than they might otherwise have been before their big decline began in earnest.

Eventually, she tried to address the inaccuracies they kept pushing. In an October 2019 post, she described the agony these inaccuracies and mischaracterizations caused to her. She specifically addressed articles published on Baptist Press, which is owned by the SBC and overseen by its Executive Committee. AL.com summarizes the aftermath of that article: online abuse from SBC members, accusations of corruption, blame for her imagined part in the “consensual affair,” and the loss of her executive job as Vice-President of Lifeway.

Over a week later, Baptist Press apologized. But the damage had already been done. Religion News ran an article about it that said her life had fallen apart.

That said, Jennifer Lyell’s case didn’t just melt away.

At least Russell Moore tried to help…?

Also in October 2019 (and just a few days before Jennifer Lyell’s post), Russell Moore–still the leader of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC)–organized a conference for Caring Well. He invited Rachel Denhollander, a well-known advocate for sex-abuse survivors, to speak at it. This decision absolutely outraged the Old Guard, but he did it anyway.

And at this conference, Denhollander specifically accused the SBC’s top leaders of mishandling Jennifer Lyell’s case. Since Moore says he considers himself Lyell’s friend, I’m sure he was happy to hear Denhollander going there.

Religion News’ article links the Baptist Press apology to Denhollanders’ criticisms. Certainly, awareness of Lyell’s mistreatment rose dramatically afterward.

Moore’s leaked letters dealt specifically at times with Old Guard leaders’ unwillingness to even acknowledge all the sex-abuse survivors in the SBC’s ranks. But Lyell’s case simmered quietly behind the scenes for another couple of years.

Moving forward in the SBC sex abuse timeline

By October 2021, Jennifer Lyell revealed that she’d been in talks with the Executive Committee. These talks concerned her potential legal claims against them, claims that became possibilities because of their mistreatment of her. She was mostly talking to Rolland Slade, it seems.

He’s an interesting one. I’d characterize him as one of the Pretend Progressives, overall.

Back in June 2020, he became the very first Black man ever to be elected as the chairman of this committee.

This election represents one of those Pretend Progressive victories that I mentioned above. It likely happened because Slade tries to unite the factions somehow. For example, while he doesn’t out-and-out condemn CRT, as the Old Guard does as a matter of proudly-held dogma, he does tend to parrot Old Guard talking points about it:

The Bible IS supreme over CRT & what will unite us IF we will allow it to.

Let us put down the divisive discourse, strive to listen and focus on defeating our true enemy. #Ephesians612

Rolland Slade’s Twitter account, December 18, 2020. Archived here.

As one example of him trying to appeal to both factions, in a September 2020 article from Baptist Press, we see him sharply criticizing the SBC’s handling of sex abuse cases and then recommending the Pretend Progressives’ sad, utterly-inadequate Caring Well program as a solution to the problem, just “coupled with other targeted steps.”

At any rate, Slade’s position, while powerful, is not the president or CEO. They’re currently looking for someone to fill this position, which Ronnie Floyd vacated in October. Their current interim president-and-CEO is also a Black man, Willie McLaurin. His appointment on February 1 this year represents another historic first for the Executive Committee. And I’m betting that it also represents another victory for the Pretend Progressives.

Through Rolland Slade, the Executive Committee has apologized to Jennifer Lyell.

Better yet: the SBC puts its money where its apology is

But this apology that was given by Rolland Slade also came with a financial settlement for Jennifer Lyell. According to AL.com (relink), the Executive Committee’s interim legal counsel, which temporarily replaces the one that quit shortly before Ronnie Floyd did, helped arrange this undisclosed sum.

Also and probably related to the aforementioned, Ed Litton said the investigation into its mega-scandal is “progressing.” I’m not surprised that he made this statement. It represents a message to his faction.

See, the sex-abuse committee hired an outside investigative firm called Guidepost to conduct it.

In fact, it was that committee’s insistence on a transparent investigation from Guidepost that kicked off all that spectacular infighting last summer and fall between the factions.

The Pretend Progressives wanted complete transparency. However, the Old Guard wanted to conduct everything in-house. That way, they could obscure and hide whatever they wanted, claim victory over the scandal, then memory hole the entire investigation and declare flawless victory for Team Jesus.

A battle that uses sex abuse victims as pawns

Well, the Old Guard put everything they had on the field. Everything. They put it all out there. They knew what was at stake.

As summer progressed into fall, both sides callously used sex abuse victims as pawns in that fight.

And the Old Guard lost.

They lost.

It must have been completely unthinkable–inconceivable even (shades of Vizzini!), considering the power their members hold in the denomination. But they still lost. The Pretend Progressives simply outmaneuvered them.

That committee turned out to be the key to victory. It held power over the Executive Committee, and thus could defy the Old Guard. Maybe the committee members drove to work each morning in a big iron chariot.

Why this squabble matters

The SBC has been in decline for a long, long time. That decline has only accelerated in recent years. Still, they remain the biggest Protestant denomination in America (according to La Wiki). As such, they’re the largest overall group of regressive elements in our society.

When we look at social issues, Southern Baptists stand on the wrong side of virtually every one of them. Their voting habits alone ensure that the rest of us must drag them along, kicking and screaming, through every step of progress we make. And their extremely outsized influence on American politics and culture makes them a group to watch.

Where the SBC goes, so go most other evangelical groups. There’s a reason why religious researchers and observers alike joke that nondenominational churches are almost always “basically Southern Baptists.”

If a sizeable percentage of their biggest-name leaders are starting to see the value in at least pretending to want to do better, that’s big news. It means the flocks themselves might be making a significant cultural shift.

What won’t be happening though

Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that the Pretend Progressives represent some kind of New Guard that seeks to replace the Old Guard. They’re not.

Pretend Progressives still want all the regressive and authoritarian things that the Old Guard wants. They’re still completely on board with all those moral panics and culture wars the Old Guard champions. There’s not a single chance of real reform as long as those conditions hold true.

Ed Litton has said he expects to see Guidepost’s report right before the 2022 Annual Meeting in June. Coincidentally, this year the SBC elects a new president. Litton himself won’t be running again for the role (in fact, he’s the first incumbent not to do so in 40 years).

So, whoever represents his faction will face a very tough race against the well-organized and powerful Old Guard. They only won by a narrow margin last time.

All of this means that Ed Litton clearly expects this report to be extremely favorable toward his faction–or at least downright damning to his denominational enemies. Both factions are in it to win it, and right now Litton’s faction holds the best cards.

Whoever the new bosses turn out to be in the SBC, though, count on this: they will act exactly like the old bosses did.

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...