EDITOR’S NOTE: Baptist Press 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 plan to release our 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.
For more than 30 years Tom Ascol has been known as a leader with deep theological convictions through his work at Grace Baptist Church and Founders Ministries. While Ascol, 65, has never held an office as a trustee or board member of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), he has been an influencer, and his name is one of the most well-known in Southern Baptist life.
“You’d have to ask the people who didn’t ask me,” Ascol joked when asked why he’s never served as an entity trustee or SBC committee member. “It’s never something I aspired to. I’ve always had plenty to do.”
But Ascol’s name has been put forward by a number of people to be nominated as president of the SBC in Anaheim this summer.
Over the last few years as debates over issues such as Critical Race Theory, the work of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and claims of liberal drift have permeated the SBC, Ascol’s voice has been prominent—sometimes preeminent—in every discussion.
We sat down with Ascol in his pastoral study to get to know him, ask him about his ministry and hear his views on issues being discussed in the SBC.
Q: Why are you willing to be nominated to be president of the SBC?
A: I’ve had people ask me for years, you know, why don’t you do this? Would you do this? And my standard answer has been “I’d rather be beaten with a bag of pennies than to do that” or, “I thought you were my friend, I thought you liked me.”
So, I’ve never aspired to it. It’s never been anything on my to-do list or something that I thought would be really good to shoot for. But over the last two or three years, those requests have been more serious. People have actually sat down and talked to me and made arguments that, you know, became increasingly convincing. I’ve wanted to see things done differently in our SBC the last several years and have been pretty vocal about that.
And so the folks began to say, “Well, look, you’re saying we need a change. We need to reevaluate. Why would you not be willing to step into a role where—if you were elected—you could begin a process of some redirection?”
So I talked to my wife, and she was surprisingly open to it. We’d been as serious before, but we’d always said “no.” But when she was open to it and then I mentioned it to the elders, they were initially opposed to it.
We’ve got a lot of good things going on, and there are problems in the church right now. Most of our problems are because of blessings which, you know, is great. If you can choose that, you don’t always get to choose it, but they are problems and they just require lots of attention.
So our elders have tried to make sure we’re shepherding well [in] the midst of that. And they didn’t think it was the right idea, but we agreed to take a week to pray about it. Some of us prayed and fasted and came back, and one by one, every one of them flipped without having talked to the others.
So with my wife’s willingness and the elders saying, “Yeah, we think this is a right thing. Even in the midst of everything else, we’ll restructure,” it’s forced us to think through some things.
So all that came together, and I said, “Okay, I’m willing.” I just told the guys that had been seriously asking me to consider that I would be willing to do it.
I love the SBC, and I think we’ve got so many good things going, but I think we’ve got some serious problems, and those problems are largely subterranean. So, it’s easy to not look at them or notice them, but if we don’t deal with them, my fear is that five, 10 years from now, we’re going to be looking back saying, “Man, I wish we’d have thought about some of these things.”
Q: Would you share your personal testimony?
A: I was raised by a godly mother and a father who had a lot of problems. Our home would’ve been called a dysfunctional home, you know, today, but she was a praying mom. I’m the youngest of six kids and we grew up in a rather difficult and hard environment. She had a very hard life. What she lived through, most women wouldn’t put up with, and my parents had multiple reasons to divorce, but they stayed married 63 years by God’s grace.
My earliest recollection of spiritual things was as a little boy. Everyone else was in school or out of the house, and I saw my mom on her knees just begging God to help. I just sat there and listened to her, and I thought, “She’s really talking to somebody.” It made a deep impression on me.
During my early years, I think around eight or nine years old, is when I was overwhelmed with the sense of my own sin and my need [for] a Savior. I asked the Lord to save me [in] South Park Baptist Church, in Beaumont, Texas.
I’m grateful for all the Sunday School teachers, training union teachers and RA directors. I remember them, and they were so kind and helpful to me. But I didn’t think seriously about the things of Christ the way I should have. Nobody took my Bible from me, but it was just like, I didn’t really think about it.
During my teenage years, I just drifted and went along with what Christian kids were supposed to do. It was pretty superficial, and I became pretty self-righteous, but then God just kind of turned me upside down and convinced me He was calling me to be a pastor, which was, I thought, a cruel joke because I didn’t like pastors.
Q: Would you tell us a little more about your call to ministry?
A: Yeah, I was 16 years old, and I was jaded about pastors. I was a self-righteous person, looking back on it, and, you know, self-righteous people think that they’re right.
We’d had some pastors, two pastors, I guess, that had been pretty difficult on the church. Our family lived in a house that was owned by the church. My dad was a drunk and a womanizer and an abuser and it was just difficult, but he was also a deacon and he was my Sunday school teacher as a teenager. I just had all this anger and angst, and the church wanted to have us move out of the house.
They were going to evict us out of the house because we hadn’t paid rent, and we knew that was coming. So, we were thinking about what was going to happen. And the pastor was saying, “look, we just got to do this,” and he was in an awkward spot. I get it. But as a teenage kid, you know, I was pretty bitter about all that. So, I was jaded against pastors, and one deacon stood up and kept that from happening. So, we were able to stay in the house, but when God called me to be a pastor, [it] was during a series of special meetings for a youth event at our church.
My mom was out of town, and she was the spiritually-minded one in her family. When this overwhelming sense came on me like, “I need to direct my life differently.” I wanted to be a lawyer. And so I went to the associate pastor that I kind of liked and asked, what do I do with this?
He prayed with me. I called my mom and said, “I don’t know what to do with this, but I’m afraid this is happening.” My brother was four years older than me. He had a similar kind of thing like a couple of days before. We just kind of settled it that this is God’s dealing with you.
Then I thought, well, okay, don’t tell anybody, you know, let’s just kind of keep it between us and see if it’ll go away. But I met with the pastor and some deacons and they said, “We think you ought to explore this.” So they asked me to preach, and I invited the football team. I was on the football team, and a bunch of folks from school came. And my best buddy was converted at the sermon.
I said everything I knew about the Bible in about 15 minutes, you know? I was petrified, but there seemed to be this affirmation. The church licensed me to preach, and then other people, other churches, asked me to start preaching.
