I returned late Wednesday night from a whirlwind trip to Nashville, TN where I attended the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. This is the sixth annual meeting that I have attended in person. My first was in 2005. This was the largest annual meeting in 25 years, having a total of 15,726 messengers and over 20,000 total people in the building. I left Nashville physically and mentally exhausted but otherwise encouraged and optimistic.
There is plenty I could share about auxiliary events, the missionaries we commissioned, and other meetings that happened. But my focus here includes important business actions that took place and some context that I think will be helpful.
1. Sexual Abuse Response
For the last two decades those who have been sexually abused in SBC churches have been speaking out about their experiences. Those survivors have increasingly called for the SBC to find ways to respond compassionately to survivors and prevent sexual predators from doing further harm to the vulnerable in our churches. There have been credible and corroborated reports that leaders in the SBC, from local churches all the way up to the Executive Committee, have intimidated victims and their advocates, silenced them, slandered them, and stonewalled efforts for reform and accountability. At the annual meeting in 2019 there was promise from leadership that these issues would be dealt with. It has become apparent in recent months that those promises were not kept.
A few weeks ago, it was announced that a messenger to the convention would make a motion that a third party investigate how the Executive Committee has responded to sexual abuse. The Executive Committee was willing to have a third party investigation, but the investigation they desired would have been limited in its scope. The messengers did not believe that those under investigation should have control over the investigation. That’s why the terms of this proposed investigation would have a wide scope, its results would be made public, and the Executive Committee would not be in the driver’s seat. This motion was passed almost unanimously. It was a historic moment in the SBC and in the story of sexual abuse in our convention. Many abuse survivors were in attendance for this event.
Additionally, the messengers voted in favor of the Executive Committee’s “Vision 2025” which included five goals for the SBC over the next few years, but only after an amendment from the floor added a sixth goal. That sixth goal was that the SBC would “Prayerfully endeavor to eliminate all incidents of sexual abuse and racial discrimination among our churches.” This was significant, in my opinion, for two reasons: 1) it displayed to the Executive Committee that the messengers were serious about their commitment to addressing sexual abuse, and 2) it displayed the messengers concern that the Executive Committee was woefully deaf to one of the most pressing issues in the convention to date.
Finally, messengers voted to finalize a change in our constitution and bylaws that would allow churches that are guilty of racism or harboring sexual predators to be disfellowshipped. In other words, those churches who want to hire (or refuse to fire) sexual predators are free to do so, but they cannot do so and be in fellowship with Southern Baptists.
2. The Presidential Election
All four of the SBC presidential candidates are theological conservatives whose doctrine fall within the bounds of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. The Baptist Faith and Message is conservative enough that no theological liberal would embrace it, and yet it is broad enough for pastors who have a diversity of conviction and practice to affirm it. We want a diverse SBC so that we can cooperate together to fulfill the Great Commission.
I was pleased to cast my vote for Ed Litton, a man who spoke clearly about his goals as SBC president and who did so without slander or malice. He speaks with gentleness and convictional kindness – and his actions match his words. Litton is a pastor in Alabama that has served faithfully for over twenty years. He has had significant success in addressing racial issues in a racially divided town, which is something that our convention needs. In a day where warring and fighting is valued, it might just be that we need someone who is gentle and lowly to lead us.
Though some Southern Baptists have called Ed Litton a liberal, and some media outlets have labeled him a moderate (which has a much different connotation in religious circles), he is neither of those things. I’m sure I wouldn’t agree with everything Ed Litton believes or everything that he does. That’s the beauty of this network of churches – each local church is free to follow their conscience within the general bounds of our statement of faith.
The real dividing line in Southern Baptists today is not whether someone is a conservative or a liberal. The dividing line is between an evangelicalism that is eager to cooperate and a fundamentalism that is ready to fight and faction. We don’t need groups waving pirate flags in the SBC. I am excited to cooperate on a national level with the diverse churches of the SBC. I believe we can do more together than we can apart.
With that said, I was relieved that presidential candidate Mike Stone did not win, even though I have friends that I love and respect who voted for him. Stone was the candidate of a newly formed group within the SBC – the Conservative Baptist Network – who has the influence of Paige Patterson behind the scenes and many of his supporters at the helm. This was a serious red flag for me. Patterson was recently fired from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for, among other things, mishandling multiple sexual abuse cases at two different SBC seminaries. He was also complicit in a coup that diverted millions of dollars away from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Baylor University to his own private foundation.
Their approach has been uncharitable, combative, and untruthful – more like the political discourse we see on cable news networks. Mike Stone is on the steering committee of this organization. He is also on the Executive Committee and is one of the men who will be investigated for his handling of sexual abuse response efforts. My hope is that this group will lay down their arms, though they are already pledging to fight harder this year.
