A new leader for the SBC
Bart Barber says denomination’s doctrine is not the problem
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On June 14, more than 8,000 Southern Baptists in Anaheim, Calif., elected a new president to lead the 13.7 million member denomination amid ongoing division and the enormous task of implementing abuse reforms.
Church messengers chose an unconventional winner: Bart Barber, a Baptist historian and pastor of a small, rural church, First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas.
Barber won 61 percent of the votes in a runoff against Florida pastor Tom Ascol, who leads Founders Ministries and was endorsed by the Conservative Baptist Network. Ascol earned 38 percent of the votes.
Barber recorded his first update as SBC president on his farm, introducing viewers to his new bull, named “Bully Graham,” that joins Barber’s 13 heifers. Barber also updated Southern Baptists on his first job as president: selecting a new sexual abuse task force to push SBC abuse reform initiatives forward.
Barber and I met virtually on June 22 to discuss his new role. Here’s our conversation, edited and shortened.
Congratulations! How are you feeling about your new role?
I’m really excited about it. The Southern Baptist convention is my spiritual home, my spiritual family. My affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention goes back to my earliest memories. I was a Southern Baptist before I was a Christian. It’s fulfilling to be affirmed by your spiritual family like this. … But alongside that, there’s the gravity of the task that sets in. You realize that your spiritual family is depending on you and that you have to give leadership to that family. So, there’s the excitement but also the weight of it.
You campaigned for SBC president using the slogan “army of peacekeepers.” Your closest opponent, Tom Ascol, expressed a desire to change the direction of what some perceive as a liberal drift in the SBC. Different visions?
The other candidates are my brothers in Christ. I think it’s obvious that Tom Ascol and I perceived differently the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention. … If I thought the SBC were in the shape that Tom thought it was in, I’d probably be proposing some of the same solutions [he] was proposing.
I think Southern Baptists elected me because they trusted me to listen to them and to seek the Lord’s leadership for whatever comes our way and for the tasks we do face now, for the things we know are problems now. I believe that Southern Baptists were convinced that I will address those current problems head-on in a way that builds up the SBC family around doing the right thing.
What would you say to those who voted for Ascol or the other candidates who are deeply concerned about the direction the denomination is headed?
I do not want us to drift leftward. Let’s be vigilant about not drifting leftward. I want to take our denomination in the direction of trusting the Word of God. I think we’ve done a great job at heeding Biblical commands regarding what we should believe and teach. But we’ve done less admirably in obeying God’s commands about how we should treat one another. That shows up in the sexual abuse task force report. It’s not a doctrinal question. It’s not like we weren’t sure whether we were in favor of or against pastors molesting kids in the church or we had a sexual ethic that was unclear about abuse. The problem we had was people who knew it was wrong and did it anyway.
Do you think your outspokenness and actions on sexual abuse were key reasons church delegates elected you?
Yes, I do. The messengers wanted to take action on this. And they knew that I did, too.
Church delegates approved recommendations from the SBC sexual abuse task force to begin addressing the denomination’s past mishandling of sexual abuse and to make its churches safer. The task force chairman called those recommendations the “bare minimum.”
I am trying to move promptly to get the process started. But I think this is something we’re going to be working on. … If I spend two terms as SBC president, it will extend beyond my own presidency because we [won’t have] implemented the solutions to these major questions that have been presented to us in the report. The abuse task force is going to have work to do. Even after we’ve addressed the things that are unaddressed at this point, I don’t know that our first stab at solving the problems that we’re starting to try to solve now, I don’t know that those things are going to work or that we’re not going to find things that need to be tweaked or addressed. I think we’ll be several years starting an attempt to address these problems and then tweaking that as time goes on. … I’m in it for the long haul.
You plan to select the members of the new sexual abuse task force in July. What kinds of people will you select?
It’s indispensable for me to hear from the current task force as a whole and understand completely what they’ve learned over the course of this year, to hear what the incoming task force needs to do and what skill sets are needed.
You referred to Baptist polity on church autonomy as “nimble and resilient” when it comes to deterring sexual predators from SBC churches. What do you mean by that?
With regard to resilience, if you toppled the entire Southern Baptist Convention, if the whole thing just went away, the churches would still be here. They would form something new. In the wake of it all, that would look a lot like the Southern Baptist Convention. The local churches—47,000 of them—they’re not all going away. They’re going to cooperate with each other through some vehicle.
I suspect that some of the game-changing ideas that help us fight against sexual abuse are going to be conjured up by some pastor we’ve never heard of yet, who is serving in an obscure church context somewhere. He’s going to try it out and implement it where he is. … That nimbleness comes from the fact that if we can get churches to the point where … the majority of Southern Baptist churches recognize this problem and are looking for ways to solve it, then we’ve got a 47,000-member task force looking for ways to solve it.
Some of your opponents expressed concern that the SBC could face class-action lawsuits over sexual abuse. Your thoughts?
If we can make investments today to make our churches more resilient against predators, that’s the morally right thing to do. Beyond that, if we can get involved in ways that strengthen our local churches, even if doing that makes an opening for a little more risk for the national SBC, if it’s successful, we greatly reduce the risk at the local church level, because they are prepared better to prevent abuse, to take care of survivors of abuse, and to handle abuse correctly when it happens. … That also protects the financial basis of the entire Southern Baptist Convention. The local churches are where it all comes from. There’s no solution to the problem without solving the problem. The problem happens at the local church level, mostly. So we need to be working and doing everything we can to try to solve the problem there.
What about those concerned about the SBC’s decline in membership and churches?
I’m far less concerned about numeric decline among one denomination of churches, even if it’s my own, than I am about the across-the-board decline in interest in the gospel as evangelicals proclaim it … the Biblical New Testament gospel.
If we’ve kept our own house in order, and we’ve stayed committed to what we believe, I think the time is coming that we’re going to see growth again, and that people are going to show a renewed interest in the gospel. And honestly, even if the end result is people are committed to the gospel but they go to a different kind of church, then I’m prepared to rejoice over that. People need Jesus. They don’t need the Southern Baptist Convention. They need the gospel. They need the truth. I just hope that we’re faithful to give people the gospel and the truth. If so, I think the gates of hell are not going to prevail against churches that do that.
There’s dispute within the SBC over women holding the title pastor, particularly in relation to Saddleback Church recently ordaining women as pastors. Your thoughts?
I agree with our statement of faith. We have two Biblical offices in the church: deacons and pastors. Pastors are sometimes called elders or overseers. The office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture. That’s what the Baptist Faith and Message says, and it’s what I believe. I think we should work towards a Southern Baptist Convention in which all of our churches agree on that. … We probably have greater unity over that now than we did 20 years ago.
... I’m unlike some of the other folks because I’m like, why don’t we try to convince one another, instead of immediately having our hand on the button to kick people out or on the leave button.
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