SUWANEE, Ga. – Georgia Pastor Mike Stone is promising to stand up against what he describes as a “cancel culture” within the Southern Baptist Convention if he’s elected SBC president. Meanwhile, Texas Pastor Bart Barber says he wants to finish tasks he began after being elected to the post a year ago.
“SBC cancel culture has silenced a lot of voices,” Stone said in a Q&A with The Christian Index. “We need a leader, vaccinated to the criticism, who will begin to lead us in a sustainable, Biblical direction on this issue. And we need that leader now.”
Barber will be seeking a second term at the SBC annual meeting set for June 13-14 at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
“There are tasks that I have undertaken this year that I believe the Lord has called me to carry through to completion,” he said. “The Southern Baptist Convention does not owe me a second term as president, but I do owe the Lord my obedience.
The Christian Index did an email Q&A with the candidates on a variety of topics. What follows are the candidates’ responses.
Index: Looking back over Q&As we’ve done with presidential candidates in the past, we’ve often begun by asking what is happening within the SBC, or not happening, that caused you to be willing to accept a nomination this year. So, let’s begin with that question again. Why now, at this specific time in history?
Stone: I respect the general precedent of allowing a president two terms. But these are not status quo days and they do not call for nuanced leadership. We are on an unsustainable trajectory.
In the most recent financial review of our Executive Committee, professional auditors revealed we are “unsustainable,” with the SBCEC spending half of its disposable income in a single year. Leaders responded that “everything is on the table,” including the sale of assets.
This crisis is largely because of presidentially appointed groups that have led us in an unhealthy direction in the discussion of sexual abuse reform. Our leaders have allowed the media to portray us, and we have often portrayed ourselves, as a hierarchical denomination, collectively responsible for abuse in the independent autonomous churches that cooperate with the SBC. These unwise actions have led to an investigation by the US Justice Department, costing us millions of missions dollars and creating a crippling crisis of trust.
If this malaise was because of actual offenses committed by the SBC, then this would be the righteous judgment of God. People are infinitely more valuable than money. But we are spending ourselves toward financial ruin, defending ourselves against misrepresentations of our convention, often due to our own decisions.
This does not diminish the real harm that victims of abuse have experienced. Nor does it deny that there are things we can improve. In addition to disfellowshipping churches that violate our parameters of cooperation, we need better resources, better training, and better communication across SBC life.
But the current approach of believing all accusations until proven false, publishing hearsay, denying due process, and discrediting churches for the actions of individuals is an unsustainable pathway that Southern Baptists must reject.
Thousands of pastors know this is the truth. But SBC cancel culture has silenced a lot of voices. We need a leader, vaccinated to the criticism, who will begin to lead us in a sustainable, Biblical direction on this issue. And we need that leader now.
Barber: There are tasks that I have undertaken this year that I believe the Lord has called me to carry through to completion. The Southern Baptist Convention does not owe me a second term as President, but I do owe the Lord my obedience. Your other questions touch upon many of these tasks.
Index: You’ll recall that Guidepost Solutions, the New York firm hired to investigate the SBC Executive Committee’s handling of sexual abuse complaints, caused quite a stir last June with a tweet celebrating its support for the LGBTQ+ community. Should the SBC have terminated its contract with Guidepost because of the company’s position on this issue? Why or why not?
Barber: I think we should choose to support Christian companies that exemplify our values wherever we can. If Chick-fil-A ever starts to market cell phones and cell phone service, they can count me in. Living in this ever-degrading culture, we already face difficult decisions when no suitable Christian company exists to provide services that we need. Those sorts of difficult choices are only going to become more common until the Lord sends spiritual awakening to our land.
In 2021, the SBC’s messengers voted to hire Guidepost Solutions to conduct an independent investigation of the Executive Committee’s responses to sexual abuse and survivors of sexual abuse. At the same meeting in Nashville, the Executive Committee was proposing an alternate plan for an independent investigation. There were several substantial points of disagreement between the two approaches, but they had one relevant point of agreement: both chose Guidepost Solutions as the firm to perform the investigation. How is it that two different groups with such divergent views should have come to endorse the same investigatory firm?
My instruction to the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force in their initial meeting was that they should find someone other than Guidepost Solutions to create and maintain the Ministry Check Website. Working for a year, they struggled to find a good alternative. They concluded that the reason why both sides were recommending Guidepost Solutions back in 2021 was because that firm has the same dominant position in this narrow field that a company like AT&T has in the telecommunications industry or Microsoft and Apple have in the personal computing industry. Many of Guidepost’s competitors are active and aggressive contributors to LGBTQ causes—they’re doing a lot more than sending one tweet.
