Any student of Baptist history knows that Baptists are a diverse lot—Calvinist, Arminian, independent, interdependent, women in the pulpit, no women in the pulpit, progressive, fundamentalist, liberal, missionary, antimissionary, Seventh-Day, etc. Yesterday proved no exception as Southern Baptists met in Anaheim, California for their annual convention. Watching the events unfold was an interesting exercise in viewing denominational politics and perspectives.
The annual meeting promised to be stimulating this year for a number of reasons. First, current president Ed Litton, pastor of Redemption Church of Mobile, AL, has been under fire since it was discovered soon after his election last year that he plagiarized sermons of his predecessor, J. D. Greear, and at least one by Tim Keller, causing him to remove sermons from his website. Despite calls for him to step down from the presidency over this ethical breach, he determined to remain but indicated that he would not seek the customary second term as president. That was not enough for his detractors as several times from the floor, the subject of sermon plagiarism was broached, only to be ruled out of order by Litton in the chair.
Also raised from the floor by Tom Buck, pastor of First Baptist Lindale, TX, and his wife Jennifer was their grievance with Danny Akin and Karen Swallow Prior. The Bucks had struggled in their early marriage and had used their story to encourage others struggling with their marriage. At one point, Jennifer considered publishing an account of their challenges and sent a draft to Prior for comment. Someone shared the draft with others and they in turn recently weaponized it against Tom, an outspoken critic of some aspects of SBC life, by releasing it for public reading. The Bucks had been trying to discover how the private essay, not ready for public view, could have seen the light of day. Both Tom and Jennifer tried to raise their grievances in connection with the sexual abuse issue from the floor of the SBC meeting but were immediately ruled out of order by Litton.
Among the big issues on the table at the SBC this year was the membership of Saddleback Church (Rick Warren) in the SBC after their ordination of three women to pastoral ministry positions, the response of the Convention to the Sexual Abuse Task Force (SATF) report recently released by Guidepost Solutions, and the presidency of the convention. As to the first issue—Saddleback’s membership in the SBC, the Credentials Committee (CC) under the leadership of Linda Cooper, submitted a recommendation to the SBC that the convention needed to further study what was meant by the use of the title “pastor” in SBC churches. Clearly the CC believe that senior pastors or preaching pastors needed to be men, but it seemed to the committee that SBC churches used the title pastor for a wide assortment of ministry positions. The recommendation was rejected at the Convention after vigorous discussion including remarks from R. Albert Mohler, a member of the revision committee of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 (BFM), and Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Seminary. Mohler argued that this had been settled in SBC life more than 20 years earlier. Greenway proposed an amendment that the SBC do a study to determine just how much of the BFM a church had to hold to be in friendly cooperation with the SBC. The Greenway amendment was received as a friendly amendment by the CC, but a vote by a show of hands on the amendment was too close to call, therefore it was put to a ballot necessitating the extension of discussion on Saddleback’s relationship with the SBC later in the day. Ed Litton, after announcing that the SBC rejected the Greenway amendment, permitted Rick Warren to take the microphone and defend his life and ministry. What followed was a recounting of Warren/Saddleback’s achievements including more than 56,000 baptisms, 90 churches started in Orange County, CA, the sending of nearly 57,000 members to do overseas work, and training more than one million pastors, more than all the SBC seminaries combined. Warren, in the end, appealed to Southern Baptists to keep the main thing the main thing and not to get distracted by secondary issues. The CC ultimately withdrew their recommendation for a study on the use of “pastor” among SBC churches, leaving the Saddleback issue unresolved.
As to the recommendations from Guidepost Solutions, attention was drawn to the fact that Guidepost had tweeted support for the LGBTQ agenda at the beginning of Gay Pride month resulting in calls from Southern Baptists to separate from Guidepost over this association. Despite these calls, the convention forged ahead to strongly adopt the report’s two recommendations—first to form an Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force and second to create a Ministry Check website where the names of those credibly accused of sexual abuse can be listed as a way for churches to attempt to ensure sexual abusers cannot simply move to a new church undetected. The debate on these recommendations lasted some thirty-five minutes. Mark Coppenger, retired professor from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary of Louisville provided the “most full-throated” rejection of these recommendations, arguing that they were inconsistent with Baptist polity.
