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Elitism and Power in the Southern Baptist Convention

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

Elitism and Power in the Southern Baptist Convention

Some follow-up thoughts...

Is there a power problem in the Southern Baptist Convention? Is there a culture of elites? When someone identifies a potential problem, the first place to start is usually with the question: “Is there an actual problem?” “Is there truly a reason for concern?”

  • I think the conversation is worth having...

A Noticeable Culture of Elitism.

-Before we get started, let me define what I mean by “elitism” or “elitist.”

  • “Elite” is defined as, “The choice part, the best of a class, or the socially superior part of society.” Also as, “a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence.”

  • In this post, I will use the word focusing on the meaning, “the socially superior part of society,” and, “a group of persons who by virtue of position or education exercise much power or influence.”

-The Path of Power.

-The SBC, like any organization, has a political side. Politics is defined as, “the art or science of government,” or “the art or science concerned with guiding or influencing governmental policy.”

Because the SBC is a collection of cooperating Churches, and not a Church itself, the Bible does not speak to how such organizations should be governed practically or structurally (the Bible certainly addresses how Christian ought to conduct themselves inside any organization; i.e. with holiness). Thus, the SBC is governed by a collection of extra-biblical documents called, “Guiding Documents.” These include, the Southern Baptist Convention Charter, The SBC Constitution, the SBC Bylaws, the Business and Financial Plan for the SBC, and the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

Although each of these documents and plans seeks to be thoroughly biblical, we must confess that they are formed by a consensus agreement, and do not fall under the express structures of the Bible (especially the bylaws, which are crafted more to control the function and flow of meetings). By this, I do not mean these documents are in violation of the Scriptures, or exempt from its teachings. These documents ought to be as biblical as possible; yet we cannot turn anywhere in Scripture to find express teaching on things like bylaws.

In the church, the path of power is kept in check when God’s people submit themselves to the supreme authority of God’s Word, installing and submitting to rightly qualified Elders (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9) who, themselves, are living in submission to Christ’s Lordship. And when, God forbid, such Elders step out of line, the Church has the right and responsibility of rebuking and, if necessary, removing such Elders (1 Tim. 5:19-20). These are deeply helpful, God-given protections for power and authority in His Church. And yet, such avenues and protections do not exist in organizations like the SBC. Power moves and flows differently.

These guiding documents, specifically the bylaws (although not limited to the bylaws), represent avenues through which people can gain power and exercise control in organizations like the SBC. Have you ever heard the old saying, “knowledge is power”? Well, it's true. In an organization governed by things like bylaws, only those with intimate knowledge of said bylaws really have the power. They know how to maneuver, they know what can and cannot be said or done, etc. They have the power to say “yes” and “no” “based on the bylaws.”

This is not to say those leading the SBC are ungodly. From what I can see, many in various positions of leadership are godly people. I am only seeking to point out that the SBC, although a collection of churches, is an entirely different organization. Different function, different setup, different leadership structure, and different paths to power.

In his writings, (which I highly commend) author Robert A. Caro insightfully studies how people can get into various organizational positions of leadership, some seemingly inconsequential, and then use those positions for the acquiring and exercising of power. In the church, this is guarded against through properly organized biblical structure, but in organizations like the SBC, the danger is far more prevalent and the paths of power and influence far more numerous.

-A Succession of Elites?

Keeping this idea of the paths of power in mind, it doesn’t take an overly trained eye to realize that there is a culture of elitism in the SBC, specifically among SBC leadership.

This is not an anomaly that exists only within the Southern Baptist Convention. Rather, if what we are discussing is true within the SBC, it is merely a reflection of what is going on in the larger culture. Elitist power groups are to be found almost everywhere in our culture. Politics, religion, business, friend groups, etc. Anywhere there is power and influence to be had, you run the risk of finding an elitist group.

And while the SBC might bill itself as a grass-roots type of convention, where anyone can make a motion or nomination from the floor (and this is somewhat true)—where “anyone” can be nominated and voted in as SBC President (or some other position)— it also remains true that unless you know the right people and have the right connections, nothing much will get done for you.

For example, if we look at the recent past history of SBC presidents, they are all from the upper class of elites. Just taking the last 20 years of the SBC presidency into account, here is what you find…

  • Paige Patterson, 1999-2000 - Paige served as the President of Southeastern and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminaries. He was a major force in the Conservative Resurgence in the 1980’s and 90’s and continued to enjoy notoriety and influence until his fall from grace in 2018.

  • James Merritt, 2000-2002 - Dr. Merritt pastors a mega-Church in Duluth, Ga. In addition to his church duties, Merritt runs his own ministry called, “Touching Lives.” Merritt is often appointed to various leadership positions within the convention, most recently serving as chair of the 2021 Resolutions committee.

  • Jack Graham, 2002-2004 - Jack Graham pastors a mega-Church in Plano, Texas, boasting 47,000 members across 3 campuses. Graham exerts a fairly large influence over the convention, and was very proud to be appointed to President’s Trump Religious Advisory Council.

