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FIRST-PERSON: Bart Barber’s opening comments in the presidential press conference

Texas pastor Bart Barber speaks with reporters June 15, the day after he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Photo by Sonya Singh

ANAHEIM, Calif. (BP) — Yesterday was an historic day for the Southern Baptist Convention. One year ago, Convention messengers created the Sexual Abuse Task Force and demanded that the investigation be thorough, unflinching and unredacted. For a year, this process has been unfolding, and although there have been many twists and turns, our convention’s polity has worked in the end.

The messengers wanted to see the facts. We have seen the facts, and we have mourned them. Yesterday, in response to the report, the messengers have indicated this year that they now want our Convention to act.

Along the way, they elected me last night to preside over our Convention. The past several months have provided the opportunity for a renewed exploration of the similarities and differences among myself, Tom Ascol and Robin Hadway, and I have long known Frank Cox, who managed to spare himself from the circuit of podcasts and appearances that the rest of us allowed to occupy our recent time. I want to thank each of them publicly for their friendship. Each of these men is a leader among Southern Baptists in his own right, and our best hope for our future is that they and all such leaders will join forces to solve the problems that Southern Baptist churches face.

The honor of this office is not lost on me, nor are the responsibilities, because I have long been a student of our Convention’s history and operations. Baptist churches, from their earliest days, have formed associations of churches. We did so before there were any budgets, employees, headquarters, programs, missionaries, boards, or schools – just because we knew that we belonged together and because we felt the value of gathering to share God’s word and love God’s people. These first associations were the early seeds from which the Southern Baptist Convention has sprouted and grown. We have formed a Convention of churches in which the churches are autonomous and the various entities are institutionally disconnected, but for the spiritual bonds that tie these entities to the churches. We are like ships that, although they are not lashed together, are borne along in the same direction by the stream of the work that God is doing in the churches by means of His inerrant word.

This Convention’s doctrinal consensus is The Baptist Faith & Message. The mechanism of our partnership is the Cooperative Program. The authority of our convention is the authority that Jesus granted to the churches in Matthew 18, which churches send their messengers to this meeting. God’s word is inerrant and sufficient, and all of the votes that we have taken at this meeting have been reflective of those beliefs. Our problem is not with our theology or our polity; indeed these things are among our strengths. It is because we are convinced that our theology is right that we are convinced that our actions have been wrong. 

Sexual predators have used our decentralized polity to try to turn our churches into a hunting ground. There is no diocesan bishop in the Southern Baptist Convention who can fire a pastor in a local church. There is no super-congregational presbytery who can defrock even the wayward pastor who most egregiously sullies the office of pastor. And so, sexual predators have in some cases moved from church to church, from scandal to scandal, manipulating our system to hide from accountability and pick off the sheep one by one.

And yet, our decentralized polity can become, rather than a hunting ground in which predators brutalize their prey, a place where sexual predators are put on notice that the tables have turned and where the hunter is now the hunted. Where there is no diocesan bishop to fire a local pastor, there is also no diocesan bishop to protect him. Where there is no regional presbytery to defrock a pastor, there is also no presbytery to reassign him while covering up his villainy. Predators have realized the vulnerabilities of our system; it is time for Southern Baptists to realize how nimble and resilient our Baptist polity can be to put sexual predators on notice that Southern Baptist churches are a dangerous place for them.

I am enthusiastic about presiding over next year’s annual meeting in a way that protects the rights of the messengers to our Convention. I look forward to working with the SBC Executive Committee, the Great Commission Council, our various state conventions and local associations, and the pastors and churches who make this such an amazing family of churches. It’s hard to find a denomination of churches that is more ethnically diverse than the Southern Baptist Convention, and I hope to lead our continued growth in that way. And as of yesterday, I am also dedicating my energies and prayers towards the task ahead, seeking God’s will for the appointment of the Abuse Response Implementation Task Force. By God’s grace, I believe that we will see it through to the end.