The Soul Truth

Sitting through a 40-minute lecture is not, generally, a popular pastime in our distracted culture. But on a typical Sunday at The Summit Church in Raleigh, the room goes from worship-band jamming and raucous applause to rapt silence as J.D. Greear, 48, walks onstage. 

His salt-and-pepper crew cut, well-groomed stubble, black polo shirt, black zip-up jacket and khakis are the uniform of a pastor who is cool, but not too cool—who wants to bridge the formidable Boomer—Gen Z chasm. 

All around the sprawling auditorium, people are flipping through their Bibles and getting ready to take notes. Occasionally a glowing screen lights up the dim room, but it’s just someone consulting a Bible app. 

“Christian love—1 Corinthians 13—is countercultural, and it’s often straight-up confrontational,” Greear says. 

Greear’s sermon is about confronting the self-centered motives that often lie behind pious behavior: “Apart from love, Paul says, every other religious act is empty, it is hollow, it is displeasing to God and it’s just annoying to other people ... You tracking with this? Because, see, this is what the Corinthians were: They were religiously impressive on the outside, but full of selfish immaturity on the inside.”

He glances occasionally at the small black binder of notes in his left hand, his eyes otherwise locked on the cameraman back near the tech booth. Most people in the congregation are watching Greear on one of the room’s giant screens, as are congregants at Summit’s 10 other campuses around the Triangle. 

Greear gestures with the amped-up energy of a professional who knows how to calibrate for the camera without seeming hammy in real life. He never admonishes the congregation for too long without a dimpled smile and some comic interlude of repentance for his own idolatries, whether it’s pride, people-pleasing, or his excessive love for Nicolas Cage movies. 

The man can preach. It’s not hard to understand why so many congregants cite Greear’s sermons as a major reason they are here—over 8,600 on an average weekend (another 7,000 watch online). Summit’s Easter service at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheater drew almost 16,000.

Still, the Triangle is a hard place to win souls for Jesus. It’s full of transient college students, well-educated skeptics, and immigrants from other religious backgrounds. Like everywhere else in the Western world, the Triangle has lots of exhausted and apathetic people who would prefer to sit alone on the couch on Sunday morning. Yet Summit is preposterously determined—more determined than most churches—to win people to Christ. 

What’s even more unusual, in our polarized times, is this: Greear is not doubling down on us-versus-them, but trying to build bridges—both at Summit and during his recent term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Greear’s presidency was a testy three years spent trying to get the country’s 14 million Southern Baptists to wrestle more openly with racism and churches’ widespread failure to listen to victims of sexual assault. 

Christian love, he said in his sermon on 1 Corinthians 13, “sometimes presses down to expose what you are hiding ...  love does not naively close its eyes when difficult questions are in order.”

Greear’s tightrope walk may be attempting the impossible: to pull back from the culture war without yielding to secular values, and to serve and love non-Christians—while still begging them to see that they are damned without Jesus. 

Relaunching a Church

In 2002, Greear was a college pastor fresh from seminary and a two-year stint as a missionary in Southeast Asia when he took over the pulpit of a sedate Durham church, then called Homestead Heights Baptist Church. Later that same year, he persuaded the congregation of about 300 people to relaunch as The Summit Church. 

The name signaled Greear’s vision: hipper than your parents’ Baptist church, sights set high on Jesus. He gradually shed his Sunday suit and tie and swapped the handbells for electric guitars. 

Over the years, Summit followed the strategy of many modern “seeker-sensitive” megachurches, a movement pioneered in the 1960s and 1970s by pastors who combined sociology from the mission field with insights from business and marketing. The aim was to make a play for potential converts alienated by the look, feel, and preaching of traditional churches. 

By 2007, the congregation of 2,000 was worshiping at three separate services in a Durham high school. Summit moved to a warehouse space light on Christian symbols and heavy on comfortable seating and audiovisual technology. Greear began to explore broadcasting to multiple campuses across the Triangle, each staffed with their own worship teams and local pastors who occasionally preach and are charismatic speakers in their own right. Today attendees gather at 11 different campuses, including worship services offered in Spanish and Mandarin, and two congregations in prisons. 

