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First Thoughts

The State of the SBC in 2023

No Frills

In my family, when we want the honest, straightforward assessment of a situation without any sugar coating, we often ask for a “no-frills assessment.” Well, after the conclusion of the meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 2023, I want to share a no-frills assessment of where I believe Southern Baptists are in the aftermath.

Southern Baptists are People of Great Conviction

The issue garnering the most attention in advance of the convention meeting was the one of female pastors. As messengers gathered in New Orleans, they were asked to decide whether Saddleback Community Church, led by Rick Warren, could remain part of the Southern Baptist Convention after the church installed female pastors in clear violation of The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM). No one knew for sure how the vote would go until the meeting happened, but all doubt was removed when messengers voted to uphold the removal of Saddleback from the SBC by a vote of 88%.

That very high number is even more amazing when you consider that the vote removed what had been the largest church in the SBC, led by the most famous pastor in America. Southern Baptists decided overwhelmingly that the size of your church and the magnitude of your platform is far less important than the content of your convictions. If messengers had let Saddleback remain, it would have been an unhealthy sign of a convention preferring platform to principle.

Add to that vote the fact that the SBC overwhelmingly approved amendments to the constitution and the BFM to clarify our opposition to female pastors, and the conclusion is clear. Our convention has rejected what is popular in favor of what is true. That is an encouraging sign for the future.

Southern Baptists are Committed to Guarded Consistency

After the issue of female pastors, the most discussed issue in advance of the convention was the presidential election between the incumbent, Bart Barber, and the challenger, Mike Stone. On Tuesday, 68% of messengers elected Barber to a second term. Southern Baptists did this because they like Bart Barber and didn’t find enough reason to deny him the customary second term for a president. The vote for Barber was a vote in favor of consistency in our presidential leadership.

But this choice for consistency was a guarded one. Barber won handily with 68% of the vote. But a strong note of caution exists in that number. Most SBC presidents typically run unopposed in their second year. In a year when Barber should have faced no challenge at all, he actually faced an opponent garnering 31% of the vote. There is enough concern about the trajectory of our convention that one-third of all SBC messengers voted to change our leadership. With an 88% vote to remove Saddleback, messengers were more certain about removing Rick Warren as a pastor than they were about keeping Bart Barber as president.

My point is not to condemn. Bart Barber is my friend, he is a faithful man, and he is the president of all of us in the SBC. My point is to make clear that this is a tender time in the life of our convention. A convention must be able to convene. Our SBC will only survive if we find a way to make it together. That means over the next year, the 68% of people who voted for Barber must treat the 31% who did not with respect. One-third of our convention is not crazy or out of touch. They are brothers and sisters in Christ who see things differently than the majority, and we need each other. On the other hand, the 31% who did not win must be careful not to withdraw from convention life and accuse those with whom they disagree of being liberal or faithless. They are our brothers and sisters in Christ, and we need each other.

The no-frills truth is that Southern Baptists are far too reckless and much too harsh in how we speak about each other. This is true in our tweets, in our conversations, and even from the convention platform. We should absolutely disagree when that is necessary. But most of us need to learn to do that with more care. We must learn to speak clearly and gently into our diverse and fragile convention. In the year ahead, let’s all commit to support the will of the messengers, to pray for Bart Barber, and to do everything we can to strengthen our cooperation in a time when good people are disagreeing.

Southern Baptists are Committed to the Great Commission

Southern Baptists did a lot at the convention in 2023. We worshipped, listened to sermons, heard reports, rededicated ourselves to solving the problem of sexual abuse, and amended the BFM. But the highlight of the convention was the sending out of 79 missionaries. To see the missionaries set apart and sent out was encouraging. To witness the faithful young men and women silhouetted behind screens to protect their identities as they head to the most dangerous places for the cause of Christ was exhilarating. The whole time was absolutely beautiful and wonderful. I imagine this was the highlight for every messenger.

It is the strongest of reminders that the work of taking the gospel to the nations is the reason for the hard work of cooperation.

We are at our best, not when we debate, not when we pass resolutions, and not even when we tweet and blog. We are at our best when we are sending Christians to the world in the name of the One Man who can grant eternal life to everyone who believes.

It is a personal reminder to each of us that all our work before the convention in 2024, whether pastoring churches, serving on committees, or running an entity should be focused on that moment in Indianapolis, when a new crop of faithful missionaries will be sent out into the world.

Our convention will always be at its strongest and best when we focus on Jesus and the nations.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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