In 2 Timothy 4:1-2, the Apostle Paul wrote to his protege Timothy, “I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word. Be ready in season and out of season. Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with great patience and teaching.”
In verses 3-4, Paul went on to say, “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.”
The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention was held in Anaheim, CA, last week. I was not able to attend, but we sent messengers from our church and I watched the live feed online. It was evident from what I saw and gleaned from witnesses who were there that the SBC continues to turn from sound doctrine, following the course of teachers who tickle their ears. Many have called this a liberal drift or progressivism.
The SBC is a large vessel—considered the largest protestant denomination in the world, made up of nearly 50,000 autonomous baptist churches. Getting a ship this big turned around will take a lot of time, effort, and money. But the convention is not going to try and change direction if they cannot see that they are going the wrong way. What are the signs of this liberal drift? Can the Southern Baptist Convention change course, or are they doomed to be shipwrecked?
I’m going to offer my review of the annual meeting and the current state of the SBC by responding to seven questions asked by Dr. Nate Brooks, professor of Christian Counseling at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Brooks presented a thread of questions and answers on Twitter to positively frame the outcome of the Baptist Meeting for his Presbyterian friends, though many baptists loved his thread as well. I’m going to give contrasting answers.
Brooks’ Q&A was liked and shared by influential Southern Baptists including former president J.D. Greear, Send Network President Vance Pitman, and SBC Recording Secretary Nathan Finn, in addition to Dwight McKissic, Daniel Darling, Grant Gaines, Josh King, Todd Benkert, Scott Coley, Jennifer Greenberg, and dozens of other professors, preachers, and parishioners.
The questions were as follows:
- Did the SBC go liberal?
- Did the SBC elect a “woke extremist” as president?
- Did the SBC endorse female pastors?
- Did the SBC play abuse politics?
- Did the SBC endorse LGBTQ+ lifestyles?
- Did the SBC endorse abortion?
- Did the SBC annual meeting go well?
Brooks said it did, and I will argue that it did not. I’ll present each of Brooks’ questions and the answers he gave followed by my response. The details I’ll be giving into the current state of the Southern Baptist Convention will be much lengthier, so I will need to break up this review into two parts. For Part 1, I’ll be covering only the first three questions. Then next week, God willing, I’ll present Part 2 responding to the next four questions. Let’s begin with the first question.
QUESTION 1: Did the SBC Go Liberal?
Dr. Brooks said no. Of course the answer to this question is no! What church denomination would ever “go liberal” after a two-day meeting? Brooks’ question comes across as disingenuous, as if he and everyone who agreed with his 7-question thread have never actually listened to the arguments made by conservatives.
Brooks argued that the Southern Baptist Convention is not liberal: “All six of our seminaries affirm inspiration and inerrancy” of Scripture, he said. “All four of our presidential candidates affirm inspiration and inerrancy, deity of Christ, biblical miracles, bodily resurrection, [and the] virgin birth. Those claiming we have gone ‘liberal’ have a very different definition of ‘liberal’ than theological liberalism. The new liberalism speaks more to how Christians engage with the world than anything else.”
While there are people saying the Southern Baptist Convention is now liberal (I heard one say so yesterday), that’s not really the central argument made by most conservatives. The main concern is not that the SBC is liberal but that it is becoming liberal. The charge is liberal drift.
On the evening of the first day of the annual meeting, Mark Dever’s ministry 9 Marks hosted a panel that included Jonathan Leeman as the emcee, Danny Akin, Matt Chandler, Kevin Smith, and a couple others. Dr. Akin, who is president of Southeastern Seminary, more properly framed the charge as liberal drift, but he dismissed the accusation as “nonsense.”
“I was in seminary in the early 80s where you could hardly find an inerrantist even at the most conservative of our seminaries,” Akin said. “When I went to Southeastern in 1992 as a faculty member, the majority of the faculty, just go down the line: no inerrancy, no exclusivity, pro-choice… all egalitarians, and may not even pray to God as Father because that is patriarchal and oppressive to women. So when people begin to say like today, ‘Well, there is a drift toward liberalism,’ I’m sorry, but that’s just nonsense. I’ve stared liberalism in the face, and it’s not what’s happening in our seminaries today.”
