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With BF&M amendment, conversation lands on process

Committee on Order of Business Chair Spence Shelton addresses messengers in New Orleans as SBC President Bart Barber, left, and parliamentarian Al Gage confer in the background. Photo by Sonya Singh

NASHVILLE (BP) — If there is such a thing as a good misstep in changing one of Southern Baptists’ foundational documents, New Orleans may be the example.

Adding the words “elder” and “overseer” alongside “pastor” in Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message, which took place in the final session of the two-day gathering, hasn’t generated as much discussion as has the manner and speed with which it came about.

Jared Cornutt, lead pastor of North Shelby Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., introduced his motion during the first opportunity to do so on the morning of the annual meeting’s first day, June 13. Alongside others, it was distributed for further action to the Committee on Order of Business (COB).

The COB consists of seven members – the president of the Convention and six others – and works with counsel from the parliamentarian. SBC bylaws mandate that a report from the group regarding the state of those motions be given by the end of the first day. In all, the COB is scheduled to address the meeting four times.

Motions are typically ruled out of order, presented to messengers or referred to an SBC entity for further discussion and a report at a subsequent annual meeting.

“My expectation was that it would be referred to the Executive Committee,” Cornutt told Baptist Press. “If the Executive Committee found anything of value there, then we would discuss it at the 2024 meeting.”

Had it been ruled out of order, what he felt to be the next most likely scenario, Cornutt had no intention of opposing that decision.

“I just wanted to make the motion and let’s start talking about it,” Cornutt said.

The wording of the motion, however, dictated that it be discussed this year in New Orleans.

“It specifically asked for this year’s convention to take action,” Spence Shelton, 2023 COB chair and pastor of Mercy Church in Charlotte, N.C., told BP. “In this particular motion the COB, in counsel with president and our parliamentarians, spent considerable time coming to the conclusion that the appropriate parliamentary procedure was to allow the convention to decide on the proposed amendment as requested by the motion-maker.”

Cornutt’s motion was one of two that Shelton, in his Tuesday afternoon report, recommended “for later consideration.” Its deliberation would have likely taken place Wednesday morning during the COB’s third report, Shelton confirmed with BP today (June 23).

However, that didn’t happen because Tuesday’s schedule ran long.

Discussions, vote-taking and ballot-gathering related to the appeals of three churches over disfellowship (the first time such an event had taken place at an SBC meeting) alongside a motion to amend the SBC’s Constitution (for which 10 minutes of discussion was added) factored heavily. As a result, time for the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force’s report and subsequent vote for continuation was rescheduled for Wednesday morning.

The COB’s third report slot would be combined with its fourth on Wednesday afternoon, a time when many messengers are either preparing to travel home or thinking heavily about it.

“Our governing documents dictate that any scheduled deliberation must come in a subsequent session after it is announced,” Shelton said. “The COB was aware this meant a Wednesday afternoon vote, which we recognize is the final hours of a long two days of business.

“While it was not our desire to put such a weighty vote so late in our proceedings, our options were quite limited, and it did fall within our scheduled programming.”

Shelton added that Cornutt had the option of retracting his motion at any time, but did not communicate “any such desire at any point.”

Cornutt wrote his own thoughts on the matter, observing “an unusual phenomenon” of “near-unanimous agreement with the content of the amendment, and entirely unanimous agreement that we can never amend our confession like that again.”

It is for such weighty discussions that committees are more appropriate, he said. Cornutt and a friend were trying to get another messenger in place to make such a motion before deliberation ended Wednesday afternoon and the matter was brought forward for a vote.

“If I didn’t believe in the sovereignty of God, I would say we got lucky last week – lucky that we passed a consensus amendment that clarified rather than changed the substance of our confession, and lucky that we learned we have a flaw in our system without causing serious damage,” he wrote.

Shelton, who completed his service on the COB in New Orleans, referred to the Baptist Faith and Message as “a vital unifying confession that should only be amended and updated under the care and recommendation of our best theologians after they have spent considerable time considering all relevant implications of such changes.”

It’s for that reason he will be making a motion regarding future deliberations as a messenger next year in Indianapolis.

Cornutt will be there as well, and is already prepared with his response.

“I’ll gladly be the first to raise my ballot in support of such a measure,” he said.