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The 2023 Southern Baptist Convention: In Review

A picture I took of the main hall - nearly 12,000 Southern Baptists

The 2023 Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana June 13-14, has now come and gone. My first comment is: New Orleans is miserably humid.

  • Nearly 19,000 Messengers and Guests gathered in New Orleans for the meeting.

  • And in addition to the oppressive heat and humidity of the Big Easy, there were several noteworthy positives, and a few concerning takeaways from this year’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptists…

1 - New Missionaries Commissioned.

This is one of the best and most important moments at every Southern Baptist Convention. Tuesday morning, shortly after the Convention began, the International Mission Board commissioned 79 missionaries that are being sent out to take the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the nations. In that group, were singles, young marrieds, established families, Pastors, lay people, and older retired couples. There were men and women of various ages and ethnicities, all eager and passionate to preach Jesus to the lost.

This is such an important part of every Convention because it highlights the main reason the Convention even exists. Sending missionaries to the nations is the lifeblood of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is the reason the Cooperative Program exists! It is also one the best and most appropriate ways to start each Convention because it sets the tone and focuses the messengers on what is most important: Jesus Christ, crucified and raised, the Savior of the World.

Southern Baptists should praise God that by His grace, we are still sending missionaries to the nations.

2 - Resolutions: The Voice of the Convention.

When I was younger, I failed to understand the importance and value of each Convention’s resolutions. At one time, they just seemed to me to be pointless statements of fancy, complicated language. As it happens with most people, aging has brought greater wisdom and perspective (I hope), and I have come to greatly value the resolutions of the Convention and their process.

As I have written elsewhere, the SBC technically exists for only 2 days each year when the messengers gather and gavel themselves into session. The many resolutions passed during each session are the voice of the Convention for that year.

Rarely does the Convention change or address its statement of faith and governing documents (rightly so), but the Convention does need to speak to pressing issues that arise year to year. The annual resolutions of the Convention is where the Convention speaks to these matters.

This year, the Convention spoke on the following issues:

  • The Importance of Revitalizing and Replanting Churches.

  • On the need for care and support of Pastors and Ministry Leaders.

  • On the Ethics and Proper use of Artificial Intelligence.

  • On Engaging Immigration.

  • On the Legacy and Responsibility of Women in Fulfilling the Great Commission.

  • On the SBC’s Confessional Heritage of the office of Bishop/Elder/Pastor.

  • On Christ’s Lordship over Human Conscience.

  • On Opposing Gender Transitions.

You can review all past SBC Resolutions here. The 2023 Resolutions should be posted soon.

3 - The SBC President.

Per the bylaws of the Convention, the SBC President serves a one-year term. Most often, barring scandal, a sitting President runs unopposed for a second term. This year, Mike Stone chose to challenge sitting President Bart Barber.

  • You can read about Stone's complicated history here, and here.

Pastor Willy Rice of Florida nominated Stone with a rather aggressive and somewhat cryptic speech, but it ultimately proved unsuccessful as Dr. Bart Barber was handily elected to a second term. Of the almost 11,000 votes cast, Barber received nearly 70% of the vote.

Dr. Barber has led very well over the last year proving to be the man we’ve needed in turbulent times. He is the pastor of a normative sized Church in Farmersville, Texas and cares deeply for the people of his church and the character of the Convention. He’s been an able spokesman, statesman, and leader. I am thankful the Convention recognized this and gave him a second term.

4 - Disfellowshipped Churches.

While the Convention bylaws provide an avenue for disfellowshipped Churches to appeal the Convention’s decision, it has never been invoked until now. In February of this year, the SBC Executive Committee moved to disfellowship 3 churches. Two of the Churches were disfellowshipped over the issue of female senior Pastors (Fern Creek and Saddleback), and one over the mishandling of sexual abuse (Freedom Church).

Rick Warren making Saddleback's Appeal

The appeals were made during the Tuesday afternoon business sections. The format was as follows: The appealing church was given 3 minutes to make their appeal; then, a Convention spokesman was given 3 minutes to respond. Following this, the messengers cast a secret ballot to either uphold the EC’s decision to disfellowship, or to overturn the EC’s decision and welcome the Church back into fellowship.