The goal is for no one in the Triangle to live more than 15 minutes from a Summit location. “I’ve appreciated that Summit is not opening a new campus just to make us bigger, but where there are already members living who attend regularly,” said Michal Rudolph, a longtime member who is active in the church’s women’s ministry. “We’re not expanding for expanding’s sake—when that happens, we just plant a new church.”

The main campus is now a stylish modern building off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh. Every detail of the experience seems designed with a slightly hesitant seeker in mind, from the VIP parking spots set aside for first-time visitors to the swag bags with Summit-branded cups and a copy of Greear’s booklet “What Is the Gospel?,” printed in a retro design that looks more like the liner notes of an indie band’s new album than a religious tract. 

Then there’s the music. Whatever an outsider’s sneering expectations of an evangelical worship band might be, this one is really good: men and women of different races, dressed in jeans, hoodies, and T-shirts, thrumming guitars and bold percussion. Even a grisly hymn about the blood of Christ is kind of catchy.  

##### The worship team uplifts the crowd during the Summit Church Easter Sunday service at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh on April 17, 2022. Photos by Maddy Gray.

The worship team uplifts the crowd during the Summit Church Easter Sunday service at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh on April 17, 2022. Photos by Maddy Gray.

Yet this is 2022; church membership in America has been declining steadily for years, and even a slick megachurch with a killer sound system and hip graphic design is still, well, a church. 

“We’re no longer dealing here in the Triangle with lapsed Christians or bored Christians who need to be called back to the faith of their parents,” Greear said. Increasingly, he says, people see church as a foreign country—one they have zero interest in visiting. 

“You’re never going to win them through funnier sermons, better music, and better guest services. Obviously it changes the preaching because you’re not starting with a set of shared assumptions,” Greear said. “It also changes your evangelism strategy altogether, because the majority of people in the Triangle are never going to set foot in the church anyway. So you’ve got to equip people to take the gospel to them and meet them at that point of need.”

Even by the standards of the missions-focused Southern Baptist world, Summit is consumed with turning ordinary churchgoers into evangelists. For the past several years, it has trained and launched more missionaries than any other Southern Baptist church, with about 100 families currently serving internationally. It is roughly halfway to its goal of planting 1,000 independent churches here and abroad; each Sunday, more people worship at churches that members started than worship at Summit itself. 

A Summit ministry called GoNow encourages recent college graduates to devote two months, a semester, or even two years to serving a newly planted church. Greear jokingly calls the program the “Mormonization strategy.” Every worship service ends with a benediction reminding members of their mission during the week: “You are sent.”

I first became aware of Summit because of the church’s intense outreach at UNC-Chapel Hill, where I teach. I started noticing Summit stickers on students’ laptops and hearing how easy it was to get a ride to this church on Sunday mornings. 

“We try to make the bar for entry as low as possible,” said Josh Ferguson, who graduated from UNC in 2015 and now oversees college discipleship for Summit. “Freshmen, especially, want a community to belong to before they want a message to believe in, so we try to befriend as many freshmen as possible and show them the love of Christ.” 

A young church-goer at Summit's Easter Sunday service at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh.

A young church-goer at Summit's Easter Sunday service at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh.

Students in Summit’s college ministries focus on helping new students move into dorms and offer free food, fun activities, and informal invitations to Bible study rather than in-your-face evangelism. “Evangelism is not trying to get out there and prove someone wrong,” Ferguson said. “No one ever decides to follow Jesus because they’re like, ‘Wow, I just got in a heated debate and got crushed.’ They say, ‘Wow, I can’t help but be overwhelmed by the love these people showed me.’” 

Seeker-sensitive, convert-hungry churches have received a lot of flack for watering down traditional doctrines about sin and damnation in favor of gimmicks and a “felt-needs philosophy,” as one conservative critic put it. But don’t mistake Summit’s free pizza and cool worship music for a soft theological touch. Greear has never shied away from fire and brimstone. 

“Many Christians do not share the gospel because they are not convinced, in their hearts, that people actually go to hell,” he complained in his 2019 book, Above All. He has a gift for telling nonbelievers this bad news in a strangely magnanimous way, in a Forsyth County accent mellowed by his time living abroad, with a thoughtful expression that cinches the corners of his pale blue eyes.

Greear is a master of what evangelicals often term the “altar call”—an evangelist’s invitation, at the end of a sermon, to come down front, publicly repent and confess Jesus as Lord and savior (or—if you’re a timid but tech-savvy new believer—you can text “ready” to the number periodically displayed on the huge LED screens). 

