In a video released Sunday, June 12, former Southern Baptist Convention President Jack Graham endorsed current presidential candidate Tom Ascol — a move shocking to some convention insiders and a potential game-changer in this week’s contest for leadership.
Ascol and Graham hold divergent theological views, with Ascol being a staunch Calvinist and Graham being a more traditional conservative evangelical. And by endorsing Ascol, who is a Florida pastor, Graham bypassed another candidate, Bart Barber, whose church is located 37 miles away from Graham’s.
Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, is considered the institutionalist candidate in this year’s three-way presidential race. Ascol is considered a more far-right candidate. He has been critical of SBC leadership for years and is running on a theme of “change the direction,” claiming the SBC must be rescued from incipient liberalism and wokeness in its leadership.
Graham, pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, served as SBC president from 2002 to 2004 and helped solidify the gains of the so-called “conservative resurgence” that captured leadership of the denomination in a 20-year campaign from 1979 to 2000. He more recently gained national notoriety as a vocal supporter of Donald Trump as United States president.
The third candidate in this year’s race is California missiologist Robin Hadaway, who is running on a platform of advancing support for missions.
In the video, Graham says he has been “prayerfully looking forward to the Southern Baptist Convention meeting in Anaheim and who will lead us forward as our next president.”
From his thoughts and prayers and considering his desire to see the SBC have strong pulpits and pastors — “what holds us together beyond missions is our message and it’s the message of the gospel,” he said — Graham declared he is “very excited about the candidacy of Tom Ascol.”
“I’ve come to respect this man as a man of God and a man of grace, and I know he’s a man of the word and I believe he has leadership skills that can take us forward into the future for Southern Baptists in a time like this.”
He added: “Now Tom and I are not exactly alike on the issues of Calvinism and the sovereignty of God. In fact, we’ve had our rows in the past over that but I’ve come to respect this man as a man of God and a man of grace, and I know he’s a man of the word, and I believe he has leadership skills that can take us forward into the future for Southern Baptists in a time like this, in a time when we need someone who is strong and vibrant and vocal, someone who will stand up before the world and clearly define and declare the truth of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. In a time in which we so desperately need strength in our pulpits and strength in our pews, I believe that Tom Ascol can influence us.”
Further, Graham said: “The role of the Southern Baptist Convention president is not just to make appointments but to influence from the pulpit the people in the pews all across the Southern Baptist Convention and to represent us well in the culture. I believe Tom Ascol is that kind of man who can lead us and direct us forward so that we can once again for the glory of God experience renewal and revival and power for the glory of God.”
Ascol’s supporters were exuberant over the Graham endorsement and quickly relayed it on social media. Others were left scratching their heads.
Pastor M. Eric Sherwood of Gore Springs, Miss., tweeted in reply: “So, you disagree with him on soteriology, but think he’s the man that brings the message of the gospel best? What kind of nonsense is this?”
Arlington, Texas, pastor Dwight McKissic tweeted his surprise at the endorsement: “Tom Ascol could only be good for SBC pulpits, & setting the bar for what’s taught in our churches if you believe in double predestination Calvinism & women should not serve as committee chairs. Not tracking with Pastor Jack Graham’s endorsement of Ascol.”
Others drew a line between the recent report of the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force — for which Graham was one of a handful of people who refused to participate — and the fact that Ascol also has been critical of the report and of all the attention given to the problem of sexual abuse.
Prestonwood and Graham are named in the report: “Former SBC President Jack Graham, when he was pastor at Prestonwood Baptist Church, allegedly allowed an accused abuser of young boys to be dismissed quietly in 1989 without reporting the abuse to police. The accused abuser, John Langworthy, later was charged with abusing young boys in Mississippi in 2011.”
The Twitter account SBC Platform (formerly known as SBC Pirates) was among those making such connections: “Clearly choosing based on which will help @Prestonwood move on from all this sexual abuse talk.”
If elected, Ascol would be only the second Calvinist to serve as SBC president in modern times and by far the most strident Calvinist.
If elected, Ascol would be only the second Calvinist to serve as SBC president in modern times and by far the most strident Calvinist. Former SBC President J.D. Greear also is a Calvinist but was known during his tenure for his gracious and inclusive tone.
In 1991, the year the conservative resurgence tipped the scales and sparked a formal schism with some departing churches, the idea of a Calvinist leading the SBC was unthinkable. At the time, a form of neo-Calvinism was emerging in the convention but was considered an outlier to the highly evangelistic view of the convention that all people may be saved by God if they repent and confess Jesus as Lord. Calvinism teaches that God has foreordained who will be saved and who will not and that Christ’s atonement is only effective for the elect.
The SBC annual meeting will be held June 14-15 in Anaheim, Calif. The presidential election and responding to the sexual abuse investigation are two of the biggest items of interest on the agenda.
Next week, SBC messengers will have one thing on their mind | Analysis by Mark Wingfield