Thankfully, in each case, it was clear that the EC had acted appropriately and the messengers to the Convention upheld the EC’s decision to disfellowship these churches.

5 - The Convention Continues to Address Sexual Abuse.

At the 2022 Convention in Anaheim, the Convention heard the report from the Guideposts investigation from the SATF. One of the recommendations of that task force was to form a new task force who would oversee the implementation of new procedures and protocols following from the Guideposts report.

That new task force, called the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF), gave their report to the 2023 Convention. Over the last year, this team has heard from numerous survivors of sexual abuse from within the SBC, and have taken a number of positive steps in addressing the issue.

Over the last year, this all-volunteer team has:

  • 1 - Worked to create a ministry check resource website. This website will keep a running list of those who have been credibly accused and/or convicted of sexual abuse crimes. The website was previewed at the convention, but is still under construction.

  • 2 - Worked with the Credential Committee to resource this team as they interact with and evaluate Churches and their friendly cooperation with the Convention.

  • 3 - Met with numerous State and Local leadership to assess the needs of Churches and ministries at the ground level. They have spent countless hours hearing from pastor and ministry leaders, focusing on both metro and rural areas.

Some positive steps are being taken across in the Convention in light of last year's report and the ongoing work of the ARITF.

  • Churches and Associations are hosting training on abuse and prevention.

  • Trauma-training is being provided to state and local representatives.

  • Third-party reviews of sexual abuse incidents.

  • More and more Churches and associations are working to create “resource toolboxes” to help Churches and victims.

  • The creation of Survivor-Care funds to assist with counseling and support services.

  • Legislative work to criminalize clergy sexual contact with congregants.

  • Restructuring of the vetting processes of State and local boards.

Lots of good work has already come from this task force, which is why the Messengers overwhelmingly voted to re-appoint this team for another year of work. It's a start. There is a long way to go.

6 - The Role of Women in Ministry and the Pastoral Office.

Everyone knew this would be a major issue coming into the 2023 Convention. It was raised at the 2022 Convention when the Chairwoman of the Credentials Committee stated that she and her team were unsure as to what constituted a Pastor per our Statement of Faith. It was reported to the 2022 Convention in Anaheim that, “the Credentials Committee was unable to form an opinion regarding the relationship of Saddleback Church to the Southern Baptist Convention, until clarity is provided regarding the use of the title “pastor” for staff positions with different responsibility and authority than that of lead pastor.”

  • This was disingenuous on its face because at that time, Saddleback had multiple women serving in the role of "Senior-Lead" Pastor.

With that move, the Credentials Committee unnecessarily cast the Convention into chaos for the coming year. Dr. Albert Mohler spoke clearly to the issue from the floor of the 2022 meeting, but we all left Anaheim with this issue lingering over our heads. It has been an ongoing discussion among the SBC ever since.

In February of this year, the Convention moved to disfellowship Saddleback over the issue of female Pastors (along with Fern Creek in Ky), and that was the right move.

Linda Popham, Pastor of the disfellowshipped Fern Creek Church.

As noted above, the Convention’s Resolutions function as the voice of the Convention on particularly pressing issues. Women in ministry was one such issue at this year’s meeting. The Resolution entitled “On the Legacy and Responsibility of Women Fulfilling the Great Commission,” provides a short biblical theology of women and their needed role in God’s plan to get the gospel to the nations. The Convention wholeheartedly adopted it.

One part of the Resolution reads, “Resolved, that the Messengers to the SBC meeting in New Orleans, LA, June 13-14, 2023, praise God for His authoritative call to all Christian women to fulfill His Great Commission, for His providential guidance of the multitudes of women who have faithfully served our Lord Jesus throughout history, and for the Holy Spirit’s continuing call to women to edify His Church in a plenitude of unique, critical, and indispensable ways.”

The statement goes on to affirm all the meaningful and unique ways that God has called and equipped women for service and leadership in the Church, albeit not in the Pastoral office.

