EDITOR’S NOTE: The Biblical Recorder will be releasing in-depth interviews with each of the known candidates to be nominated as SBC president at the annual meeting in Anaheim. We released Baptist Press’ interview with Tom Ascol on May 2, Bart Barber on May 3, and Robin Hadaway on May 4. The interviews have been edited only for clarity, grammar and length.
Whether it’s from a video posted on social media or a microphone at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual meeting, you don’t have to listen to Bart Barber long before you know he cares about Southern Baptist polity. Barber, senior pastor of FBC Farmersville, Texas, is scheduled to be nominated for SBC president by Matt Henslee at the 2022 SBC annual meeting in Anaheim.
“If I left the Southern Baptist Convention, I’d have to try to recreate it because it’s a joyful place to be,” Barber said.
Barber, 52, has served in a number of roles beyond pastor in the SBC. He’s the chairman of the 2022 SBC Resolutions Committee and was a member of the 2021 committee.
He also preached at the SBC Pastors’ Conference in 2017, served as first vice president of the SBC from 2013-14, served on the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention executive board from 2008-14 (including serving as chairman and vice chairman), served as a trustee for Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary from 2009-19 and served on the SBC Committee on Committees in 2008. He also previously taught as an adjunct professor at SWBTS from 2006-09.
Baptist Press sat down with Barber to ask him about his walk with Christ, his family, his ministry and pressing issues in the Southern Baptist Convention.
Q: Why are you willing to be nominated to be the president of the Southern Baptist Convention?
A: I came to the end of my stubbornness. People have asked me to do this before this election cycle. It’s never something I’ve wanted to do at this time. But in prayer, I believed that God was calling me to do this. I believe for a while that God was calling me for some portion of just the rest of my life, however long I’m living here to play some role and I was happy with a small role, a big role or whatever else but to play some role in trying to make our convention healthier. I’m deeply concerned about what I think are some very unhealthy ways of talking with one another and about one another that are damaging our family of churches. There are ways that the broader culture is pushing into the way we’re behaving as believers. And you know, I’ve been trying to make a difference in that without holding any kind of elected office. I’ve believed that you might have more of an impact without holding an elected office than you would have holding it, but circumstances being as they are this year, after saying no for a long time, prayerfully, I came to the point that I said, OK.
Q: Would you tell us about your salvation experience?
A: I was really young when I was saved. I was not quite 6. I’ll tell you as a pastor when 5-year-olds come to me, I’m pretty skeptical. Even though that was my experience because it would be rare. But I went to a small church, and we didn’t have enough people or enough money to be pulling the kids out into a bunch of different stuff so I sat in big church with everybody from the time that they booted me out of the nursery, and I was expected to be quiet and sit and pay attention.
My mother had this uncanny ability, while singing, “Oh, How I Love Jesus” to shoot a look from the choir loft to me sitting out in the pew that would make ice water run through your veins. I couldn’t fidget too much, I couldn’t chatter away and I couldn’t ignore things. As a result, I heard the gospel early, a lot. The preaching in that church focused on the gospel, on Jesus.
My mom also worked really hard, and my dad too, to help us learn early. So, at a young age, I understood the gospel, understood that I was a sinner, repented of my sins, placed my faith in Jesus as my Savior, followed Him in baptism, confessed Him as Savior and Lord. That has been my testimony since that day. As I said, even I’m skeptical when a 5-year-old comes, but I’m 52 now. I think maybe it was real.
Q: Would you tell us about your call to ministry?
A: God called me to ministry when I was 11. I remember telling somebody when I was in my first ministry setting, God called me to preach when I was 11. I didn’t preach my first sermon until I was 15.
I was at an associational preteen camp. That’s where God placed on me this burden for pastoral ministry. I preached for the first time when I was 15, served a little church as a senior in high school when I was 17, as pastor of New Hope Baptist church in Black Oak, Ark. Then I went off to school.
It wasn’t until I graduated from college and got married that I moved into a full-time, live-on-the-field pastorate at Mill Creek Baptist Church in Mill Creek, Okla.
The testimony I’ve given to people is that I’d spent half of my life preparing for ministry at that point. I was 22 when I went to that church. God called me to preach when I was 11. There were 11 years of God’s calling me to do this, but I can’t really do it yet in a full-time kind of way. For all those 11 years, all that time of waiting and preparing, not one day did I doubt or question whether God had called me into ministry.
Then, after 22, I think I’ve questioned it every day. Once you get into the life of being a full-time pastor on the field it becomes a whole lot more than preaching, but I’ve all always landed on the same answer even with the questions. That’s just that God has called me to do this.
People other than pastors can have this sense, and I pray that everyone can get up in the morning and go to work and think God, from the foundation of time, created me to do this and I’m able to do the thing God had for me to do.
Q: Please tell us about your family.
A: I’m married to Tracy. I met her at Baylor. She was a year ahead of me, and she was the director of freshman Sunday School in the church that I wound up going to.
