Why the SBC Is Worth Fighting For

(and Acts 29 Isn’t)

After graduating from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2008, I moved my family from Louisville, KY, to the inner city of Cincinnati, OH, to plant the only Southern Baptist church in the city limits. We had no friends or family there. Our sending church was 100 miles away in Louisville. And we were planting in a neighborhood where none had succeeded in recent memory. All had failed.

That first year, we faced intense spiritual warfare. We rented a downtown storefront where we held preview services. All kinds of people wandered in off the streets, asking for food or money. We didn’t know what we were doing. On one occasion, a man joined us for discussion time and casually talked about some of his sexual proclivities. I won’t repeat what he said, but it was deeply disturbing. Some thought he was demon-possessed.

Despite all this, I never doubted God’s call for me to plant this church. That is, until what happened in February 2009. I woke up one morning to get my children out of bed and noticed a bullet hole in their bedroom window. When I looked across the room, I saw that it had lodged in the wall, just a few inches above where my 3-year-old daughter was sleeping. 

I knew then that I was in over my head. I needed help.

The SBC and Acts 29

The North American Mission Board was our primary funding partner to get us off the ground in those early years, but I also needed training and brotherhood from experienced urban church planters. That’s when we joined Acts 29. Between the SBC and Acts 29, I felt like I was well-resourced to focus on planting my church. We even worked with NAMB to establish a ministry residency program at our church. Both entities had a reputation for a good blend of doctrinal fidelity and practical wisdom for ministry. 

That was fifteen years ago. My, how times have changed. I no longer feel confident that either of these two organizations is on a good trajectory. Both of them now suffer from significant doctrinal drift (Acts 29, SBC) and compromised ministry pragmatism that will do great damage in the long run. Both of them have twisted the word “complementarian” to mean the opposite of what it originally intended (SBC, Acts 29). The SBC made a good first step in approving the Mike Law amendment last year, which needs a second vote to take effect. The SBC reportedly has nearly 2,000 churches with women pastors on staff. Both lack financial transparency and accountability (SBC, Acts 29). Acts 29’s budgeting decisions have eroded trust amongst its churches. It is obsessed with baptizing the world’s woke ideology of social justice and seeing our country through the eyes of systemic racism. Unfounded allegations of widespread sexual abuse have SBC leaders running scared to protect its image. Acts 29 has promoted pastors who hold deeply problematic views on transgender ideology and celebrates highly suspect tactics in speaking about LGBTQ sins. The SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Council routinely betrays the people they are paid to represent on urgent matters such as abortion.

In short, both have embraced their own versions of man-centered ministry pragmatism at just the moment that clear-headed, principled ministry is urgently needed. Both organizations need to change, and fast. If they don’t, they’ll continue down the slippery slope towards progressivism.

Institutions are more important than we realize. The Southern Baptist Convention was established to organize and mobilize Southern Baptists for missions. Seminaries were founded to train men for pastoral ministry and missions. Southern Baptist seminaries train a large percentage of ministry leaders in a variety of traditions. In other words, the SBC is a significant theological engine for the modern evangelical world. But when our institutions prioritize pragmatic “mission” over doctrinal fidelity, we end up training evangelists for error.

Every conservative institution must be vigilant to maintain its founding principles. One of Robert Conquest’s famous laws of institutions is that any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing. The Apostle Paul vividly described how false teaching spreads through a church like gangrene through a body, causing healthy flesh to rot (2 Tim 2:17). Both the SBC and Acts 29 are infected with the gangrene of wokeness, Critical Theory, greed, feminism, and pragmatism.

In a church, the gangrene is stopped by faithful pastors who boldly preach God’s word and practice church discipline. In organizations like Acts 29 or the SBC, gangrene is stopped by the slow, arduous work of institutional reform. Some faithful pastors in both organizations have decided that it’s too late for reform. Their protest resignations diminish the ongoing conservative insurgency and surrender ground to the progressive establishment.

I have served in leadership positions in both organizations. I served as the director of the Ohio River Region for Acts 29, overseeing three states. For the SBC, I served on the Administrative Leadership Team for my local association. I care about both organizations because there are faithful pastors in both, but it is my view that the SBC is worth fighting for and Acts 29 is not. 

Therefore, I made the choice last year to abandon Acts 29 and concentrate my reform efforts on the SBC. For reasons I’ll explain below, I believe Acts 29 is irreformable, and even if conservative reform were to happen, Acts 29 is too small a prize to justify the effort. And yet, I have many pastors and friends in Acts 29 whom I love and for whom I have great respect. For you, my brothers, this essay is not an attack on you. I salute you for the faithful work you’re doing within a compromised organization. Soldier on brothers.

