That host of Part prayer meeting, part campaign rally on the first night of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting was the Conservative Baptist Network, a burgeoning group that some observers have compared to the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. The network was formed two years ago in response to issues of institutional racism and sexual abuse as priorities in the country’s largest Protestant denomination.
In the Southern Baptist Convention – where women are not allowed to be pastors, same-sex marriage is opposed and almost 70 percent of it 14 million members vote Republican – CBN leaders and supporters say situation is an emergency. This week they hope to elect a president who agrees.
“Pretty soon it will be women preachers, social justice, then racism [critical race theory], then victimization because the world is a ball and chain and if you are addicted it will get you to the bottom. They hate the truth,” MacArthur said to a crowd dancing through the night between pinhead silence and cheers of “It’s true!”
The SBC tends to reflect the state of white evangelicalism in America, and some experts said the CBN meeting at the conference and the appearance of MacArthur, whose church is not Southern Baptist, reflected the new bedfellows of that era.
“In the past, some issues that divided evangelicals, like speaking in tongues, end-time theology, Calvinism — all of those things have taken a back seat, and now it’s those social and political issues that define allegiances,” said Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a Calvin University historian who writes on gender and religion. “It seems that a tough patriarchy comes with Trump and Trump’s politics. It is a political and steadfast patriarchal alliance. And this is where MacArthur finds common ground with CBN.”
Nearly 10,000 Southern Baptists are expected to vote Tuesday and Wednesday on business issues, including sex abuse revisions.
After messengers at last year’s meeting approved an investigation into the SBC executive committee’s handling of sex abuse allegations, Congress hired an independent investigative firm called Guidepost Solutions, which issued a major report last month suggesting a years-long cover-up of abuse by Southern leaders baptists. Guidepost this month published a tweet supporting the LGBTQ community, and some Southern Baptist leaders unleashed criticism.
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As with many institutions, more white evangelicals are questioning theirs leaders and are ready to part. They are Arguing over things like: Is acknowledging institutional racism tantamount to accepting critical race theory, and is that unbiblical?
Some recent SBC presidents have mirrored much of their membership, particularly younger ones, in beginning to emphasize issues of poverty, racism, and sexism, rather than primarily emphasizing conservative sexual and gender mores. And there’s a right flank that doesn’t like that.
Benjamin Cole, a longtime SBC member and chronicler of SBC politics on Baptist Blogger’s website, said he believes the Conservative Baptist Network is more focused on division and political power.
“Regarding CRT, women in ministry, whatever the issue, I’m not saying they don’t have legitimate concerns, but they have exaggerated the issue in such a way as to mobilize the uninformed to close this specter of Marxism and liberalism fight it,” Kohl said. “I think there is a broad consensus on important things in the SBC. But in all democratic organizations not all registered voters decide. What matters is the passionate mob.”
Tom Buck, an outspoken Texas conservative, said Sunday that he is not a formal member of CBN but does attend and support the group. He cited a 2019 SBC poll in which he called critical race theory and intersectionality useful “analytical tools” that are evidence of a problem.
“Anything you raise is going to be problematic,” he told the Washington Post. “There is what I would call a lack of trust and commitment to the sufficiency of Scripture.”
He said the group is also important because of what he called an increase in women’s ministry. When asked to name one of the 47,000 SBC churches with a female senior pastor, Buck said he knows a few that have female assistant pastors.
Buck said that given the sex abuse reviews the convention could make, he was concerned that the accused might not be guaranteed to know who his accuser is and could be treated as guilty until proven innocent. He believes current norms are sufficient, which state that any pastor who allows “unrepentant” sexual abusers to remain in their church should be booted out of the SBC.
“And it’s not just sexual abuse, but there are many other issues with people living in unrepentant sin that need to be addressed,” Buck told The Post.
Among the frontrunners for SBC president this week is Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor who is not a member of CBN but was endorsed by them and spoke at the prayer meeting on Sunday. Also joining is Bart Barber, a Texas pastor who has served in various SBC leadership roles.
The size and influence of the conservative network are difficult to assess. The group does not release information about its membership or donors, and its spokesman, Louisiana Pastor Brad Jurkovich, did not respond to calls or emails for comment.
A Louisiana judge last week ordered Jurkovich to turn over 10 years of financial records to former members of his church, who allege he failed to inform church members that funds intended to support missionaries were instead being used to support CBN became.
Several longtime observers and members of the SBC say the two men share many similarities in their conservative beliefs. In the past, the main difference between them – and between Ascol and many on the far right of the SBC – would have been theological.
By and large, the two leading candidates in American Christianity would be considered side by side, said Griffin Gulledge, a Georgia pastor who sees Ascol as divisive and politically driven.
“It is their commitment to politics” that sets them apart. Ascol has appeared on secular conservative media shows in recent weeks and MacArthur has been represented by Jenna Ellis, an attorney for former President Donald Trump.
“What’s the point of it, when it comes down to it? The SBC is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States. It’s very powerful and influential and has widespread power in think tanks and elsewhere,” Gulledge said. “Donald Trump made that power greater, and there are those who see [the SBC] as a center of influence for culture and the American political system and don’t want to lose it to someone who doesn’t see it as a political tool.”