Onstage during Summit’s Easter celebration, Greear warned that all over the enormous amphitheater, people who were sitting side by side “will end up on different sides of Jesus. And one of you will end up in the unspeakable joys of heaven and one of you will end up in an eternal place of death and darkness.”

That day, 241 people came forward to “start conversations about baptism.” Another 193 people took the plunge. They lined up at one of the hot tub-sized baptismal tanks in front of the stage after changing into Summit-issued shorts and T-shirts so they didn’t have to submerge in their Sunday best. 

To critics—including many Christians—this moment in a worship service feels manipulative, a choreographed pressure tactic to compel a vulnerable person to silence their questions and doubts and do what will please the crowd. But in the severe logic of Greear’s worldview, the pressure only works if the Holy Spirit wills, and it is the deepest act of pastoral care. 

‘A Missionary or an Impostor’

Backstage at the Capital Hills campus, in what a traditional church would call the sacristy (at broadcast-minded Summit, it’s the “green room”), Greear has a small study area. Over his desk hangs an enormous print of one of Lucas Cranach’s portraits of Martin Luther, the great hero of the Reformation. 

Luther is famous for his revelation that salvation comes by grace alone, but before that he was a monk who spent a lot of time agonizing over his spiritual state. “What Luther and I have in common is that eternity is very, very real to me,” Greear told me one morning before church, as he stared at the portrait. 

Greear grew up mostly in Winston-Salem, where his mother taught biology at a small Bible college. His parents sent him to Gospel Light Christian School, which Greear called “very Bob Jones University-esque.” Not long after he was old enough to read, he started devouring fundamentalist cartoon tracts that condemned the unsaved to eternal torment. “It scared me. I became obsessive,” he said. “When I was 15 or 16 years old, that’s what sent me into despair—we’re talking about eternity. We’re not talking about a mulligan.” 

By the time he was in his 20s, he had been baptized four times, each time worried that the previous dunking had been too hasty. “I had probably ‘asked Jesus into my heart’ five thousand times,’ he wrote in his 2013 book, Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart. During his first year of college “often, through tears, I pleaded with God that if He’d let me have an assurance of salvation, I’d be the best Christian who’d ever lived.” 

Top: Members of the Summit Church raise their hands in worship before helping baptize new members during the Easter Sunday service at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh on April 17, 2022. Bottom: Maja Hulstedt, 15, is baptized.

Top: Members of the Summit Church raise their hands in worship before helping baptize new members during the Easter Sunday service at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh on April 17, 2022. Bottom: Maja Hulstedt, 15, is baptized. Photos by Maddy Gray.

A friend directed him to the writings of Luther, who had his own struggle with assurance. Commenting on Paul’s letter to the Romans, Luther wrote that “the word that one must believe is nothing else but this: Christ died and he is risen.” Finally, Greear wrote, he accepted that “belief and a confession of that belief” that Jesus died for his sins was enough—with no need for the perfect prayer, baptism, or mystical experience. 

Greear is not a person who does something halfway. Once he found the assurance that he prayed for, he gravitated toward the Reformed tradition, the branch of Protestantism associated with John Calvin and the Puritans’ ruthless vision of divine predestination (Luther also embraced this idea). It’s a worldview based on a staggering vision of God’s power, one that seems to make little room for free will. 

Historically, many of the church’s most committed evangelists have been Calvinists, because even if God predestined us all for heaven or hell, He uses Christians to spread the gospel and redeem a fallen world. Predestination can seem like a doctrine that would lead to apathy and fatalism. But for people who embrace it, the opposite is usually true: There are few things that humans find more exciting than feeling like they are part of an unstoppable movement. 

Greear likes to quote one of his Reformed heroes, the 19th-century English Baptist Charles Spurgeon: Every Christian “is either a missionary or an impostor.”

A Conservative Resurgence

There is another impulse in this branch of conservative Protestantism: the call to purify society through culture war. That drive has always coexisted with the drive to evangelize the lost. These commands are not inherently at odds—but if pushed to extremes, the tension between them becomes unbearable. The Southern Baptist Convention may be nearing that breaking point.