Over my experience the last decade in Acts 29 and the last two decades in the SBC, I’ve observed a vivid contrast between the two organizations that confirmed this decision. This decision was also confirmed recently when some faithful pastors approached me to consider running for First Vice President. I’ve agreed to accept Dr. Jared Moore’s nomination this June because the SBC is worth fighting for. For the remainder of this essay, I’ll lay out my top three reasons why I’m fighting for the SBC but not Acts 29. 

Why the SBC Is Worth Fighting For (and Acts 29 Isn’t)

1. Acts 29 is little more than a marketing strategy.

Acts 29’s bold aspirations have never escaped the Mark Driscoll cult of personality that originally gave it prominence. In the early days, Driscoll was a hurricane blowing across the evangelical world. He could not be ignored. While men like John Piper, R. C. Sproul, and Al Mohler drew fresh recruits into the Reformed Theology camp, Mark Driscoll made it cool with urban edginess, Seattle grunge worship, slick graphic design, and youth-oriented, social media-driven marketing. Driscoll was a headliner of the “young, restless, and reformed” movement, and Acts 29 was its flagship church-planting institution.

The only problem: it is not a real institution. It never was. Acts 29 is a marketing strategy that failed to launch into anything more. In its brief history, Acts 29 fired its founder (Driscoll), fired his replacement (Steve Timmis), removed its board president (Matt Chandler), and every new interaction and constant reinvention promises that “this time will be better.” Acts 29 markets itself with graphic design and buzz events that appear impressive at a glance, but real institutions have more than just a pretty website. Driscoll himself once acknowledged that Acts 29 consisted largely of “Nascar churches” with bumper stickers from multiple organizations. 

This leads me to my next point. 

2. The SBC is a real institution. 

The SBC is much larger than Acts 29, possibly 60-75 times bigger, depending on your metrics. For example, The SBC consists of over 12 million church members. Acts 29 consists of under 500 churches in the United States which by comparison makes it nothing more than a boutique network in the evangelical landscape. The SBC has a rich history of doctrinal fidelity and evangelistic zeal. And its real institutional assets are strong enough to carry the inevitable baggage that all historic Christian institutions have.

Some Southern Baptists are embarrassed by the name “Baptist” because progressives have long associated us with “slavery” and “racism.” More recently, progressives have also been playing the “sex abuse” card against us, trying to cash in on Catholic abuse scandals. From a practical standpoint, every historic Christian institution has baggage. The stronger the institution, however, the more baggage it can carry. (I’m not speaking of needed reforms to deal with real issues, but how stronger institutions can withstand the damage caused by bad press).

Every Christian organization worth paying attention to has baggage. The UMC is liberal. The Catholics worship Mary. They also hide sexual predator priests. The Eastern Orthodox are lite beer Catholics. The SBC is racist. The PCA is gay. The PCUSA is even more gay. Acts 29 is fake and gay. Everyone’s got baggage. But strong institutions are like fortresses that can withstand the onslaught of bad PR.

The SBC is the largest protestant denomination in the world, which means we’ve got the biggest target on our backs. Progressives would love nothing more than to bring us down or take us over. The colonization has already begun. Team DenHollander is trying to tarnish the SBC’s reputation with allegations of sexual abuse so they can then empty our coffers as payouts to abuse victims and credibility-rebuilding PR firms. Progressives see the SBC for what it is: the most powerful evangelical institution in the world. If they can fully capture it, they can ram it like a locomotive through every conservative priority, spending all the hard-earned credibility and tradition our Southern Baptist predecessors have bequeathed to us.

By contrast, Acts 29 has no institutional power. It has no seminaries or scholarly institutions. Acts 29’s scholars are temporarily rebranded “professors on loan” from real seminaries. Acts 29 owns no real estate. It has no headquarters you could visit. In its brief history, it has too few victories to hang its hat on and too many stigma-inducing scandals to overcome. You can thank Mike Cosper for that.

Since Acts 29 is basically a marketing strategy, bad PR could prove fatal. Acts 29 lives or dies by good PR, which is obvious from their desperate marketing attempts to salvage their tarnished reputation. In the early days, the Acts 29 network functioned like a signal flare for people who were looking for a doctrinally solid church with a contemporary ethos. In the years since, it is more associated with squishy complementarianism, “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill, arbitrarily kicking out faithful pastors who dared raise important questions and questionable evangelistic tactics towards LGBTQ people. There aren’t sufficient institutional benefits to carry this baggage.

