An Update on the State of the SBC in 2023
Here is an update to my prior blog on the SBC which is precipitated by the recent actions of the convention at the annual meeting held in New Orleans in June of this year. Previously I shared my deep concern with the slow but steady creep toward an egalitarian position in regard to the office of pastor within our beloved Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). My concerns remain but have been temporarily abated by actions at the convention.
THE GOOD (well, sort of!)
The good part of my update would be to report that a clear majority of the messengers seemed to be in agreement with the convention’s statement of faith and the belief of the vast majority of the churches making up the convention. That belief is, the office, role and function of pastor/elder/bishop is purposefully and distinctly for males only. According to Biblical precedent, women cannot serve in or function as pastors. This is the clear teaching of Scripture and the firm and historical belief of Baptists (1 Timothy 2 & 3).
The Executive Committee (EC), which runs the convention between the annual meetings of the convention, recommended the disfellowship[i] of several churches that had been reported to have female pastors on their staffs, some in the role of the “lead” or “senior” pastor. While I find those terms inexpedient, since they are not scriptural, they are nevertheless helpful descriptors for the sake of argument. Some had tried to nuance the issue by saying that women could certainly function as pastors, or even serve with the title of pastor, so long as they were not the “senior” pastor. This is nonsense, of course, and the convention rightly rejected succumbing to the problematic terminology.
Two of the disfellowshipped churches took the option, afforded them in the bylaws, to appeal the decision of the EC to the full body. Saddleback Church of California and Fern Creek Baptist Church of Kentucky made their appeals at the convention in New Orleans. The convention, in a very convincing fashion, rejected their appeals and sustained the decision of the EC to disfellowship the two churches. The votes were as follows:
Fern Creek Baptist:
- For – 91.85% (9,700)
- Against – 7.63% (806)
- For – 88.46% (9,437)
- Against – 11.36% (1,212)
What is concerning is that slightly over 11% of the messengers apparently affirm women pastors. This means the issue isn’t over. I suspect it will become a recurring theme in future conventions. To clarify the doctrinal position of the SBC and to attempt to more permanently solidify the SBC’s position on the matter Pastor Mike Law of Virginia proposed an amendment to the constitution. The EC agreed to bring the motion to the floor, though they publicly refused to support it.
Article III (of the SBC Bylaws) lists five points that place churches within the definition of cooperation with the SBC. The amended motion call[ed] for a sixth, adding churches that affirm, appoint, or employ “only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.” (From Baptist Press)
The motion received the required two-thirds vote of the messengers present. It will have to undergo a second vote at next year’s convention in Indianapolis to be included in the constitution. This was certainly an encouraging move in light of the number of SBC elites and seminary presidents who have caved on their so-called convictions on complementarianism. When you fail to stand up for your convictions, you don’t really have convictions. What you have at that point are preferences.
For example, Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, has affirmed a position of “soft-complementarianism.” That is simply a euphemism for egalitarianism. Akin’s seminary has conferred pastoral ministry degrees on women and he has affirmed the egalitarian ranting of none other than Beth Moore.
That the SBC has removed several churches who have either ordained female pastors, or hired women as the pastor of the church or in a staff role, is good. But the issue is far from as settled as it needs to be. Erick Erickson, a political commentator with a Presbyterian affiliation, put out a Twitter post where he opined that the SBC should pass the amendment to the constitution regarding female pastors in order to “settle the issue.” I replied that said action would not settle the issue. While it is a good first step, the issue will not be settled until every single SBC church that has female pastors repents and removes said females from their pastoral roles, or they are found not in friendly cooperation with the convention and thus removed from the fellowship.
I mentioned in my previous article that I was a thorough going Baptist. My great-great grandfather, Enos B. Rush, was a Baptist preacher who served the Confederate troops as a Chaplain, and continued his ministry through the early 1920’s. His son, my great-uncle, Charles S. Rush, was a Baptist preacher. My grandfather, Charles E. Rush, Sr., was a deacon and Sunday School teacher, as was my dad, who followed his dad in both roles. My son, Nathan T. Rush is a Baptist preacher. Other extensions of my extended family have deep roots in the SBC as well, serving in numerous roles in Baptist churches.
I mention this background only to say that my family and I are and have been fully invested in the work of the SBC. I come from a long line of faithful givers whose tithes went to help build the great missionary enterprise known as the SBC. I am hard pressed to think that surrendering their lifelong and faithful investment in and service to the SBC is either respectable or admirable.