The crisis has been decades in the making. In 1979, Southern Baptist conservatives, fearing that the denomination’s leadership and seminary faculty were becoming too progressive, engineered the election of a staunch conservative as the convention’s president. Over the next two decades, conservatives steadily populated key leadership and teaching positions with like minds, effectively ending the denomination’s budding practice of ordaining women and doubling down on the commitment to the Bible as the inerrant word of God. 

Greear calls himself a product of this conservative resurgence (or “fundamentalist takeover,” depending on your perspective). Yet in today’s politicized SBC, such conviction is not enough. By the time Southern Baptists elected Greear president in 2018, a wave of Trumpian radicalization had energized the most conservative members. Soon afterward, long-brewing anger over how church officials have mishandled sexual assault accusations exploded

Paige Patterson, a conservative theologian who advised Greear on his doctoral dissertation many years ago, was fired from his seminary leadership position for discouraging a rape victim from filing a police report and urging her to forgive the assailant. Greear called on Baptists who might give his old mentor a platform to think twice about it, since seminary trustees had deemed Patterson’s conduct “antithetical to the core values of our faith.” 

This public censure of SBC royalty “was hugely significant; it can’t be overstated,” said Mark Wingfield, a former pastor who left the SBC in 2000 and now serves as editor of Baptist Global News, a progressive Baptist website. He noted, however, that Greear’s criticism did not get Patterson “canceled,” since the most conservative Southern Baptists don’t care about “the allegations against him. He’s their hero, their Trump.”

As this storm over sexual assault continued, years of debate over how the denomination grapples with racism reached a new level of rancor. Conservatives objected to a resolution “On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality,” passed at the 2019 SBC annual convention, which grudgingly acknowledged that these theories might serve as “analytical tools subordinate to Scripture.” 

In his last address as SBC president at the 2021 convention (term limits required him to step down), Greear complained that the Convention seemed to spend more time fretting over critical race theory than listening to Christians of color, and stressed that the future of the SBC is nonwhite: In 2020, 60 percent of all new SBC churches were majority nonwhite or multiethnic. 

##### Top: Thousands of people attend the Summit Church Easter Sunday service at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh on April 17, 2022. Bottom left: The Pratt family, from left to right, Ellis, 8, JP, June, 4, and Teresa dance to a song. Bottom right: Coloring pages for kids in English, Spanish, and Mandarin sit on a blanket.

Top: Thousands of people attend the Summit Church Easter Sunday service at Walnut Creek Amphitheater in Raleigh on April 17, 2022. Bottom left: The Pratt family, from left to right, Ellis, 8, JP, June, 4, and Teresa dance to a song. Bottom right: Coloring pages for kids in English, Spanish, and Mandarin sit on a blanket. Photos by Maddy Gray.

“Are we primarily a cultural and political affinity group, or do we see our primary calling as being a gospel witness for all people in all places at all times?” he asked. 

Critics on the right have hounded Greear and his staff. A pastor in Kentucky tweeted that Greear and other moderates should “publicly repent for marching with Marxists, supporting false narratives of police brutality, and promoting the praxis of CRT as the country burned.” In March 2021, Greear’s vaccination selfie provoked more online snark: “The COVID vaccine is almost as dangerous as your false teachings on social justice,” one commenter posted.

He earned special ire for urging “generosity of spirit” when it comes to using transgender people’s pronouns. Conservative blogger Rod Dreher lamented Greear’s “culture war surrender.” (Greear is no liberal on this issue: He has been clear on his view that “God declares through DNA male or female,” and warned his congregation in a recent sermon that “increasingly we are seeing what can only be called an agenda pushed on our children on things like gender and sexuality.”) 

“He’s an interesting case. He’s upset some of the hyper-fundamentalists,” said Susan Shaw, a professor of women, gender, and sexuality studies at Oregon State University who was ordained by the SBC in 1993 before conservatives mostly put a stop to that; she now worships with a United Church of Christ congregation. “We always thought that when they ran us off, they’d start fighting among themselves, because it was always about power—it was never about theology. 

“I think Greear does represent a new generation who wants to be more inclusive, but I use that word with caution—because there are still pretty clear boundaries on how far inclusion goes.”

Greear says he is the one upholding the values of the conservative resurgence. “Even though I’ve sort of run afoul of some of the leaders of that movement, I actually think that what I’m doing is taking some of the core things that they taught and just applying them better than they did,” he said. “Sexual abuse is a great example. Of all people, we should realize that there is going to be the tendency of people in power to protect those in power ... if we take Jesus seriously, we would have cared more about the survivor than we cared about our reputation.” 