My other instruction to the Task Force was this: Since participation in the Ministry Check Website will be the voluntary choice of autonomous local churches, it’s not enough for them to propose a solution that might win 50% of the messengers’ votes. All of the solutions from this point forward are only helpful if they can win the confidence of the preponderance of our churches and achieve overwhelming buy-in.
For this reason, the ARITF has been highly responsive to feedback from Southern Baptists. Our decentralized polity is exemplified in the way that they have genuinely listened to what Southern Baptists have to say. Guidepost Solutions is no longer a part of the ARITF’s recommendation. That’s the right call.
What we can create without Guidepost’s help will be different from what we can create with their help. It is my prayer that, through all of these twists and turns, God will lead us to the best solutions to assist our churches in preventing abuse.
Stone: The idea of partnering with a leftist corporation that does not recognize sexual perversion to assist the SBC with addressing sexual perversion would be laughable if it were not so serious. I felt that Southern Baptists were crystal clear last summer that we wanted no more to do with Guidepost Solutions.
So, we were shocked when this current presidentially appointed task force announced in February they were recommending yet another contract with Guidepost. And in the face of the understandable backlash, the most influential defender of this decision was our current SBC president.
We were told that Guidepost Solutions is the only corporation in America that could meet all our criteria. That fact alone should tell us we have the wrong criteria.
While I am grateful for the recent announcement that the task force will no longer recommend Guidepost Solutions, I am disappointed that it took so much effort to get our leaders to reach that conclusion. The decision not to partner with an LGBTQIA+-approving firm should not have been that hard.
As for the 2022 Guidepost report itself, with only a few exceptions, it included old news already publicly available by an Internet search, hearsay evidence, and accusations that could not pass a reasonable standard of admission in any court of law. Surely this was not the independent, trauma-informed expertise for which Southern Baptist paid millions of sacrificially given missions dollars?
In our understandable zeal to “do something,” we have “done something” alright. We have partnered with a worldly corporation and allowed them to help put us in an untenable position. For example, the convention allowed itself to be convinced that waiving attorney-client privilege was “best practice.” This despite the fact the overwhelming counsel of the legal profession would be exactly the opposite.
To date, Guidepost Solutions still receives a large sum from our mission coffers to operate the Abuse Survivors Hotline. It has been suggested that we cannot alter that arrangement so long as we remain under investigation by the Department of Justice. Our leaders have placed us in a position where we do not feel we can sever ties with the world without further damage. This entire process should be completely unacceptable to Southern Baptists.
Index: Do you believe the SBC will be stronger and healthier as a result of the Guidepost investigation and resulting report? Why or why not?
Stone: We should be thankful for a heightened sense of awareness about the scourge of sexual abuse. The entire conversation can prompt churches to strengthen policies, better protect the vulnerable, and more compassionately care for victims of abuse. To the extent any of those things occur, we should be grateful for this national conversation.
But overall, there is no question in my mind that we are worse off for engaging with Guidepost as we have. In part because it is the result of a top-down hierarchical approach that treats the national convention as potentially responsible for the actions of individuals in local churches. There are profound legal, financial, and ecclesiological implications to this path we have taken.
For example, our Executive Committee agreed to cover the liability costs for any alleged defamation in the Guidepost report. If a corporation is so sure of its top-tier investigative abilities, why would it not be willing to stand financially behind its own work, especially when they are receiving millions of our mission dollars in return?
The result is that the SBC and the SBCEC now face several major lawsuits.
On a personal level, I was cast in a bad light in the Guidepost report and related articles in Baptist Press. And although I have documentation that the writer for Baptist Press very recently called a “smoking gun,” that same writer says the leadership of the SBCEC will not allow a corrective article to be published by Baptist Press. That’s because reporting the truth will impugn the Guidepost Report and jeopardize the Executive Committee’s defense in litigation.
When leaders of God’s people find it advantageous to cover an error rather than report the truth, I’d call that being “worse off,” and in the worst kind of way.
Barber: I believe that the SBC already is stronger and healthier as a result of that investigation and report in some ways. The strong role of the messenger body in our polity has been affirmed and undergirded. We’ve seen and rejected some of the ways that we have mistreated survivors in the past. Southern Baptists are actively pursuing means for helping our churches to prevent sexual abuse and respond correctly whenever it occurs. As Southern Baptist churches, we have unique vulnerabilities to sexual abuse—not worse than the vulnerabilities of other institutions, but different because of our unique characteristics.
One of those vulnerabilities is presented by the rightful autonomy and independence of our churches. I’m a one-thousand-percent supporter of local church autonomy. I’ve had the role of explaining and defending that autonomy this year as your SBC president under oath, on national TV, and in many other contexts. If hierarchy were the solution to sexual abuse, the Roman Catholic Church would not have had any problems with sexual abuse. In a hierarchical denomination, a sexual abuser can take advantage of a single corrupt figure in the hierarchy and commit acts of sexual abuse with that individual’s protection. That’s not possible in a bottom-up family of autonomous churches.
