ANAHEIM, California — Southern Baptists on Tuesday approved a series of sex abuse reforms, including a way to track accused clergy and elected a new president in one of the denomination’s most momentous annual meetings in decades.
On the first official day of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting here this week, voting delegates known as Messengers elected Texas pastor Bart Barber to lead the SBC and addressed the question of how to prevent sexual abuse.
Barber defeated Florida Pastor Tom Ascol in a close runoff Tuesday night. Barber received 60.87% of the vote.
“We need a man who can lead us through the battlefield of our disagreements to the common ground of our working together,” said Matt Henslee, a Southern Baptist pastor from Texas, in a nominating speech about Barber.
The embattled presidential election, seen as guard rails for major political divisions in the SBC, followed an easily decided vote for the abuse reforms. The two decisions will overlap as Barber is tasked with appointing members of a new task force that will examine implementation of abuse reform.
The new task force to implement abuse reform was one of two main recommendations adopted by messengers. The other is creating a “ministry review” database that tracks ministers who are credibly accused of sexual abuse.
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Sexual abuse is seen as the top issue facing the country’s largest Protestant denomination at its two-day annual meeting.
Guidepost Solutions, a third-party company, investigated the history of SBC executive abuse reports and recommendations for reform and presented its findings in a shocking report released in late May.
Divisions play out in the presidential election
Aside from abuse, Southern Baptists are also deeply divided over other political and social issues. These differences of opinion were most evident in the presidential elections.
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Ascol, pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, Fla. and president of a Reformed Baptist group, has been supported by the more conservative wing of the SBC.
The more conservative wing of the convention, often led by a group called the Conservative Baptist Network, has rallied around a desire to combat the liberalism that is infiltrating the church through social justice, feminism, critical race theory and other “awakened” issues.
“To defeat the sin of racism we don’t need worldly ideologies, we have a book,” Georgia pastor Mike Stone said in his nomination speech for Ascol, a rebuke of critical race theory.
Stone was a presidential candidate last year and lost in a runoff to SBC President Ed Litton. “Last year, thousands of you joined me to call for change. Today let’s finish what we started and change direction and cast your vote for Tom Ascol,” said Mike Stone, a Georgia pastor, in a nomination speech about Ascol.
Ascol was a bitter opponent of what he sees as the widespread adoption of critical race theory in the Nashville SBC and its seminars. He is also an abortion “abolitionist,” meaning he believes that a woman who has an abortion should be prosecuted.
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Barber, pastor of the First Baptist Church in Farmersville, Texas, does not describe himself as an opponent of abortion. Instead, he identifies as an “incrementalist,” or banning abortion through an incremental process.
Unlike Ascol, Barber does not consider the problem of a “liberal bias” in the SBC to be as serious a problem as Ascol and his allies have stated.
Ascol and Barber have condemned the sex abuse crisis at the SBC following the release of Guidepost’s report.
But Ascol is more of a proponent of fighting abuse at the local level to preserve church autonomy, a key principle of the SBC. Barber has expressed support for certain convention-wide measures to address abuse, an approach widely supported by abuse survivors.
The Conservative Baptist Network endorsed candidates in two other elections at the SBC annual convention. Her nominee for SBC Pastors’ Conference President, Voddie Baucham, lost his election Monday night. Javier Chavez, also supported by the Conservative Baptist Network as SBC admissions secretary, lost to candidate Nathan Finn.
“Because they didn’t give up”
While the set of recommendations to reform abuse is relevant to the SBC, it’s the “minimum necessary,” said Bruce Frank, chair of the SBC’s sexual abuse task force.
The task force oversaw Guidepost Solutions’ month-long investigation into two decades of SBC executives’ handling of reports of abuse and treatment of victims of abuse.
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“I beseech you on behalf of the survivors who love our Congress and our survivors, please let us begin the healing process today,” Brad Eubank, an abuse survivor and Mississippi pastor, said during the session.
The messengers voted after 40 minutes of deliberation, with some speakers opposing the measures. Several opponents cited a tweet Guidepost posted last week in celebration of Pride month.
Other opponents felt that the recommendations would go against Southern Baptists’ belief in church autonomy. “It’s an attack on our community,” Messenger Mark Coppenger said.
But the majority of the messengers disagreed. A sea of neon yellow ballots was put up in support of the recommendations.
“Today we will choose between humility and hubris. We will choose between repentance or continued passivity at Southern Baptist Convention,” said Frank. “Make no mistake, the time for action has come.”
Rachael Denhollander, an abuse survivor, attorney and task force member, said in a press conference after the vote that she hopes that when survivors look back on that moment, history will show: “You see every single ballot in the air and you know it’s… so was I am believed.”
“(That you know) that was the impression I gave because I didn’t give up and that the survivors who come after them look at these ballots and say I now have a place to speak out ‘ Denhollander said.
“My voice can now be heard because of what the generation before me did. I think the most important thing today is the tireless dedication of these survivors, Debbie Vasquez, Tiffany Thigpen, Jules Woodson, Christa Brown, Dave Pittman.”
In the audience at the press conference, survivors Woodson and Thigpen smiled and nodded their heads. They clasped hands as Denhollander called their names.
“Because they didn’t give up, those ballots went up today,” Denhollander said.
After the recommendations were passed, Woodson said she felt she could “breathe” for the first time since entering Congress.
“I just felt like all eyes were on me and I don’t know who’s an ally or who’s against us,” she said. “It was really intimidating in so many ways and to see the sea of yellow ballots being raised in support of the sex abuse task force’s reforms was just incredibly empowering. I felt recognized and encouraged for the first time.”
Going forward, she hopes to see a culture shift at SBC that “doesn’t happen overnight.”
But she is encouraged that there are steps being taken with the appointment of the new task force, she said.
“I think it’s a healthy step in a long process,” Woodson said.
Liam Adams covers religion for The Tennessean. You can reach him at [email protected] or on Twitter @liamsadams.