Q: Where did the Lord take you from there?
A: I got a scholarship from Texas A&M, and I thought I’d major in sociology because that’s like being a preacher. You know, it’s almost a pastor. You help people, so I thought, “I’ll be a sociologist and counselor.” I actually had a contract to sign with a youth organization to help troubled kids when this little church called me and said, “Hey, we need a preacher. We heard you preach. Would you come to preach Sunday?” So, I did that for three weeks in a row, and then they blew me away and said, “Hey, we want you to be our pastor.” So, I did that. I believed God wanted me to do that.
Q: You seem to hold deep convictions when it comes to how you view right and wrong.
A: Oh yeah. There’s no doubt. One of the things [God’s] done in the last half of my life is convict me of just really what a self-righteous prig I was. I was full of pride and thought I knew better than everybody else.
My dad was converted before he died, and it was an amazing thing. He had a lot of shame, a lot of guilt and a lot of regret. I got to see him on Christmas day just before he died in the spring. He was in the hospital and had a lot of medical issues, but they gave him a day pass to come be with the family.
So, all the family was together in Beaumont, and we spent the day with him. I took him back to the hospital. I’d been thinking about it. God had been convicting me over the years. All the kids were converted, so we’d all preach the gospel to him.
He’d begin to have these doubts and these regrets and, you know, shame over what he’d done. He started down that road again and I stopped him. I said, “Dad, look, I’ve been thinking about this,” and I talked to him about the gospel. And he said, “I believe, I really do believe in Christ.” So, I said, “Well, let me tell you something.” I said, “God’s been showing me something, and I’ve thought about this. If I could go back and pick any man in the world to be my dad, I’d pick you because you’re the one that God wanted me to have to help me come to know Him.”
It was a gift from God that we had that moment [that] was sacred. We hugged and wept. He was trusting Christ. It just dawned on me he had a hard life. He was the son of a Muslim immigrant, and his dad was murdered when he was 11 years old. He sat there right by him. His dad was shot dead, and he was treated like a slave working in a field for years. It’s amazing he didn’t kill somebody or kill himself. I see God’s grace in his life.
And I remember praying during a time of struggling with my call to ministry, “God, if you’re going to make me a pastor, I don’t want to be just a regular old pastor. I want to understand and do things the way they should be done.” A lot of that was self-righteous, too, because my judgment on pastors was so prideful. But I take the Bible seriously and the whole regenerate church membership thing. The Bible’s clear on that. We’re Baptists, and you know, my dad had no business being a church member, much less a deacon and a Sunday school teacher. That created a lot of angst. Not just in me, but in the community.
So, yeah, those things I’m sure made me far more receptive to hear[ing] what the [Bible] says about the nature of the gospel, the nature of salvation, sin, righteousness, grace, and I look back and praise God for it. I have a lot of regrets. I wish I’d been different, but I thank the Lord for what he did.
Q: One thing you’ve done in Southern Baptist life is writing a resolution on regenerate membership.
A: I don’t know when the idea first hit me, but I thought we ought to have a resolution on this. At least we can have a vote about it. So, I wrote a resolution and submitted it. It didn’t make it out of committee. I was disappointed in that. I submitted it again, and it got rejected again. I submitted it the third year with Bart Barber and Malcolm Yarnell, and that got accepted. Either the first or second year I learned that if you want to appeal the decision of the Resolutions Committee to not bring it out, you can do that. There’s a process, and it’s actually pretty cool because you get to a microphone and you say, “I would like to appeal this.”
Then, if they recognize you, you get to read the resolution. So, you read the resolution and then the convention votes whether or not to agree with the chair of the Resolutions Committee or you and bring it out. So, one year or maybe even two years, I got to read the resolution out loud for everybody, which means probably more people heard my resolution than the ones printed. After the second year, I remember contacting different entity heads, all the seminary presidents and others, saying, “Hey, this is in the Baptist Faith and Message. This is right.” And one of them said to me, “Your resolution’s going to pass because it’s right.” And I said, “Would you guys just sign on it? Maybe then it’ll come out of committee.” They agreed to, but then they pulled back and didn’t do it.
Malcolm Yarnell and Bart Barber submitted one to the Texas convention that year that passed. It was good, but I wanted some language in there about how we need to repent over this. We came up with a resolution that we all agreed to submit, and the Resolutions Committee brought it out. But they brought it out without the baptism statement and the statement on repentance. Malcolm, Bart and I met before the day of the report and decided we would make these two recommendations.
We were going to meet at a microphone at a set time but Malcolm didn’t show up. So, Bart and I were there and the next thing I know Malcolm’s being recognized on another microphone, and he’s getting his thing on baptism added to it. I’m pushing the button and finally, they recognized me and they adopted mine, too. That taught me a little bit about the power of the platform.
Q: Talk a little about the importance of regenerate church membership and how it has impacted Founders Ministries.
A: Well, I mean, we are Baptist. Our forefathers paid a high price for our convictions, and we say we believe the church is to be made up only of those who give credible profession or are regenerate. We’re not experts on people’s hearts and we don’t pretend to be, but there needs to be a credible profession that accompanies true regeneration—and I’ll avoid the Presbyterian debates about that, but I think they’re way off. Baptists have long held to this. I mean, the general Baptist, particular Baptist, everybody has held to this, and the idea that the church ought to be a pure church doesn’t mean there’s no sin, no false believers, but the false believers are the exception. They jump over the fence. We don’t open the door to them [and] say, “Come on in because you have prayed a prayer, walked an aisle or raised a hand.”
And we just lost that. If you use just the bare minimum metrics of church attendance, which doesn’t prove you’re a Christian, if you just use the bare minimum metric of church attendance and look at the attendance in many of our churches, we’ll have a membership that’s two or three times what the regular average attendance is. It shouldn’t be that way if our membership is made up primarily of born-again people.
Billy Graham said that he was convinced that most of the people he preached to in churches were unconverted. Paige Patterson said that 50% of the people were unconverted. I think W. A. Criswell said something similar to that. So, it’s not a secret, you know. I think Fred Wolfe is the first one I heard say that the FBI can’t find half of the SBC members. It’s not a secret, but it’s like it’s become a joke.