Our task is to come up with a way to let local churches warn each other about abusers once they have been discovered within a local church. If you’ll look back to my previous answer and read what I wrote about “buy-in,” you’ll see the major task before us. I believe that churches who have been harmed by an abuser want to warn other churches before it is too late. I believe that churches who are recruiting new staff or new volunteers want to be warned. The difficulty is in finding just the right way to connect those two categories of churches. It has never before been done in any family of churches quite like ours. The only reason why we have devoted man-hours and resources to solve this problem is because of the investigation and report, and when we do solve this problem, it will be a great step forward in deterring sexual abuse in our churches.
A second vulnerability is that our family of churches is so diverse. Among our cooperating churches are megachurches in the largest cities of North America. Also among our cooperating churches are those like Bethabara Baptist Church in Lake City, Arkansas, where I came to know Christ and was baptized in 1975. The urban megachurch already has a secure children’s area with a computerized check-in system and a policy for running criminal background checks on prospective staff or volunteers. Small, rural churches often don’t have the architecture to secure a separate children’s area or the financial resources to run a computerized check-in system. Of course, in that rural church, where most of the members had lived in that community all of their lives, it was hard to hide anything in one’s criminal background, and the church grapevine was as effective as any courthouse search in revealing a potential volunteer’s full history. But even in rural areas, our population is more nomadic these days, and even small, rural churches need to take appropriate steps in this day and age to prevent abuse.
In the aftermath of the investigation and report, the Task Force is releasing an abuse prevention toolbox. I deliberately populated the Task Force with people from different kinds of churches. From its initial release to the development of the final product, I am optimistic that we will be able to point every kind of SBC church to resources that will make them more resilient against abuse.
All of these things are a direct result of the investigation and report. We paid a lot of money for that investigation and that report. If we were going to be paying for investigations like that every year, the financial situation of the Convention surely would be “unsustainable.” Fortunately, there’s no plan to do so. The messengers’ instructions have been followed. The report set in motion these helpful processes that I have mentioned above. I hope to serve Southern Baptists a second year and carry these tasks across the finish line.
Index: As you know, the SBC Executive Committee and Credentials Committee have found Saddleback Church, one of the nation’s largest and best-known congregations, not to be in friendly cooperation with the denomination because it has a woman serving as preaching pastor. In layman’s terms, the committees have essentially ousted Saddleback from the SBC. It appears Saddleback intends to appeal to messengers at the annual meeting in New Orleans to overturn that decision. As an SBC leader, what guidance would you offer messengers on this matter?
Barber: Saddleback is just one of several churches who were disfellowshipped this spring. The actions taken by the Credentials Committee and the Executive Committee constitute something of a milestone. Although Saddleback has made recent changes, other churches who have been disfellowshipped have been in the SBC with women serving as their pastors for decades, and yet under previous leadership, the Executive Committee never has taken any similar action. I am thankful to have played a part in this process.
Here’s why this is important: This year will be our first time to walk through this appeals process as a convention. We will be, in at least some sense, setting precedent with the actions that we take. We need to be thoughtful and deliberate. It is a sober thing to part company with a formerly cooperating church. In a recent telephone conversation with Rick Warren, he acknowledged that I support disfellowshipping Saddleback and that I disagree pointedly with his ecclesiology, but he expressed his confidence in my well-known commitment to congregational church polity and my determination to conduct the meeting fairly. In the end, I believe that our messengers will live up to both sides of that coin: We will demonstrate our unwavering commitment to a complementarian understanding of the office of pastor and we will conduct a fair and orderly meeting that is respectful of all.
I do not know how to be happy about the departure of any church from our fellowship of churches, but the end of Southern Baptist cooperation need not mean the end of Christian fellowship. I almost never fight with Presbyterians, but if we were trying to plant churches together, I’d be arguing with Presbyterians all the time. Organizational separation at times can actually aid spiritual and emotional unity. In just the past few days, Saddleback has announced their appointment of Katie Edwards as the campus pastor of their Lake Forest campus. The Southern Baptist Convention and Saddleback Church seem to be moving in different directions and seem to have genuine doctrinal disagreements. Perhaps this disfellowshipping decision, while a somber moment, can free both groups to follow Christ as they understand His teachings.
Stone: I would encourage messengers to affirm the decision of the Executive Committee to disfellowship Saddleback, thereby upholding a complementarian position for our convention. I would also urge the SBCEC to place the “Mike Law Amendment” before the messengers. And I would urge the messengers to support that amendment this year and ratify it next year in Indianapolis.