She did not like me when she met me. She said I was too loud. But God has His ways, and we wound up married.
We have two children: Jim, who is 19, and Sarah, who is 15. That’s part of the reason why I’ve been reluctant to do this. With my kids at that age. But I’m very, very thankful for my family.
Q: How have you navigated through being a pastor and a husband and father?
A: You know, we’ve been a family who has embraced the church membership aspect of ministry, for all of our family together in a lot of ways. I’ve taken my kids with me to make hospital visits from when they were little. It brightens up somebody after their knees have been ripped out and a new one is put in to have a 6-year-old hold their hand and lead the prayer with them when the pastor comes to visit them.
Through that, my kids got to spend time with me. They got to build connections, even with older people in our congregation. They found areas where they can minister.
Tracy, my wife, is twice the asset to First Baptist Farmersville and to the Southern Baptist Convention. She’s active in so many ways in our church. She teaches kindergarten Sunday School. She leads the preschool Awana department.
She heads up our ministry to the poor, City on a Hill. We wound up starting that because a tornado came through our area. We got a lot of donations, a whole lot more than we could give to the families who were affected by the tornado. Tracy knew how to help us through that disaster response. She pretty much led it. I went to Africa on a mission trip in the middle of this disaster response. Tracy ran that while I was gone. She was involved in it because she’s been involved in disaster relief for more than 20 years with disaster relief childcare.
She’s responded to Katrina and Rita and Ike, and she’s been to American Samoa to help kids process after a tsunami, having seen their family swept out to sea. She’s absolutely amazing. And listen, none of that is because I’m a pastor; Tracy was all-in on serving Jesus before she ever knew who I was. She was deeply engaged.
Obviously, she was the student director of freshman Sunday School when she was a sophomore for a reason, because she showed up ready to serve.
Q: She sounds like she has a missionary calling with a stateside assignment. Is that fair?
A: That’s 100% correct. We prayed about whether we would go with the IMB way back when we were at Mill Creek in Oklahoma, and we thought about that seriously. That was something she always really wanted to do. But instead, God called her to this. She really does have that missionary calling with a stateside assignment.
Q: What are some things the local church must get right?
A: Apart from the obvious things that everybody’s trying to do, we need to share the gospel, bear consistent witness to that, lead people to Jesus and preach the Word. I believe God does something spiritual that does not subject itself to analysis through the act of preaching. But I think if I’m trying to find things that I think sometimes churches get wrong, that we’re particularly trying to do right at FBC Farmersville, one is this: I think we get into trouble sometimes when we worry overly much about what we have to do to protect the reputation of our church. My experience and my conviction is to do the right thing every time and let God protect the reputation of the church. Because I think there are occasions where you are tempted to do otherwise.
I’m committed to congregational church governance. Honestly in the 1970s, if you weren’t in favor of congregational church governance, most of the churches that I knew about would deal with you in short order and say, “We vote and we get to make decisions and whatever. You can’t come in and tell us what to do.” But really, in this day and time, I think you have a lot of congregations who are like, “Can’t you just take care of that? We have to think about what the church is going to do?” I agree with Stan Norman. I think it’s part of discipleship. Church members ought to have to think about what the mission of the church is. Church members ought to have to be brought up to speed on things that need to be prayed through and seek the Holy Spirit to move upon the whole congregation of disciples to understand what His will is and to pursue it with zeal. What I try to do at FBC Farmersville is to kind of entice congregants into congregationalism and woo them into leaning in and being a part of what we’re doing as a church.
Q: How is your church making an evangelistic impact?
A: We win people to Christ every year. We baptize 14 to 17 people pretty consistently every year. I’d love to see that be more every year. We’ll add people to our church membership every year in our local area. We’re proclaiming the gospel, and we’re winning people to Christ. We’re making disciples.
We’re engaged beyond that too. COVID-19 has been tough on things that we had going on beforehand, but in 2012, we embraced an unengaged, unreached people group in the Casamance region of Senegal. We were able to win people to Christ from our very first visit there. We’ve got a lot of people who’ve accepted Christ. It’s a war-torn area. There is an ongoing military conflict. It’s not like Ukraine. It’s not something that makes the news. But I’ve been walking between villages over there, sharing the gospel while a forward observation helicopter came over and shells were landing five kilometers away.
Because it’s exceedingly poor, it’s an agricultural, subsistence-farming-based culture, a lot of the farmland has been taken away because landmines have been put in and the areas have become too hot militarily that people have to stay out of those areas. It’s very hard for people to make a living there so you lead people to Christ, and then you come back and they’ve left because they found somewhere they could get a job in Dakar or in Sagicor or in Skirring.
We’ve found it comparatively easy to lead people to Christ and comparatively difficult to actually form a church there. But we had a church formed there with pastors and members and weekly worship. Just step-by-step making our way there, discipleship processes in place. We were at the point before COVID-19 came when you’ve got that little bundle of tinder with a spark in it, and you’re just blowing to try to get the fire to go and then we couldn’t go there anymore. We’ve prayed about that.