Well, do we believe it (regenerate membership)? Or do we not? What are we saying about the power of the gospel? If we say you can believe this gospel that we claim transforms a person’s life, unites him to Jesus Christ, reconciles him to God, and then you just go on living like pagans?
What are we saying when the people who say they believe in this life-changing gospel don’t even care enough to show up, which is the bare minimum, and when you look at our statistics? I mean, we know that attendance is not just members. We’ve got a bunch of kids here, and we’ve got visitors here. So if we only have half of the attendance number for our membership number, then it’s probably way less than half that are showing any bare minimum sign of when new birth, which first John says, are signs of the new birth. You know, if you’re born in the Spirit, you’re going to do things. You’re not going to do things. I think it’s vitally important as a testimony to the gospel we preach.
I was speaking to a pastor’s group in Montgomery, Ala., years ago about regenerate church membership.
I had a meeting with some of the pastors set up, but one guy broke into the meeting. He was weeping. He said, “I was convicted about you. I got the worst church in this county.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “We’ve got 2,000 members but we only have, like, 250 people coming.” So I said, “Well, brother, you know, that’s an opportunity for you. You can own that, repent and lead the church to understand it and start dealing with it.” He said, “Well, I just can’t do that.” I said, “Why not?” And this stunned me: he said, “I can’t bear the thought of being the pastor of a little church.”
I thought, man, what have we done to this guy? You know, I mean, he was wrong obviously, but I mean, what is the context that cultivates an attitude like that? I don’t know if that’s widespread, but I do know that we’ve had a problem with it for years and it doesn’t seem like it’s getting much better. Maybe it is.
Q: What does an evangelism strategy look like at your church?
A: Well, there are different things going on. On Wednesday nights, typically I will ask, “Hey, have you had any gospel conversations this week?” And sometimes it would take over the whole night if we didn’t just kind of trim it down. They’re just talking about their faith and trying to lead people to faith. We have guys that go out and preach in the open-air several nights a week, almost every Friday and Saturday night. And they’ll go to where there’s a gathering. You know, if it’s a festival in town or downtown where people are hanging out or doing an art walk or something, and they’ll just start engaging and preaching to them. We have discipleship groups, and some of those have become evangelistic, too. They’re very organic, where people just invite folks into their homes and read a book together or read a gospel together.
So that’s kind of the big net. We want everybody doing it in their own way. We don’t have a one size fits all, and we don’t want the 75-year-old widow to feel guilty because she’s not out on the streets preaching at 9:00 at night on Friday night. But we want her praying. We want her to be engaged in it.
I have a meeting right after this interview with a young boy who is 11 years old. Over the last eight or nine months, he said, “Pastor Tom, I want to be baptized.” I baptized his dad, who is a deacon now and a wonderful brother. So his dad says, “I think God saved Henry.” I’ve been meeting with him. I’m doing with him what I do with other kids, and that is to ask them to read through the Gospel of John with me.
I ask them to write down the things they have questions about or things they have insights about. I just want to disciple them while they read the Gospel of John. Are they willing to do that as a minimum amount? It’s no guarantee that they’re a Christian, but we want to hear that they articulate the gospel. We want them to know that it’s the gospel that saves them and not their works. So we will always ask them, what is the gospel? How do you understand the gospel? We talk about the gospel here all the time. It’s not a Christian sermon if the gospel’s not in it.
Then we have an interview process. Usually, there’s an informal sit-down, and then there’s a formal sit-down with at least one or two others just to hear their testimony. If the testimony is good and clear, then wonderful. If they haven’t been baptized, we would baptize them. We do this with everybody.
So, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been a member of another church, we just want to hear your testimony—to hear you articulate that you’re trusting Jesus Christ as Lord of your life.
Then we have a church covenant that, you know, it’s not a stick we beat each other up with, but it is a collection of things we believe the Bible teaches we ought to try and do.
We have a confession of faith and we say, this is what the church believes, and this is how we’re going to be teaching. We ask them if they have a problem with any of these things. We have the 1853 New Hampshire Confession for membership that everybody needs to read, and we believe this and agree with this.
Then the leaders will recommend them to the congregation and say, “Hey, we talked to this brother or sister. We spent some time with them, and we believe God’s adding them here. Will you accept them?” And then the church will accept them, and at the next Lord’s Supper, we will formally welcome them in.
So it’s a process. It’s not quick and easy. If they’ve never been baptized, we want to help them study through baptism.
Then we want to help them get integrated into the church. We ask them how God’s gifted them. We want to help them think about it and encourage them to get engaged in whatever ways they’re comfortable and gifted.
We also help them get involved in a discipleship relationship as well.
Q: Your church uses the Second London Baptist Confession of 1689 and the New Hampshire Confession of 1853. What are your thoughts about the Baptist Faith and Message?
A: I think it’s good. It’s generic, so I believe a lot more than the Baptist Faith and Message. I think the Baptist Faith and Message just leaves some gaps we could clear up.
I mean, there are 32 chapters in the 1689, which is 30 or 40 pages. So it’s not anything contrary to it at all, but it explicitly states more than what [the Baptist Faith and Message] does.
I mean, you know, like there has been some modalistic-type language that you could twist out of the Baptist Faith and Message if you wanted to. You can twist hyper-Calvinistic language out of the Baptist Faith and Message if you wanted to. It says we believe the gospel ought to be preached to everybody who’ll believe. I think it ought to be preached to everybody whether they believe it or not. That’s not what they meant, obviously, but it’s just that kind of thing.
Even on the Lord’s Day in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 with Adrian Rogers. I remember talking to him about this and writing [to] him about this. They just kind of took a step back on the Lord’s Day. I don’t think that was an improvement on what was there in the 1963. And, of course, the 1925 was based on the New Hampshire, so it’s like we’ve (Grace Baptist Church) got the grandfather of the Baptist Faith and Message.
I believe one thing that is happening today is people can say, “Oh, we believe the Baptist Faith and Message,” but then they advocate for positions that are not articulated in the Baptist Faith and Message. So they say, “we’re not denying the Baptist Faith and Message.” What we need to recover is the reality that the Baptist Faith and Message is built upon truth that we all have held in common until yesterday.
