By Sharayah Colter, with additional reporting by Raegen Hain
June 20, 2021
More than 1,300 people attended the Conservative Baptist Network’s breakfast event before the opening gavel of the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting in Nashville, June 15. An attentive, responsive crowd generated enthusiasm in the packed room and rallied speakers as they discussed Critical Race Theory, religious liberty, the sufficiency of Scripture, courage, and evangelism during the fast-paced, 11-speaker breakfast program.
Ryan Helfenbein, executive director of Liberty University’s Standing for Freedom Center, which sponsored the breakfast event, quoted the late Adrian Rogers in saying, “As Southern Baptists go, so goes the nation.” He explained that the work done in the Convention has repercussions throughout the rest of society, making the annual two-day meeting of the SBC an important time to stand courageously and boldly upon Scripture.
“Today, it takes courage not to speak out of both sides of your mouth, but to mean what you say and say what you mean, knowing that every word can and will be used against you. It takes courage not to kneel in deference to woke ideology, the pressures of the mob, or to virtue signal to the cancel culture. But it takes courage to stand for truth, to make no apology for the truth and to proclaim to this generation that you are not ashamed of the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, and there is no condemnation—none whatsoever—for those that are in Christ.
“It takes courage not just to sign a confessional statement; anyone can do that—anyone. But it takes courage to live a confessional life that is consistent with sound, biblical doctrine, and teaching, and orthodoxy,” Helfenbein continued. “It takes courage not to avoid politics for the sake of a public witness—that’s political correctness. It takes courage, instead, to speak clearly, boldly, emphatically that life, marriage, sexuality, education, even religious liberty are non-negotiables for anyone who claims the name of Christ.
“It takes courage not simply to say that the Bible is God’s Word—infallible and inerrant—but it takes courage to say that the Bible is enough—more than enough to address all matters pertaining to life and to salvation,” Helfenbein said.
Helfenbein also addressed by name Critical Race Theory (CRT)—an increasingly controversial issue which many have said inspired their attendance at the 2021 Annual Meeting where they hoped to vote for measures to decry it as a harmful, anti-biblical, racist ideology.
“Do you want to know why CRT is fundamentally broken? Why anyone who would pedal it even momentarily cannot be trusted for truth?” Helfenbein asked. “Because you cannot know Christ, and you cannot know truth, through a subjective lens. Critical Race Theory insists upon the subjective. It demands it. It seeks to supplant truth that unites and replace it with lies that divide.
“Our credibility, our public witness, our prophetic voice will not be lost because we didn’t adequately adopt secular movements at the right time or ride their wave of popularity. Our credibility will be lost if we fail to stand on the authority and sufficiency of the Word of God.”
Other speakers at the event included Erwin Lutzer, pastor emeritus of Moody Church; Mark Harris, vice president at the Family Research Council (FRC); Todd Starnes, host of the “Todd Starnes Show;” Carol Swain, an author, political commentator, and former professor; Rod Martin, Founder and CEO of the Martin Organization; Javier Chavez, pastor of Amistad Cristiana International in Gainesville, Ga.; Lee Brand, dean and vice president at Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary; Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, Ga.; Brad Jurkovich, pastor of First Baptist Bossier in Bossier City, La., and Tim Lee, evangelist and Marine, who offered the morning’s closing prayer.
Lutzer echoed Helfenbein in asserting the primacy of Scripture in every area of life.
“Are we going to interpret culture through the lens of Scripture, or are we going to interpret Scripture through the lens of culture? That’s the issue that I think confronts us.” Lutzer said. “Let us always remember that the gospel is not what we can do for Jesus. The gospel is about what Jesus has done for us. We always need to be very clear about the gospel and keep it from contamination and remember to guard the gospel.”
Harris shared with attendees about a new Family Research Council association of churches designed to serve those who have “counted the cost” and decided to do what Jesus instructs rather than what the world instructs.
“We want to build a community of churches and ministries that refuse to hide their faith in Jesus because of fear of today’s cancel culture,” FRC President and Conservative Baptist Network Steering Council member Tony Perkins explained in an introductory video before Harris addressed the breakfast crowd.
“We all agree that America is in a crisis, and we must have a biblical response to it,” Harris said, calling attendees to remember when the time came to ‘rise up and build,’ in the second chapter of Nehemiah. “Well, I believe that is exactly what we are trying to do.”
Starnes, speaking at a Conservative Baptist Network event for a second time, received a warm reception from attendees as he took the stage.
“I have joy in my heart this morning,” Starnes said. “You know Dietrich Bonhoeffer
is often referenced in this quote: ‘Silence in the face of evil is evil itself. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.’ But this morning here in Nashville, Tenn., I see thousands of fellow believers who are taking a stand. They are not silent, and they are ready to act.”
Starnes, whose daily radio show has reached millions of listeners on hundreds of stations, talked about how he and his team cover stories about people of faith who are under attack and also about the cancel culture movement.
“One of the things that has troubled me over the past few months as I have been watching the events unfold within our Convention,” Starnes said, “is that many of the tactics that have been deployed are being used in Washington, D.C., and secular politics, and I say that is absolutely unacceptable in the Southern Baptist Convention.
“If you have a beef with a brother, you take it up according to the Gospel of Matthew not the Washington Post,” Starnes said.
The evening prior to the breakfast event—the final night before the widely anticipated SBC presidential election—then-candidate Mike Stone issued a statement on social media labeling as false an accusation circulating on Twitter which received significant attention despite Stone’s denial of its truth and despite his account being corroborated by several witnesses.