Even though Dr. Akin acknowledged the accusation of liberal drift, he responded to it as if the accusation was full-on theological liberalism. There’s a difference between drifting liberal and being liberal. The drift is undeniable, but the reason Dr. Akin can’t see it is because he’s caught in it.
Let’s back up and consider briefly what theological liberalism is, and then I’m going to show you the liberal drift, even in what we saw on display at SBC 22. First, what is theological liberalism? According to Gary Dorrien, as summarized by Kevin DeYoung, liberal theology can be identified by these seven characteristics. Liberalism believes and teaches:
- True religion is not based on external authority.
- Christianity is a movement of social reconstruction.
- Christianity must be credible and relevant.
- Truth can be known only through changing symbols and forms.
- Theological controversy is about language, not about truth.
- The historical accuracies of biblical facts and events are not crucial, so long as we meet Jesus in the pages of Scripture.
- The true religion is the way of Christ, not any particular doctrines of Christ.
If you go back up and look at Brooks and Akin’s characteristics of liberalism, the few examples they cited appear to fit only in categories one and seven. But there are more than two red flags. I would argue that the Southern Baptist Convention—including its entities, seminaries, and a large number of Southern Baptist churches—are drifting in the direction of all seven of these characteristics. I could write at length about this with multiple examples, but let me narrow it down to three.
FIRST: Consider how the SBC has embraced “a movement of social reconstruction.” What better example than Southern Baptists’ relationship with the social justice movement? I highlighted this problem last year with a comment made by Dhati Lewis, who said, “The gospel is not good news without spiritual redemption and restoration, but the gospel is also not good news without emotional, economic, and social restoration as well.” Lewis is not some fringe voice. He was one of the presidents of the North American Mission Board (NAMB) and the emcee of NAMB’s round-table discussion entitled Undivided which was distributed to Southern Baptist churches.
SECOND: Consider how the SBC believes it “must be credible and relevant.” I’ve written much in the past about how many Southern Baptist churches have a long-running affair with pragmatism—the practice that if a method works, it’s good. If doing a summer-long series called “Back to the Movies” attracts a bunch of people with sermons that are based on popular films, as long as you throw a few Bible verses in there, then it must be a good thing. That’s liberal, and many Southern Baptist churches are doing it. (By the way, that is a real series going on right now in a Southern Baptist church.)
THIRD: Consider how “Theological controversy” in the SBC “is about language, not about truth.” We saw this on display at the annual meeting in Anaheim. Debate was stirred on the floor of the convention as to what a pastor is and whether a woman can be a pastor. The Credentials Committee recommended a year-long study into the definition of a pastor. The chairperson of the committee, who was a woman, said that pastor means different things to different people. This was a clear example of liberal drift.
Yet that very same evening, Danny Akin had the audacity to say that the accusation of liberal drift is nonsense. He believes he’s “stared liberalism in the face, and it’s not what’s happening in our seminaries today.” It is happening at Akin’s seminary, and it has come from his own mouth. Dr. Akin has advocated for what is called standpoint epistemology, meaning that where we live and who we are—including skin color, gender, and sexual orientation—influence how we interpret Scripture.
In a since-deleted video, Akin said of himself in the third person, “Danny Akin cannot help the fact that he comes to the Bible as a white male, married, who comes from the deep south, who has rock-solid convictions and commitments about the supernatural worldview, about the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible, and who is committed to Orthodox Christianity.” He went on to say, “I suspect that I read the Bible differently than say a lesbian woman of a different ethnicity who lives up in the northwest and is committed to a pantheistic worldview way of thinking.”
Because Dr. Akin views biblical interpretation this way, he hires and churns out professors who teach this way. Dr. Elizabeth Mburu, the first woman to earn a PhD from Akin’s seminary, has published a book entitled African Hermeneutics (hermeneutics are the disciplines of biblical interpretation). She says that when interpreting the Bible, you must begin with an African worldview, then do a theological analysis, then you go to the biblical text, then do a literary analysis.
Conrad Mbewe, Chancellor of African Christian University in Lusaka, Zambia, said that Dr. Mburu has this completely backwards. “The lady is confusing Hermeneutics with Application,” he said. “You do not begin with the place you will apply the text but with the place where the text is written.”