Attending the SBC was heartbreaking because once again, as has been the case over the last decade or more, it became increasingly obvious that transparency and accountability for our entities is a thing of the past. The financial reports are not detailed. No one knows what our entity presidents or their top lieutenants are paid. Not even the trustees have this information (with the possible exception of a few of the board officers). I know this because I serve on the board of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and my knowledge of the finances of the institution are minimal. The hard truth is that our entities are hiding what they are doing with your church’s precious tithe money, given in good faith to support our missionary and educational enterprises.
I am not the only messenger to the convention who feels this way. As was the case in several previous conventions, so it was in New Orleans. Though time is very limited for questions to the entity heads, one after the other successfully dodged questions from messengers asking for accountability and transparency. The fact that messengers are asking the questions shows incontrovertibly other pastors, churches and messengers share many of my concerns.
The messengers also presented several motions calling for greater transparency. All of these were “referred” to the EC or the various entities that were questioned. This is simply of method of saying, “We heard your concern, and we will look at it and get back to you.” But our trustees have not the will power, or guts, to actually respond with factual information. That’s because the responses are written by the entity heads and the trustees simply serve as rubber stamps.
Several attempts were made to bring the issue to the floor, all overcome by technicalities of Robert’s Rules or the convention bylaws. Some of the motions specifically called for IRS Form 990 reporting to the EC from each entity. This level of accountability, required of all non-profits, is certainly appropriate. While our entities do not have to provide this information to the IRS, they should be willing to provide it to the EC and as appropriate the convention as a whole. Don’t hold your breath.
I contend that if the average faithful, tithing member of the vast majority of our churches were to actually know what our entity heads were paid they would have to undertake some serious considerations and deliberations in their churches as to whether it was wise to continue supporting the convention. I have no specific facts on salaries because that information is completely withheld from public knowledge. One thing I do know is that increasing number of our churches, over 40% of the total, are not giving to the Cooperative Program.
We also know that when Tom Rainer resigned at LifeWay in 2019 he was given a million dollar parachute. The trustee board was kept in the dark by the chairman of the board at the time. LifeWay ended up suing Rainer. A settlement was reached later, but the actions do not reflect positively on the convention. The details are available here. Ironically, the trustee chairman who did not consult the full board when Rainer was given his severance package did seem to think the trustees should have been consulted when a lawsuit over the issue came up. They were not consulted.
While we have little information regarding the pay scales in our entities, we do know that excessive and out of control spending has been exposed at NAMB and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (SWBTS). I’ll address the NAMB situation first since it has been going on for several years. In 2010 a monumental shift in mission giving and oversight was adopted by the convention. Johnny Hunt of Georgia had been elected president in 2008, serving two one-year terms. During his second term he appointed a task force ostensibly to generate greater interest in and support for Great Commission work among Southern Baptists. Such renewed interest and support were certainly needed.
The task force called the new effort the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR). This was somewhat of a play on words, with the hope that the new plan would ignite a renewed interest in evangelism and church planting, as the Conservative Resurgence had done for the doctrinal stability of the convention in previous decades.
While I suspect that some members of the task force had good intentions, the whole concept was based on a very poor understanding of Baptist polity and actually appeared to intend to give the large churches of the convention even more recognition and control than they already had. The GCR has in been in place well over a decade. The statistics show that it has been a miserable failure. The last decade has shown the greatest declines in membership, baptisms, and giving in SBC history.
The details of the GCR, how it was planned, carried out and what and whom it most impacted has been expertly and accurately assessed by Dr. Charles S. Kelley, Jr., in his excellent book, “The Best Intentions.” The book’s subtitle is, “How a Plan to Revitalize the SBC Accelerated Its Decline.”[ii] I’m not sure how any Southern Baptist could read this book and still be inclined to lead their church to financially support NAMB.
Dr. Kelley, in final assessment was very gracious towards the men behind the GCR. Rather than looking for a place to put the blame his questions focused on how we can reverse the problems and work to restore the SBC to its former evangelistic fervor. Personally, I don’t see a good way forward until and unless transparency and accountability trump the personal agendas of the SBC elites currently in charge of the platform at the annual meetings of the convention.