We’ve been very much engaged in that. We’ve funded that to the tune of a lot of money without diminishing at all what we’ve done through the Cooperative Program at our church.
I think you guys were reporting on that and said that our contributions last year were 12.4% of our undesignated receipts. Actually, our contributions are 10% of our undesignated receipts. There’s always a lag that makes any particular year’s statistics look strange because we’ll pay last December’s portion in January, and we had a really big December the December before.
We give 10% of our undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program, and we also faithfully support our local association.
We gave a very large Lottie Moon Christmas Offering this year, the largest we’ve ever had. We eclipsed $75,000 in collections. We are very committed to ongoing missions operations. We have helped plant churches in Texas, helped plant churches in Montana, and a number of places. We’ve been involved in missionary work in Cuba and Canada. We’re all in on Southern Baptist missions.
Q: Southern Baptists talk a lot about politics these days. Do we need to get back to a conversation on missions?
A: It is true and I think it mirrors what’s happened in our culture at large, where it’s the nature of politics to be totalizing and want to suck all the oxygen out of the room and make every conversation about that. Nobody can build and sustain a 24-7 cable channel devoted to talking about missions. There’s enough there to talk about. It covers the entire world. It’s spiritual warfare that’s ongoing every day, miracles are happening and leading people to Christ every day. We’d all be a whole lot better off if we heard those stories.
Yet, we have an appetite that’s probably not healthy for conspiracy and for anger. It’s hard to get angry about missions. I think the best way for us to get back to that conversation about missions and an approach to missions is some repentance on our part for letting these other things become an idol. I think the main thing that we’re going to have to do, the missional conversation can’t happen on social media because you’ve got bots patrolling social media.
As the job of the missionary has gotten more and more dangerous and as the ability for nefarious governments to mine social media for information has grown, we’ve reached a point where we have to be more careful about how we communicate about what we’re doing beyond our shores in terms of missions.
As we’ve changed the way that we converse to move more and more towards social media, that puts that missional conversation at a great disadvantage because there are so many details that you just are never going to be able to share, so many things that are going to be, “Just trust us. We’re telling you, we have people all over the world. They’re sharing the gospel. People are coming to Christ, but we can’t tell you the details.”
As a side note, I think the most fun assignment in the SBC would be on the IMB board of trustees or to work for the IMB where you actually get to know about some of this stuff. But, but in the end, what this says, I think, is we are in the infancy of this social-media thing. If you’re thinking on a historical scale where a year’s nothing, we’re in the infancy of that, maybe moving into the adolescence of that, and we don’t know what to do with it. We were not at all prepared for the unique temptations toward slander and conspiracy and prurience in a way, not in terms of like sexual prurience, but just the rubber-neck effect of when you drive by on the highway and you see a wreck, you want to look and see what’s going on there. In the same way, people who genuinely dislike the way that we have discourse with one another as Southern Baptists, who will say, “Oh, that notorious blog over there. They’re horrible. Did you see what they posted yesterday?” Even people who don’t like it, watch it for entertainment, read it, share it for entertainment. We’ve got to get over that adolescence because the missional conversation will never thrive in that environment.
Q: We see so much division among Southern Baptists on social media. How would you pull them together and move forward?
A: You’re going to have to be content with me saying that I know some initial steps, but I don’t know that I know the full solution yet. I’d feel bad about saying we’ll figure it out as we go along if anybody had an answer to all of this, but it’s all so new. I do know some initial steps. I think one of the first things that we’ve got to do is develop some sort of a reasonable standard that has to be met for an accusation to be taken seriously.
Here’s what I mean. I’ll give you two examples from today.
Rod Martin today tweeted, “We all know that the leaders of the SBC would’ve kicked Spurgeon straight out of the convention. We all know that’s true because it’s the modern-day downgrade” in hashtag. Modern-day downgrade. That’s an accusation. You’re characterizing, I guess, everybody in leadership at the SBC by asserting their feelings about Charles Spurgeon and about his beliefs during the downgrade controversy in England. And you’re making those assertions with no evidence whatsoever.
So a second example would be, this is self-serving, but Tom Buck today tweeted and screenshotted something that Dave Miller said about denying booth space to Founders. Tom’s very effective at making accusations without making accusations, saying, “I wonder if Bart Barber agrees with his good friend, Dave Miller about this.” Again, with absolutely no evidence whatsoever. It’s just a guilt by association thing. That passes for reasonable conversation about our cooperative work.
Do I know every detail about how to bring everybody together? I don’t think I have the plan in place yet that solves all of that. The fruit of the Spirit and the work of Jesus in people’s hearts would go a long, long way. But a starting place would be to have an agreed-upon standard. Before you say everybody would kick out Spurgeon, or before you insinuate because Bart Barber has relationships with these, here’s what he would do.