Standpoint epistemology is not how to interpret the Bible. Being black or white, man or woman, North American or South American, Russian or Chinese, gay or natural cannot help you understand the law, the prophets, the gospels, or what Paul wrote to Timothy. There is one way to interpret the Bible, and that is to understand what the original author wrote to his original audience—what is called a grammatical historical hermeneutic. We must seek to draw the original meaning out of the text (exegesis), not impose our personal experiences onto the text (eisegesis).
Southeastern is not the only Southern Baptist seminary employing these woke hermeneutics. Jarvis Williams, New Testament professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote an article entitled, “Intersection of Identity and Biblical Interpretation.” Dr. Williams says that we must “rigorously study the Bible with people from different races, ethnicities, social postures, and genders,” as if a teacher’s skin color has anything to do with how we understand the text. (For more, I recommend watching Dr. Tom Buck’s message on Woke Hermeneutics.)
This is liberal drift. Now, I call it “drift” and not full-on liberalism because Southern Baptist seminaries have not totally or confessionally adopted these liberal hermeneutics. There are still presidents and professors who would outright reject Woke Hermeneutics.
Last year, I received an e-mail from a listener who is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He said that he attended the class of a professor who was Woke, whose cultural views were heavily influenced by social justice and critical race theory. (The student told me the professor’s name, but because I did not personally witness this, I won’t share who it was.) It was a miserable class, he said, so he switched to a class with Stephen Wellum, and his class was much more enjoyable. So there are many who are still on the right course, but many others who are not.
The Southern Baptist Convention has been in liberal drift for several years. Did anything happen at the annual meeting in Anaheim to help correct the trajectory? No. The SBC is drifting further and further into liberalism.
QUESTION 2: Did the SBC Elect a “Woke Extremist” as President?
Dr. Brooks said no. “We elected a small-town pastor from Texas (Bart Barber,” Brooks said. “He ran on a platform of charity towards those we disagree with, supporting the sexual abuse task force, and that the SBC can be diverse yet unified.” Brooks went on to say, “Even though I agreed more doctrinally with a different candidate,” which I assume to be the reformed Tom Ascol, “I voted for Bart Barber because ‘winsome’ is as important as ‘reformed.'”
That is simply an astonishing statement. To be winsome is to be attractive or appealing in appearance or character. Merriam-Webster defines it, “Generally pleasing and engaging often because of a childlike charm or innocence.” The word comes from the same root word as “win.” If you’ve ever said of someone, “He has a winning smile,” or a “winning personality,” that would be like calling someone winsome.
What do you notice about this word? It’s completely subjective in its application. There is no biblical requirement to be winsome. What one person calls winsome, another might characterize as smug and arrogant. Being winsome can also be an act. Winsomeness says nothing about a person’s beliefs, ethics, or leadership—just that they’re good at being likable.
Now, I’m not saying anything here about Barber’s character. He strikes me as being a nice guy—an aw-shucks polite southern fellow. My contention is with Brooks’ saying that being winsome is every bit as important as being reformed. While winsome is something subjective, reformed is something objective.
If Dr. Brooks has any deep convictions about being reformed—and I assume that he does, given that he is a professor at Reformed Theological Seminary—then he knows that being reformed is synonymous with being biblical. To be reformed is to confess to a specific statement of faith summarizing biblical beliefs—in Tom Ascol’s case, his doctrine is aligned with the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith, 1689, and other connected Baptist confessions.
Now, if by “winsome,” Brooks meant something like 2 Timothy 2:24, that “the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged,” then he should have said that. But he didn’t ground “winsome” in anything objective. It was based on how someone feels about a person, not on what the Bible says. Sadly, Brooks’ behavior here was rather unbiblical.
He went on to say of Dr. Ascol, “The reformed candidate has declared our convention to be slipping into apostasy, vilified those supporting abuse survivors, and sought close association with those who protected abusive pastors.”
This was a character attack. He did not explain himself further or back up his accusations with anything substantive. He slandered Dr. Ascol—and so did anyone who gleefully shared Brooks’ thread in happy agreement. How was that “winsome”? It struck me as mean for no reason. Talk about being sore winners.
