Barber sees SBC presidency as chance to unify in difficult culture

SBC President Bart Barber spoke to the Texan at Cedar Bluff Baptist Church near Falcon, Mo., during an early July family reunion. PHOTO BY TAMMI REED LEDBETTER

FARMERSVILLE—SBC president Bart Barber was a reluctant candidate. But, having been elected June 14 by SBC messengers in Anaheim, he’s a president with a mission.

Barber—pastor at First Baptist Church of Farmersville—was at first unwilling to join a field that already had three candidates by late March. Robin Hadaway, a seminary professor and retired missionary; Tom Ascol, a Florida pastor; and Willy Rice, also a Florida pastor, made up a crowded slate in the wake of SBC president Ed Litton’s decision to not run for a second term.

“Whenever people would ask me to run for president of the SBC, I would always say, ‘I’m not going to do that,’” Barber said. “And I had a lot of reasons—my kids being the age that they were, I wasn’t sure that I wanted to do it for that reason. I honestly thought I could do more good as a pastor with a Twitter account who tried to call balls and strikes fairly and promote good, sound, Baptist, conservative theology.”

He started to change his mind after Rice dropped out of the race in early April.

“I prayed about that and just felt strongly led,” he said. “I’ve told people I came to the end of my stubbornness, and I guess that’s the best way to describe it. … I thought Southern Baptists needed more choices than just Robin Hadaway and Tom Ascol.

“I felt like I had a calling from God to try to help our convention be healthier and was committed to doing that for whatever years God had left for me here on the earth.”

In comments he made before and after being elected, Barber highlighted two major things he hoped to emphasize as a candidate, and now as president. One was introduced by a hashtag, #armyofpeacemakers, that he offered through his Twitter account.

“I came to see what I thought were some really unhealthy things that were creeping into our convention, just in terms of the way we interacted with one another,” he said. “A lot of it involved recognizing it myself, some of what I’d done online, and also seeing that in others.

“I just think in the midst of a culture that is bent upon growth by division that there’s a need for us to have a different culture that’s inclined toward and believes in growth by reconciliation and resolution of conflict, and peaceful unity moving forward together to the degree possible.”

The priority of peacemaking had been on his mind for a while, going back to a sermon he preached from Philippians 4 during the 2017 SBC Pastors’ Conference. In his assigned passage, two women, Euodia and Syntyche, were described as Paul’s co-laborers, but also were embroiled in a personal disagreement.

“If you look at that passage of Scripture, immediately after the urging of these two women to get along with each other, the longer exhortation is to the other people in the church to say, ‘Will y’all please come alongside and help these folks to get along with each other?’

“There’s a role for the active work of people in God’s kingdom, who aren’t in the midst of the conflict, to step up and do something to try to resolve the conflict, to interfere in each other’s business a little bit and try to make peace,” he added.

Barber acknowledges that the power of SBC president is limited when it comes to fostering peace within the convention’s fellowship, but that the president does have influence through his constitutional roles.

“I think we should move toward a convention in which we’re all in agreement about our statement of faith," Barber said, "whatever means we need to take to get there."

“I think there are some important ways that the president has the opportunity to [encourage peace]. One, profoundly undersold as an important role for the president is the moderation of the business meeting, because that’s where we gather to try to have conflict resolution … and help us to move forward,” he explained.

He considers a careful and respectful handling of the gavel important partly because he’s seen some examples where the actions of the chair showed “heavy handedness” in this regard.

“When the Great Commission Resurgence report was brought [2010], a messenger offered an amendment to the GCR report, and the folks with the gavel at that time just said, basically, ‘How about if your amendment said this instead?’” he said, offering one example. “And [they] substituted a new amendment for the messenger’s amendment, without the consent of the messengers … and they got the thing passed. I did walk away thinking ‘That guy’s rights as a messenger were not respected.’”

While offering no criticism of a specific predecessor in the office, Barber hopes to offer unifying leadership in today’s denominational climate.

“I’d like to be the kind of SBC president who actually does try to serve the full messenger body and the full count of churches in the SBC,” he said.

One substantial way an SBC president affects the future of the denomination is through the appointment of committees. Barber hopes that these appointments will also be a means to unify the convention’s churches.

“My appointments are going to reflect the diversity of opinion that exists within the Southern Baptist Convention. I think that kind of thing is healing, and I’m trying to make sure that I do that in a way that stays true to the conservative convictions of the Southern Baptist Convention, the things that we’ve said in the Baptist Faith and Message, and in other statements that we’ve made,” he explained.

He said that this diversity would include those from smaller and larger churches, geographic diversity, and people of different ages, in addition to racial and ethnic diversity—the goal being to avoid the impression of elitism that bypasses grassroots Southern Baptists.

A second conviction Barber brought into the office is that our understanding of Baptist distinctives needs to be shored up.

“I’m hungry to go to seminary campuses and say, ‘Here’s why we believe in believer’s baptism,’ and to make that case from the Scriptures, from the pulpit of our chapels,” he said. “Not that I think that we have a seminary body full of students who aren’t sure whether they want to sprinkle infants or not, but because when you stop making the biblical case for it, you’re only a few generations away from having those students sitting in the seminary chapel.”

He also expressed concern that the convictions of Southern Baptists on religious liberty are starting to show some “cracks” and require a thorough biblical treatment in our day.

A related issue involves the way our fellowship of churches understands its confession of faith. That discussion came to light this year during the SBC annual meeting as messengers considered the credentials of a church that had ordained female associate pastors. Barber thinks these conversations are important to our fellowship and unity as well.

“I think we should move toward a convention in which we’re all in agreement about our statement of faith, whatever means we need to take to get there,” he said. “I hope that we can do that by persuading people and coming to the point where we all see the truthfulness and utility of what this statement of faith means. But I do think it would be unhealthy for us to just say, ‘Well, our confessions of faith are non-binding, and they don’t really say anything about the bounds of our fellowship within the convention.’”

Much has been said about the rare election of a smaller-church pastor to the role traditionally given to the pastors of churches five to 10 times larger than FBC Farmersville. Barber believes the size difference matters, but not as much as some might think.

“I feel a pressure to do it well,” he admitted. “I mean, if I’m late getting everything done, and if I do a slip-shod job of it all, and if everybody sees this as a train wreck, then it won’t be anybody but a megachurch pastor ever again after this.

“I think it’s not just about the size of the church, some of it is also about the fact that I’ve been at FBC Farmersville for 23 years, and I’m not the only staff member. It’ll be some substantial commitment of time, but I completed a PhD while I was the pastor at First Baptist Church Farmersville. So did the guy before me, and so did the guy before him—this isn’t the first time I’ve had some sort of major time commitment that went alongside trying to serve as pastor of this church.”

Speaking again on the vigorous dialog regarding SBC leadership in this day, admitting that some pastors may have been dissuaded from allowing their names to be put forward because of a harsh political climate, Barber expressed a personal hope for his tenure as SBC president, even as he begins his time at the forefront of those decisions and discussions.

“My prayer is that whenever this is over for me, I’ll still love the Southern Baptist Convention, the people of the Southern Baptist Convention, and not just in an abstract sense,” he said. “I want to still feel that way about us.”


Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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