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Will Tom Ascol Please Just Shut Up? Populist Politics and Southern Baptist Polity

Danny Slavich wrote an article in response to Tom Ascol’s post calling for pastors to step up to the plate in the Southern Baptist Convention. [Please see Danny’s Comment in response to this post here.] Slavich appeals to the popular parallel between the populist politics of President Donald Trump and the way grassroots groups like Founders Ministries and the Conservative Baptist Network are – intentionally or not – mirroring what we have seen from Make America Great Again fanatics for the past five years or so. Although such an appeal is generally little more than a smear tactic, I suspect Slavich may be on to something here.

In fact, one may take the aforementioned analogy in one of at least two ways. Perhaps the populist politics of the Republican Party are every bit as bad as Slavich implies. But maybe the bureaucracy of the Southern Baptist Convention senses serious trouble from these pesky pastors and their plebeian pew sitters. That sort of thing could be highly problematic, even if only on a pragmatic level, for our institutional administrators. If evangelicals can do anything the world can do, five years later and not as well, then populism could produce a day of reckoning for institutional elites within the SBC.

Now, that may never happen. Those who have taken their churches and left the Southern Baptist Convention already, or are withholding funds from the Cooperative Program, probably do not believe they are in a position to push their principles into the operations of the SBC anymore. Such churches may be fighting a losing battle like fundamentalists of yore. But every once in a while, those fundamentalists come out on ‘top,’ as they did during the Conservative Resurgence.

In relation to that reality, Danny Slavich says something deeply disturbing. He writes, “Ascol argues that denominational bureaucrats (by which he largely means the administration and faculty of the SBC seminaries) traded orthodox theology for something unbiblical, leading to the need for the reformation of the SBC in the late 1970s and 1980s.” That is not something that only Ascol says. That is something that actually happened in the history of the SBC. This sort of doubt concerning the principles of the CR in the SBC among our young members does not inspire confidence for a very conservative future (EDIT: Danny has since clarified that he agrees with this particular argument from Ascol).

Slavich continues, “Ascol also correlates the bureaucratic organs in Washington (what some call the ‘Deep State’) with current employees of SBC entities. Some of these employees promote positions Ascol considers unbiblical, refusing to stiffen their spines and stand for the gospel. Instead, Ascol argues, these employees work for us, the pastors and members of SBC churches, who ‘own the institutions’ and ‘pay their salaries.’” Slavich does not name which employees or positions he has in mind here. However, worth pointing out is the fact that R. Albert Mohler, Jr., whom Slavich references later, believes and says the very same things that Ascol does about hot topics like women teaching men, Revoice theology, and Critical Race Theory. The difference is, supposedly, what each man is doing about them. Granted, Mohler has done much in the past with regard to such things, using theological acumen and political savvy. Political plays persist in the SBC today. No conspiracy theories here.

One cannot dismiss Ascol on the aforementioned topics without also dismissing Mohler, or vice versa, which presents a bit of a problem for Slavich’s post. The same parallel applies in the case of Ascol’s claim to the effect of who ‘owns’ the institutions of the SBC. Slavich intimates that he finds Ascol’s declaration distasteful, but Mohler would, and often does, wholeheartedly affirm the same thing. Legally speaking, the SBC owns nothing. The seminaries, as well as everything else in the SBC, ultimately answer to her churches, under the authority of Christ, as they should. Moreover, church members do pay at least a portion of SBC employees’ salaries. This truth should not surprise anyone. Sure, nobody likes the guy who goes to the pastor and reminds him that the church pays his salary. The thing is, that guy, no matter how awful his intentions may or may not be, is right. The same is true for our denominational employees. Good reminder.

Slavich seems taken aback that Ascol, “calls for a return of presidential power to one of the many (small-church) pastors in the SBC. Here he encourages thousands of local churches to send messengers to voice the values of a seemingly silent and slumbering denominational majority in order to overturn a resolution about Critical Race Theory (Resolution 9) and to elect a pastor to lead the denomination. In all of this, Ascol presumably refers indirectly to the most prominent candidate for election to the SBC presidency in Nashville in June, 2021, Dr. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.” That Danny Slavich would go out of his way to discourage small church pastors from running for political office within the SBC or the people in the pews from showing up to vote demonstrates a serious problem in the relationships and rhetoric of the SBC. This is the sort of stuff that stirs frustrated Southern Baptists and fuels their fundamentalist fires. If you want to start a pitchfork rebellion, this is how you do it.