If the SBC suddenly ceased to exist tomorrow, the New York Times would run a front-page headline about the massive crater it left in the middle of the evangelical world. If Acts 29 ceased to exist, it might get a short obituary in the Gospel Coalition. That said, the SBC does have real baggage, and real reform is needed. 

This leads me to my third point.

3. The SBC has a real mechanism for internal reform. Acts 29 is a dictatorship.

The SBC is run by Baptist congregational polity at scale, funded by member churches who determine its direction and priorities. The churches that fund it can change and reform it. This is difficult to do, and we face an uphill battle, but the path to victory is straightforward: get the maximum number of messengers to the annual meeting and vote for our priorities.

Acts 29, on the other hand, is a dictatorship. Member churches have been renamed as “partner churches,” reinforcing the fact that pastors are expected to financially “partner” with the network but are not “members” of anything. As such, partner churches have absolutely zero control over the network. They have no vote. The five-member board has total control. Pastors may provide input to the board, but are then left to trust the board to have the benevolence and wisdom to make the right decisions.

This point was decisive for me, the point that made me most hopeless that reform is actually possible. Acts 29 requires member churches to pay 2–3% of their overall budget directly to the network. In other words, Acts 29 is committed to a “taxation without representation” organizational model. If you don’t pay it, you get kicked out. If you do pay it, you still don’t get a vote. So what are you paying for? You’re paying for the privilege of trusting unaccountable men who lack financial transparency. They know what’s best. “We’re planting churches,” they say, which should be all that matters. According to the most recently published annual report, Acts 29 has over 700 partner churches, which includes 61 churches joining and 33 brand new church plants in 2022. That same report mentions total income at $7.2 million dollars. If planting new churches is the goal, then it costs over $212,000 per church plant.

Although no annual report is yet available for 2023, whistleblowers in the organization estimate that by the early April annual renewal date, Acts 29 will have lost as many as 300 of its 700 partnering churches in the last fifteen months. Partner churches are leaving in droves, they’re unhappy, and they’re making noise on the way out the door (Coram Deo Church, Garden City Church, The Well Church, and CityView Church).

Realizing that there is no real path for reform in Acts 29, I finally realized that there is no such thing as “stay and fight.” There is only pay and obey. The board is a dictatorship. Member churches are taxed as vassals with little to show for it apart from the hefty PR baggage we still have to answer for, much of which is due to the decisions made by leaders we’re obligated to trust. I wish it were not so, but there’s simply nothing Acts 29 churches can do. They are completely powerless.

By contrast, SBC pastors have the power to vote. Reform efforts in the SBC have a real path to victory. Greater SBC giving corresponds to greater voting power. The SBC has tangible assets worth fighting for, and our baggage is real but manageable. Grassroots conservatives need to bring every single messenger to Indianapolis this June and continue the reform efforts underway. 


So that’s why I have left the Acts 29 network and am doubling down on reform efforts within the SBC. Acts 29 is not a real institution. It once showed great promise but failed to launch. The engineers in the control room mismanaged the liftoff, and it’s only a matter of time before it crashes into the Atlantic. The departing Acts 29 partner churches are seeing the same things I see. People in the know speak of Acts 29 like Eomer in Tolkien’s The Two Towers: “Do not trust to hope. It has forsaken these lands.”

Real institutions take great care over many generations to build. The SBC’s 175+ year legacy is worth fighting for. Similarly, real reform may take a long time. I don’t expect to see the needed reforms to happen in the next couple of years. It may take much longer than that. But I’m fighting for the future. I dream of what a doctrinally faithful and missionally effective SBC will be for my yet-to-be-born great-grandchildren’s generation. And beyond. We may spend the rest of this century turning the SBC around like an ocean liner, but it can be done. We are fighting for an SBC that will be, Lord willing, faithful in the year 2124. We don’t want to see the SBC captured by progressives and repurposed like so many church buildings bought by developers and turned into boutique condos. The SBC could once again become the gospel witnessing powerhouse it used to be. I’m confident this could happen with the right leadership, doctrinal clarity, and refocused priorities.

Image Credit: Unsplash

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Michael Clary

Michael Clary is the lead pastor of Christ the King Church in Cincinnati, OH. Michael’s book, “God’s Good Design: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Guide to Human Sexuality,” has just been published by Reformation Zion. Michael and his wife, Laura, live in Cincinnati with their four children.

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