Bart Barber elected president of Southern Baptist Convention

The Southern Baptist Convention is holding its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif. President Ed Litton, elected last year, was eligible for another term, and presidents traditionally serve two one-year terms, but he removed himself from consideration in March to focus on his ministry in racial reconciliation. 

The major candidates to succeed him were Bart Barber and Tom Ascol. Barber is the pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, located near the Oklahoma border in the northeastern part of the state. Ascol is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla. Unusual for the presidential election, neither of them is pastor of a megachurch.

Barber was elected with 60.87 percent of the vote in a runoff against Ascol, who won 38.88 percent. 5,587 total votes were cast, out of 8,098 eligible voters.

Ascol’s candidacy was supported by the Conservative Baptist Network, which believes the SBC is drifting into theological liberalism. The CBN-supported candidate from last year, Mike Stone, was defeated by Litton in a runoff. Barber is seen as a natural successor to Litton. Neither Litton nor Barber is theologically liberal.

The election of president is decided by paper ballots cast by delegates of SBC churches, called messengers, who are assembled in person at the annual meeting. Proxy voting is not allowed, and if messengers miss a vote, they don’t get to cast a ballot.

In the first round of voting, 6,847 messengers voted, well down from the nearly 15,000 votes cast last year. The decline is likely partially explained by the convention being in California, rather than Nashville as it was last year. Barber received 3,258 votes for 47.58 percent of the total and Ascol received 2,332 votes for 34.06 percent. There were two other candidates. Frank Cox (who announced his candidacy earlier today) received 887 votes, or 12.95 percent of the total, and Robin Hadaway received 340 votes for 4.97 percent. Since no candidate secured a majority, Barber and Ascol advanced to a runoff.

Earlier in the day, the convention voted to approve reforms in response to a report about how the denomination mishandled sexual abuse in the past. The convention approved a recommendation to make public a database of credibly accused abusers so churches can know not to hire them for ministry roles. The full list of recommendations adopted is available here.

High Plains Pundit noted the sex-abuse report demanded action. It demonstrated a consistent pattern of institutional failure to deal with allegation of sexual abuse appropriately. The messengers’ actions were needed and welcome, but now the convention must implement the changes in accordance with the messengers’ wishes and SBC polity. It will be one of the major challenges for Barber’s presidency.

In the morning sessions, questions over the ordination of women were prominent. The Baptist Faith and Message, the denomination’s statement of faith, says that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” The vast majority of Southern Baptists are on the same page about that, but there are a few churches affiliated with the SBC, most notably Saddleback Church in California, that have women who are called pastors. The CBN would like to see those churches “disfellowshipped,” essentially expelled, from the convention over ordaining women.

There is, however, a constitutional hurdle. The SBC is a convention of independent churches, and churches are allowed to be part of the convention if they are in “friendly cooperation.” The relevant part of the definition of “friendly cooperation” in the SBC constitution is that member churches must have “a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” Whether ordaining women is disqualifying is unclear. It’s clearly contrary to that part of the Baptist Faith and Message, but as messenger Todd Benkert pointed out during the meeting, many individual churches diverge from various parts of that document, including on such important topics as the Lord’s Supper.

Baptist churches use congregational polity, which makes national-level discipline difficult. Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned against the creation of a “Baptist magisterium” if churches ordaining women were disfellowshipped on those grounds alone. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Seminary, on the other hand, spoke on the floor and said in a Twitter thread that “the Southern Baptist Convention is a confessional body” and “it has every right and power to define its own association.”

Barber’s election means that, for the second year in a row, the vocal CBN faction of the SBC came in with high hopes for its candidate only to find that it didn’t have the numbers among the rank-and-file. Barber’s victory shows that the CBN’s deliberately factional strategy is not working to sway the denomination, and most messengers do not think the SBC is drifting into theological liberalism.

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