Finally, on day one of the convention, the presidency for 2023 was decided when Southern Baptists elected Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, TX on the second ballot. Originally four candidates for president were nominated, including Tom Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist of Cape Coral, FL, Robin Hadaway, a former International Mission Board missionary and professor of missions at Midwestern, and Frank Cox, pastor of Olive Baptist Church of Pensacola, FL. Cox was a last-minute nominee and received few votes with Hadaway receiving less than one thousand votes cast. (While there were in excess of 8000 delegates registered, less than six thousand votes were cast in either ballot.) Barber received the most votes on the first ballot with Ascol a distant second. In the run-off vote, less messengers voted than in the first election with Ascol receiving about 150 less votes the second go-around and Barber receiving about the same number of additional votes. Barber subsequently was declared the winner with an excess of 60% of the votes cast.
The defeat of Ascol for president was among a series of defeats more conservative Southern Baptists would suffer in the early part of the convention. At the Pastor’s Conference (PC) on the previous day, Voddie Baucham, dean of African Christian University of Zambia, a strong critic of Critical Race Theory but not a Southern Baptist, lost the election for the presidency of the PC. The PC is separate from the SBC annual meeting but held in conjunction with the annual meeting. His rejection as president of the conference was a harbinger of things to come.
The question of Baptist polity came up at several points in the discussion. It is a worthwhile discussion but not one likely to be settled in the SBC any time soon. To achieve an association of the largest number of people, distinctions must be kept at a minimum. For example, one could have a club limited to left-handed men over thirty with blue eyes and blond hair. Obviously, this necessitates a smaller number of members than if removing the gender restriction of only men. Theoretically, removing that would double the possible size of the group. If the hair color requirement was removed and the left-handedness requirement, the group’s potential size grows larger.
What does this have to do with the SBC? As was clear yesterday, there is great diversity in the convention even with the BFM. Adam Greenway’s failed amendment suggests that the SBC has an identity crisis. How much of the BFM does one have to affirm to be a church in friendly cooperation? Who can be a pastor? What does pastor even mean? Apparently within the SBC, a pastor can be a man or a woman . . . at least as of today.
As for the SATF and the Guidepost recommendations, Mark Coppenger said that the procedure was not in keeping with Baptist practices. Well, apparently Baptist practices were insufficient to protect the numerous sexual abuse victims within the ranks of the SBC. Now, to be clear, sexual abuse isn’t simply an SBC problem. Coppenger, while rejecting the Guidepost recommendations offered no clear statement of how Baptist polity could fix this problem nor any explanation as to why Baptist polity had, up to this point failed to address the issue. When I first went to Canada, the Catholic church was in the midst of the Christian Brothers scandal. Independent Baptists have had their share of these problems also.
Clearly the SBC has no settled rubric for determining what a cooperating church must believe, nor any clear way to deal with a non-cooperating church. By giving Rick Warren the floor yesterday to thumb his nose at SBC concerns, the convention demonstrated its broad diversity. Even Warren’s recent announcement of his designated successor seems very unBaptistic. Isn’t pastoral leadership a church body issue? What biblical warrant is there for a pastor to unilaterally appoint his successor? Granted the church ultimately endorsed the Warren choice, but the process seems unBaptistic.
Surely Baptist polity as it developed in the 17th and 18th century did not envision the egregious sexual abuse controversy. The SBC has to wrestle with how to protect their churches from predators. This may mean Baptist polity must be adapted to a new era. After all Baptist polity was formed in the crucible of history.
Afterward: This is my first essay in about two months. I had a serious bout with kidney stones that kept me down for over a month and we took an 11-day trip out west from which we returned last Wednesday.