For the time being, Greear’s vision has won out—barely. In the contest to succeed him as SBC president last June, moderate candidate Ed Litton won with 52 percent of votes. But Litton has also dealt with relentless criticism from conservatives, compounded by allegations that he plagiarized some of Greear’s sermons. Litton announced last month that he will step down after just one year. 

‘Become All Things To All Men’

If all Greear cared about was packing in more bodies on Sunday morning, his middle-way politics would not be the strategic choice. Weekend in-person attendance is running at about 70 percent of Summit’s pre-pandemic attendance of over 12,000. Greear says their numbers are continuing to rebound, but the pace is slightly behind the recovery of the average American Protestant church, according to a recent survey. Some of those missing people may be gone for good.

Between the pandemic and the political polarization of the last two years, “my guess is about 15 percent of our people left during that time,” Greear said.  

During a lecture at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest earlier this year, Greear got heated as he complained about blowback: “You are leaving because you disagree because we said too much—one too many things about George Floyd—or because we said not enough about him, or because we asked you to wear a mask for a season, or because we did not keep the mask mandate in place long enough.” 

“We Christians say that we hate cancel culture, but it was amazing to me how so many of us canceled our church over a relatively small disagreement,” he said. Within Summit, he has received far more criticism from conservatives. “If I went hardcore right, our attendance would increase,” he told me.

##### (Left to right) Manon Domer, Lauren White, 10, Emily White, 7, and Yeli Chen, blow bubbles before the Summit Church Easter Sunday service.

(Left to right) Manon Domer, Lauren White, 10, Emily White, 7, and Yeli Chen, blow bubbles before the Summit Church Easter Sunday service. Photos by Maddy Gray.

Greear’s growing national celebrity has raised the stakes when he preaches on hot-button issues, and makes it difficult to satisfy anyone. He says he has tried harder to keep politics out of his sermons, but church member Courtney White, who began attending in 2012, perceived more stridency on topics like abortion over the past two years. She found herself reluctant to invite friends to church because “I don’t want to shut down the hope of them hearing the gospel because of some offhand remark that I’m sure is not intended so harshly.” 

She recalled members of her Bible study “coming to me in tears, saying, ‘I have questions about the methodology this political stance takes. I feel there’s another way, but if I have questions about this, does this make me a bad person?’” White is leaving Summit, although not primarily for political reasons; she is moving to an Anglican church with a more formal approach to ritual.

Other members who have left say that Greear’s crusading mentality is out of sync with the sense of humility that living in a pluralistic society demands. 

Diane Tyndall, who was a member for many years before leaving in 2018, recalled an awkward Sunday when she brought a Hindu friend to worship. Greear paused during his sermon to address non-Christian visitors: “He said, ‘The person sitting next to you wants to convert you.’ I know he was a missionary and he understands this history, but there’s a very imperialistic history of missions that’s not good,” Tyndall said. “J.D. said lots of other wonderful things, but that’s the piece we ended up talking about.”

Yet for many members I spoke to, this mindset—the idea that the ordinary believer “is the tip of the gospel spear,” as Greear puts it—inspires a desire to spread the gospel and pour free time into community service. It is a major reason why Summit has grown so dramatically. Modern Americans may also be more receptive to evangelism than one might think; one recent study found that about half of Americans are curious to hear about others’ faith. 

“Relationships and mercy work are the bridge over which we’ll earn the right to share the gospel,” Greear told me. The church has partnered with local organizations in areas ranging from refugee resettlement to foster care. Deborah Cousin, a parent recruiter for Durham County foster care and adoption, was effusive. “Summit has supported us from day one,” she said, donating supplies, space for training sessions, and encouraging members to become foster families. She recalled one Summit family that fostered and eventually adopted four medically fragile children.

In a diverse area like the Triangle, service ministries are the front lines of contact between church members and other worldviews. Adam Clark, the director of the Durham branch of the Christian charity World Relief, said that Summit has probably contributed the largest number of volunteers to help his organization resettle refugees in the Triangle. 