The GCR plan adopted by the convention in 2010 primarily impacted the SBC funding process and the relationships that NAMB had with the state conventions. It also called for a dramatic shift from an emphasis on direct evangelism to church planting. There was much discussion at the convention and the proposal was certainly not unanimously adopted. I voted against the measure, along with quite a few other messengers. But the measure passed and became the marching orders, primarily for the North American Mission Board.
To understand what I consider the bad intentions behind this move it is necessary that I give some detail on the SBC’s funding process. No other Protestant religious organization has ever been able to devise such an effective method of missionary enterprise, theological education, and combined ministry work as has the SBC. Through the genius of the Cooperative Program (CP; started in 1925) Southern Baptists have been able to pool their resources to build the greatest missionary sending organizations in the history of the church, the International Mission Board (IMB) and NAMB. Currently, the six SBC seminaries rank in the top 10 all U.S. seminaries in numbers of students being trained for the ministry.
But the GCR plan changed the funding process. The basic agreement of the convention with its entities was that funding would come from the CP where each church that agrees can voluntarily support the work of the convention. Average giving at one time was close to 10% from the giving churches. That average is now below 5%. In addition, special offerings were held in the churches each year for both the IMB and NAMB. The faithfulness of Southern Baptists to work together to fund this great sending plan had remained the lifeblood of the convention’s missionary work. The agreement hinged in large part on the concept that the entities would not solicit the churches individually to support their budgets, pet projects or capital needs.
Turns out that IMB and NAMB were already soliciting support from the larger churches for their pet projects. The problem was that they weren’t getting credit in terms of their giving to SBC causes. Over the course of the CR, it was sad in my opinion that many of the presidents we elected, solid conservatives in theology, were not high percentage givers to the CP. Their dollar amounts were significant in some cases, but they were not as supportive of the overall SBC giving plan as they should have been.
The new plan would recognize any and all giving to any SBC entity or cause. The thought was that this plan would enhance giving and generate more enthusiasm, and consequently, more money. Sadly, this turned out not to be the case.
The GCR also fundamentally changed the way NAMB interacted with the various state conventions and local associations. Dr. Kelley explains the circumstances exceptionally well in his book. I was serving on the EC of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) when these changes took place. Previous “Cooperative Agreements” between NAMB, the GBC, local associations and many cases local churches were changed. In fact, there was little to no cooperation at all. NAMB was planning a takeover. Many church planters and other missionaries lost their positions, or lost a large portion of their financial support.
In the meantime, the EC of the SBC, the IMB and NAMB were pushing for the state conventions to increase the percentage of their CP funds going to the national efforts. Quite frankly, it was really all about the money. I suggested at one point that we in Georgia simply cease funding NAMB from the state and use the money to develop our own church planting process. Tradition overcame common sense, in my humble opinion.
The trouble we faced in Georgia was minimal compared the problems brought on in the smaller state conventions, particularly outside the Bible belt. NAMB has been hit with lawsuits, accusations of both strong-arming and attempting to create a top-down denominational control that disrespects the autonomy of the local churches and other Baptist bodies, not to mention extravagant spending. My assessment of the answers given by NAMB could be summarized as: “Shut up, send your money, you have to trust us.” I don’t trust them at the most basic level. There are numerous articles on the internet that give more detail and evidence for these charges. One in particular from 2016 which would give you a better understanding of the concerns many of us have regarding the failure of Kevin Ezell, former President of NAMB, from the Christian Examiner, can be found here.
During the report of the Executive Committe at this year’s convention, Interim President, Willie McLaurin, spoke about trust. In fact, in one of his bullet-points he said, “We must value trust as a non-negotiable.” I beg to disagree. Trust is earned, not given cart blanche.
“McLaurin called out “the elephant in the room,” pledging to work to restore trust that fuels cooperation. “Trust in organizations and trust of organizational leaders has significantly diminished in our culture and certainly in our network,” he said. “Leaders must own that and communicate in transparency to regain the trust that’s been lost. Why? Because we cannot successfully accomplish what we say we are about as Southern Baptists without trust. Cooperation is built on trust. The SBC Executive Committee is working diligently to restore that trust.” Restored trust, he said, will help mobilize more missionaries to the nations, increase church plants, lead more people to surrender to ministry and lead to more people accepting Jesus and growing in discipleship.” (Baptist Press)
I certainly agree that we need a restoration of trust. But that will only come when the EC and the entities of the SBC, in particular NAMB, become more transparent and accountable. The trust is breaking down because the entities have acted untrustworthy.
