When the dust settled around the Southern Baptist Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, earlier this month, most of the focus was on the surprise victory of Ed Litton — the gentle, soft-spoken pastor who became the new SBC president by the slimmest of margins. He not only got more votes than well-known Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler, but also narrowly defeated Mike Stone. Stone was — and remains — a vocal advocate for a fundamentalist resurgence in the SBC, pushing far-right views on race and gender.
But one contentious, less-noticed event has stuck with me. It didn’t take place on stage and the bulk of it wasn’t captured on camera, but multiple sources confirmed the bare details. According to journalists Chris Moody and Jonathan L. Krohn, a woman named Hannah-Kate approached Stone on the convention floor on June 14. Hannah-Kate was one member of a group of sexual abuse survivors who attended the SBC to raise awareness about both the terrible things that happened to them in the SBC, and SBC leadership’s refusal to seriously investigate the crimes. We don’t know the details of Stone and Hannah-Kate’s conversation, but numerous sources confirm that he left her in tears. Krohn reports that Stone told Hannah-Kate her actions were “doing harm” to the denomination. Stone denies this characterization of the conversation.
To be clear, Hannah-Kate and others have detailed a culture far more interested in protecting their church reputation than seeking justice for the men and women abused in their care. Their claim gets a considerable boost via reporting at the Houston Chronicle, which has released multiple, shocking investigations into SBC churches that have not only tolerated sexual abusers in their midst, but have protected them. Hannah-Kate and her fellow survivors were handing out flyers with a joint statement calling for more transparency into an independent investigation looking into such claims. The SBC Executive Committee, a group which includes Stone, had voted a call for more transparency down earlier in the day.
The reason this sticks with me is because of Stone’s accusation, that Hannah-Kate was “doing harm” to the church. It’s a painful thing to hear, and almost anyone who has fought for change is familiar with the sting. Other advocates for victims of sexual abuse in the Church, like Rachael Denhollander, have been told the same thing. So were the Black Americans in the Civil Rights Movement, who were accused of “hating their country.” Martin Luther was told he was creating a “wound in the Body of Christ” for starting the Protestant Reformation. Jesus himself was accused of creating too much disruption, something he seemed to embrace.
In all these claims, the root of the accusation is the same. You’re not being a team player. You’re hurting the brand. You’re tearing us apart. Above all, you’re being divisive.
In this framework, unity is the chief state of being, an ideal to which all other concerns must be sacrificed. It’s a powerful notion, particularly for Christians. Didn’t Jesus pray for us to be unified? Is your social justice agenda more important than the prayer of Jesus? Armed with such argumentation, it’s easy to diffuse or even silence dissent. Unity comes first.
And this unity is really just uniformity — sanding down your own beliefs, opinions, lived experience and even trauma for the sake of “the mission.”
But I wonder if this understanding of unity really lines up with the biblical virtue. Our record of the earliest Church, as found in the Bible, is full of passionate argumentation. Paul writes letter after letter lovingly, but forcefully, trying to get churches to start behaving normally. “Brothers and sisters,” he writes in 1 Corinthians 3. “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ.” Pretty divisive rhetoric there, Paul.
We might get a clue as to Paul’s true vision of unity in Romans 15, where he writes, “May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In this plan, living in harmony with each other will require help from the God “of endurance and encouragement.” Harmony requires endurance. It’s a race. Possibly even a fight. Jesus prayed something similar in John 17, asking that the Church “may be one as we are one — I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity.”
Brought to unity. Not held in it. Not maintained in it. But brought. Someday. With God’s help.
It seems that Paul and Jesus didn’t see unity so much as a state to be protected, but attained. It’s not our natural state, like a calm pond. It’s something we must labor together to build. It’s the reward for doing the hard work. We’re not peacekeepers, patrolling territory to squash any sign of an uprising. We’re peacemakers, working with God towards a destination to create a revolution of unity. It’s a good goal. But by pretending we’re already there, we’re just erecting a house of cards that can be toppled by the slightest breeze. To make it more plain, if your “unity” can be wrecked by something as substantive as sexual abuse survivors telling their story or Black Christians calling out racism in the pews and behind the pulpit, then good is that unity?
It seems that protecting unity is really just a way of protecting the way things are — making a spiritual idol out of a status quo. The powerful are protected. Change is held at bay. And any serious reckoning with our own failures is left entirely unexamined. Everything stays the same. Whether or not that “same” is, in fact, the true unity the Gospel calls us to is never seriously investigated.
As the late Rachel Held Evans wrote, “things rarely change without friction. And if friction is equated with divisiveness, then the powerful can appeal to Christ’s call for unity as a way of silencing critics.”
But what might be achieved if we risked a little friction and disruption to achieve a better unity? If we accepted hard truths and painful reckonings as necessary answers to our own prayers for unity? What if such calls were not hiccups but growing pains, not the cancer but the cure?
Hannah-Kate wasn’t “doing harm” to the SBC. Unspeakable harm had been done to her, and she chose to sound the alarm, not only looking for justice, but hoping to transform the Church so that others don’t have to endure what she did. Her efforts, and the efforts of the other survivors working towards the same goal, can help build a new Church that protects victims instead of abusers. It’s a beautiful dream. We haven’t achieved it yet. But if we could, wouldn’t that unity be better than whatever we’re trying to protect now?
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.