Documentary Unpacks How Identity Politics Is Affecting Southern Baptist Theology

Documentary Unpacks How Identity Politics Is Affecting Southern Baptist Theology

This Founders Ministries documentary clarifies the terms of the critical theory debate, offering a way forward for reconciliation among those who bear the name Christian. 

Matthew Garnett
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The new documentary “By What Standard?” attempts to inform members of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, of the dangers of a leftist philosophy known as “Critical Theory.”

“If I were going to design a plan to bring the whole thing down, all of Christendom, how would you do it? Make ‘em ‘woke.’ It will eat itself from the inside. If I were the old-school angry atheist … I’d start making ‘woke’ pastors,” contended Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay, co-founders of New Discourses and authors of “How to Have Impossible Conversations,” in a recent interview with Sovereign Nations.

“By What Standard?”, created by the well-known organization Founders Ministries, headed by Pastor Tom Ascol, documents this simmering controversy within the SBC step by step so viewers can quickly understand the backstory. The 90-minute feature addresses two sensitive issues.

The first is the role of women in the church and whether “critical feminist theory” is a good solution. The second is racial reconciliation in the church and “critical race theory.” (Find further information on the critical theory debate within the SBC here and here.) The SBC recently affirmed critical theory as a useful “analytical tool,” but the documentary shows it is derived completely from a Marxist, materialist worldview — a worldview Ascol rightly calls “godless.”

‘By What Standard?’ Unpacks Critical Feminist Theory

In part one, the Founders Ministries team addresses the effects of feminist theory on the SBC. Nowadays, Christians are often charged with misogyny and bigotry, necessitating a practical explanation of their theology about sex and the sexes.

For instance, the church reserves pastoral offices for men not only as a matter of biblical teaching, but also to protect women, not deprive them. In the church, the pastoral office and preaching ministry is akin to being in front-line, infantry combat, and thus is unsuitable for women. Josh Buice, founder of the G3 Conference, makes this point in the documentary, saying, “I think that when we talk about the abuse of women, I would go on record as stating that if we ask a woman to do something spiritually that God did not intend her to do … that’s abusive.” According to Buice, placing a woman in a pastoral role makes her a primary target both spiritually and politically.

The film also argues the church loses when it encourages and prods women to act in the roles biblically reserved for men. Summer White Jaeger of the Sheologians blog and podcast says that if you get women “acting like men, you weaken the church substantially. I think a lot of women, especially in this generation, [have] been raised to believe that if we don’t try to do everything that a man does, that we’re not reaching our full potential. … Ultimately that message is, ‘Your full potential is to be a man.’”

Leading advocates for the opposite view influenced by feminism include William Dwight McKissic, pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, and the well-known Beth Moore, founder of Living Proof Ministries. They maintain that reserving Sunday preaching for men has directly contributed to the SBC’s widely publicized sexual abuse scandals. In other words, Buice and others have done just the opposite of protecting women by not allowing them to preach on a Sunday morning or become pastors.

“This whole sexual abuse thing is the judgement of God on Southern Baptists because once you devalue a woman to say that she cannot preach on the Lord’s Day … you tell men it’s okay to abuse her,” McKissic says. Moore adds, “Complementarian theology [the idea that men and women are equal but different] became such a high core value that it inadvertently, by proof of what we have seen — look at the fruit of what happened [in the sexual abuse scandals] — became elevated above the safety and well-being of many women.”

The film shows Buice, Jaeger, and others who hold to traditional teaching about women as pastors are being accused of enabling sexual abuse. McKissic as well as Russell Moore of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission say that if a woman like Moore is not affirmed in her preaching on a Sunday morning, more sexual abuse will occur in the SBC and be covered up again. As Jaeger notes, feminism has long asserted that simpy reserving some specific roles to men and women is a form of abuse.

One of the film’s shortcomings was that it didn’t adequately exposit the biblical role of women in the church. While the practical implications of reserving the pastorate and preaching for men was on full display, it seems the SBC and evangelicals need a good, solid review of what the scriptures actually teach on this subject.

Why Critical Race Theory Is Incompatible with Scripture

In part two, the Founders Ministries team discusses how critical race theory conflicts with biblical teaching. The film is helpful for understanding some of the technical philosophical terms of the debate, including “whiteness,” “power,” and “critique.”

To explain whiteness or power, the documentary turns to the late James Cone, founder of so-called Black Liberation Theology. We derive the definitions of these invented terms from an excerpt of one of Cone’s lectures. Cone asserts, “That’s why the white church need to be critiqued, and white theologians need to be critiqued. … It has to do with power; it has [nothing to] do with biology. If you’re not talking about redistributing power, you just joking around, you just want to feel good.”

According to Cone, whiteness includes Western democracy and economic capitalism. Furthermore, a church that either supports these systems or is not fighting against them is suffused with whiteness. Any theologian whose central aim isn’t to fight against these unjust systems should be ejected from the church.

Packed in the term “power” is what we might think of as the hegemony, or those considered superior and authoritative by any given cultural, political, and economic system. To determine who has power, several questions are asked: What sex has traditionally enjoyed a privileged position in society? What race has enjoyed these privileges? What religion has predominated? In contrast, who have people with power marginalized?

With the exposition of the term “power,” the documentary turns to the “critique” in critical theory. Foundational to critical theory is jettisoning the rules, norms, and traditions of historic, biblical Christianity.

Race theory, according to Robin DiAngelo, the author of “White Fragility” who also appears in the film, teaches the viewer that to combat covert racism and misogyny in the tradition of critical theory means we don’t ask “if racism is happening,” we ask “how racism is happening.” That question is asked of everything, including the Bible, and indeed putsscripture in question. “By What Standard?” shows critical theory is not merely a tool, as some say, but an entire worldview in and of itself.

Another shortcoming of “By What Standard?” was that some of the interviewees in part two seemed to lack the language necessary to oppose critical theory adequately. Given that this movement within the SBC has gained steam so quickly, it is no wonder many are not equipped to speak intelligently on the subject. Still, those interviews should have been left on the cutting room floor and more space reserved for experts such as Glenn Sunshine, a professor of history at Central Connecticut State University who was interviewed for the film and walked viewers through the development of critical theory.

‘By What Standard?’ Points to the Gospel for Reconciliation

Finally, while the film is sobering about the issues facing the SBC, it is also hopeful. In a world where one side is hell-bent on bringing the other side to “justice,” “By What Standard?” reminds viewers of forgiveness in the gospel:

The stain of racism and sexism … is real hurt that we have really caused. … [Pastors] are not doing [their] jobs if we don’t say honestly that all of you need to act better … and all of you need to start by forgiving each other. … That’s the only basis of any lasting reconciliation.

The documentary “By What Standard?” is a must-watch for Southern Baptists and all evangelicals. The film gives a helpful, step-by-step synopsis of what is occurring within the SBC and the arguments for and against the critical theory movement, which mirrors the leftist takeover of cultural institutions across the country and suggests the same culture war is affecting the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. “By What Standard?” aids viewers by clarifying the terms of this important debate, offering a way forward for reconciliation among those who bear the name Christian.

Matthew Garnett is the husband of Jennifer, the father of two children, a member of Redeemer Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne, Indiana, truck driver, and host of the “In Layman’s Terms” broadcast.

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