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Presidential candidate appearances highlight unity, key differences heading into Tuesday vote

Photo by Luc Stringer

INDIANAPOLIS (BP) — The night before their names would come before the Southern Baptist Convention in one of the most memorable SBC elections in recent memory, the six presidential candidates answered questions related to the so-called Law Amendment, sexual abuse reform, the roles and responsibilities of the SBC president, among other topics.

The Baptist Review Presidential Forum, sponsored by a new Southern Baptist media platform, highlighted candidate consensus on the priority of evangelism and missions, abuse reform and the Cooperative Program.

Yet the forum also pointed to significant differences in how the candidates who would lead the nation’s largest Protestant faith group see the way forward on many issues.

On the Law Amendment

The candidates were split on whether Southern Baptists should pass the Law Amendment, which would add language to the SBC Constitution declaring churches with women serving in pastoral roles to be outside friendly cooperation with the Convention. When asked directly about their views on the topic, David Allen, Clint Pressley and Jared Moore expressed approval. Mike Keahbone, Bruce Frank and Dan Spencer noted they opposed the amendment.

Those who agreed with the amendment focused on the clarity it would provide in the wake of recent debates on whether women can serve in the office and function of pastor.

Pressley first learned about the amendment when its author, Virgínia pastor Mike Law, emailed it to him right after Pressley had dealt with the topic as a trustee at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

“It sounded like BFM (Baptist Faith and Message 2000), which we hold to,” Pressley said. “It sounded like the Bible and felt like it made sense, and it will provide some clarity, so that’s why I’ve thought it makes sense to me. I’m for it.”

Spencer believes the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, the doctrinal statement of Southern Baptists, is sufficiently clear on the topic of female pastors.

“To me, it becomes a question of whether this rises to the level of a crisis that requires a constitutional amendment to fix it,” Spencer said. “I don’t think so, simply because of the statistically very small number of churches that are dealing with this issue.”

All six SBC presidential candidates have described themselves as complementarian in their theology. Southern Baptists passed the Law Amendment at their 2023 annual meeting in New Orleans. Changes to the SBC Constitution require a two-thirds affirmative vote two consecutive years, so the amendment will be before messengers again at this year’s meeting in Indianapolis.

On Sexual abuse reform

While all six candidates expressed their appreciation and support of the various SBC task forces that have dealt with the issue, they were divided on how to move forward. When asked to raise their hands whether they believed Southern Baptists had done enough on sexual abuse reform, Pressley and Spencer raised their hands in affirmation. Allen, Keahbone, Frank and Moore raised their hands when asked if there was more work to do.

Differences arose in the approach of candidates who acknowledged the need for further work and in how they processed the past work of the task forces.

Allen said he disagrees with the 2021 decision by the SBC Executive Committee to waive attorney-client privilege and its agreement to pay the legal costs of Guidepost Solutions for any litigation related to their 2022 report. Earlier in the day, SBC Executive Committee President Jeff Iorg told EC trustees that it had already paid more than $2 million toward these litigation costs and more are forthcoming.

“I do think some of these decisions were made by men and women who had the right goal in mind and whose motivation was pure,” Allen said. “But I think in hindsight, some of those decisions were indeed unwise.”

Keahbone, who was an Executive Committee trustee when the decision to waive privilege occurred, noted 2021 SBC Annual Meeting messengers had given the committee a clear mandate to waive attorney-client privilege.   

Frank said the move was necessary. “Attorney-client privilege wasn’t that you couldn’t have an attorney with you when you went into those interviews, it was to open up the books of those 20 years,” Frank said. “If you’re against attorney-client privilege, what part that was discovered in attorney-client privilege would you want concealed from Southern Baptists?”

Allen responded to that question by saying his concern wasn’t related to what should have been concealed but on how those decisions impacted the Executive Committee’s insurance coverage.

Moore told attendees that the only ones who can prevent abuse in Southern Baptist churches are local churches themselves.

“No SBC president, nobody in Nashville can prevent abuse. Only the local churches can. And so we have to come alongside local churches and make sure that they are best equipped to prevent it,” Moore said. “But on the flip side of that, there are literally thousands of Southern Baptist churches that, in over 100 years, have never had an accusation of abuse. So we’ve got to be very careful when we come alongside churches to help train them, ensuring we’re not targeting those churches.”

Moore added that he appreciates the new curriculum (“Essentials: Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response”)produced by the SBC’s Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF) and believes it’s a good resource, but he believes there may be churches that could do a better job protecting children by keeping their own systems in place.

Spencer and Pressley both expressed appreciation for the Southern Baptist task forces involved in sexual abuse reform. Both specifically drew attention to their work in raising the awareness of sexual abuse among Southern Baptist churches.

“I’m grateful for the good Southern Baptists who have given their time and effort, a lot of good people have done it,” Spencer said. “And so, I look forward to hearing what’s next. Let me say this as well: one of the special things about the Southern Baptist Convention is that when we come together, it seems like we find a way to work it out. Our messengers, and the trust that we put in them, seem like time and time again they get it right and figure it out. It’s a special part of our cooperation together. I’m looking forward to getting that settled, working the plan and moving forward.”

Pressley noted that his church is currently walking through a response related to sexual abuse. He noted that because of the work of Southern Baptists, his church knew what to do. He also praised the creation of the new free curriculum from the ARITF.