But with all evangelical volunteers, including those from Summit, forceful proselytizing is a hazard. “If someone is persecuted for their faith, they watch half their family murdered because of their faith, they spend 10 years running for their lives, then they finally get to safety to practice their faith, they show up at the airport and people who are supposed to help them immediately start proselytizing for a different faith—that is, in our opinion, extremely un-Christlike,” Clark said. 

On the other hand, many younger Christians are reluctant to evangelize at all, Clark noted. He added, “A lot of Christians feel their life has to be an apologetic for their faith before they can open their mouths about it, because people are waiting for them to say something bigoted or imperialistic or paternalistic.” 

In a megachurch like Summit, all these elements jostle against one another. “There have been leaders at Summit whose words made me cringe, and those who really inspired me to do healthy outreach,” Clark said. 

The more involved you are in Summit, the more, it seems, you have no choice but to plunge into this tension, this constant negotiation between the pluralistic modern world, traditional interpretations of the Bible, and the overwhelming implications if the Resurrection is really true. 

This is a challenge as old as Christianity itself: It was St. Paul who told missionaries to “become all things to all men” and yet hold fast to the gospel.

An Ongoing Struggle

Julius Tennal began attending Summit in 2009, when he was an undergraduate at UNC-CH and the church was almost entirely white. But he was encouraged to see a Black pastor onstage –  Chris Green, who is now a pastor at a Summit church plant in Wilmington, The Bridge Church. He met another Black man on staff, Darrick Smith, now a pastor in Charlotte, who made him feel he belonged.

In the years since then, Tennal has gone on mission to South Africa and now is director of international training and assessment for the church’s aspiring missionaries. The SBC’s debates over critical race theory were “incredibly frustrating to me,” he said. “As a Black person, I don’t need CRT to tell me about racism. All I needed was to grow up in Gaffney, South Carolina.”

Around 20 percent of Summit attendees are nonwhite, according to a 2019 survey. The proportion seems to vary by campus and track with geography—members say that the downtown Durham and Chapel Hill campuses are more diverse, for example, than the campus in suburban Raleigh. 

“Have I felt tension? Yes, absolutely,” Tennal told me. “With anything related to ethnic unity, there’s tension, and our political climate doesn’t help. When you have such a large group of people with vastly different experiences, ideologies, and family origins, you have to be much more intentional ... and say we’re not doing it for something out there, something unseen and scary and different from your political ideology, but because we see ourselves as family, and what hurts one of us, hurts all of us.” 

##### Top: Thousands of people listen to Pastor J.D. Greear's sermon about eternal life after death. Bottom left: Olyvia Dunn, of Raleigh, sits on the lawn. Bottom right: A Bible and sunglasses case sit on a blanket.

Top: Thousands of people listen to Pastor J.D. Greear's sermon about eternal life after death. Bottom left: Olyvia Dunn, of Raleigh, sits on the lawn. Bottom right: A Bible and sunglasses case sit on a blanket. Photos by Maddy Gray.

At the downtown Durham campus that Tennal attends, some members recently came together to watch I Am Not Your Negro, the documentary about James Baldwin. “We definitely had some nervous people who came. I think they were encouraged by the way the conversation went down,” he said. “We were able to follow up later, and there have also been small groups I’ve been a part of where we can work through some things, different worldviews.” 

In his time at Summit, the church has become more politically diverse too. “Twelve years ago, I would have said we’re overwhelmingly Republican and conservative,” Tennal said. “Today, I’d say we’re a lot closer to 60/40, and I think there’s incredible diversity on conservative and liberal politics.” 

Greear himself estimates that Summit is still closer to 80 percent conservative across all campuses.

 But Tennal’s story raises a broader point: In a giant church, it’s in the small groups, the weekly Bible studies, in which the theological rubber hits the road. This is where ordinary Christians live out the struggle to reconcile religious orthodoxy with modern life. In my conversations with current and former members, nowhere was this wrestling more apparent than on the topic of gender roles and sexuality. 

Like all churches that subscribe to the Southern Baptist doctrinal statement, the Faith and Message, Summit adheres to a “complementarian” view of gender based on a traditional reading of the Genesis creation narrative and Paul’s letters: God created men and women for separate but equally valuable roles, and women cannot serve in a pastoral or teaching position over men. 

