The Room Where It Happens: Reflections on the 2023 Southern Baptist Convention
“The SBC is divided!” “The SBC is full of liberals!” “The SBC is going woke!” “The SBC won’t survive!” You might hear it, but don’t believe it. In the room where it happens, all these rumors and fears melt away. The 12,737 messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention gathered this past week, and the convention did what it is supposed to do. We worshiped together, rejoiced together, wept together, and once again affirmed our commitment to biblical doctrine and Great Commission cooperation.
Here are a few tangible ways we did all that and more in the room where it happens:
1. We affirmed our conviction that the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
Heading into the convention, some thought we might bend on this issue. We did not. The SBC is a family of churches with a counter-cultural conviction about the role of women in ministry. We have sought the Lord with knees bent and Bibles open, and we can only come to one conclusion. The office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.
We affirmed this by saying goodbye to Fern Creek Baptist Church and Saddleback Community Church. We did not celebrate their departure but chose to hold to our convictions rather than give in to the demands of 21st-century Western culture or the emotional appeals made by the two churches.
We further affirmed our commitment to this conviction through resolutions, an amendment to our statement of faith, and the first passing of an amendment to our constitution (that takes two votes in two consecutive conventions). Although many of us, including myself, were unsure if a constitutional amendment was the right course of action, we chose to be clear rather than ambiguous when it came to a vote.
I can't understand how anyone could make the case that a movement exists in the SBC to sneak in female pastors. We said it every way it can possibly be said, “The office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Those trying to convince others that such a movement exists are, at best ignorant and, at worst, lying to advance an agenda.
In the room where it happens, we were clear about our convictions.
2. We renewed our commitment to respond to sexual abuse righteously and without wavering.
Since the 2019 convention in Birmingham, the convention has spoken with a unified voice—we will do whatever it takes to respond righteously to sexual abuse within our churches and entities. We have been clear—it does not matter what it costs us, and it does not matter who our response exposes—we will do this the right way, and we will not stop until every stone has been turned over and every possible step has been taken to prevent as much sexual abuse as we can prevent. We will be the voice for those abused, and we will not protect abusers or those who give them safe harbor.
We affirmed our commitment to this again by listening with heavy hearts to the Abuse Response Implementation Task Force report. We saw and heard the compassion and commitment of this team as they go about their tedious and heavy work. We further affirmed our commitment by refunding their work for another year. We did so without hesitation. Next year, and every year it is needed, I have full confidence we will do so again.
In the room where it happens, we did not waver.
3. We elected a conservative president committed to the Great Commission and the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.
I don’t know Dr. Bart Barber personally, but I have a new respect for him. He moderated the meeting with as much grace and style as anyone I have witnessed take up the gavel.
Even more, he is fully committed to our shared statement of faith, and he is committed to our cooperative missional efforts. It's probably safe to assume he is the only president with cows named after Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. For reasons beyond my understanding, some have tried to label Bart as part of a liberal drift in the convention. To those critics, I would simply ask, what liberal doctrine is it that Bart Barber holds to in belief or practice? Apparently, some think he’s waiting to spring it on us one day. When exactly would that day come? He’s holding the most influential position he will hold in SBC life. If not now, then when?
Last year after his first election, Barber said this:
“The most readily observable ‘drift’ in the Southern Baptist Convention is a drift away from fairness in making accusations and from civility in discussing differences. I would like to lead us to make our fellowship healthier . . . I want to work as a peacemaker, bringing together people of goodwill who are influential within these families of churches and strengthening the bonds that hold us together.”
In the room where it happens, Dr. Barber did just that. Well done. Keep up the good work.
4. We celebrated God’s faithfulness to our entities and missionaries.
God has blessed us with an incredible missional footprint. From the neighborhoods to the nations, Southern Baptists advance the gospel. Despite incredible cultural headwinds, the IMB, NAMB, our seminaries, Lifeway, the ERLC, the WMU, and the Executive Committee hold fast to biblical convictions and advance the Kingdom every day.
None of these are perfect. When they drift from biblical faithfulness, the messengers and systems of the SBC call them back to biblical faithfulness. Yes, a seminary president bought an $11,000 expresso maker for his house, but he got caught. He’s no longer in that role, and every entity employee has been warned. We will not put up with poor stewardship of cooperative program dollars. At the same time, thousands of faithful entity employees invested cooperative program funds in ways that advanced the gospel with fervor and faithfulness.
As always, the IMB sending ceremony was a vivid reminder of what’s at stake. We hold the rope for the 79 missionaries newly commissioned to go to the nations as they descend into the pit of darkness to rescue the perishing. That is not something we can take lightly. Those families need to know they are not alone, and they need to know that we will not loosen our grip because of false narratives and unconfirmed assumptions about our brothers and sister in Christ.
God has been faithful to us. He does not need us, but He has and is using us. “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required” Luke 12:48. We have much to celebrate, and we have much to steward. In the room where it happens, we celebrated, and we took steps to be better stewards.
5. We responded to those trying to divide us with order and decency.
“All things should be done decently and in order” 1 Corinthians 14:40
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention is the world’s largest deliberative body. In New Orleans, all 12,737 messengers had the right to walk to a microphone and make a motion, ask a question, or challenge a point of order. I did not agree with every messenger who exercised that right, but the rules of order ensured that my voice held equal footing with their voice.
Furthermore, there were voices trying to divide us leading up to the convention. Some of those voices have the best of intentions, no doubt, while others seek power through the divide-and-conquer strategy so prevalent in secular politics. Either way, the voices that would have divided us were quieted by the civil voice of a properly conducted meeting.
The convention was clear about our convictions. We were clear about our support for convention causes. We were clear about our concerns. And with rare exceptions, we spoke our convictions with civility. When chaos threatened, we leaned upon the Christlike character of our leaders and well-established rules of conduct to stem the tide of incivility.
One of the most moving moments came when Fern Creek and Saddleback’s appeal results were announced. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of rejecting their appeals. Before announcing the results, President Barber reminded us it was not a time to celebrate. Using the example of divorce, Barber said there are biblical reasons for divorce, but “we don’t throw divorce parties.” As the results were announced, the room was silent. We necessarily separated from those churches, but we did so with solemnity, not shouts of celebration.
Many have publicly described the Southern Baptist Convention as a “dumpster fire.” They were wrong. I must confess that I have used that expression tongue-in-cheek in private conversations. I was wrong. The Southern Baptist Convention only exists when the messengers of Southern Baptist Churches are convened for our annual meeting. That happened this week in New Orleans, and it was not a dumpster fire. In the room where it happens, there was a decent and orderly meeting of God’s imperfect people prayerfully seeking His will in all things.
6. We were challenged to give our very lives to the cause of Christ.
I will never forget standing next to my wife and singing “Wherever He Leads, I’ll Go.” We were joined by thousands of fellow Southern Baptists and a very special choir. The choir was a virtual choir of IMB missionaries. The choir was virtual because each member was in a different faraway place advancing the Kingdom of God. They have left home and family to see the nations reached for the cause of Christ.
God has placed me and my family in Mobile, Alabama—a not-so-faraway place. Our geographical assignment does not lessen our responsibility to give all for the cause of Christ. Through singing, preaching, reports, and prayer times, each messenger and guest was called to renew his or her commitment to give our very lives to the cause of Christ.
Lord willing, next year, our convention will gather in the room where it happens again. This time, the room will be in Indianapolis. Until then, I pray the Lord will give me the strength to live and lead according to the challenge given in the room where it happens.