So there are those that will talk about same-sex attraction, or there are those who talk about pronoun hospitality and other things that they think. I think, again, an evangelistic impulse drives it, but the sub-soil of the Baptist Faith and Message is Genesis 1:1 and this really is God’s world. He created it. And He’s the one that rules it and tells us what’s right, what’s wrong, what’s good, what’s bad, what’s true and what’s false. And because the Baptist Faith and Message doesn’t specifically articulate that, you’ve got people endorsing Revoice, which you know, is for homosexual Christians to make them feel welcome saying, “But, I’ve signed the Baptist Faith and Message.” I think that’s a problem.
You know, I think there’s something else operating that we just need to kind of pull back the cover and say, let’s look at the subsoil here. You can’t have a house without a foundation, and we’ve assumed the foundation, and the foundation’s being eroded. So that’s kind of my take on all that.
Q: How are people discipled at Grace?
A: Well, we don’t have a youth program. We don’t have, you know, people ask, you know, do you have a youth ministry, or do you have children’s church? We say, yeah, we have children’s church every Sunday. It’s right where the adults meet. We don’t have a set youth ministry, but we have very active young people. We really emphasize family. And so we want families to take the lead in what goes on in their homes. So we want dads to be the main disciplers in their home. If there’s not a dad, we want the moms to be that. We want to try to come along with them to help. And 1 Corinthians 7 says a lot about what single adults can do. So we really want to encourage single adults to serve in capacities that they can, because they don’t have spouses.
And then we want people to recognize they need to be discipled. And if they walked with Christ any length of the time, they have some opportunity to disciple. It’s organic. I spent years banging my head up against the wall about how [to] get people in the discipling process and read[ing] books and try[ing] stuff. And I just couldn’t ever keep it going. I’d get it started. I couldn’t keep going. And I don’t know when, it was probably 10 years ago, 15 years ago—and I’m sure it wasn’t original ]to] me—but somehow the thought came into my head: “what are we talking about?” Well, we’re just talking about life on life and sharing life together and checking up on each other—helping each other grow in grace.
So we wrote it down on, like, a 3X5 card. Here’s how you can start a disciple group: get a book from our resource center or somewhere else—if you want the pastors to vet, we’ll vet for you—or a book of the Bible and ask two or three people if they want to read it with you, and agree to meet for a month or six months or every other week, or once a month, and read and pray and ask each other how you’re doing, and try to encourage one another and do that, and then do it again, and then do it again. And if somebody invites you to do that, well, then you go with them and then turn around and invite somebody else to do it with you. And so, I couldn’t tell you how many, but I know we’ve had as many as 80 or 90 of these groups going on and on. I’ll usually find out about them after the fact because they don’t need permission to start them, and it’s not anything we record, but it’s an organic deal.
We have age-graded Sunday Schools. We’ve had a real headache getting back from COVID with getting all of our classes up and running, and we just ran into another little difficulty with the quarter system and how we’re doing that. We think by the middle of the summer we’ll be back in sync again, firing on all cylinders. But yeah, we have age-graded classes on Sunday mornings, and I think we have high school and junior high on Sunday or Wednesday nights—they do worldview-type stuff then.
Q: You average about 350-400 on Sunday mornings. On the website, you don’t list very many staff. A lot of Southern Baptist churches would have a lot more staff for 350-400 people on Sunday mornings. How do you do that with such a limited staff?
A: That’s a good question. I don’t know. Our folks, they’re not dependent on me. They’ve lived with me a long time. They’ve been very patient and kind to me to let me stay as long as I’m staying, but we’ve got great leadership. I mean, our elders are just stellar. We have five elders including me—two staff elders and three lay elders. The lay elders are very, very capable men. One’s a retired educator and one’s a CFO of a large company here locally. And one’s a business owner immigrant from Cuba. And they’re just all quality guys, you know, they just, they take seriously their calling.
Q: What is the role of women in leadership at Grace Baptist Church?
A: Some of our godliest people are women. We have women that lead Bible studies, and some of our most urgent prayer warriors are women. There’s a list of five people I would call to pray for me, and probably two of them are women. Ladies lead women’s studies, and we have women’s retreats periodically. Someone will come in and speak, not just women, but we’ve had women come and speak and husbands and wives sometimes have come in and spoken.
We’ve had women teach high school and junior high classes. It’s a husband-and-wife team that’s teaching. We don’t have any women here that aspire to be pastors or aspire to preach to men and women mixed. We read what the Bible and Paul meant when he said that a woman’s not to teach or exercise authority over men, and we don’t do that.
Q: What’s your view on women in leadership in convention roles?
A: It gets into some gray areas there because we’re talking about a parachurch organization as a denomination. I mean, it’s not a local church, but the idea of male and female distinctions doesn’t end at the local church or the family, either. God made men and women differently.
And again, this is part of that subsoil. I think [it’s] just been eroded in our egalitarian age. It’s almost like if you dare suggest that somebody has a higher authority than anybody else, you’re just an abuser. You’re oppressive, and you’re trying to hold people down. I mean, God made hierarchies in the world, and He did it in the inanimate world. He’s done it in His image-bearing world as well. I recognize that, I think that is right and proper. I think the spirit of our age has tried to flatten out those distinctions to horrible effects, such that now, we’ve drafted women to go fight our battles. And I think that’s horrible that we’ve done that.
Q: If you’re elected, would you appoint women for committee appointments?
A: I don’t think I would be asking any women to be a chair [of a committee.]
Q: But they could serve as members of committees and boards?
A: Yeah, again, there might be a situation I could envision—it’s a conversation I’m willing to have that I wouldn’t be willing to have in the church, because we’ve nailed our colors to the mast. But whenever you get into something that’s not the church, I’m willing to have the discussion about the army, but it’s going to be a short discussion from my standpoint. I just don’t think women should be in combat, but they can serve in some utilitarian ways and be helpful, maybe.
But see, I don’t think it’s just military. I think that’s a part of a continuum of what God has done in establishing hierarchy in the world. And it’s no slam on women. My goodness. You know, if men, if husbands had to give birth every other time, nobody would have more than two kids, you know? I mean, it’s just, we wouldn’t do it, we couldn’t do it. So God’s made us different.