The hypocrisy here is baffling. Brooks called himself “winsomely reformed,” but this accusation was not winsome. He praised Bart Barber for running “on a platform of charity towards those we disagree with,” but he did not show charity toward someone he disagreed with. He said Ascol “vilified those supporting abuse survivors,” but that accusation was itself vilifying. And Greear, Pitman, and Finn applauded this behavior? Shame on them. How are you going to praise Barber for being charitable and not be charitable yourselves?
(Dr. Ascol publicly reached out to Brooks asking “to show me where I have ‘vilified those who support abuse survivors.'” As of the publication of this article, Dr. Brooks has not replied.)
Like Brooks’ first question, his second was also disingenuous. Who called Bart Barber a “woke extremist”? While Barber might be a nice guy and not extreme, he’s still a company man who has said he loves the direction the Southern Baptist Convention is going. He’s a smiler, not a fighter. The SBC, its entities, and its seminaries will continue to drift into liberalism under Barber’s leadership. Will he do what is necessary, or what Southern Baptists want him to do?
QUESTION 3: Did the SBC Endorse Female Pastors?
Dr. Brooks’ answer was “Yes and no.” So his answer is basically yes. He went on to say that SBC polity or our governing structures are a mess. For instance, “Some churches have women who are titled ‘Pastor of Music,'” he said. “However, they are not elders. Indeed, those churches may have only one elder—the lead pastor. So what do you do? We’re figuring that out. The issue is one of imprecise terminology, not of liberalism. And I say that as a thoroughgoing complementarian.”
So Dr. Brooks can be that charitable toward these churches with women pastors, with whom he does not doctrinally agree; but he could not be charitable toward Tom Ascol, with whom he does doctrinally agree? But I digress.
Brooks’ response to this question was woefully naive at best. The growing issue with an increasing number of women pastors in Southern Baptist churches is not about terminology—the issue is about function. For several years now, progressives have been positioning women in roles of teaching authority over men, which prohibited in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. There the Holy Spirit of God has said, “A woman must learn in quietness, in all submission. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.”
The outgoing Southern Baptist president, Ed Litton, has had his wife preach sermons to the gathered body of believers on Sunday morning. I wrote about this ahead of last year’s annual meeting. He got elected anyway—because of liberal drift. Days after being elected president, Litton was exposed as being a plagiarist and a lying fraud. Not only had he plagiarized sermons, but so had his wife preached plagiarized sermons. I demonstrated that in this article.
Two years ago, ahead of what was going to be annual meeting in Orlando (cancelled because of COVID panic), the keynote speaker of the pastor’s conference was a man who was not Southern Baptist who pastored a church with women pastors who preached to the mixed body on Sunday morning. The president of the pastor’s conference, David Uth, was going to have an ordained woman pastor come and recite poetry—at the pastor’s conference. I kid you not.
Another preacher for that conference, David Hughes, is a co-pastor with his wife at a Southern Baptist church. In fact, the three largest Southern Baptist churches all have women pastors who preach and teach in the function of an overseeing elder: Saddleback Church (Andy and Stacie Wood), Fellowship Church (Ed and Lisa Young), and Elevation Church (Steven and Holly Furtick). NAMB has been planting churches with women pastors and partnering with churches with women pastors. This is an ongoing and growing problem among Southern Baptists.
At last year’s annual meeting in Nashville, the Credentials Committee was asked by the messengers to investigate Saddleback Church for ordaining women pastors. Saddleback was the target because that story was fresh in the news. But there are many very large Southern Baptist churches who have been doing this for a long time. These are not women who oversee childcare and are mistakenly given the title “children’s pastor.” These are women with teaching authority over the men of the church.
When the Credentials Committee stood before the messengers at Anaheim and gave their report (you can watch it here), chairperson Linda Cooper said that the objective of the committee was to consider “the question of whether a church is currently in friendly cooperation with the convention as described in the SBC constitution, article 3.” She went on to say, “We are a recommending body only. We have no decision-making power. That power lies with you, the messengers of the convention, or with the Executive Committee.” Only the messengers or the EC can decide a church should be expelled from cooperation with the convention.