In addition to the problems at NAMB, the news of extravagant spending and out of control aggressive leadership at SWBTS surfaced recently. Finally, enough of the trustees became wary of seeming problems and investigated. What they uncovered ultimately led to the firing of the President, Dr. Adam Greenway. In short, financial mismanagement, decreasing enrollment and firing of faculty members were all part of the issue that led to Greenway’s dismissal from the school. The details are available online, including this article from The Christian Post.
As if the “bad” wasn’t bad enough there is a great deal more that is problematic in the SBC. The last several years have seen the rise of sex abuse victim advocacy. On the heels of the detailed, although weak on accuracy, report from the Houston Chronicle in 2019 which alleged that it had uncovered 700 Southern Baptist cases of sex abuse, the convention leadership has bent over backwards to appear to the world to be in earnest about cleaning the house and ridding the SBC of any hint of sexual abuse. The report made it seem that there was an epidemic of sex abuse rampant in the SBC. The case was clearly overstated.
I have previously written on the problem with the #MeToo movement in a blog titled, “The Camel’s Nose is Under the SBC Tent.” I have also made clear my position on how pastors should handle sexual misconduct in the realm of counseling and church discipline in an article titled, “Cultural Compromise Never Wins the Battle for Truth.”
Let me be clear, once again, there is no place for acceptance, much less cover up, of sex abuse in any form, no matter who the alleged victims are. There is no one who has been in pastoral ministry for a few years or more that has not had to deal with the horrible issues of sexual misconduct. Those who have had to deal with it find that sometimes getting to the truth is most difficult. As unfortunate as it is, often it is a case of one person’s word against another’s, with no witnesses or corroborating evidence available either way.
Many sex abuse victim advocates maintain that if a woman or the child alleges abuse, they are always to be believed. This mentality follows neither legal jurisprudence nor biblical mandate. What is needed is biblical justice. Where appropriate cases should be reported to law enforcement. But let’s be real, law enforcement doesn’t always get it right either. They have the same difficulties getting to the truth that pastors do. Law enforcement agencies, however, have what pastors do not—a legal mandate and the tools to mount investigations.
In an effort to appease the culture and appear that we are doing our best to correct all the mishandled sex abuse cases over last several decades a presidential study group was formed by SBC President J.D. Greear during his tenure in 2018. This evolved into the Sex Abuse Task Force (SATF) which, under direction of the EC, hired Guidepost Solutions to give direction to the immense task of finding a way to appease the culture, give victims a voice, and publish a list of abusers in the SBC.
Over the course of the last few years the SATF has undergone numerous iterations. At the convention the newly appointed group, known as the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF) made its report and recommendations. The ugly part of it in my opinion was the use of emotional excess to try to gain sympathy from the messengers. Many of us have seen through the nonsense proposed. While the report passed it did not do so without opposition.
Millions of dollars have been spent hiring a law firm that is friendly to the LGBTQ+ agenda. Why would Southern Baptists hire an organization that is supportive of lifestyles in complete contradiction to the Bible and the SBC’s confessional statement? The questions are almost too many to recite. I will try to be brief in presenting the following problems related to the SATF and its successor, the ARITF.
- In essence the SATF announced the SBC as an institution was guilty of sex abuse cover up. Law firms are lining up soliciting potential victims to sue. Just Google “law firms seeking sex abuse victims in the SBC.” The lawsuits are coming.
- The report of Guidepost Solutions has already been found to be inaccurate in several cases.
- A lawyer, who is not a Southern Baptist herself, who thinks King David was a rapist (you can’t make this stuff up), and is a self-professed expert on all things related to sex abuse (ostensibly because she is a survivor) has been hired to provide counsel for a call-in hotline for alleged victims. She is apparently overseeing the entire hotline process.
- Settlements have already been paid out to alleged victims. In one case of adultery the female victim claimed abuse. She was given a significant settlement while the alleged abuser was vilified. He is now suing for defamation of character. While his actions were clearly unbiblical, and he was fired from his ministry position, his actions were not abuse. When we call consensual adultery abuse, we denigrate the actual survivors of real abuse.