  • Bobby Welch, 2004-2006 - Welch is the author of several books, and is most well known for his FAITH Soul-winning training in the 90’s. Nominated by Johnny Hunt, Welch was easily elected over his competitor (Welch won with 3,997 votes over 1,020 for Jarrell). The man who nominated Welch’s opponent is on record stating, “I am under no illusion that Rev. Jarrell may be elected. I had to beg him to permit me to place his name in nomination.“But I do so because I have grown concerned in the nine years that I have been coming to these conventions as a pastor, that the convention’s leadership is growing further and further and further from the grassroots of Southern Baptist life.”

  • Frank Page, 2006-2008 - Page has pastored a number of large churches throughout his career. He pastored a megaChurch in Taylors, SC at the time of his SBC presidency. Following his presidency, Page served as a senior VP for the NAMB from 09-10, and also as director of Baptist Global Response from 08-10.

  • In the fall of 2010, Page was selected as President and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee and served in that position until his resignation in 2018 over a “morally inappropriate relationship.” Page now pastors in South Carolina.

  • Johnny Hunt, 2008-2010 - Dr. Johnny Hunt is a much beloved figure in the SBC. At the time of his election to the SBC Presidency, Hunt pastored one of the country’s largest megaChurches in Woodstock, GA. The church boasted 19,000 members at the time.

  • Hunt has authored a number of books, and served in a variety of ministry roles throughout his time, continuing to this day. After retiring from his prestigious pastorate, Hunt was selected as Senior VP of Evangelism and Leadership with the North American Mission Board.

  • Bryant Wright, 2010-2012 - Wright pastored a megachurch in Marietta, Georgia at the time of his election. After his retirement from pastoral ministry in 2020, Wright was appointed as the President of the Newly formed joint SBC effort called IMB-NAMB Send Relief.

  • Fred Luter, 20012-2014 - Luter was the first, and remains the only, African-American man to serve as SBC President. At the time of his election, Luter pastored a megaChurch in New Orleans, Louisiana; the largest SBC church in that state at the time. Dr. Danny Akin called his election, “the most historical event since the SBC’s founding.”

  • Ronnie Floyd, 2014-2016 - At the time of his election, Floyd pastored a megaChurch in Springdale, Arkansas; the church boasts a membership of 16,000. Floyd has been very active in SBC leadership in various ways.

  • He served as chairman of the SBC executive committee from 1995-97; president of the SBC pastor’s conference in 97’; and led the SBC’s Great Commission Resurgence task force in 2010; and then as SBC President from 2014-16. Floyd was nominated for the Presidency by R. Albert Mohler.

  • In 2019, Floyd was selected to replace Frank Page as President and CEO of the SBC Executive Committee. He remains in that role.

  • Floyd serves as the Editor for one of Lifeway’s major Bible study series.

  • Floyd’s son, Nick succeeded him as lead Pastor at Cross Church.

  • Steve Gaines, 2016-2018 - Gaines serves as senior pastor of a historic Tennessee megaChurch boasting a membership of more than 30,000. Gaines was elected in a contentious runoff between he and JD Greear. Greear ultimately removed himself from consideration in 2016, allowing Gaines to be elected. Gaines was nominated to the Presidency by past SBC President, Johnny Hunt.

  • Prior to his presidency, Gaines served as president of the SBC Pastor’s conference in 2004; was chosen to deliver in the 2004 SBC convention sermon; he was also chosen to serve on the committee that revised the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

  • J.D. Greear, 2018-2021- Greear serves as the senior pastor of a Durham, NC based megaChurch. Greear has served with the IMB, and his church ranks among the largest and most influential in the SBC.

  • Ed Litton, 2021-Present - Litton serves as senior pastor of a large, multi-site church in Saraland, Alabama.

  • Litton gained the SBC presidency after a contentious vote (between 4 men) that went into a runoff between Litton and Mike Stone. During the first round of votes, Litton only received 32% of the votes. And in the runoff, he narrowly won with only 52% of the votes.

  • Even though he has only been in office for a few months, he has already faced a fairly substantial plagiarism scandal.

-Taking all of this information with the fact that the average Southern Baptist Church size is 145 people ( with 88.2% of churches being under 250 people), it combines to make a point to the average Southern Baptist Church and Pastor: If you’re not a large church, if you’re not pastoring a megachurch, if you’re not climbing the ladder of influence and prestige, you will have no place nor chance in Denominational leadership.

  • Even if this is not actually the case (which I do not think it is explicitly), SBC leadership appears (and perhaps is, implicitly) to have become a self-insulating group with steep requirements for entry.

-Additionally, if all of this is, in fact, true, we can look at those who are the “up and comers” in convention life now and perhaps predict who might be on the rise. These are the people who come from/lead large, influential churches, who are sitting on various committees, being appointed to SBC task forces, serving on Boards of Directors, delivering prestigious sermons, traveling to various meetings and speaking engagements throughout the year, making nominations, speaking regularly from the floor of convention meetings, and are active in some of the factions at work within the convention, etc.

