Plenty of other Baptist churches have renamed themselves, but what makes the Two Rivers change particularly interesting is that Two Rivers has been “the home church” for many of the high-honchos of the Southern Baptist Convention, which has its headquarters in Nashville.
So do you get the picture? The home church for Southern Baptist honchos doesn’t want to call itself “Baptist” anymore. Ironic, eh?
That’s how tarnished the “Baptist” brand has become.
Two Rivers itself has had plenty of problems in recent years. This is the church that, in 2008, ousted a group of 70 members who sought access to church financial records. It took a second vote, with changed rules, to get the ouster accomplished, because on the first vote, the church membership didn’t do what church leadership wanted. It was such a debacle that The Nashville Scene did a scathing parody of the church’s voting process, saying “Two Rivers Baptist to advise Zimbabwe regime” on election tactics because “they know a thing or two about reversing an election that didn’t go their way.”
By some reports, these dictatorial tactics were apparently nothing unusual for Two Rivers. Its leadership preached, “There has to be submission and authority.”
All of this happened with senior pastor Jerry Sutton at the Two Rivers helm. He was a man who nearly won the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2006. So he knew a thing or two about the tactics of power.
But things sure got ugly there at Two Rivers. Sutton himself fell under scrutiny as the Associated Press reported on troubling allegations, including an allegation that he had used church money to pay for his daughter’s wedding reception. Additionally, the Associated Press reported that “one of Sutton’s former administrative assistants has also said Sutton looked at pornography on his church computer and had an affair with a church staff member -- charges the church denies.” (If you want to see the original of the Associated Press article on this, for $1.50, you can retrieve it from the archives at ap.org by searching under the reporter’s name, Rose French.)
Meanwhile, even as Sutton was insisting that the 70 record-seeking members should “issue a written apology and promise never to cause disharmony again,” lo and behold, a stash of financial records was found in a dumpster behind the church.
As reported by WSMV-TV, a church member described those records as showing unusual items “charged to the church credit card,” including “tickets to an Atlanta Braves baseball game and a $300 deck hand fee for a lavish sport fishing outfit.” Reportedly, there were also “a number of handwritten notes indicating that a church staffer is to be ‘paid in cash’ and a note “that said to give her half in cash and half in a check.”
Lawsuits went back and forth, and as best I can tell, most of the civil claims against Sutton were dismissed based on jurisdictional grounds – i.e., because the judge “declined to become involved” in church matters – and not based on any review of the merits. Sutton himself eventually left Two Rivers and went to teach at Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia. (Liberty was founded by Jerry Falwell and is described as “the largest Christian university in the world.”)
With such an ugly history, you might imagine that, if Two Rivers were going to “rebrand” itself, it would drop “Two Rivers” from the name. But no . . . they decided to “rebrand” by dropping “Baptist” from the name. I guess they thought the “Baptist” part of the brand carried even more taint than the “Two Rivers” part.
But of course, it’s all just a matter of appearances. The church is still “very solidly Southern Baptist.”
Speaking of appearances . . . those of you who followed the Ergun Caner scandal may find this further info interesting. When Jerry Sutton moved on to teach at Liberty, the school’s former president and dean, Ergun Caner, bragged that Liberty’s new professor was “a pulpit heavyweight.” Uh…. yeah …. I guess he sure knew how to throw his weight around, didn’t he?
Caner went on to praise Sutton as “one of the best preachers in the nation” and said “the Church is strong when the preaching is SOLID.” Uh… strong? After Sutton visited his style of leadership on the Two Rivers church, it dropped from 3000 in average Sunday attendance to about 650.
Finally, Caner resorted to military metaphors, saying that Sutton would help train ministry students for “the front lines” and help them understand “trench warfare.” Uh . . . it sure looked like “warfare” there at Two Rivers. But is that really the style of leadership that Baptists want to teach to the next generation?
Maybe that gets right back to the underlying reason for why Two Rivers feels the need to rebrand itself by omitting the word “Baptist.”
Too many Baptist leaders have tarnished the Baptist brand by making it into a faith about “warfare” and power rather than a faith about compassion and love.
After all, this is the faith group whose highest leader, Frank Page, wrote a column in which he publicly castigated the support groups for clergy molestation and rape victims as being “nothing more than opportunistic persons” . . . and he has never even bothered to apologize. And this is the faith group in which 100,000 other Southern Baptist ministers have sat silently in the face of such hateful rhetoric, refusing to even hold their own leader accountable. To the contrary, they promoted him.
Yes, the Baptist name has indeed been tarnished. But it will take more than the illusion of rebranding to solve the problem. It will take a widespread change of heart.