To The Victor Belong The Spoils 

A Working Definition of Southern Baptist Convention Unity

As sitting President of the SBC Bart Barber continues his farewell tour, the Beeson Divinity School webpage captured the message Barber came to deliver, “SBC President Encourages Students, Community To Pursue Unity.” For at least seven years that same message has been delivered by successive SBC presidents Barber, Ed Litton, and J.D. Greear.

During a recent Q&A in Birmingham, an Alabama pastor and student at Beeson Divinity School, opened the door for Barber to elaborate on his pursuit of Baptist unity (relevant section starts around 4 minutes): 

“I know that you [Barber] are a unifier and you want to be a unifier . . . could you talk to or get with other prominent SBC leaders whose ministries I’ve benefited from like you know Tom Ascol or Mike Stone and different ones and we come together. How would you be willing to do that? How would that look and what would it look like?”

Before examining Barber’s response, it might prove illuminating to recall that unity among factions within the SBC is not the only fraught relationship in need of effective unifying remedies among Southern Baptists according to Greear, Litton, and Barber. Racial reconciliation between whites and blacks has become a seemingly permanent preoccupation of SBC presidents. These three men deem two tasks as urgent and essential to any serious pursuit of racial reconciliation, namely, more conversation between blacks and whites at the highest levels of the SBC, and more listening rather than talking by the white men in charge.

In keeping with these convictions, SBC and SBC-affiliated conferences and panels galore have facilitated the sort of public conversations touted and have captured for the cameras numerous elite Baptist white men’s heads nodding as select black Baptists schooled them on what it’s like to be black in America and black in the Southern Baptist Convention and what is needed to address the problems out there.

Given the fast-approaching end of Barber’s term as President without any such conversations related to disunity within the convention having occurred, what answer could Barber provide to the Alabama pastor and to the Southern Baptists? If Barber has been attempting unsuccessfully to engage say Tom Ascol and Mike Stone in just the sort of conversations that might contribute to more unity in the SBC, this would be the perfect time to let Baptist know—“I have tried, but Ascol and Stone refuse—they’ve rebuffed my many overtures to sit down and try to forge more unified future for our beloved denomination.” Ah, but no such overtures have occurred for Barber to report. But to admit that he has taken no action to foster unity would demand honesty and courage of the kind so rarely seen among elites within the Southern Baptist Convention. 

So, instead, Barber provided a long circuitous variously rambling, off-point filibuster, non-answer to the Alabama pastor and the Southern Baptist students gathered that day. Here are a few tidbits—“I say a little less online than I used to and some of that is because of being busy and some of that is because of just not being hopeful about what can be achieved here.” Barber was not asked about online activity. He was asked about the pursuit of unity in the denomination through conversations with Tom Ascol and Mike Stone.

Then this, “I’ll say about Tom Ascol that I actually have a long-standing friendship with Tom. Yeah, Tom and I have worked together on a resolution that was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention regarding their church membership and a Baptist thing that I care about that we work together on and that’s private conversation.” Oh, that was private. Not a conversation about pursuing unity within the denomination? But the question posed was about unity.

Then this:

“Mike [Stone] I don’t know as well, although I have reached out. We’ve communicated, Mike and I have. . . . I don’t harbor any ill will toward either of those men and I don’t think they do toward me.”

Great! Sounds like a goodwill foundation so essential to the pursuit of unity within the convention through serious and ongoing conversations. But that has not happened. And nothing over the last seven years suggests that it will happen.

Barber, perhaps inadvertently, told us why it won’t happen—“where we have differences of opinion that can’t meet in the middle . . . let the messenger body sort it out.” Get it? Bart won so that’s it. Unify around him or pound sand. To the winner belong the spoils. Indeed, they do. That is how politics tend to work. But that means that the headliner of Barber’s visit to Beeson along with the seven years of in-pursuit-of-unity rhetoric from Barber and his two successors are a ruse, a repeated head fake—a calculated effort to leave audiences like those in Birmingham with the false belief that unity within the SBC is being actively pursued at the highest levels. It has not, is not, and won’t be.

In a remarkable aside, Barber mused upon his mystical interpretation of God’s involvement in decisions made by gathered Baptists like the one to elect him President of the SBC.

“I believe that when you gather God’s people to make decisions Christ is there with them. I believe there’s a supernatural thing that happens with church business meetings or if all those things are clicking right even in something like the SBC annual meeting where the spirit of God is at work to make us better than what we are and help us to make decisions together so.”  

In 2021, Stone won the most votes on the first ballot, ahead of both Litton and Mohler. Ascol won almost 40% in his loss to Barber. How much disenfranchisement of Southern Baptists does Barber welcome?

The longer Barber’s non-answer went on, the more bizarre and revealing it became:

Mike [Stone] and some of the other folks formed like a party within the Southern Baptist Convention, Conservative Baptist Network (CBN) and it’s not like those points of view were unrepresentative as they say prior to that time frame and nobody else is doing that forming any kind of a party mechanism to have a meeting and all that sort of thing and we often take our cues from what’s happening in secular politics around us and you know it used to be that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill worked together on some things and tried to have kind of some cordiality in the way that they do things, but now we see formed parties and slates of candidates and we’re taking our cues from the relationship between Republicans and Democrats right now and political party. 

Barber points to two politicians of opposing parties coming together despite differences to defend his own disinterest in, refusal to, too busy to, follow their example? He praises partisan politicians but then loads opprobrium upon the CBN? Wasn’t Barber’s own “candidacy” endorsed on the Baptist 21 podcast? Danny Akin piggybacked on Russell Moore’s salacious allegations against Mike Stone and endorsed Ed Litton. On June 15, 2021, in Nashville, with Mike Stone viewed by some as the frontrunner, Baptist 21 held a panel discussion with two of the candidates, Al Mohler and Ed Litton. Why was Mike Stone not invited? Are these examples of the “party mechanisms” Barber opposes? Does such party activity include NAMB’s use of Cooperative Program funds to underwrite campaign-like appearances for a preferred SBC presidential candidate and subsidize church planters’ attendance at the annual meeting to vote accordingly? Is a “physician, heal thyself” admonition in order here?”  

The struggle within the SBC is political, as it must be. A voting process determines the presidency that then sets the tone for the convention, shapes the branding and messaging that guides the denomination, and elects those who elect the trustees who control the institutions Southern Baptists own. The Greear-Litton-Barber era of the SBC is in full swing.

One result is that those who control the institutions support Tim Keller-like sanctification of Christian votes for Democrats while some large percentage of Southern Baptists voted twice for Trump and will do so a third time if given the opportunity. Another result is that both Southern and Southeastern seminaries employ black professors who’ve promoted fundamental components of critical race theory and tout liberation theologians James Cone and J. Deotis Roberts while bestselling, utterly un-woke blacks Voddie Baucham and Carol Swain are treated as non-existent by supposedly “start-by-listening” white men J. D. Greear, Ed Litton, David Platt, Matt Chandler, and Jonathan Leeman. 

Do instinctually non-activist conservative Southern Baptists want the SBC institutions they and their forebears own to continue down the seeker-sensitive, winsome-to-blue communities path commended by Timothy Keller? If not, they will have elect presidents at annual conventions who share their views because, in politics, which this is, to the victor belong the spoils.    

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Mark DeVine

Mark DeVine is Associate Professor of Divinity at the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham where he teaches historical theology and doctrine, as well as Teaching Elder of Smoke Rise Baptist Church in Smoke Rise, Alabama. Dr. DeVine is the author of several books and writes at The Federalist, American Spectator, The Western Journal, Christ Over All, and American Thinker.

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