A professor of mine in school, James Leo Garrett, always said, “You are not ready to debate anyone about anything until you can state their point of view so well that they say, ‘Yes, that’s what I believe.’ When you can do that, when you can state your opponent’s point of view in terms that they affirm, then you’re ready to start having dialogue or debate about it.” That’s a pretty high standard, but I think it’s a good one. Certainly, it’s better than no standard at all except, can I throw red meat out to people who already agree with me to get everybody worked up?
Q: What does cooperation look like in that age of social media?
A: We have a statement of faith. Cooperation has to have boundaries. I’m not opposed to drawing lines. I’m not opposed to being on guard against liberal drift. But cooperation means being able to draw some lines and say, “That’s good enough,” and to allow some difference of opinion, without that.
There’s a myth afoot in the Southern Baptist Convention today that if vigilance is good, hyper-vigilance must be better. But that’s not true. Hyper-vigilance can be damaging.
So, to put in place not just a standard of belief, but a standard for how to arrive at a standard of belief, the Baptist Faith and Message says what it says, because that’s what we could agree to, because that’s what the messengers of the convention would affirm.
If I were drawing up a statement of faith, just for me, it would be stricter than the Baptist Faith and Message because it would line up with just my beliefs, but cooperation means everybody looking and saying, “OK, I could say more by myself and my church may say more by ourselves, but this is what we could say together that we believe. It’s enough. It’s enough to give a solid theological underpinning for the work that we’re doing together, to commit to a statement of faith, to a way of operating, the Cooperative Program, is something that is the envy of everybody, except some Southern Baptists, about a way to fund this mission work that we’re doing.”
I think our polity as a convention is good. Apart from my bemoaning problems that we’re having and whatever else, I also keep trying to remind people, even though all of those problems are real. They are there. We are actually living in a golden age of Southern Baptist unity.
Far lesser problems in the 1800s would make us just split, split over whether to pay the preachers, split over the gospel missions controversy, split over the Civil War, split with the hard shells and the Church of Christ denominations that broke off, split over populist agrarianism into kind of the landmark, what’s known today as the landmark Baptist conventions, the BMA, the ABA.
I mean we split, split, split, split, split and you look at the period of time since we adopted the Cooperative Program, since we adopted the Baptist Faith and Message in 1925, a really big year for Southern Baptists. If you look at the time since then, we’ve had major controversies and we’re going to continue to have major controversies, but our process has resolved them.
We’ve been able to come to an answer, and we’ve been able to move forward with that answer. The folks who’ve lost even have been able to say, by and large, I wish that would’ve gone differently, but we’re going to move forward together. We’ve got to recover that sense of wanting to work together and also being able to look at something and say, “I can evaluate whether this item is so serious that it has to go my way for me to cooperate in the convention.” There’s something healthy and mature about being able to lose and say, “But let’s move forward together.”
Q: Is there a liberal drift in the SBC?
A: There is always the danger of liberal drift in any institution. The Southern Baptist convention is not immune to that. Certainly, we’ve seen it.
I think there’s no evidence of a systemic liberal drift of the severity and nature that some people say, but we’ve had individual churches and people within the Southern Baptist Convention who moved to LGBTQ-affirming positions. We’ve had churches within the convention who have wound up leaving because they’ve moved to those liberal positions on those questions.
That’s liberal drift, but it’s liberal drift that leaves because it can’t succeed here. You’d be foolish to suggest that, in a culture that’s moving left with the ferocity that our culture is moving left in so many ways, that we’re completely untouched by that.
But just because you see things happening in the culture that concern you, or just because you see things happening in some individual churches that concern you, that’s no reason to say the sky is falling.
I think one thing that we need to keep in mind, as we think about this idea of whether there’s liberal drift or what we need to, what’s required as a standard to prove that that’s a systemic problem that really justifies going to war over it. We need to think about the kind of “mission accomplished” moment of the Conservative Resurgence. I’m really thankful for the Conservative Resurgence of the Southern Baptist Convention. We came to a point when we kind of stepped out of a war footing for that and moved into a rebuilding period from the resurgence. And yet, when that happened, we still had state conventions that didn’t affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We still have state conventions today that don’t affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We still had churches in the Southern Baptist Convention that gave money to the CBF. We still had individual churches that were moving rapidly to the left on social issues and whatever else.
But we came to the end of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Conservative Resurgence, and said, “Even though that’s true, all of our entity heads are biblical inerrantists, and all of our entity heads affirm conservative, Southern Baptist theology. All of our boards, all of our committees, all of them are completely in the control of people who affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, support the Cooperative Program. They’re on board with this conservative vision for the Southern Baptist Convention.” And we were mature enough to come to that point and say, ‘That’s enough.’
What we’ve been able to do is secure biblical, inerrantist, conservative leadership for all the institutions of our convention. And that’s good enough. I think really one of the major questions that we have to learn how to answer is when to say, “That’s good enough.”
Q: Is there an SBC elite and then all the rest of Southern Baptists, you know, grassroots pastors and churches?
