Ronnie Yarber on the SBTC”s formation: “We were without a place”

Editor’s note: As the SBTC continues in its 21st year, we are sharing reflections from those who laid the groundwork for a new state convention. The TEXAN interviewed Ronnie Yarber for this article, the fourth of a series.

ATHENS  Ronnie Yarber knows what it is to be a man without a theological “country.”

For Yarber, the first official employee of the fledgling Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, the issues of the inerrancy of Scripture and definition of the Cooperative Program were among the most pressing differences propelling the new group to break off from the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1998.

“When changes began to happen in Texas because of the Conservative Resurgence, we [Texas Baptist conservatives] were like a people without a country. We were without a place,” Yarber told the TEXAN.

Yarber became the administrative director of what he called “a little protest group” that tried to persuade BGCT leaders to move to a more conservative doctrinal stance.

“The little band of protesters grew,” Yarber said, as the BGCT redefined the Cooperative Program—Southern Baptists’ shared missions funding mechanism—in 1994, diverging from the national Southern Baptist Convention.

Yarber was among five conservative leaders asked to meet with five from the BGCT at Love Field in February 1998 to see if the differences could be resolved without a split.

“All 10 men agreed by the end of the second day of meetings that we were not on the same page. We probably would not be able to work together,” Yarber said, explaining that in addition to biblical inerrancy and the nature of CP giving, the groups had different perspectives on abortion, homosexuality and the ordination of women as senior pastors.

“Regarding inerrancy, [conservatives] had the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy to go by,” Yarber said, referring to the landmark document issued 40 years ago by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. 

Conservatives objected to the ordination of a practicing homosexual deacon at Austin’s University Baptist, a church then affiliated with the BGCT. They also disagreed with the BGCT’s adoption of its Christian Life Commission’s statement on abortion, which noted five “regrettable” exceptions where abortion could be morally acceptable. Finally, the BGCT’s stance on female senior pastors was at odds with conservative views, Yarber said.

Another divisive issue was the BGCT’s continued financial support of the increasingly liberal Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs after its funding was discontinued by the national SBC. 

Yarber recalled a pamphlet distributed by the Baptist Joint Committee to Southern Baptist pastors, the topic of which was “how to overthrow the religious right in your community.” The publication alarmed Yarber, who perceived an attack against theological conservatives who saw key moral issues as having political implications. 

“It was pretty intense,” Yarber recalled of the Love Field meetings, adding that all participants prayed together and shook hands at the end of the two days.

On Nov. 19, 1998, the SBTC was constituted in Houston.

“I’ve never been angry. I was disappointed in what could have happened in Texas,” Yarber mused of the separation from the BGCT.

Yarber called the selection of Jim Richards as the new convention’s first executive director “the most major and wise decision” the SBTC made.

Yarber, then also pastor of Mesquite’s Meadow Creek Community Church (formerly Gross Road Baptist), served in multiple roles in the SBTC’s early days and maintains involvement today.

“I was Jim Richards’ assistant, then interim director of the evangelism department, interim director of the pastor-church relations department, interim editor of the newspaper [The Plumbline, forerunner to the TEXAN] and chief financial officer,” Yarber said.

He liked it all except for the CFO designation, explaining that he would take deposits to the bank at the end of each day. “I don’t crunch numbers. Numbers crunch me,” Yarber said with a laugh. 

Of the SBTC’s initial budget of $903,000 approved by messengers of 120 churches in 1998, Yarber said he and Richards both thought the number “absurd.”

“Where is this going to come from?” Yarber remembered Richards asking.

“Who knows?” Yarber answered.

But the funds did come, and the new convention maintained its resolve to give at least half to the Cooperative Program of the SBC. The SBTC’s current practice of sending 55 percent of undesignated CP receipts on to the national convention makes it the highest CP-giving state convention by percentage.

“We stay near the top of all state conventions in total giving, too,” Yarber said. “Did the national CP lose money when the SBTC formed? I think not.”

Today, Yarber and his wife of 59 years, Carol, live on farmland 10 miles from Athens. Yarber continues his work with the SBTC, visiting with churches that express interest in affiliating with the convention.

He estimates that he has conducted just shy of 1,000 informational meetings for churches and groups of churches since 1998, including three in late February and early March.

Yarber said he does not try to persuade a church to leave one convention for another, or even to opt for dual affiliation.

“Do not split your church over the question,” he advises pastors. 

As for Carol, “she has been a jewel” and a “prayer warrior,” Yarber said, adding, “I listen to her when she speaks. I know she walks with the Lord. I’d be a fool not to listen to her. She’s been my blessed help.”

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