Q: What does it mean to be Southern Baptist?
A: Well, you’re a member of a Southern Baptist church,which is the lowest common denominator. We’ve got 14 million of them, but that doesn’t mean the same thing to all of them.
A Southern Baptist church is a church that has agreed voluntarily to unite with other churches for common cause[s]. Those causes for benevolence and missions, evangelistic causes. That’s spread through the years to theological education, disaster relief and social concerns.
We’re just saying, yeah, we can cooperate to get in these areas. We do that without giving up any of our autonomy or independence. I’d love to say to my independent Baptist friends, look, Grace Baptist Church is as independent as you are. Nobody dictates to us. We just partner on missions. We’ve agreed that we think this is a good idea. We can do more together with others than we can do by ourselves. And that’s been manifested time and again. It’s an awareness of all of that and a willingness to say, “Okay, we’re going to work together with other churches that aren’t our church,” which means that they’re not going to do everything the way you would do it.
Q: What are some of the local and state partnerships that stick out to you?
A: We’ve been involved in immigrant ministry here in Florida. Some of the migrant farmworkers are just abused. They’re treated miserably. We’ve been involved in trying to help immigrants. Our immigration system is broken.
The association’s done some wonderful things like that. We’ve worked with disaster relief. When you live in the wake of hurricanes, you’re looking for help. Southern Baptist disaster relief is second to none. They’re there before the Red Cross, and the Red Cross takes tips from our Southern Baptist Disaster Relief. And I’m very grateful for that.
We’ve worked in theological education. Obviously, I went to Southwestern and was able to do that far less expensively than I would have otherwise. We’ve also sent missionaries through the IMB.
Q: What does it mean to be conservative, liberal, woke, etc.?
A: I mean, conservative and liberal, they’re almost meaningless anymore. You know, if Fox News is conservative, then I’m Atilla the Hun. But conservatives tend to want to conserve. They want to keep things the way that they are, the way they should be as they understand it. And the way that they perhaps have been at some point.
Liberals are very open, wanting to progress and see things get better in what they think would be conducive to that by rejecting and not conserving things. But I think those labels by and large are not useful anymore.
Where a lot of people try to frame the problems in the SBC between conservatives and liberals, I don’t use that language too much. I don’t think that’s helpful to really get down to where we’re going and what we need to do.
The woke things, well, Eric Mason made that very popular in his book Woke Church. I’ve read the book. I don’t agree with the things he’s advocating. You look as he talks about it being an urban colloquialism that has been co-opted for church purposes so that we can say we’re sensitive to the needs of the urban—largely black, but not exclusively—population that has been oppressed and held down through systemic racism, and systems that to give them no fair shake in the world.
It really grows out of the 1960s higher consciousness movement where you raise your consciousness until you get to a point of, “Oh, now I see, now I recognize all these things are opposing me, and the man’s holding me down.”
So, Mason brought this over, and it just kind of caught wildfire for a while, at least. I don’t think it’s nearly as big as it was because there’s been a backlash against it. Some of that is overreaching, but much of it is needed to get us back to the question, “Hey, is the Bible enough or not? You know, do we need these conscious ways, conscious raising events and ways of thinking in order for us to really understand the gospel and how the gospel applies?” I don’t think so. I mean, God’s been building His church for 2,000 years without these things, and these things, though they might have a grain of usefulness to force us to look or think about things that we would otherwise overlook prescriptively, it’s deadly.
I’ll give you one example of this. I had a good friend at a church, and the ERLC recommended the book Divided by Faith. He said, “This book rocked our eldership, this book’s been so good for us, you know, people recommended it.” So, I got it, and our elders started reading it. I’ve got a degree in sociology and I got out of sociology, or my degree, just as the more critical social studies were coming in. I just didn’t even understand it when I was back there. That wasn’t the bread and butter, what I was learning, but my attitude towards sociology and psychology and other disciplines like that is that they might be helpful to diagnose, to maybe see things that you wouldn’t otherwise see, but don’t look to them for prescriptions.
We have a book. We’ve got to look to God to help us to see what we ought to see and if we’re not seeing it and, if we’re going to get a man to help us see it then, it’s going to be in accordance with scripture. God tells us what to do with what is real.
So we’re reading this book together and, you know, we’ve got a Hispanic elder, a Black elder. I’m like a quarter Syrian and African American and Native American. Then we got a couple of white guys.
So we’re reading this book together and we’re trying to understand it. We’re getting disoriented a little bit. He talks about the toolkits … the white toolkit, the black toolkit and all this stuff.
It was like the second or third chapter [where] I said, “Hey guys, let’s start underlying the words should and ought and then ask ourselves, ‘Why should we be taking directives from sociologists?’” So we started doing that and it’s like lights going off.
So, while they (the authors of Divided by Faith) were doing their data mining, their research and their questionnaires, they were getting some information out there, and they would very subtly say that means you ought to…, and this means if it’s gonna be addressed, you got to…
And that’s where it breaks down. We have a book God’s given us—the scriptures—and either it’s enough or it’s not for life and godliness to teach Christians how to live godly lives in this world, and to teach the church how to be the church in this world. What I fear is that we’ve given lip service to “we believe the Bible,” but you’ve got to admit systemic racism is true. You got to admit that the oppression of sexual minorities is true. And if you see that, then you’ve got to do these things about it. I think we have been taken for a wild ride culturally, and I think it’s crept into evangelical spaces.
Q: Do you think one of the issues is a lack of consistent definition of terms like systemic racism?
A: Yes, a lot of times. It’s become like a wax nose; you fit it on anything that you want to argue for. So yeah, I do think definitional conversations would be helpful to clear it up.
People say, well, do you believe in systemic racism? I say, believe it? I’ve seen it. You know? I mean, it’s not a question of whether or not [it] exists.
The question is, are you saying that today we are in the same place we were 50 years, a hundred years ago, 200 years ago in the United States? I’ve had guys tell me it’s worse than it was in the antebellum south. In what universe? I mean, just listen to the people who lived it and their own narratives compared to today.