In January of this year, Mike Law, Pastor of Arlington Baptist in Arlington, Va, sent out a letter calling attention to a rising number of female pastors in the SBC, which is inconsistent with our doctrinal statement, the BF&M 2000. In his letter to the Executive Committee, Law proposed an amendment to the SBC constitution. Here is Mike’s text from the letter, “I write concerning my motion to amend the SBC Constitution to include an enumerated 6th item under Article III, Paragraph 1 concerning “Composition.” As offered and referred to you at this past June’s annual meeting, the enumerated 6th item would read: “6. Does not affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”

The heart of Mike’s amendment was to clarify what the 2022 Credentials Committee confused. The office and title of Pastor is biblically limited to men. The Southern Baptist Convention has always held this conviction, and still does. It is a matter of biblical faithfulness.

  • The amendment was made necessary by the fact that more and more Churches are employing women in various ministry positions (which is not bad in and of itself), but more and more churches are using the title “Pastor” for those women and having them function in pastoral roles — which is a violation of Scripture.

Just before the Convention, an article appeared at American Reformer by Kevin McClure entitled “How Many Female Pastors are in the SBC?

  • Contrary to the claims of some, like former SBCA President JD Greear, the issue of female Pastors is a significant issue inside the SBC. The study found that nearly 2000 women serving in SBC churches under the title, “Pastor.” And a significant number of those women are serving in significant Pastoral leadership roles.

  • The study itself goes over its parameters and methods.

McClure notes, “In 2006, Wayne Grudem noticed that ordaining female pastors is one of the first steps in a denomination’s slide towards theological compromise that ultimately ends in the ordination of practicing homosexuals. This is in large part because the same interpretive move that says, “this prohibition only applies to the first century” is the same interpretive move that pro-homosexual interpreters make when they consider texts against homosexuality like Romans 1:24–32, 1 Timothy 1:10, and 1 Corinthians 6:9–11. Not every egalitarian supports homosexual practice. However, the hermeneutical trail that argues for God’s blessing on homosexual practice was a trail blazed first by egalitarians arguing for God’s blessing on women pastoring."

I would encourage you to read the article for yourself.

  • The issue before the 2023 Convention was to clarify who and what we mean when we use the title, “Pastor," and I believe that was accomplished.

Pastor Juan Sanchez of Texas worked with Law prior to the Convention, offering an amendment to Law’s proposal which framed the language in a more positive tone saying, “Affirms, appoints, and employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.

  • Sanchez’s language was adopted, and the Convention also adopted Law’s proposed amendment to the SBC constitution.

  • In order for the amendment to take effect, it must also be approved again at next year’s Convention.

So, given the Convention’s move to upholding the disfellowshipping of Saddleback and Fern Creek, along with the overwhelming approval of the Law amendment, the 2023 Convention showed that it does, indeed, understand the office of Pastor, and who can and cannot serve in the role.

  • At its core, this is a matter of faithfulness to Scripture, and the 2023 Convention took a strong stand for biblical faithfulness. We should be encouraged and thankful.

7 - An Amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

Additionally, the Convention approved a motion by Pastor Jared Cornutt to add in the words, “Elder/Overseer” alongside the word “Pastor” into the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. The document itself, first adopted in 1925, originally included this language. It was left out of the revisions in 1963 and again in 2000, but circumstances as they are, it is necessary to add the words back in for the reasons of faithfulness to the Scriptures, and clarity in a confused world.

The amendment to the BF&M will read, “In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its two scriptural offices are that of pastor/elder/overseer and deacon. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.

  • “We should never take lightly the prospect of amending our statement of faith,” Cornutt said. “The document has existed for almost 100 years, and it serves as the backbone of our doctrinal unity. … I believe that we have unintentionally found ourselves with a lack of clarity that can be remedied by a small and non-substantive change.”

This was a good move.

8 - A New Study Group.

A Group of former SBC Presidents led by James Merritt (others included JD Greear, Ed Litton, Bryant Wright, Steve Gaines, and Fred Luter), made a motion that a study group be formed to explore and explain a statement found in our SBC Constitution, article III, which states that, “to be considered cooperating with the [Southern Baptist] convention a church needs to have a faith and practice that is ‘closely identified’ with the Baptist Faith and Message.”