Slavich seems shocked that Ascol would dare to imply that denominational employees “very well could be a part of the problem.” He writes, “Ascol embeds his sentence or two of gratitude for these servants into paragraphs that question their legitimacy and integrity. In this way, his article trades in bad faith on the current institutional distrust across our culture, implying any lifelong denominational employee is suspect. Such implications further erode institutional health and trust, doing more negative destruction than positive disruption.” Slavich may be slow to see, but that ship has sailed, and Ascol is hardly to blame.

After two years of very public accusations regarding decades of abuse and cover ups in the SBC, institutional racism, and politically motivated power grabs, what exactly does Danny Slavich suspect Southern Baptists (and others) might think? To make matters worse, the sudden embrace of functional egalitarianism, Critical Race Theory, and call out culture from SBC entities seems, to some, suspiciously similar to what it would look like if Southern Baptist leaders were trying to save face by disassociating from those responsible for the aforementioned issues. Let’s get real, some Southern Baptist pastors have more sense and self-respect than to sit around and listen to patronizing diatribes about how bad their congregations are from the very same people who are said to have silently enabled others for years. So, seriously, spare us the thing about our angelic leadership. That having been said, we do have many fine leaders in the Southern Baptist Convention. They are legitimate men of integrity. Some of them should lead. Some of them probably should not (that realization does not necessarily besmirch one’s integrity). But why preclude pastors and others from the same consideration?

Slavich claims, “Unfortunately and ultimately, Ascol’s proposal merely mirrors the political populism of the last five years, reflecting a theological voice that has taken the tactics and tone of that populism….He intends to stir populist angst to accomplish his goals.” Comments like these are indicative of how Southern Baptists have, in principle, forgotten who ‘runs’ the SBC. The seminary presidents and entity heads and trustees and the like do not. The messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention do. The Southern Baptist Convention does not operate top down. The Southern Baptist Convention operates bottom up. Our leadership, no matter how legitimate, conservative, and faithful they may be, are still held accountable to the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention. That’s not Trumpism, that’s the Southern Baptist Convention.

3 replies on “Will Tom Ascol Please Just Shut Up? Populist Politics and Southern Baptist Polity”

Thank you for the feedback, although I think this article misreads my intention. I do not say or imply that the denominational employees “run” the SBC. Instead, Ascol implies that the “denominational bureaucracy” inherently tends toward unfaithfulness. Likewise, the article implies that democratic processes are identical to populist agitation. They’re not the same thing. Yes, messengers have ultimate authority in the SBC, just like citizens have ultimate authority in the USA. But the institutions entrusted with delegated authority matter. Also, I agree with Ascol’s argument about the turn away from orthodoxy, and my statement that he argues as such does not say or imply that I think he is wrong. (“Ascol argues that denominational bureaucrats (by which he largely means the administration and faculty of the SBC seminaries) traded orthodox theology for something unbiblical, leading to the need for the reformation of the SBC in the late 1970s and 1980s.”) I was summarizing his argument. Perhaps I should have added the word “rightly” before “argues” or used the term “notes,” instead of merely “argues.” Thanks again for the engagement. God bless.

Hey Danny,

Thank you for taking the article in stride. I intended to add your responses on Twitter into the post, but I think your Comment here captures everything fine. I will make a note for the readers to check it out. Also, thank you for the clarification on the orthodoxy issue.

Grace!

Even as a layman, I tend to agree with Tom at the level of generalization: a healthy Convention produces a surfeit of healthy pastors. It has no problem choosing a moderator out of many healthy pastors. A Convention that chooses healthy pastors for twenty years will look very from a Convention that chooses academics for twenty years.

But Tom has also been a (convincing!) proponent of the idea that the SBC is not entirely healthy right now. JD Greear is a pastor. I dare say that if JD could run (again), Tom would vote for Al.

So if Tom means to say that a lack of good, popular pastors running for moderator is an ominous sign for the SBC, that’s probably true. And running a pastor has some good side effects, even if he loses. It introduces the Convention to another good leader. It moves the “Overton window” so that Mohler is the middle of the road, not the far right. It guarantees that even a “good” non-pastor has to be compared to a pastor.

But, when it comes down to choosing between names on a ballot, “pastor” will only go so far for me. Without knowing who Tom has in mind, I will say Dr. Mohler is a known quantity, at a time when many of us are tired of surprises.

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