So, I think this has been driven by ideologies and forces that have no regard for the church of Jesus Christ or the word of God. People ask me, are you a conspiracy theorist? No, I’m a conspiracy realist. I believe in the devil. I believe the devil’s a conspirator and goodnight, you know, I mean, he’s been doing it for thousands of years. We got evidence of it in the scripture. So we shouldn’t be blown away if he’s doing it again today in ways that maybe are very subtle that we didn’t see coming.
Q: While you say Critical Race Theory shouldn’t be prescribed, should it be taught in SBC seminaries?
A: I say teach it the same way you teach evolution or higher criticism or something. You don’t teach Islam as a good alternative. You teach it, if you’re thinking right in my book, you teach it as a system from the pit of hell that will lead you to hell. Now let’s understand it.
But today, even people that say, well, you’re saying we ought to be dumb, you know, and not learn about these. No. Learn about it, but call it what it is. The folks that are advocating it, they stop short of that, and they get upset whenever you try to push them. Nobody’s saying be dumb or narrow-minded on reality. These are real things in the world.
But is Critical Race Theory a helpful analytical tool the way that Critical Race Theory says it ought to be used? Absolutely not. It’s incompatible with the gospel, and if we don’t say that clearly, we are going to leave some people who are not very discerning to be prey for folks who will come in and convince them, “Well, you know, look, we’ve said this is a good analytical tool. Look, what this analytical tool shows you and tells you to think and tells you to see.” I think that was a horrible mistake on the part of the convention in 2019.
Q: It sounds like you have concerns about the effects of CRT on today and in the next generation.
A: Absolutely. I mean I’m 65 years old. All right. I got plenty to do right at this church. I never wanted to be involved in these debates. I’ve lost friends over these debates. I really had hoped at this stage of my life I’d be able to pastor this church for as long as they tolerate me and just live and die here and trust the folks that were doing the things that, you know, they’ve been doing for years.
But having grandkids and realizing these kids are growing up in a world where Disney has executives telling them, “We want to sensitize them. We want to train them to recognize LGBTQ as a right lifestyle.” And you’ve got these ideologies coming in. It’s in the world.
But when I began to get my mind around this in 2017 or 2018, I saw it in the church. When I started comparing some of the positions and language of church leaders to secularists, it sounded like they’re reading out of the same playbook.
I made phone calls, and I talked to guys far smarter than me and better positioned than me to deal with this. And I was sitting in this chair when I talked to one of them in 2018 after the Martin Luther King, Jr. Conference in Memphis, and I hung up, and I looked at my associate pastor and I said, “He’s not going to help us. He’s not going to help us.” That was the day that I really started going to school, and I started buying the books, reading the material, educating myself far more rigorously than I had the year before.
Q: It seems like the ERLC’s MLK 50 event was really a turning point for you. Is that true?
A: It goes back to that illustration I was trying to use a while ago that there’s a subterranean reality that I think has been subtly attacked, and it will destroy the house that it sits on. We’ve been talking about the house—we need these doors, we need these windows, we need this kind of furniture in it, and all that is right and good and true—but whenever the subsoil is being eroded under it, we have to stop and say, “Wait a minute, if this subsoil goes, the whole house goes.”
So, I’m not much impressed with anybody anymore who tells me they’ve signed the Baptist Faith & Message or The Abstract of Principles. Now, what I want to know is, what do you think about these realities that we are being told we must see or else you’re bigots, you’re racists, you’re misogynists?
Do you see those realities? Do you think that we ought to be claiming those realities exist?
Because I don’t think they exist the way that we’re told that they exist, and that’s where the debate’s gone. I think that’s taken us into arenas that are very theological, but like my friend Bart (Barber) says, “You know the Conservative Resurgence was all about theology and inerrancy, but this new thing, this is all about politics.”
It’s not, I mean, politics is certainly in it, but this is not about Trump. This is about the fact that Jesus Christ is Lord over every square inch of this creation. And Genesis 1:1 is still in the Bible and it’s God’s world.
The confessions, the doctrines that we love and delight in that the founders promulgated, they tried to recover what people have forgotten about all those things that are right, good it and true, but they grow out of God’s revelation in the real world.
What’s happening today is that we are being increasingly coerced to say that the world is different than God says it is. Man’s not a man. Woman’s not a woman. The heterosexual is not right and normative. It’s an option.
We’re being told these things, and you look in the scripture and people will say this: “You know, Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality,” or “the Bible doesn’t forbid transgenderism.” Well, okay. If you’re looking for a verse. But if you realize this is God’s world and God has two books, He’s got creation as well as revelation in scripture, and creation is just as authoritative.
He (God) speaks just as authoritatively in creation as He does in the inherent word of God. Then you can’t deny creation while trying to affirm the Doctrine of the Word. I mean, you can do it, but it’s a parlor trick. And what I’m going to do is turn [the] lights on and say, “No, no, no, no, over here, he signs all the confessions over here, but over here he’s giving up reality.” A lot of that sounds political and I get it, but I think Jesus is Lord of politics, too. So I’m not embarrassed or hesitant to talk about politics, but so often I think it gets miscast as a political debate when it’s not. It’s a debate about reality. Okay. That’s the way I see and the way I’ve entered into it.
Q: You mentioned transgenderism and the gender debates. Do you see Southern Baptists shifting on that issue?
A: No, I don’t see it, but what I see is this is just an extension of all these other things that are operating. And that’s why my friends who say, and it has been told to me multiple times, we have got to somehow separate the sex and gender issue from the race issue. Well, good luck.
You’re not going to do it if you buy into the presuppositions because the presuppositions demand the same for any issue you take up. Just go back and look at the original BLM website. I mean, they’re after the nuclear family, they’re after heteronormativity, all that, it’s the same ideology. It’s the same thing. That’s what I don’t think a lot of people realize.
It’s the same root system, and if you don’t take it out at the root you can trim the branches over here a little bit, but it’s still living, it’s going to come out and get you.
So, what I would much rather do is go back to Genesis 1:1 and say, “Can we just start there again and all agree, ‘God’s world, God’s rules.’ What He says is right and good, both in creation and in His word?”