On missions, evangelism and the value of the Cooperative Program

Pressley agreed with Great Commission Resurgence Evaluation Task Force’s recently released recommendation of dropping the category of Great Commission Giving, saying much like the “Great Commission Baptists” nomenclature, it never received widespread use.

Event moderators noted that Spencer’s church, First Baptist Church of Sevierville, Tenn., was the highest Cooperative Program giving church among the six candidates.

“There’s so much that we’ve been able to do over the last 100 years through the Cooperative Program, something like $20 billion that we’ve given together, that have done unbelievable work for the kingdom of God. I would love to see that continue and increase in all of our churches,” Spencer said. “But I do think that it holds some importance in a presidential election because the president of the Convention needs to lead by his example.”

Multiple times, Frank expressed hope that Southern Baptists would come together around the Great Commission, reiterating a regular theme in his candidacy.

“A hundred years from now, when we’re dead and gone, what is going to matter is: did we do what we could to see men and women, boys and girls, prodigals, teachers, employees and family come to surrender to the Lordship of Christ? That’s what is going to matter,” Frank said. “The souls of men and women will be what matters. So, for me, the most unifying, energizing thing we can ever do is figure out how to help people see that Gospel.”

During a series of rapid-fire questions near the end, the candidates unanimously pointed to the appointment power of the SBC president as the position’s most important formal responsibility. They all also noted that they had personally shared the Gospel with someone outside of a worship service within the past three weeks.

The candidates expressed different visions for what would be different about the SBC at the end of their presidential terms.

  • Spencer said he hoped Southern Baptists, “would be more cooperative than ever before because the need has never been greater.”
  • Frank hoped Southern Baptists would be known for loving the world and loving the people that Southern Baptists are around.
  • Keahbone hoped Southern Baptists would be known more by the Gospel than by controversy.
  • Moore wants the convention to have more unity around its confession.
  • Pressley hoped that Southern Baptists would be unified around the Gospel and their mission.
  • Allen hoped Southern Baptists would be less concerned about the absence of people and more concerned with the presence of the Lord.

The event closed with past and current SBC presidents coming onto the stage to pray for the six candidates.

South Carolina pastor David Sons and Rob Collingsworth, director of strategic relationships at Criswell College, moderated the forum. Both are members of the Baptist Review leadership team.

National African American Fellowship hears from candidates

NAAF President Greg Perkins welcomes the six candidates for SBC president to the NAAF business meeting June 10 in Indianapolis. Photo by Josselyn Guillen

Opportunities for African American church-planting couples, ethnic representation on SBC committees and trustee boards, the efficacy of the Law Amendment, the fulfillment of the Great Commission and dwindling SBC baptisms were among top issues on the floor as the six candidates addressed the National African American Fellowship of the SBC (NAAF) after its June 10 business meeting.

NAAF President Greg Perkins, lead pastor of The View Church in Menifee, Calif., encouraged the candidates to try viewing the SBC through the lived experiences of others.

“To all of our candidates, it has not been easy to be an African American in the Southern Baptist Convention, and you should understand that,” Perkins said. “This election of SBC president is one of great consequence. Things are clear until the clarity adversely impacts you. Things make sense until what makes sense adversely impacts you.”

But Perkins said the more than 4,000 African American pastors NAAF represents are Southern Baptist because they want to be, are vested in Southern Baptist work and will cooperate with whoever wins the election.

“I don’t want to be a quota or window dressing,” Perkins said. “What we want to be is partners.”

Panel moderator Jawane Hilton, NAAF’s Advocacy Team leader, gave candidates opportunity to introduce themselves and answer select questions from the podium and the floor. No candidate chose to present himself as the best candidate for the position when given opportunity, but spoke respectfully of all candidates.

Keahbone, a Native American with heritage from the Comanche, Kiowa and Cherokee tribes, presented himself as a capable person to bring SBC committee and trustee representation in line with SBC ethnic diversity. He acknowledged that those of his heritage are likely represented in the “other” category when ethnicity is tabulated.

“I think the first step is to elect a Brown president,” Keahbone said. “That will help you a lot.”

Associational leaders hear from presidential candidates

On Sunday evening (June 9), Southern Baptist associational leaders heard from the six candidates on the topic of the importance of Southern Baptist associations. At the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Conference of Associational Leaders, each candidate was asked: What are the most significant contributions associations make to the SBC ecosystem?

Here is how they responded:

  • Moore told associational leaders he thought they played an important role in encouraging pastors and churches. He also noted the value of associations to encourage greater cooperation among churches.
  • Pressley noted both the importance of encouraging pastors and helping to connect healthy churches with struggling ones. He referred to his own church’s experience working with associational leaders in this.
  • Frank described the importance of associational leaders’ role of encouraging evangelism within their association.
  • Spencer pointed to the role of associational missions strategists in pastor and church wellness. He described his own experience with his local AMS who has stepped in and helped struggling churches nearby.
  • Keahbone specifically thanked the spouses of associational leaders for their contribution to their associations. He described the importance of associational leaders in caring for local pastors.
  • Besides expressing his own relationships with associational leaders during his 50-plus years of ministry, Allen pointed to the roles of starting churches, strengthening churches, and connecting churches as vital to the future of Southern Baptist work.

Each candidate also shared a prayer request, and attendees ended the forum by praying for the candidates.

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