The application of this doctrine varies enormously, even among conservatives, and Summit permits some latitude. “My husband has way more empathy than me; that’s how God has gifted him,” said Michal Rudolph. “We have stereotypes in our head of male and female, but that’s not what we see displayed in humanity or in scripture ... The reason we cringe when we hear words like ‘complementarianism’ is because we’ve seen it misapplied.” 

Rudolph stressed that Summit staff imposes “no micromanagement” on her when she crafts Bible study curricula. Women sometimes teach briefly and informally from the stage as part of a worship team. 

Indeed, one reason Summit has thrived may be that Greear has figured out how to give local campuses and small groups the right combination of top-down authority and personal freedom on charged issues like gender, unlike other megachurch pastors inclined toward more authoritarian control.

But critics say that no community can treat women fairly—or confront the mishandling of sexual assault—if it continues to ban them from top leadership positions. 

“They know we can’t be saying the hardline ‘women, submit,’ but we can say, ‘oh yes, women and men are of equal value; they just have different roles,” said Susan Shaw, the former Southern Baptist at Oregon State. “It reminds me of Animal Farm—some animals are more equal than others.” 

The recent wave of SBC scandals has not left Summit totally unscathed. When one of the church’s pastors, Bryan Loritts, was accused of covering up sexual misconduct allegations at a previous job at a church in Memphis, Summit hired an independent firm to investigate the charges. Summit made public the report, which “found no convincing evidence that Loritts was involved in a cover up.” He remains on staff.

Courtney White, one of the members who recently decided to leave, experienced firsthand the dilemma of a complementarian church that claims to lift up women. A few years ago, she was helping launch a new co-ed Bible study group from an existing group that had grown too large. Summit requires either a man or a mixed-sex team to lead co-ed groups, but “we didn’t have any men who were willing or able to step into that leadership role,” White said. 

An all-men’s group dispatched one of its leaders to co-lead the new group, but about a year later, he left the area to attend medical school. “Once again, none of the guys in our group were willing or able to step in, so we went to the pastors and I said, here is the situation, I understand, I am a woman, and Summit does not believe I can hold this position,” she recalled. “So what do we do with this? People are learning and engaging in scripture, and I don’t feel like God’s done here, but I’m a woman.” 

What happened next was either a scripture-honoring compromise or a misguided theological pretzel, depending on your point of view. Church leaders told her she needed to be “under the headship of a male,” but in this case she could lead the group on her own and “check in regularly” with a male pastor.  White said the arrangement worked and gave her reasonable freedom, although she had mixed feelings: “Part of me was like, if this is what you believe, that I’m not capable of heading a small group, then please kick me out. People’s souls are at stake.” 

I asked Greear about White’s story on a Sunday as we sat in the green room under the enigmatic eye of Martin Luther. I waited for him to get defensive, to grumble about the ways that the campus pastor had overstepped his authority, or to complain about how conservative and progressive critics alike would pass unfair judgments on the situation. He didn’t. 

“We’re always getting into trouble on all these things because we’re trying to apply what the Bible holds, which is messy, but at the end of the day I don’t really apologize for that. It’s always easy to be fundamentalist in either direction,” he said. In this case, it sounded like the local pastor made “a good compromise.” 

White is leaving, mainly because she wants a church that places more emphasis on the sacraments, but she said that her own views on gender have become more egalitarian. “It’s a valiant effort—they’re doing as well as they can,” she said of Summit’s attempts to compromise on the role of women. “But I don’t know that it’s enough. It comes down to this: How do we view people as image-bearers of God?”

Stories like these underscore the basic question of whether it is possible, in our modern multicultural society, for Christians to live out a faith that is deeply at odds with their neighbors on essential questions of human nature and flourishing. Is it possible to take the idea of hell seriously, yet do so in a way that is sincerely loving, that leads with the hospitality of the gospel? Is it possible to reject the mainstream secular consensus on gender and sexuality without using God’s order as cover for plain old discrimination?

“What made Jesus attractive is that he was filled with grace and truth,” Greear said. “I always say, truth without grace is fundamentalism, and grace without truth is sentimentality.” The Christians at Summit have provoked ire on both the left and the right because they do not propose easy answers; they propose, instead, an ongoing struggle. The God they believe in does not promise otherwise.

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Molly Worthen is an associate professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She writes on religion, politics, and higher education for the New York Times and has contributed to the New Yorker, Slate, the American Prospect, Foreign Policy, and other publications.