Paul reasons from creation. Even creation teaches you, and so when creation tells us that, yeah, what God Genesis 1 and 2, it’s true. God created the male and female. Boom, that’s it, that’s it.
So, you know, political, I’m not afraid of that, but I think that’s been a very easy way to dismiss at least the concerns I’m trying to articulate. I might not be articulating them very well, but those, they go way deeper than that.
Q: Is racial reconciliation something that should still be pursued by the SBC? If so, what should that look like?
A: Yes, absolutely, but it should be pursued on the basis of what the word says. You don’t make two different standards or two different entryways or various entryways for different races or ethnicities.
Our first effort to start a Hispanic mission or ministry here in our church was probably 25 to 30 years ago. We got a call from the local association and they said, “Hey, would you be willing to have a Spanish ministry?” We said, sure.
So, we gave a key to a Latin American pastor and they came and had services and Bible studies. And I was naïve and stupid and didn’t ask a lot of questions, but after like six or seven months, they’re gone.
So, I go to the association and they were a little embarrassed and didn’t want to talk about it, but finally, we were able to get a conversation going, and the guy had run off with a bunch of money that they had been collecting through the weeks.
I asked, “How did this happen?” So, we talked about it, and I sat down right then and started studying Spanish-speaking ministries here in South Florida. I had some connections back in Texas where I’m from.
It was interesting to me back then, that [the North American Missions Board] had a program that would support you for three years on a diminishing returns basis. I don’t know if they still do or not, but almost every one of the Spanish-speaking missions and ministries of churches years are gone. They’re gone. And so I’m thinking, “Why is this?”
One of the things we discovered is that we’ve got a lot of first-generation immigrants coming over here. Spanish is their heart language, but their kids grow up with English becoming their heart language. And when their kids get older, everything they’re doing is in English except church, and it’s irrelevant to them. We want to avoid that.
So, we got a call from the state convention. This is probably two or three years after our first start that failed. And they said, “Hey, are you interested in trying this again?” I said, yeah, but here’s the way we’ll do it. So, I faxed them our six-or-seven-page document of how we will do Spanish-speaking ministry at Grace Baptist Church.
They were fascinated. They said, we want to come down. So they sent five or six executives here and they had four or five Hispanic guys as well. They met with some of our leaders. I think there were 19 guys in the room.
We sat there and listened to the presentation, and then we said, “Well, here’s what we’re going to do. We will do it. We are going to do it this way and be the same confession of faith, same church covenant, same membership requirement.”
One of the guys said this is unrealistic. He said you will never reach Hispanic people if you don’t use a little salsa. He said you can’t expect them to believe like you believe and to act like you act. I looked at him and I said, “That’s the most bigoted statement I’ve heard in a long time.”
Well, he got offended and they got up and left. So, we’re sitting there, and said, “Well, that didn’t go very well.” So we’re talking, and after about 30 minutes, we hear a little faint knock, and we go look. Well, it’s the Hispanic guys. They came back and said, would you mind talking to us more about this? We haven’t heard this before.
So we talked to them, and we started the ministry with those guys that grew into hundreds of people and a church exists now from that.
But, we didn’t say “Hey, okay, we need to reconcile our races. And so that means we need to get out and wash your feet and go back and replay everything that happened in history.”
America’s got a horrible past in so many ways when it comes to race. There’s no doubt chattel slavery was wicked. Jim Crow was wicked. Redlining was wicked. I mean, all of that stuff. There’s no doubt about it, but you don’t repair that by assuming the gospel. You bring the gospel front and center.
My buddy, Voddie Baucham, says he knew that he began to be treated as an equal when white people were willing to fire him and cancel him because otherwise, it’s paternalistic.
Racial reconciliation is significant, but not the way that it’s typically done today, and certainly not in the anti-racist movement of Kindi. It’s poison. Critical Race Theory mitigates against gospel-effected reconciliation, not just with races, but all people.
Q: How would you change the direction in the SBC?
A: Well, you know, I don’t have a 17-point agenda, but I do think there’s some spiritual reformation and structural renovation. I think we need both and the first is far more important.
At the top of the list of that spiritual reformation is we need to rekindle a fear of God. I just really believe we don’t have much fear of God among us today. And you see it’s all through the Bible, 150 times plus, that language is used, and then multiple times where the idea is taught. I just think God is treated kind of lightly by us today to the degree that sometimes when I listen to the way some professing Christians talk and what they’re advocating, I’m wondering if we are even practicing the same religion.
So, maybe I’m all screwed up, and I’m willing to entertain that if somebody will help me from the scriptures to see it, you know, not from some sociological ideology. I think there’s not one problem the Southern Baptist Convention has that would not be served and solved by a return to a sincere fear of God. So I think we desperately need it.
Q: How does the SBC president accomplish that?
A: Well, I mean, I don’t know, except if there’s a bully pulpit associated with it. And so, you know, formally or officially, not much, but informally if I get asked that question, that’s going to be my answer—the fear of God, to just highlight it and call attention to it.
Maybe appoint a Resolutions Committee that would take a resolution on that or something. I don’t know, but just to get the idea in front of people again, and then I think also the law of God, you know, we’ve lost any sense of that. I think out of our emphasis on grace and concerns to not be legalists, any sense of God’s law has been lost. The God who gave us the gospel gave us the law and God loves His law as much as he loves His gospel. The law was never designed to save anybody, and it doesn’t save any sin.
The gospel saves us from sin, but the law is what shows us our need to be saved. Then, as saved people, the Law shows us what pleases God. So, “if you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus said, and that’s serious, but I don’t think we talk about that much.
I don’t know if you’ve done this, but I’ve quit doing it because it’s so embarrassing. I used to ask church groups I was in front of, “How many of you believe in the Ten Commandments?” Every hand goes up. Okay, “How many of you can name them?” People don’t even know the commandments anymore. We just assume them. We need to recover an emphasis on the law of God and then certainly the gospel of God.
I think we’ve assumed the gospel. We’ve talked about it a lot. We put it on our banners, but what is the gospel?
We need to be crystal clear on it. And again, we ask that question of everybody who seeks membership in this church, and I’ve had answers all over the map, and it doesn’t mean they’re not saved. They’re just not gospel literate.