I am in agreement that the phrase “closely identified” needs clarification and explanation. It seems too broad a qualification for our day and age. But, I also see this move, along with the uncertainty raised at the 2022 meeting over the meaning of “Pastor,” as a negative omen.

Baptist Press reports, “Messengers approved a motion by James Merritt, a former SBC president and pastor of Cross Pointe Church in Duluth, Ga., to authorize the president to appoint a “broadly representative task force” to study how the Convention should deem churches to be “in friendly cooperation on questions of faith and practice” as written in Article 3 of the SBC Constitution, referring to the statement of faith.

The task force should bring recommendations to the next annual meeting “for how we can move forward together in biblical fidelity, missional clarity, and cooperative unity.”

Standing with Merritt as he made the motion were former SBC Presidents Ed Litton, J.D. Greear, Steve Gaines and Bryant Wright.”

My concern rests both in the concern it should cause us that we are now regularly parsing words and phrases in our Statement of Faith and Constitution, but also in the unknown motives of the motion itself.

I think that our Statement of Faith is sufficiently clear on these matters, and it is not difficult to determine who stands in friendly cooperation with the Convention and who does not. Furthermore, it seems to be that the Convention is already moving forward in biblical fidelity, missional clarity, and cooperative unity. So, to make such a motion does not sit well with me. I did not support the motion. But, we shall see where it takes us next year. I trust that President Barber will appoint the right people for the job.

Major Takeaways from New Orleans…

1 - The SBC is seems to have its priorities in the right place: Faithfulness to Scripture, sending Missionaries, strengthening Churches.

There are certainly lingering issues such as bureaucracy, institutional transparency, and factionalism. All of that was present and addressed to some extent at this year's meeting. WIth the size of the Convention, these things will be persistent issues. But, overall, there was a strong show of right priorities.

2 - Interest in the Convention is growing, especially among the younger Generations.

There are lots of young pastors, and young families at the Convention these days. This is a good sign for the future. We took along one of our children with us, and he was able to utilize the day-camp...along with the 700 other kids in attendance!

  • Also, the attendance at the Convention was nearly 13,000 registered messengers. Attendance is trending up year to year, and that is a good thing!

3 - More Pastors and Churches need to attend the Convention.

The direction of the Denomination is determined at these meetings. Its important for Churches, and Church leaders to show up.

  • Churches should prioritize sending their Pastors and other messengers as their budgets allow.

  • Its also important that those who do attend show up informed and ready to make educated decisions.

4 - A move Toward Normative Churches.

More and more, there seems to be a move toward more normative-sized Churches when it comes to Convention leadership. This is a good move. With approximately 47,000 Churches in the Convention, the average Church is around 75 people.

  • Its good to see more of these normative Churches represented in Convention leadership.

5 - Our Seminaries are Strong.

I always look forward to the Seminary reports on Wednesday afternoon. Southern Baptists can rejoice knowing that all 6 of our Seminaries are healthy, growing, and strong. 3 of the 6 are among the largest in the world and continue to grow year-to-year.

  • The men leading our schools are biblical, convictional, missional, and pastoral. And for that, I am deeply thankful.

6 - Righteousness is a Priority.

I was a bit apprehensive going into this year's Convention knowing what all was on the line. But, with the decisions on the disfellowshipped Churches, the ARITF report, the approval of the Law amendment, and the addition to the BF&M, I'm walking away with a renewed confidence that the Convention values righteousness. That is something to celebrate.

7 - The Future Remains Unwritten.

That statement is obvious, but I just mean that time will tell where the Convention goes from here. There is a chance that the Convention will drop the ball on things like the needed Sexual Abuse reforms and the nature of Pastoral Ministry, etc. There is a chance, but at this point, it seems unlikely in the near future.

More and more, Southern Baptists need Pastors and leaders who are serious about the Bible, serious about Doctrine, serious about Ecclesiology, serious about Missiology, and serious about showing up at the Annual Meeting to speak and vote.

8 - The Lord's Church is Strong.

Despite what happens with the SBC, the Church of the Lord Jesus stands mightily and the gates of hell shall not prevail against Her!

There's always more to say, but we'll end it here for now.

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