What’s going on at the SBC? A recap, pt. 4

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J.R.M. Owens

Buckle up—lots to unpack here.

The presidential election is the best, simplest indicator of the direction of the SBC. You can read about what Bart Barber’s election means in pt. 3.

But the SBC also hashed out its key controversies via motions (which mandate a required action) and resolutions (which state a non-binding opinion).

Many average messengers attempted to highlight and reform accountability and transparency of the organizations that work for them (like the North American Mission Board and the Executive Committee)—and failed. This demonstrates a bottom-up lack of trust in the SBC system.

The platform (ex: the president, Ed Litton) attempted to highlight and reform sexual abuse issues and racism—and succeeded. This demonstrates a top-down lack of trust in Southern Baptists.

(Skip to the end for the TL;DR version.)


Messengers made an unusually high number of motions, with this common thread: an apparent lack of trust in the organizations created and funded by Southern Baptists to serve local churches. Important motions by topic:

Abolish the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, which is the SBC’s public policy and advocacy organization. Abolishing the ERLC requires successful votes at two consecutive SBC Annual Meetings, and this year’s vote failed.

  • While the function of the ERLC is important, some question whether the SBC is unified enough to use that function in any meaningful way.

Appoint a task force to conduct/oversee a third-party forensic audit of finances at the North American Mission Board.

  • Amid questions of financial mismanagement and lack of transparency, a third-party audit should be no problem if there are no problems. Similar logic was employed last year to initiate investigation into alleged mishandling of sexual abuse claims at the Executive Committee.
  • More context: In the last decade, NAMB has become well known for spending significant financial resources including giving out brand-name swag to thousands at SBC Annual Meetings, including Amazon Dots this year.

SBC seminary presidents Al Mohler (Southern) and Adam Greenway (Southwestern) publicly spoke in disagreement with one another over a motion from the Credentials Committee regarding Saddleback Church in light of its ordination of women pastors.

  • In a nutshell: The motion in question came from the Credentials Committee. At last year’s SBC, there was a motion directing the Credentials Committee to study whether Saddleback Church (an SBC megachurch pastored by Rick Warren) should be disfellowshipped from the SBC because of its ordination of women pastors. The Credentials Committee recommended that a task force be created to study what the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 means by the word “pastor.”
  • What Mohler wanted: to reject the Credentials Committee recommendation. He said it is very clear that the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 means the role of pastor is limited to men and that to create a task force to study the plain meaning would make confessions of faith meaningless. Words either mean something or they do not, he said.
  • What Greenway wanted: to amend the Credentials Committee recommendation and broaden the issue. He wanted the SBC to explore what it means for a Southern Baptist church to be of “like faith and practice” (which is the current standard). By broadening, this move would allow for the current controversy regarding female pastors to extend to other topics.
  • What actually happened: SBC president Ed Litton allowed Rick Warren unscheduled time to speak from the floor. Given the applause Warren received, it seems the room confused the question “Has Saddleback done a lot of good?” with the question “Is Saddleback in line with our statement of faith?” Afterward, the Credentials Committee withdrew its task force recommendation, which means nothing was actually accomplished.
  • More context: On Twitter, Jason Allen (Midwestern Seminary president) supported Mohler’s view, and Mohler doubled down.

Many motions put forward by messengers targeted specific organizations for investigation or heightened transparency. While the SBC ideally is designed so that each organization’s trustees hold the organization accountable, these motions demonstrate lack of trust in that system:

  1. Conduct a forensic financial audit of NAMB.
  2. Prohibit the use of executive session at the Executive Committee (ex: all meeting proceedings must be public).
  3. Make a transparent vetting process for Executive Committee members.
  4. Create a task force to investigate Southeastern Seminary’s handling of sexual abuse cases.
  5. Publish contact information for trustees.
  6. Amend the SBC Constitution to require meeting recordings and internal communications from all SBC organizations to be made available upon request.
  7. Require the Executive Committee to give the SBC an update on the legal consequences for having waived attorney-client privilege.
  8. Explore how to give Baptist Press editorial independence (it is currently housed under the Executive Committee).
  9. Abolish the ERLC.
  10. Require Southern Seminary (led by Mohler) to remove the names of 19th-century slaveholders from its campus.
  11. Explore the relationship between the messengers and the trustees (ex: can the messengers give mandates to the trustees?)
  12. Create a task force of non-trustees to study accountability in SBC power.
  13. Study accountability over the day-to-day work of Executive Committee staff.
  14. Keep motions intended to investigate a particular organization from being automatically referred to that organization for self-investigation.

These may not all be good ideas or even legal ones, but they suggest SBC leadership has lost the trust of many average Southern Baptists.


The SBC adopted the nine resolutions recommended by the Resolutions Committee.

  • Read about the oddities of this year’s resolutions here.

TL;DR: What does it mean?

The root exasperation in the SBC is this: whether or not the SBC is basically healthy. The “yes” group and the “no” group are both coalitions straddling various groups that a few years ago did not pair well: Calvinists and non-Calvinists comprise both sides, for instance.

The groups debate over whether the Bible permits women pastors and vicarious repentance for others’ sin (ex: past racism), how to handle sexual abuse reform, and more.

It all boils down to this: The Cooperative Program is a shared funding mechanism that runs on trust like a machine runs on oil. And bottom-up, top-down, and top-to-top trust dwindles.