On this issue, Bart Barber has expressed support for a more systemic review of all governing documents, including the Baptist Faith and Message. I do not think that type of review is necessary. With the unsustainable financial trajectory of the SBCEC, the record decline in membership of the SBC, including the loss of 416 churches last year, and the need for a more Biblical approach to sex abuse reform, the SBC is facing far bigger issues than the need to review all of our governing documents.
The SBC Constitution does not require cooperating churches to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message. We simply require that a church “has a faith and practice which closely identifies with the convention’s adopted statement of faith.”
But the SBC is autonomous in its own sphere. And each time it gathers, the convention possesses the right to interpret its own documents and set its own parameters of cooperation. In the present case, the convention has the right to determine that a congregation’s employment of a female pastor is a significant enough variance from our statement of faith that such a church no longer “closely identifies” with the Baptist Faith and Message.
And I think the convention would be wise to make such a determination regarding the churches that are coming to New Orleans to appeal. And we can strengthen our Biblical position by passing the proposed constitutional amendment.
Index: State conventions are a crucial part of the SBC, providing the foot soldiers who support local pastors and their churches. They are there in good times and bad. They’re often confidants of those who have no one else to share their struggles with. They encourage. They equip. They inspire. They educate. Yet, we’re seeing more and more churches stop or reduce giving through the Cooperative Program, the primary source of funding for state conventions, thereby forcing some state conventions to cut to the bone. If elected, how would you use the office of president to promote the work of state conventions and to encourage churches to give through the Cooperative Program?
Stone: During my 21-year pastorate, Emmanuel Baptist Church has averaged nearly 9% of undesignated receipts given through the Cooperative Program. That amounts to more than $2.6 million from a rural church in a small corner of Southeast Georgia.
The CP giving is in addition to the 2% we give through our local association, making our church the largest contributor to our associational work. And it doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands our church gives each year to direct missions causes around the world.
In 2022, we chose to give directly to our Baptist entities, bypassing the Executive Committee. We gave 4% of undesignated receipts directly to Baptist causes under the category of Great Commission Giving as approved by the Convention in 2011.
I would lead in this regard by encouraging our Executive Committee onto a more sustainable financial pathway. And I would encourage our state convention partners to be responsive to and respectful of churches that share concerns. I would not criticize churches who exercise their autonomy while still sacrificially giving to convention causes. Instead, I would challenge our state and national conventions to operate with wisdom, vision, and integrity so that churches embraced a compelling vision to give to our shared efforts.
If Southern Baptists are looking for a Cooperative Program champion, our church has a multi-decades track record of strong giving. I am so committed to our common vision, that even when my church cannot support the direction of our SBCEC, we still find a way to sacrificially give to help Southern Baptists take the gospel around the world.
Barber: I would only quibble slightly with the wording of the question. Local churches provide all of the foot soldiers, generals, ordnance, and supplies in the work of the Lord’s army. They can survive—even thrive—without the Southern Baptist Convention, the various state conventions, local associations, or other parachurch organizations. I know that our state convention leaders will take no offense in my saying so, for our belief in the primacy of our local autonomous churches is a conviction that we all cherish.
Having been a little pedantic—my apologies—let me acknowledge that you are totally correct. State conventions stand closer to the churches and play a vital role in the Southern Baptist family. I was giving my time and efforts in support of my own state convention before I held any role in the national SBC. I attended my own state’s annual meeting in the fall and evangelism conference in the spring. I plan to do so again until I am no longer able to do so. I believe in state conventions. I have spent this year doing four things to promote their work.
First, I have sought the advice of state convention leaders and have received it whenever it has come.
Second, I have promoted state convention work in disaster relief, sexual abuse response, and Cooperative Program giving. Some of it may be a little hokey—cows and calves and videos from the farm—but I dare to hope that I’ve given appropriate attention to promoting both the Cooperative Program and the work of our state conventions.
Third, and perhaps most importantly, I have sought to be an example. FBC Farmersville gives 10% of our undesignated receipts through the Cooperative Program. We also support the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering. When we give through the Cooperative Program, our giving is according to the undesignated budget of our own state convention, without any exceptions or carve-outs.
Fourth, whenever they would permit me to do so, I have given my time to speak with churches who were considering leaving the SBC or cutting their Cooperative Program funding. I have been disheartened on those occasions when pastors would not allow their congregations to hear any other perspective before making such a serious decision, but I have been thankful on other occasions to be able to help churches see the truth about how blessed we are to partner with so many sister churches. Our cooperative work takes place within the parameters of The Baptist Faith & Message and is financially accountable to the churches. Our various states, even in the SBC’s heartland, are becoming more lost each day. The work of our state conventions is worthy of our full-throated support.