The scenario, along with others like it, also prompted Jurkovich to make mention of unfounded attacks in his introduction of Stone.
“I am so thankful to have developed a friendship with Pastor Mike Stone, Jurkovich said as he welcomed Stone to the platform. “I just want to make it clear to Southern Baptists today: Do not tolerate the lies. Stop messing with the nonsense. And stop messing with people’s character, and stop messing with people’s families. I’m going to tell you right now: I have not seen a man deal with as much in three weeks’ time as Mike Stone. And you’re not just talking about some election. You’re talking about a man’s life and ministry. So, we have to be better than this. God calls us to be better than this. Enough is enough.”
Martin, too, addressed the role social media plays in modern Baptist politics—the negative and destructive side of which, he said, will not deter the conservative movement.
“The Resurgence generation didn’t give up. They did not stop fighting. My goodness, all of the apostles but one went to a martyrs’ death, and we’re going to be unnerved about a few mean tweets? No! We are here, we are rooted, we are here to the death! We will not stop! We will not stop! We will not stop!” Martin said. “…This is our time. Every generation has its time…The Resurgence generation did their part then. We must do our part now.”
Swain, who speaks frequently as a guest on cable news programs, discussed the past generation as well, saying that it had already worked intentionally to right the wrongs of racism and slavery and that the current generation now needs to move forward.
“When it comes to apologizing for racism, I have lost count of how many times the Southern Baptist Convention has apologized, and I think it’s time for someone to receive the apologies,” Swain said. “…The church has everything it needs to lead in the area of race, so let’s lead.”
Swain said she was born into systemic racism but “watched it collapse,” with the passage of civil rights bills and the opening of opportunities for all people.
She spoke to the current generation’s attempt to relive and relitigate racial issues and explained the significant baggage those attempts carry.
“Critical Race Theory is racism,” Swain said. “It itself is white supremacy because it puts all the responsibility for what happens in the world on white people, and it says to racial and ethnic minorities like me that we are victims, that we are helpless, that we can’t do anything without white folk. That’s not true.”
It is a different gospel, she said.
“It’s not the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Swain said. “It will not bring about racial reconciliation because it pushes people in the opposite direction. There is nothing about Critical Race Theory that can reconcile anything. All the Baptists are well-meaning, but there are some that are so guilt-ridden, and they are so blinded by the ideologies of the political left, and so they don’t see how they are being manipulated, but they are being manipulated. I would say that they are well-meaning, but they are being deceived.”
Social justice and biblical justice are not the same, she said.
The three then-candidates for SBC offices also greeted the breakfast audience briefly before the 1,300 attendees adjourned to begin the business sessions of the Annual Meeting.
Brand, who would later gain the victory in the race for first vice president and who appealed to the sufficiency of Scripture on many occasions and in many interviews leading up to the Annual Meeting, explained that despite what Baptists say about a commitment to Scripture, their actions have in some instances belied their statements and affirmations.
“I can’t tell you how excited I am to stand here today…but as much as I am excited to be here, I have to be very honest: my heart hurts,” Brand said. “And my heart hurts because our actions as a Convention demonstrate that we are calling into question the Word of God, and by calling into question the Word of God, we are by default calling into question the very God of the Word.”
Chavez echoed Brand’s sentiments about the sufficiency of Scripture.
“I don’t need any analytical tools,” Chavez said. “All I need is faith, because without faith, it is impossible to please God.”
When Stone rose to the platform, he received a standing ovation.
Stone, speaking “unscripted and unrehearsed,” said his journey to the 2021 election began backstage during the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting in Birmingham, Ala.
“One of the power brokers of the Southern Baptist Convention came to me concerned as he noted that I was fighting the progressive wokeism that was infiltrating and infecting our Southern Baptist Convention.” Stone said to the crowd. “Leaders in Nashville do not know how to take you.”
“I said as humbly as I knew how: ‘Let me share something that might help you,’” Stone said in recounting the backstage conversation. “‘I planted some oak trees in my backyard in the small south Georgia town of Blackshear—a town of about 4,000 people.….My prayer is that God will allow my grandchildren to swing in tire swings from those oak trees. What that means is, you don’t have anything in Nashville that I want, and I don’t have anything in Blackshear that you can take, and you don’t know how to handle somebody that doesn’t need a forward for their book, a cover letter for their resume, or a recommendation to some cushy denominational job.’
“In this day when so many want to waffle, and double speak, and perfect the fine art of almost saying something, Southern Baptists need stalwart leadership who, yes—with grace and mercy and compassion—can do what Paul said to the Corinthians: ‘Be on the alert. Stand firm in the faith. Act like men. And be strong.’”
Attendee Rachel Durham said she was thankful to be at the breakfast and eager to hear from speakers intent on making the gospel message central.
“Every speaker from today that went up on stage was very adamant on bringing things back to the purity of the gospel,” Durham said. “I think that the gospel is, at the end of the day, what’s going to unify our Southern Baptist Convention. From my perspective as a young female Southern Baptist, I really want to keep my focus on the thing that unifies us—the gospel. I’m grateful to be here this morning to learn from all these speakers.”
Bree Simmons, also attending the breakfast event, said she found the morning encouraging and said she is thankful that the Network actively works to unify the Convention around the gospel.
“With everything that’s going on, the [Conservative Baptist Network] is seeking to pull us all back together and unify us Southern Baptists over the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Simmons said.