3. Racial Reconciliation and Critical Race Theory
There has been much ink spilled on Critical Race Theory over the last two years. It’s somewhat difficult to define and the label has been applied so sloppily that almost any discussion about race or racism can be called “CRT”. Generally speaking, CRT originated as theory to understand why racial disparity exists in the legal system in America. CRT has plenty of problems, including many of its presuppositions, affirmations, and prescriptions. In 2019, the SBC passed a resolution on CRT. That resolution was designed to acknowledge where Critical Race Theory is unbiblical, affirm that the Bible is authoritative and sufficient, while leaving room for common grace insights and observations that might be gleaned from CRT.
The resolution was understood by some to be a wholesale endorsement of CRT and an abandonment of the sufficiency of Scripture. Those who objected to the resolution drew a line in the sand between those who “reject” CRT and those who “embrace” CRT, claiming that the latter had taken a leftward drift. That has been unhelpful because it is untruthful. No one in the SBC is endorsing or embracing CRT. They have, in fact, said just the opposite.
The real issue is how some understand the doctrine of common grace and Christian’s ability to glean true things from unbiblical or unchristian sources. Christians have long understood that all truth belongs to God. We have always understood that, because of the imago dei and common grace, unbelievers working from an unbiblical framework can discover or observe true things. Truth is truth wherever it might be found. Resolution 9 sought to apply these doctrines to CRT.
Since 2019, every SBC entity leader and all six seminary presidents have made no equivocation in their rejection of CRT as a worldview. Even so, many came to the convention with the goal of rescinding the 2019 resolution on CRT. The motion to rescind the 2019 resolution was ruled out of order, because a resolution is the opinion of the messengers at a particular moment in time. This year’s messengers cannot rescind the opinion of last year’s messengers. The only option was to pass another resolution that said something different.
This year at the SBC, multiple resolutions were submitted to the Resolution Committee regarding race, racial reconciliation, and CRT. The resolutions committee took those and created one single resolution (which is within their right and is not unusual). This resolution condemned all unbiblical worldviews and philosophies while reaffirming the SBC’s position that we decry all racism, both personal and systemic. Some were upset that there was no CRT-specific language in the resolution, but it was a minority, because over 2/3 of the messengers voted to stop discussion so that a final vote could be taken. The vote to affirm the resolution passed with just as much or more support. I believe it was wise not to mention CRT specifically, because after two years of discussion there is no consensus in the SBC as to what actually constitutes CRT. My hope is that the squabbles about CRT will now subside so that we can focus on more important things.
4. Resisting the Overreach of the Executive Committee
You might not know it, but technically the Southern Baptist Convention only exists two days out of the year as messengers gather and the gavel opens and closes the annual meeting. Because Southern Baptists have business that need to be accomplished in-between those meetings, there is an Executive Committee to carry out the will of the messengers throughout the year. The Executive Committee does not have authority over SBC, the churches, or their messengers.
This year the Executive Committee proposed two changes that would have been a dangerous overreach of their assignment and their authority. The first proposal was that their mission statement be changed to say that they “empower churches.” The Executive Committee does not empower anyone. They serve the churches of the convention at the will of the messengers. Someone wisely proposed that the word “empower” be amended to say “serve.” That amendment was affirmed, and the motion was passed.
The second proposed change was in the business and financial plan of the Executive Committee which would have given them the power to escrow Cooperative Program dollars from SBC entities. Not only would this jeopardize the accreditation of our seminaries, but it would be a tremendous overreach of power. The executive committee has not been given the responsibility of overseeing the fidelity of our entities. That is the role of the trustees of each entity. The Executive Committee should have no authority to withhold monies from our entities. The messengers can decide to do that if they so choose. That the Executive Committee even attempted this change is troublesome. The messengers opposed this after Dr. Danny Akin, president of SEBTS, spoke against it on behalf of all six of our seminary presidents. I am glad that the messengers rejected this motion.
Overall, I felt like the annual meeting ended on a good note. It was exhausting because every vote seemed significant. We dodged some bullets. It was, I believe, the most consequential SBC that I have ever attended. And I was personally proud to see young men and women step up to the mic to speak up for those who have been beaten down, to hold leaders accountable, and to raise their ballots for peacemaking over divisiveness.
Aaron Swain is the pastor of Students and Operations at Freedom Church in Lincolnton, NC. He earned an M.Div from Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He and his wife Sarah have two daughters. Aaron loves smoking meats, woodworking, and drinking chocolate milk. He’s also a lifelong Tarheel fan.