Well, if we’re going to be a gospel people, we’d better become literate in the gospel—knowing what it is and what it’s not. It’s vitally important throughout scripture. We see that in Galatians 1, so we can’t afford to assume the gospel anymore.
Then the Lordship of Christ. That gets back to your question about politics. Christ is Lord everywhere. You don’t quit being a Christian when you jump in the voting booth, and you don’t get to say, “Well, I’m a Christian over here, but I’ve got to do my job over here, and in order to make a living I’ve got to go against the ways of Christ.” No, you don’t. Christ is Lord everywhere. We need to recover that.
So those are kind of the spiritual areas of reformation.
One of the structural things is a complete reevaluation of our trustee system in the SBC. We may have too many trustees on boards. One question I would love to ask is: what does it cost to have a trustee on your institution or agency board, and what is involved in the meetings?
I’d like to do a cost/benefit analysis for that, and, then secondly, the way trustees are trained. I’ve never been a trustee on any of our boards, but I’ve talked to several of them. One of them told me last year “we get wined and dined, and they put us through orientation and give us all these gifts.”
I’ve talked to enough trustees that I get the impression that some of them think their primary job is to defend the institution rather than recognize you hold the institution in trust for the churches. And so, somehow, we need to separate the institutional advantage from the stewardship and trust that’s being held for the churches. That is an issue that I think warrants a great deal of attention.
The Credentials Committee—they may be in a no-win position, I don’t know—but they don’t seem to be doing much. I’ve asked people to submit things to the Credentials Committee and never hear from the committee. I know that personally because I’ve done it. Other pastors have talked to me about it.
Somehow, we need to revamp that. It seems like that might have been put together pretty quickly, and we just need to decide where the borders of the convention [are]? Let’s enforce the borders, not just the doctrines we say we believe, but remember we’re on a subsoil as well. Where are we in the reality that we have got to acknowledge? We probably need to revisit what we believe about these realities of maleness and femaleness. They are probably things we all assumed, but we probably need to back up and ask those questions again.
Are we sufficiently prepared for the onslaught that is coming, from what Carl Trueman’s called, the rise and triumph of the modern self? I don’t know that we are, and confessionally, we may not be able to do any more than what we’ve done, but we at least need to be talking about those things and addressing those matters.
Then just getting more churches involved. I don’t know what the answer is to that, but you know, if we get 8 or 9% of our churches to show up, that’s a pretty good year.
Q: How do you get more churches involved?
A: I’ve had a lot of them contact me. It’s really fascinating. I mean, several of them are saying, “We’ve never sent messengers before, and we’re sending messengers to Anaheim.” Or, “My wife and I are going to the meeting, and it’s the first time this church has ever had a messenger.”
I think we just need to educate them. What does it mean to be Southern Baptist? You know, you’re in this denomination, you’re in this convention of churches, we do a lot of wonderful things, but those wonderful things need accountability and the accountability comes from the churches. The churches own the institutions. That doesn’t mean everybody’s a boss, but we do talk about the church being headquarters. So local churches need to show up to a business meeting two days a year. It’s expensive, but you’ve got to do it.
People talk about changing the voting system. I don’t know, it’s way above my ability to think about, but somehow we need to remind the bread and butter churches of the SBC that this is your denomination. You have to get involved in this.
Q: How would you lead through the response to the report of the Sexual Abuse Task Force?
A: I have thought about it, but I don’t, of course, know what’s in it. I don’t know all the players. I’m not thrilled over all the ways that it happened. I mean, I praise God that we have focused attention on this, but I think we’re naive if we don’t question whether or not some of this —well-intentioned and rightly motivated—has also been driven by the cultural wins, and my fear is that we’re going to be taking our cues from culture. If we do that, then I would hope to have enough courage and guts to say, “Wait a minute, we have a book and this is what God says. So look at all the evidence, and if the evidence is there, own it.”
Sex abuse is horrible. I mean, it’s just horrific. And we’ve dealt with this church, my family. It’s abominable, and it ought to be dealt with. It goes back to what I think is a more kind of fundamental underlying reality, and that’s our churches. If our churches were healthier, we wouldn’t be having these kinds of problems so prolific in them. You know, church discipline exists for a purpose and too often, these kinds of situations arise because there’s not proper discipline being administered to protect people and to care for the one who’s actually the perpetrator of it.
Whether he’s a believer or not a believer, you’re caring for his soul by doing what Jesus tells you to do. So, you know, acknowledge whatever’s true in that and then pray. Be humbled before God rightly so, but look to the scriptures and say, “God what is it you say about this? This is not catching you off guard. And these things may be new to us because [we] hadn’t faced him before, or maybe we’ve covered him up or denied him or whatever, but your word is enough for this. So, give us wisdom from your word to go forward, follow the scripture, whatever the cost, regardless of consequences, doesn’t matter. We’re going to honor you through this.”
We (Grace Baptist Church) make a recognition of sins and crimes. The state is not prepared to deal with sins. The church is not the state. The church is not prepared to deal with crimes. Where you’ve got overlapping sins and crimes, both the state and the church have to do their business. We try not to disavow the authority of Christ because He appointed those magistrates as His deacons. So we tell our people, if you’re in an abusive situation, call the police, and then you call the elders. You deal with a crime on the basis of the authority that God established from His word in the world.
Q: What do you see as your most important responsibilities as SBC president?
A: You do have opportunities to speak. So, you get the opportunity to try to highlight things like I talked about. You need to do your duty in appointing committees—the Resolutions Committee, the Committee on Committees. Those need to be carefully appointed. You moderate the meeting but hopefully you have a good parliamentarian that keeps you out of train wrecks on that.
I would say trying to build bridges between these disparate groups we have in the SBC right now. God’s given me that ability over the years. The Building Bridges conference was something I called Thom Rainer to put together. We got Danny Akin involved and did a conference for Calvinists and non-Calvinists. It was educational and fun.
So, that’s an informal thing that can be done. So much can be overcome when you get people in a room. It’s just a lot easier to come to a meeting of the minds, even when you disagree, you understand each other and I would want to see that happen.
(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.)