SBC Annual Meeting 2023: What You Need To Know

The Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention for 2023 is behind us and several important issues were addressed. I think the messengers (members from Southern Baptist Churches all over the country who attend the Annual Meeting) voted correctly and convictionally on most topics and I remain optimistic about the future of the SBC. Below are some brief highlights of key moments from this year’s meeting.

Saddleback Community Church
Earlier this year, the Executive Committee affirmed a recommendation from the Credentials Committee and deemed Saddleback Community Church “not in friendly cooperation” with the Southern Baptist Convention. The reason for the removal was the presence of female pastors at Saddleback Church which falls outside of our Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Fern Creek Baptist Church was also removed for the same reason. Rick Warren and Saddleback Church appealed the decision, which meant the messengers would ultimately decide if the ruling of the Executive Committee would stand.

The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of upholding the Executive Committee’s decision, with 88.46% of the ballots cast voting to affirm the decision and only 11.36% voting to reverse it. This vote partially demonstrates that Southern Baptists remain steadfast in their complementarian position concerning men and women, and that the so-called “liberal drift” of the SBC is nothing but hot air.

It is worth noting that the messengers also passed a resolution during this year’s meeting titled, “On the legacy and responsibility of women fulfilling the Great Commission.” The resolution gives thanks for the giftedness of women and calls on them to fulfill the mandate of the Great Commission, just as they have been doing since the beginning of the SBC. If it were not for the faithful women serving and leading at Graefenburg Baptist Church, then we would be severely compromised in our mission of transforming lives in Jesus.

President Bart Barber’s Convention Address
Not only was Bart Barber convincingly re-elected to a second term over challenger Mike Stone, but he also preached one of the best Convention sermons I have ever heard. Bart beautifully weaved the academic and intellectual prowess of Hans Urs von Balthasar and his “theological aesthetics” into a simple and applicable challenge to Southern Baptists to notice the beautiful in our theology, our convention, and our churches. Bart also did a phenomenal job moderating the meeting, putting on a fine display of his procedural acumen, all while demonstrating kindness and patience. At one point, and I am not exaggerating, he spoke to a messenger with a straight face and said – “Yesterday was one day before today” – and he was completely sincere, trying to get the messenger to understand the timing for submitting resolutions. That line from Bart elicited this reaction from me and a good pastor friend of mine:

Mike Law’s Constitutional Amendment
During the 2022 Annual Meeting in Anaheim last year, Virginia messenger Mike Law made a motion to amend the SBC Constitution. The amendment calls for a sixth identifier that would provide additional restrictions on churches that would be deemed “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC. That sixth identifier would state, “not affirm, appoint, or employ a woman as a pastor of any kind.”

The rationale for this amendment was due to confusion over the language in the BFM2000 that states, “…the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Some in the Convention understood the word “pastor” to refer only to the senior (or lead) pastor, thereby allowing the possibility that women could serve in associate pastor roles. The amendment would eliminate that possibility and clarify that the office of pastor, in its entirety, is limited to men.

I actually voted against the amendment – not because I disagree with its doctrine or principle – but because I am concerned about creating a second statement of faith in our Constitution. How many more “identifiers” will we list in the Constitution? We already have a clear statement of faith and the messengers had just proved that we can deem a church “not in friendly cooperation” through the process already established (Credentials Committee, Executive Committee, appeal process, etc). By the time the Law Amendment came to the floor, the messengers had already voted to uphold the decision of the Executive Committee to disfellowship Saddleback, thus proving we don’t need a sixth identifier in the Constitution.

Nevertheless, the Law Amendment passed by an overwhelming majority. Because it is a Constitutional Amendment, it will have to pass again at the 2024 Annual Meeting. Time will tell. I’m fine with the outcome either way, but I prefer to let our statement of faith be our statement of faith.

James Merritt and the SBC Presidents Motion
Adding an interesting twist to the situation, James Merritt was accompanied by several former SBC presidents at the mic as he made a motion during the second opportunity for motions. I mention that only because the presidents did not get a chance to make their motion during the first session, which is just so Baptist and so awesome. When you are on the floor and a messenger, you are equal to everyone else. You have to wait your turn just like every other messenger. Here was James Merrit, Steve Gaines, JD Greear, and Bryan Wright standing at a microphone and never getting called on. It was incredible.

Anyway, Merritt made a motion for the President to form a task force to study the phrase “closely identifies” in our Constitution in order to provide clarity on what a church must abide by in order to remain in the SBC. The motion passed. (This was a similar motion that Adam Greenway made last year which failed, but Greenway made his motion in the middle of a tense report from the Credentials Committee where messengers were annoyed with the idea of studying what the word “pastor” means. I was convinced then and am convinced today that Greenway’s motion failed only because it was wrapped up in that larger Credentials Committee conversation.)

It will be interesting to hear what the task force recommends to the messengers next year concerning the phrase “closely identifies.” It is possible (although not likely) that this year’s votes could be reconsidered by the messengers if the task force recommendations go in a slightly different direction than what was established this year.

The Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force (ARITF) Gets Another Year
Chairman Marshall Blalock offered a powerful, emotional, and moving report concerning the ARITF. Messengers strongly voted in favor of extending the ARITF another year so they can complete the work assigned to them by the Convention. Specifics on what will constitute a “credibly accused” abuser remains the most challenging aspect of the ARITF’s work, and the task force temporarily paused “category 4” from the forthcoming online abuser database until a consensus can be reached. You can read more about category 4 and the ARITF abuser database at this article.

An Amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000
This was the most bizarre and troublesome moment of the meeting. The BFM2000 was amended by the messengers simply through a motion and vote, with hardly any discussion or debate. It was surreal. I was 99% certain that the Order of Business would refer the motion to the Executive Committee for them to study and report back on next year. But no, we voted on it right then and there in New Orleans.

The motion changed Article 6 of the BFM2000 by adding the words “elder” and “overseer” to the word “pastor.” That is something I fully support and makes perfect sense – I wrote about this very thing in my D.Min dissertation! So, I was thrilled to see the clarification. But still, our statement of faith should not be so easily amended. The new Article 6 will now read like this:

“In such a congregation each member is responsible and accountable to Christ as Lord. Its two scriptural offices are that of pastor/elder/overseer and deacon. While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor/elder/overseer is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

Denny Burk is already coming up with ideas on how we should move forward to ensure a more thorough process is in place for amending the BFM2000.

I’m already looking forward to SBC24 in Indianapolis next year. This was a good year of decision-making, and as they usually do, the messengers voted in good and appropriate ways. I hope we continue to do the same in the years ahead.