A: I think there are two important answers to that. The first one is that the table happens every June. We have an annual meeting. Everybody who qualifies gets to come to the table and bring messengers to the annual meeting and vote. A lot of the folks who are making accusations have a track record of losing those votes. I don’t mean to be harsh in saying that, but it’s just true. I don’t think it’s populist.
I think the definition of elitism is to lose the votes when the messengers vote and then say, “But we ought to get our way anyway.” I think you have to do the hard work of persuading people that your views are correct, that your accusations have some grounding to them.
That work can’t just be done on Twitter. You’ve got to go out and show people the goods and persuade people that what you’re saying is true.
Now, having said that, I’ll tell you, I’ve seen times in the life of our Convention where I thought that the platform had a direction they wanted things to go, and the messengers weren’t sure about it, and they did some things to try to railroad something through. We’re just not being honest if we pretend that’s never a temptation, if we pretend it’s never happened. It does.
I hope and believe that I’m the guy who could preside fairly over the business meeting. I think it’s important to hear some genuine sentiment in people’s minds when they respond to this idea of SBC elite—some genuine sentiment that thinks my ideas don’t get a fair hearing. I think it’s important to conduct the annual meeting in a way, and also to conduct what we do in governance of our entities in a way that helps reassure people that people are heard. And that helps to reassure people that it’s true.
I think the primary job of the president of the SBC is to protect the rights of the messengers in the meeting. I want to conduct the meeting in a way that’s fair to everyone, but also everyone needs to understand, because there were a lot of complaints made in recent meetings about “we had this person ready to speak to this at this microphone, and they didn’t get to do it.” I’ve been there, and it’s easy to say, “I’m gonna blame the guy wielding the gavel” or “I’m gonna blame the people that I really think pull the strings back there” or whatever else when the fact of the matter is the majority of people didn’t want to listen to me. They voted to end the debate. They voted to do that because they felt like they knew what they needed to know to make their choice to cast their ballot, and their voice is more important than my voice.
Q: Would you say that that played out in a very real way with the formation of the Sexual Abuse Task Force in the way that came from the floor through the messengers?
A: One hundred percent. I would say that it’s hard to claim that elites rule the SBC when you just watched the messenger body of the SBC overwhelmingly, on multiple occasions in the same annual meeting, say, “No, actually we’re going to do that. We want to do this,” and carry the day with their ballots and to see the people on the platform go, “What just happened?”
I heard that at our last annual meeting, multiple times. I ran into people who would grab me and say, “What just happened?” I’ll tell you what just happened, our polity just happened. The messengers from the churches stood up and said, “This is what we want to do.” That’s happened in between the annual meeting since then. So, I think we’re really becoming more and more healthy in terms of the engagement of messengers. I think we’re less elitist than we’ve been in years right now.
Q: Because the messenger voice is stronger than it’s been in years?
A: And because the messenger voice is stronger than it has been in years and because they’re thinking more independently now, and more messengers are showing up, more churches are engaged.
Q: There’s been a lot of discussion about possible remote voting changes in the constitution. Where do you stand on that?
A: I’m opposed to remote voting for this reason. A lot of people look at this from the perspective of, “Hey, I do a lot of things with my smart phone. I do a lot of things with my computer. I think we could set up a system where it would be possible for people to vote.” But I think what the president of the SBC has to worry about and what the Executive Committee and the Committee on Order of Business have to worry about is not, “Can we put a system in place where we think it’s possible that people would be able to vote?”
You have to put together a system in place where you can say we can guarantee that people will be able to vote, we can guarantee that people will be able to hear all of the deliberations, people will be able to operate on the same set of information and people will be able to cast a ballot that we will know for sure has been received and has been accounted for.
We live in a time where technology is advanced and makes a lot of things possible. We also live in the time in which the Iowa Democratic Caucus devolved into utter chaos because of technology failures and the level of division that would ensue and the accusations of elitism and the conspiracy theories that would ensue if we had technological problems pop up in the middle of an important vote for the Southern Baptist convention would be horrible.
Q: The next president will lead us through the report of the Sexual Abuse Task Force. Are you prepared for that?
A: I have no idea what’s in the report. That means I ought to be circumspect about what I say. I have a demonstrated track record of being all in on doing the right thing with regard to sex abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, I’ve creatively come up with ideas nobody else came up with.
Alongside that, I also have a long-term demonstrated track record of being all in on Baptist polity and Baptist distinctives and Baptist beliefs. So if there are people who look at the response to sex abuse and say, “I’m worried that someone all in on the response to sex abuse won’t know about or care about the autonomy of the local church or won’t know about or care about the uniqueness of the way that Southern Baptist polity is structured or about the about the non-connectionalism that we have in an SBC family of conventions and entities and associations and whatever else.”
I do know about all of those things. I’ve written about those things. I’ve taught those things in seminary classes. I’m 100% committed to those things, too. I believe this is going to look different in the way it happens in the Southern Baptist Convention versus the Catholic church, for example, because our structure and our beliefs are different.