  • There very much seems to be a “path to power” in the SBC—it seems like there is a relatively small group of men, who are leading large, powerful churches, that own and occupy leadership in the convention. And it seems like there are many trying to find their way onto the path.

  • It also seems like the more such men pursue power and prestige—outside of their churches and in the political organization that is the SBC—the more and more the true ministry in their churches gets neglected, or relegated to others. But that’s an issue for another post...

Where is the Focus on Having your Church in Order?

-When the convention was formed in 1845, it elected W.B. Johnson as its first President. Johnson is, perhaps, best known for his treatise on Church Government. In it, Johnson outlines how the glory of God is seen in rightly ordered churches: Elders leading churches through overseeing the souls of their people.

-Our modern convention practice of leadership selection is not so much focused on making sure we have men leading whose churches are in order as much as it is on men who have impressive resumes and track records. Often, when someone nominates a man for the SBC Presidency, the focus is on the man and his accomplishments: How churches have grown under his leadership, how many baptisms, discipleship programs, cooperative program giving, etc. At the 2021 convention, a messenger made a motion requesting that any candidate for the presidency must release his church’s cooperative giving.

But, as far as I know, we do not hear much about the man’s church and his reputation among his staff. Why are we not hearing things about the health of the church under his leadership? Not the programs and accomplishments, but the spiritual health of those under the man’s shepherding ministry? Is he leading his church to be obedient to God’s revealed order and function? Are his co-Elders functioning in healthy roles alongside him? Does he give life-giving leadership? Are people becoming more godly because they are spending time with him?

Instead of focusing on the accolades of the man himself, why are we not more concerned with the questions the Bible raises about our leaders? Is he a man of godly character? Does his character stand up under pressure? Is his home in order? Is he well thought of? Is he above reproach? Has he been tested?

No, the SBC presidency is not equivalent with the office of the New Testament Elder, but its role is the cooperative leading of Elders and Churches. Why would we want to make the requirements any less strenuous?

Now again, I am not implying that any of the names mentioned above do not meet such requirements (although at least one of them has publicly admitted such). All I am pointing out is that we tend to judge and evaluate our SBC Presidential candidates (and other leaders) by criteria that the Bible does not use. And that is an issue.

Abusive leadership is a massive problem today. It is a massive problem in the church. And one thing that has come to light, increasing so as of late, is that abusive power in large, corporate-like megachurches is on the rise. It is unfair to say that all mega-churches have abusive leadership structures and all small churches do not. But, the point remains nonetheless. We have tended to look more at church size, and cult-of-personality as measures for leadership success than we have at personal godliness.

-One more note of concern...

One thing that is of special concern to me is Mike Stone’s role in all of this. Mike Stone was a contender for the 2021 SBC Presidency, and was the candidate of the Conservative Baptist Network. He was put up as the response to Al Mohler. Mike’s platform was that he was just a small town pastor (as opposed to a megachurch or some other professional leadership role)—but, Stone’s church still numbers 800-1000 in weekly attendance, which puts him far and away above the normative SBC church. He has also been involved in the top levels of leadership in the Georgia Baptist Convention, and has just recently concluded serving as President of the SBC Executive Committee Board of Directors.

  • Stone was implicated by former ERLC President, Russell Moore, as being guilty, or at least complicit, in the covering up of sexual abuse scandals and issues of racism. All of this was made known prior to the convention meeting.

  • I find it highly offensive and a sad indictment of our situation that Stone knowingly kept his name in contention given that he was to be investigated. Innocent or not, he should have removed himself from the race. If Stone was being considered for an Elder position in a Church, no healthy Church would have pressed forward with him until they had thoroughly resolved the issue.

What Becomes of This?

Who can say, really? History is full of stories of men and women in power. Some who do great and marvelous things, and some who do wicked, and heinous things. Both of which have occurred within the SBC.

I think it is safe to say that the SBC leadership is becoming an increasingly Elitist group that is self-insulating. And if that is true, that is a dangerous thing. Not only will it separate the SBC organization from SBC churches, but it will seek to protect itself rather than hold itself accountable to the churches (a preview of that was seen when the Executive committee wanted to oversee the investigation of itself).

  • In the wake of the convention, with the Executive Committee scandal and the Litton plagiarism scandal, Phil Johnson, executive director of Grace to You Ministries, insightfully commented, “The most embarrassing part of the whole episode is it shows how the SBC is governed by power-brokers, not principles.”

The best thing that could happen would be for the Convention to adjust course and begin evaluating our leaders based on the biblical qualifications for Overseers (1 Tim. 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9). Can that be done at this point? I'm not sure. One of the loudest cries this year was that we need a pastor to lead us. I agree that we need a man with a pastor's heart and a pastor’s character leading us. But, we ought also to also be faithful in holding such a man to the God-given qualifications.

The real struggle here is that the SBC is not a local church. It is a corporate organization.

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