The Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee voted on Tuesday to expel four of its member churches, ousting two for policies that “affirm homosexual behavior” and the others for employing pastors who are convicted sex offenders.
“The last year has revealed areas of weakness in our beloved convention of churches,” J.D. Greear, the S.B.C. president, said in a fiery opening address to the committee on Monday night in Nashville. “Fissures and failures and fleshly idolatries. Covid didn’t produce these crises. It only exposed them.”
The next day, the committee “disfellowshipped” Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga., and St. Matthews Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky., for church policies deemed accepting of homosexuality, in violation of the denomination’s statement of faith.
Towne View’s conversations about becoming an “affirming” congregation, and its decision to accept two gay couples as members in 2019, cost the church at least 30 percent of its membership, Jim Conrad, the pastor, said on Tuesday evening. He stands by the decision, and said he welcomes the opportunity to freely welcome L.G.B.T.Q. people to his church. “I’ve been S.B.C. all my life and have seen the convention for the last 30 years move further and further to the right,” he said. “This is just closing a chapter.”
Two other churches were removed for employing pastors known to have committed sexual crimes. Antioch Baptist Church in Sevierville, Tenn., is led by a pastor who pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory rape for oral sex with a 16-year-old congregant at a previous church in the 1990s. The pastor at West Side Baptist Church in Sharpsville, Pa., is on Florida’s sex offender registry for a 1993 conviction of aggravated sexual assault of a child. The church’s website says the pastor once “lived as a great sinner and rebel” but “has gone from disgrace to amazing grace and now has served the Lord Jesus Christ at West Side for 18 years.”
Mr. Greear, whose final term as president is set to expire in June, has made a priority of improving the denomination’s response to sexual abuse in church settings. When a 2019 investigation by The Houston Chronicle and The San Antonio Express-News uncovered hundreds of cases of sexual abuse in S.B.C. settings, the denomination made pastoral sexual abuse grounds for removing a church from the convention, and released its own report detailing its failures to care for victims.
The Southern Baptist Convention is the nation’s largest Protestant denomination and has been increasingly divided in recent years over a variety of cultural and political issues, including racism, sexuality and white evangelicals’ embrace of former President Donald J. Trump.
National leaders, including Mr. Greear and Russell Moore, its policy head, have attempted to hold the denomination together while expanding its reach. Mr. Moore, an outspoken critic of Mr. Trump, has spoken forcefully against the Confederate flag and hosted conferences on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and on racial reconciliation. Mr. Greear used the phrase “Black lives matter” in a speech last summer, and affirmed the most racially diverse roster of committee members in the denomination’s history.
“Do we want to be a Gospel people or a Southern culture people?” Mr. Greear asked in his speech on Monday night. “Which is the more important part of our name, ‘Southern’ or ‘Baptist’?”
But an increasingly influential conservative wing of the denomination accuses those leaders of prioritizing “social justice” over biblical truth. They denounce the encroachment of “critical race theory” — an academic framework intended to capture the deep influence of racism — and accuse the S.B.C.’s national leadership of being out of step with the rank and file.
The public hostility to critical race theory, which some call frank and necessary discussions of racism, prompted several high-profile Black pastors to leave the denomination in December. About 85 percent of Southern Baptists in America are white, according to the Pew Research Center, although the number of majority nonwhite S.B.C. churches in the country has risen sharply since the 1990s.
The denomination’s membership is in steep decline over all. Its most recent annual report found total membership dropped by almost 2 percent between 2018 and 2019, the largest single-year drop in more than a century. The decline brought total membership to 14.5 million.
The denomination’s annual convention was canceled last year for the first time since World War II because of the coronavirus pandemic. This year’s meeting, expected to draw thousands of delegates, is scheduled to take place in Nashville in June.
Ronnie Floyd, the president of the executive committee, closed the meeting on Tuesday with a hope for unity. “I just pray that over the next several months that God will somehow, some way, draw us together to stand together and to stay together on reaching every person for Jesus Christ,” he said.