I also think that the response for prevention and for addressing sex abuse is going to look a little different in the Southern Baptists Convention than it’s going to look in other denominations because of the uniqueness of our structure and our polity and our distinctive beliefs.
I think this is a lot like the moment in the movie “Apollo 13,” where Gene Kranz is standing there, and they’re waiting on re-entry of Apollo 13. There are a couple of NASA officials who are back in the back with their arms folded, kind of worried. And one of them says to the other one: “I know the challenges we face. This could be the worst disaster in NASA’s history,” and Gene Kranz turns and looks at them and says, “I believe it’s going to be our finest hour.” I think that possibility is here. I think it’s possible that facing all of these challenges, if we’re committed to doing the right thing and we’re committed to our beliefs and our polity, but also committed to justice and righteousness, this could be our finest hour because finest hours arise out of darkest hours.
Q: Talk a little bit about your view on the role of women in pastoral leadership in the local church.
A: I am complementarian. I believe that the office of pastor is limited to men, as qualified by scripture. I fully affirm the Danvers Statement. I’m a comparatively strict complementarian. Everybody teaching a mixed Sunday school class in our church is male. We don’t have women preach. So, it’s not just the office for us. There’s also some functional restrictions for us.
Q: What about when you move outside of the local church because we have women leading on entity boards and committees?
A: Well, I’m complementarian to the degree that the scriptures are complementarian. The Independent Baptists have reminded us for a long time that there aren’t committees and chair people and boards and all that sort of thing in the scriptures. They’re right, but we have determined, in our statement of faith, to say that whenever we have work to do together, we have the liberty to organize these things—to organize entities and boards of trustees and committees and chair people and all that sort of thing—that are not spelled out in scripture as the expedient means for us to elicit and direct and combine the work of the churches to go forward.
I don’t think that we can take scriptural limits that are placed on scriptural institutions and start applying them to the other things that we have going on.
We have women in the administrative structure of our church who are involved. We have women on staff. They’re just not pastors. They’re not deacons.
Q: Are there other roads that we need to be traveling when it comes to dealing with racial reconciliation?
A: Critical Race Theory is, at its foundation, a theory about the law that comes out of law schools and the legal community. I think it is complex, but I think that most of it can be reduced down to an idea that the basic approach of law and order in the United States that has failed in terms of race for racial minorities. Something else has to be tried.
The civil rights movement thought it accomplished things, but it really didn’t accomplish what it thought it was going to accomplish. In making that move, Critical Race Theory is perfectly willing to dispense with what are some Judeo-Christian ideas about what fairness and justice look like, that I believe are biblical.
For that reason, the same things that motivate me to say that people who are opposed to CRT have to meet some fair standards in making accusations and proving things and whatever else, that same commitment to biblical ideals of justice makes me reject Critical Race Theory because it’s not generally committed to those ideas, to those principles.
However, having said that, I think that we let the division in our culture make things complicated for us that really aren’t that complicated. Everybody who pastors a church—everybody who pastors a church—knows what it is to see a congregation full of people, some of whom are involved to the hilt and some of whom are kind of sitting on the margins, some of whom are on the margins, drifting out, some of whom are on the margins because they just came in, and they know that it’s a job of every pastor to look at their congregation and to see the people who need to be welcomed and encouraged on in, to see the people that you have to be intentional about, helping them to know you belong here, you have a place to serve here, and they’ve all seen what it’s like.
For us at FBC Farmersville, we might look at somebody and say, “come cook on a Wednesday night cook team because it’s an opportunity for you to get involved, meet some more people, build some relationships and get plugged in and integrated into the life of our church.” Every pastor does that if he succeeds at all, and really that’s all we’re talking about in the Southern Baptist Convention. We’re a family of churches and that’s not strictly racial. We worry about smaller churches and about making sure that they don’t feel excluded.
All this elite versus populace kind of thing, we worry about churches that have not historically elected the president of the SBC because of how much money they have or how many people they have. We worry that they might feel like they’re on the fringes. So, we intentionally go about trying to bring them in, encourage them, help them to know that they belong, give them a place that they can join in and engage. Local associations do that. State conventions do that. The Southern Baptist Convention does that. And among those families are the cowboy church family or the rural church family, or the urban church family, the university town church family, the megachurch family. We also have the predominant Asian church family, the predominantly African American church family, the predominantly Hispanic church family. I think racial reconciliation can happen without treating those race-connected families of churches any differently than we treat size-based families of churches or geographically based families of churches.
Ultimately, racial reconciliation is reconciliation. And ultimately, it’s about doing that same thing we do in our local churches, looking to see who needs to be pulled in closer and being intentionally kind and welcoming and also recruiting to bring people into those positions of influence. I think it’s very important. I think we need to be about that. I’ll tell you something else I think we ought to be doing, that again is not racial.
This may get me in trouble, and I’m going to say it anyway. I worked hard as a member of the executive board for the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and eventually as the chair of that board to try to invite in and welcome churches historically affiliated with the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas.