- The biggest issue with the ARITF is the creation of a list of abusers within the SBC.[iii] There is no reason for this list to be created. The FBI and all state bureaus of investigation have sex offender registries. The push for this comes from victim advocates who want to go beyond the law in labeling abusers. The term “credibly accused” is getting a lot of notoriety and with good reason. They only way anyone should be put on a list is if there is a clear confession of guilt, a criminal conviction or a civil judgment. “Credibly accused” is a term that no one on the ARITF or at Guidepost Solutions can give a “credible” definition to. It will open the SBC up to even more lawsuits.
- Finally, the reality is that we are overstepping the bounds of a cherished Baptist doctrine, that of the autonomy of the local church. The SBC is not a denomination, it is a convention of churches. While some churches and pastors will exercise greater care in dealing with sex abuse than others, it is the responsibility of each church to govern its own affairs. There is nothing wrong with the SBC providing training, materials, and support for churches to help them better navigate the difficult issues of sex abuse. We have created a bureaucratic monster and it will come back to haunt us in the end.
The SBC’s new website makes the following statement, “The recently released Guidepost report revealed a list of alleged abusers compiled by a former employee of the SBC Executive Committee. This list is being made public for the first time as an initial, but important, step towards addressing the scourge of sexual abuse and implementing reform in the Convention. Each entry in this list reminds us of the devastation and destruction brought about by sexual abuse. Our prayer is that the survivors of these heinous acts find hope and healing, and that churches will utilize this list proactively to protect and care for the most vulnerable among us” (emphasis mine).
I am convinced the case is being overstated. There is no single case of sex abuse that is not heinous. But one would almost have to believe that the majority of our churches are unsafe and that every pastor is a potential abuser based on the language. But reality would show that the vast majority of our churches are safe! The vast majority of our pastors are good, moral, godly men who lovingly protect their people to the best of their ability with the help of the Holy Spirit. Most churches do background checks and have protocols in place to protect children.
We live in a sin sick world. That world sometimes invades our safe spaces. Who among us has not experienced some violation of their safety, having their home or vehicle broken into, or been threatened with harm along the way? We must trust the Lord and do all in our power to protect God’s precious people. But we should stop short of assuming guilt when there is no evidence. The ARITF could make training available, provide a nationwide list of counselors who can provide biblical help to victims, their families and caregivers (not legal advice), and provide assistance in background checks. Unfortunately, without a change in leadership I think it important to conclude that they should not be trusted to accomplish these simple tasks correctly. They are certainly not authorized to investigate, oversee or otherwise meddle in a local church’s affairs.
The SBC is trending in a downgraded path. So many in our leadership are more concerned about what the world thinks than what God thinks. When we champion people who show such little regard for the sufficiency of Scripture it should be no surprise that we are failing at the primary mission we partnered together for in the first place. Baptisms, membership, new church starts, all of these important factors are down. We are more interested in playing “district attorney” for sex abuse cases than winning the world to Christ.
Again, let me make it clear that any sex abuser who has confessed or been convicted deserves the fullest extent of the law in punishment, to be placed under church discipline, and removed from any pastoral or volunteer position within the church. They should be marked and avoided. They should also be afforded the opportunity to repent and get right with God. Repentance doesn’t mean being allowed back in the ministry or to work with children. But it does mean that God’s forgiveness is available to all. Regardless, investigation and civil justice are not the purview of the local church or the convention.
Let us pray for and continue to work to bring our SBC back to its biblical roots. The world still needs Jesus and the SBC still has the best mechanism to get the gospel to the lost.
[i] The term “disfellowship” is descriptive of the actions that the convention can take to remove a church from the SBC. The bylaws state that a church can be found not to be in “friendly cooperation” with the convention based on several issues, laid out in the convention’s governing documents. If a church is deemed not to be in friendly cooperation, they are not allowed to seat messengers from their church at the annual meeting. The SBC is not a hierarchical denomination, all churches are autonomous and can make their own decisions regarding their pastoral leadership, theological position and methodologies. At the same time, the SBC itself is autonomous and can determine which churches are in friendly cooperation and which are not.
[ii] Dr. Kelley, President Emeritus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has provided Southern Baptists with an excellent overview of the failed Great Commission Resurgence in his book. It is available on Amazon. I highly recommend you read his book.
[iii] The ARITF now has an operational website which contains a list of what they would call “credibly accused” abusers. I have no doubt that many on the list are there because they have been found guilty in a court of law, either civil or criminal. Some may be there based on their own confession. But others will be there who may or may not be guilty. This will open the SBC to additional lawsuits. The website can be accessed here.