By some accounts, the Southern Baptist Convention once again rejected its most extreme factions during this year’s annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif. But by any outside measure, the nation’s largest non-Catholic denomination remains extremely conservative.
Defining the term “conservative” within the SBC is akin to defining who’s a “conservative” in todays’ Republican Party. There are degrees of distinction that make a difference only to those within the group.
Imagine a spectrum of religious belief in America, from the most liberal on the left to the most conservative on the right. Within that spectrum, all Southern Baptists today exist on the far right of the scale. But if you zoom in on that section alone, otherwise unseen gaps become visible.
Such is the case with the race for SBC president this year, which in the end came down to a runoff between Tom Ascol and Bart Barber.
Ascol ran on a platform of “change the direction,” alleging that liberalism and wokeness have seeped into the denomination. Ascol represents a strict doctrinal purity rooted in his Calvinistic theology and belief in male headship. He has been an outspoken supporter of former President Donald Trump and was supported by the Conservative Baptist Network, a group highly critical of current SBC leadership.
Despite intensive campaigning and the endorsement of a high-profile former SBC president, Ascol lost the presidential race by a 22-point spread to Barber. Ascol got 39% of the vote and Barber got 61%.
Ascol’s nominator, Georgia pastor Mike Stone, was the candidate of the Conservative Baptist Network last year and also was defeated in a runoff contest. This year, every candidate backed by the Conservative Baptist Network lost. And Ascol lost by a larger margin than Stone did last year.
“The various votes of this year’s convention indicate a trust in the existing leadership philosophy that is solidly conservative but less strident than Ascol’s brand.”
But that does not mean the SBC has voted against conservatism. Hardly. The various votes of this year’s convention indicate a trust in the existing leadership philosophy that is solidly conservative but less strident than Ascol’s brand.
Consider Barber’s track record and beliefs.
He was nominated for the presidency by Matt Henslee, pastor of Mayhill Baptist Church in Mayhill, N.M., who said Barber is a man who can unite, build up and “lead us through the battleground of our disagreements, to the common ground of our cooperation so that we can tell the world about the even ground at the foot of the cross.”
“Bart Barber embodies the best of what it means to be a Southern Baptist. He has faithfully and graciously engaged at every level as a champion for Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong. A staunch supporter of our seminaries, a trusted leader in his local association and state convention, and passionate protector of religious liberty, tireless defender of the unborn, relentless personal evangelist, faithful prayer warrior, and a steadfast advocate for survivors of sexual abuse.”
On the most controversial issues of the day, however, Barber brings extremely conservative credentials. He staunchly opposes abortion, believes the pastorate is reserved for men, advocates for an interpretation of religious liberty that privileges evangelicals, opposes Critical Race Theory, and takes a strong stand against LGBTQ identity and inclusion.
By any outside standard, Barber looks like a typical white conservative evangelical.
Affirmation of conversion therapy
On the LGBTQ question, Barber has written in favor of conversion therapy, the discredited practice of attempting to change the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian people.
“Barber has written in favor of conversion therapy, the discredited practice of attempting to change the sexual orientation of gay and lesbian people.”
In a 2013 post on the website SBC Voices, Barber said he believes the most important question for Christians is not about same-sex marriage but about “whether reparative therapy … is a valid hope and a realistic goal for those who approach the problem of homosexuality from a Christian viewpoint.”
Despite the closure of Exodus International, the most notable ex-gay ministry, Barber argued “we Christians cannot abandon reparative therapy.”
He wrote that “the concept of ‘ex-gay’ is explicitly scriptural” and that the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 6:11 says it is possible for someone to be “ex-gay.” Further, “the concept of being ‘ex-gay’ is central to the gospel,” he said.
On this point, Barber aligns with the predominant view of Southern Baptists, who steadfastly oppose LGBTQ identity and inclusion. One resolution adopted by messengers to this year’s annual meeting stated: “We uphold the beauty of the Christian sexual ethic in a world that promotes dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies such as those within the LGBTQ+ movement and other sexual perversions including abuse, pedophilic behavior, and the use of pornography, all of which are fundamentally at odds with God’s design for human sexuality.”
A week before the annual meeting, a BNG reporter contacted Barber to ask if his views on conversion therapy have changed. He replied: “I still believe that sex between two men or between two women is always a sin, that God provides with every temptation to sin a way of escape, that conversion to sin a way of escape, that conversion is a genuine renewing of the mind that is both momentary and ongoing, that conversion involves transformation in behavior, and that Christianity cannot be separated from the Christian sexual ethic.”
He added: “Any person trying to seek help to harness the power of conversion to leave behind homosexuality and embrace Christian sexual ethics should have the freedom to do so.”
Multiple messengers at this year’s meeting expressed concern about the SBC’s affiliation with secular firms that support LGBTQ inclusion, most notably Guidepost Solutions, the consulting firm that conducted the sexual abuse investigation, and Bradley, the law firm currently serving as outside counsel to the SBC.
In the Wednesday morning session of the annual meeting, one of the Bradley attorneys assigned to work with the SBC — who individually is a Southern Baptist — appealed to messengers to support her and others in every SBC congregation who seek to be a witness in the secular businesses where they work.
Race and Critical Race Theory
Where things still get a little fuzzy is the SBC’s conflicted positions on race. While the convention is officially on record as being for racial reconciliation and against the legacy of slavery, the Conservative Baptist Network has been campaigning hard to oppose Critical Race Theory and any effort to describe systemic racism.
This has been such a sore spot that some Black churches and pastors have left the SBC in protest, while the far right continues to insist Critical Race Theory has infiltrated SBC seminaries as a form of Marxism.
When the SBC first addressed Critical Race Theory by name in 2019 — led by the most conservative faction — it was nearly a year before this academic legal theory would become a catch-all boogeyman touted by Donald Trump and his allies in the 2020 presidential race.
“This is a point where Ascol and Barber diverge significantly.”
This is a point where Ascol and Barber diverge significantly. In an FAQ section on his church’s website, Barber takes a middle-of-the-road approach.
“No agreed-upon definition of CRT exists within the Southern Baptist Convention, nor do I anticipate that one will soon emerge,” he wrote. “A standard definition would be necessary in order to have any meaningful discussion about CRT but developing one does not seem to be much of a priority for some reason.”
Barber said he rejects Critical Race Theory but he’s not sure everyone is talking about the same thing.
“If by opposing Critical Race Theory you mean that any effort to work toward greater inclusion of multiple races in the Southern Baptist Convention or any effort to work toward greater harmony among multiple races in the Southern Baptist Convention is suspect, then we part ways at that point.”
There are very few people in the SBC who affirm classical Critical Race Theory, he added and then concluded: “Although Critical Race Theory might be an urgent matter to address at your local university or through your preferred political party, it is far from being an urgent issue to address in your church or in the Southern Baptist Convention.”
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