I wrote my dissertation about a split in 1902. Those are people who were a part of that split, who left, went away from the Southern Baptist Convention. The Southern Baptist of Texas Convention has had quite a bit of success reaching out to churches like that. We split over things that were foolish. If you want to know more about that or if you want to cure your insomnia, go read my dissertation. We split over things that were foolish. There’s really nothing substantive or doctrinal that separates us from those groups, and we’ve reached out to these groups that became disaffected and meandered out of the Southern Baptist Convention and have brought a lot of those churches back in.
I think the Southern Baptist Convention, as we sail into a season where our culture is more and more hostile toward people of faith like ours, I think we ought to be reaching out to other groups of Baptists who have the same kind of theology that we do, but we’ve been separated by trivial things maybe, down through the years, to try to grow our family in that way. One of the things I would like to do if elected president of the SBC is show up at some of their annual meetings, go to the annual meeting of the Baptist Missionary Association of America and say, “We just want you to know that we’re Baptist too. We believe the Bible, too, and you can be in your group. That’s fine, but we love you, and we’re going to need each other before this is all over.”
So, for me, racial reconciliation is reconciliation, which is something that we need to be doing on a lot of fronts to try to grow and strengthen our family of churches.
Q: You pastor a church of normative size in the SBC. Not a megachurch. Does that work as an advantage for you?
Yes, but I think there’s some benefit to it because—I don’t want to be uncharitable in the way I say this—I think there’s some benefit to it because I think if you pastor a large church, it’s easy to get into a situation in which without many obstacles you’re able to implement whatever it is that you think is the right thing to do. When you’re at a church the size of my church you know that you have to persuade people and bring them on board in order to accomplish and move forward with anything, more coalition-building. We’re a congregationally governed church.
To be president of the SBC in a church, like [mine], and it’s not just about size, it’s about being really committed to Baptist polity. I mean you have small Presbyterian churches too, right? They don’t have the same approach. But in a small Southern Baptist church, committed to Baptist polity, if the messengers of the SBC, if I’m elected president and then we’re trying to do something and they say no to what I want to do, it’s not going to be my first time. It happens in my church that I think we ought to do something and the church says no. And so I know what that feels like. I’m not going to throw a temper tantrum, stomp off and be mad or something like that.
I’m just going to say, “Gosh, either they were right and I was wrong, or I need to do a better job of making my case next time, one or the other.” So I think there are some advantages in that the annual meeting functions more like a smaller church business meeting than like the way that decisions are made at really large churches in the SBC. But the obvious disadvantage, I think, is I don’t have a big staff that makes it easy for me to just stroll away from FBC Farmersville and let other people handle some things for me.
We’re going to have a large business meeting in New Orleans next June, but we’re going to have a business meeting at FBC Farmville every month between now and then except December. I’m going to have to prep for it, and I’m going to need to be there for it, for those sorts of things.
So, I think those disadvantages just of scale and the amount of help that you have, they’re not insurmountable. SBC presidents of late do a lot of things that you do not have to do. You don’t have to go preach all over the country to be president of the SBC.
Q: What are some of the most important assignments of the SBC president?
A: The president of the SBC has, I think, in some ways, the same cluster of responsibilities that the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention has. I would think all of it can be fit under three headings: to protect the rights of the messengers, to answer the messengers’ questions and to execute the messengers’ instructions.
I think that the president of the SBC protects the rights of the messengers by conducting the annual meeting in such a way that our rules of order are followed and that people have a fair shot to come to the microphone to make their case. Have a fair shot, most importantly, of hearing everything that they need to know, to make a prayerful and informed decision and to cast their ballots and for all that to be counted fairly. And for all of that to be handled in a way that the messengers’ rights are defended.
There’s also a need to answer the messengers’ question, that the Executive Committee does more of that than the president does because there are referrals to the Executive Committee, but the president is a member of the Executive Committee. And so he plays a role in that process for the Executive Committee. Being the member of the EC as he is, because he is president of the SBC, I think he has a special added responsibility to be an advocate for the intent of messengers’ questions, for making sure that they get good answers to the things that they’re asking about and good recommendations from the SBC, that are made with their interests in mind. I would like to be an advocate for that.
I think that protecting the rights of the messengers also involves the appointment of people to some key appointments for the president of the SBC. There are some of those that are constitutionally mandated. Sometimes some of those are added by the messengers. Ed Litton had to appoint the Sexual Abuse Task Force. That’s not a constitutional duty, but the messengers instructed him to do that. And so I believe he had a responsibility in naming the people on that committee to make sure that they were people who, to the degree that he could know this, were in tune with the intent of the messengers when they created that committee. I think it would be a failure to protect the rights of the convention messenger body, to say, “OK, well, you’re going to have your committee, but I’m going to make a committee comprised entirely of people who voted against what you voted in favor of and who have an adversarial view toward what you’re trying to do.” The president has the power to do that. He has the statutory authority to do that, but it would be wrong.