Regarding Saddleback’s ordination of women pastors, Cooper said the committee interviewed senior pastor Rick Warren. “We have concluded that we are not yet prepared to make a recommendation regarding Saddleback Church,” she said, “recognizing that there are differing opinions regarding the intent of the office of pastor, as stated in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Therefore, we are coming today asking for a study committee to provide clarity regarding this matter.”
Cooper went on to say, “We feel it is very important for you to know that it is the unanimous opinion of the credentials committee that the majority of Southern Baptists hold to the belief that the function of lead pastor, elder, bishop, overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture and that this was the intended definition of office of pastor as stated in article six of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”
Notice the qualifier “lead pastor”—not just the office of pastor, but the office of lead pastor. We just heard from a woman on the platform at the SBC annual meeting in Anaheim that a woman can be a pastor of a church so long as she is not the lead pastor. She can teach men and women and preach to the corporate body of believers, so long as she is not the lead pastor, and that is what the authors of the BFM 2000 meant when they wrote, “The office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” They meant “lead pastor.”
Moments later from the floor of the convention, Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said that is not what the authors meant when they wrote that in the BFM 2000. Dr. Mohler would know because he was on the committee that drafted the BFM 2000.
He said, “If we eventually have to form a study committee over every word in our confession of faith, then we’re doomed and we’re no longer a confessional people.” He went on to say, “The words mean what Southern Baptists said in the year 2000. At that time, the word ‘pastor’ was used by the committee and adopted by the convention because we were told that is the most easily understood word among Southern Baptists for pastoral teaching leadership. I have to hope we still have that much clarity and that churches that use the word pastor mean it.”
Linda Cooper responded, “Dr. Mohler, I understand totally. To me, I understand what pastor means, but in some of our Southern Baptist churches, ‘pastor’ is a spiritual gift that is given to many people.” It needs to be said that is wrong. The Holy Spirit is not going to gift a woman for a role that the Spirit also prohibits a woman from doing.
Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, later presented an amendment that would essentially welcome churches with women pastors, regardless of what is said in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Jimmy Scroggins, a pastor and board member for Lifeway, said, “I’m happy to partner with leaders and churches that see some things differently than I do. I might not ever join their church. But I’m in favor of a more generous reading of the Baptist Faith and Message and a bigger Baptist tent for purposes of fellowship and partnership.”
The next day, Rick Warren was given the opportunity to address the convention (more on his bloviating speech at another time, but my wife and I reviewed it here). He said that there was a difference between “the gift of pastoring as opposite from the office of pastoring.”
The gift of pastoring as opposite of the office of pastoring? What on earth does that mean? So if a person is functioning as a pastor, they’re opposed to what the office entails? That’s ridiculous. As Dr. Mohler has said, the office is the function and the function is the office. There is no difference between the two. Scripture says only men are to be overseers in the church, and women are not “to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet.” Period.
Given what we saw at SBC 22, I do not understand how Dr. Brooks could accept that and still call himself “a thoroughgoing complementarian.” Did the SBC endorse female pastors? Brooks’ first answer was the correct one: yes, they did. Since the conservative resurgence, has there ever been an annual meeting where accepting women in the function of pastor was expressed from the platform or from the floor of the convention as it was expressed at Anaheim?
Many Southern Baptist churches have been appointing women as pastors for a while. They now have the convention’s support. More and more biblically disobedient churches with women pastors will be welcome at future annual meetings to cast their votes on Southern Baptist life, polity, money, positions of authority, and teaching. Do you still think there’s no liberal drift?
This concludes part 1 of my review of Dr. Brooks’ Q&A. God willing, I will post part 2 next week covering his next four questions. We will consider how the SBC has played abuse politics, has the SBC endorsed LGBTQ+ lifestyles in any way, and what were some the things talked about at the convention regarding abortion. Will Southern Baptists see the problems in enough time to change course and right the ship? Or have many already “suffered shipwreck in regard to their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19)?
Whether you’re Southern Baptist or not, it is as important as it has always been to “preach the word… Reprove, rebuke, and exhort with great patience and teaching.” In 2 Timothy 4:5, it says, “Be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of evangelist, fulfill your ministry.”
My thanks to Tom Buck, Denny Burk, Ryan Graber, Woke Preacher TV, Capstone Report, and Founders Ministries whose chronicling of events contributed to elements of this article.