The last thing is to execute what it is the messengers tell him to do. That happens again, the Sex Abuse Task Force is a great example of that. Whether Ed Litton told people, “This is what we’re going to do,” the fact of the matter is the messengers spoke, and suddenly he’s got an assignment and—whatever he feels about it—it’s his job to exercise his authority on behalf of the messengers’ instructions. So I think there are details, but that I think is the job of the president of the SBC.
Q: Are there any specific initiatives that you would like to introduce?
A: I intend to be intentionally restrained about doing things like that, to exhibit some self-control. I’ll tell you, I do have some things that if I were king of the SBC, things that I would do that I think would make us healthier. As a former trustee, I’ll just say, I think we need to do a better job of orienting and training our trustees for the work that they do. Maybe Southern Baptists assumed that I knew things that I didn’t know when I embarked upon that journey, but even simple things that I’ve learned since then at training for other events about: here are five questions you can ask about a financial statement that every board ought to know and every trustee ought to have the answers to this every time they leave a meeting. That was eye-opening for me. I think there are a lot of questions like that. People have called for that from the floor of the annual meeting, several years to call for trustee training, for improvement in our trustee-training process. I’m admittedly sympathetic to those.
But ultimately, it runs contrary to my views of Baptist polity for me to come in and say, “I’ve got the gavel. Now there’s a new sheriff in town. I’m going to advance all of my personal agendas at this point.” I mentioned the one that I did, because I think there is evidence that messengers are interested in that. That’s not interest I’m trying to stoke. It’s not interest that I’m trying to create. There’s some grassroots interest in that already. I think it would cost some money to do what would be a worthwhile response, but when you look at what it costs us when we have poor trustee oversight or poor trustee governance, I think it would be money well spent for us to try to make sure we’ve got the best trained and equipped overseers that we have over our entities.
Q: You served on a board where, is it fair to say, that the trustees weren’t always informed best?
A: I’m not going to accuse anyone else. I’ll say I was on a board where I was not informed the way I ought to be. I was on a board where I should have asked questions that I didn’t ask. I was on a board where sometimes when I asked questions and got answers, I didn’t know what the right thing was for me to do about them. So, I think, ultimately, while they’re going to have to receive some training from the institutions they serve, they need to understand that institution, its mission, the way it’s organized, its governing documents. I think there also needs to be some training just in kind of industry standard basic board-function training that needs to be conducted by someone other than the entity that they’re serving. Just so they can have a basic orientation to what a healthy institution looks like, what a healthy board looks like.
Q: Because there’s a fine line between just asking questions or getting information and being an overbearing trustee.
A: Sure, absolutely. We’re going to have some [who are overbearing] as trustees. That’s going to happen. You can get a majority of trustees [like that] and have unhealthy things happen, certainly. But in the long run, fideist as it sounds, I believe that the Holy Spirit is actually at work within the Southern Baptist Convention and within the people of the Southern Baptist Convention. I believe He protects the work of our entities. I don’t know any other plausible historical explanation for how, with all the mistakes we’ve made and all the things that we’ve done wrong, we’re still here and as healthy as we are, other than to choose to believe that God has favored us in spite of ourselves hundreds of times along the way. I’m willing to try to put healthy things in place that even allow for, by training trustees, by showing them things to do that, even allow maybe some misuse of that and knowing that some individuals along the way are going to try to make misuse of that. I’m going to believe in the ability of the Holy Spirit to work in the aggregate, to protect us through majorities. I think this circles us around to some things I’ve said from the beginning: I think our discourse is horrible right now. I think what’s happening on social media is unchristian in so many ways right now, but look what the majority of our messengers do when you put them in a room and let them vote. They do the right thing. They do the right thing. That’s because the Holy Spirit is bigger than Twitter.
Q: What makes you happy to be Southern Baptist?
A: These are the people who’ve loved me all my life. It’s a great family of people and churches. They’ve entrusted me with things that there was no good reason for them to entrust me with. They may be about to do that again.
You look at Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. If something horrible happens to your town, the odds that you make it through OK that are directly proportional to your—no, they’re inversely proportional from your distance from a Southern Baptist church and from other evangelicals. If there’s a Southern Baptist presence in your area, yellow shirts are going to show up, yellow caps are going to show up. We’re going to do good by you.
We’ve got missionaries all over the world.
Cooperative Program giving is up. People are leaning into this mission.
We have amazing, miraculous things that are happening every day. If I left the Southern Baptist Convention, I’d have to try to recreate it because it’s a joyful place to be. And beyond all of that, I have friends, I got friends all over this convention that I enjoy spending time with.
We talk about the family that I live in today and I tell you problems for all of them, but there’s love there and family there and joy there, and God’s in it. And I think the same is true for the SBC.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jonathan Howe is vice president for communications at the SBC Executive Committee. Brandon Porter serves as associate vice president for convention news at the SBC Executive Committee.)