SBC President Candidate Q&A: Bart Barber

Bart Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church in Farmersville, is approaching the end of his first term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention. He will be renominated for the position in June at the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Barber recently spoke with the Texan about the need for clarity, the value of cooperation, and why he is excited about the SBC’s future.

Scroll to bottom of this article for other SBC President Candidate Q&As

Tell me about your current ministry and church. How long have you been in this ministry?

I have served at First Baptist Church of Farmersville since 1999—23 years. We had 323 in Sunday School last Sunday, and that’s a pretty exciting day for us! First Baptist Church has ministered to the Farmersville area since 1865.

Why are you willing to be SBC president this year?

The messengers to our annual meetings set our vision long ago. We’re providing the best theological education available in the world. We’re sending missionaries all around the world and planting churches all around the country. We have one of the greatest disaster relief organizations around. Those things are just the highlights. The messengers from our churches and the people who serve them have already given us a wonderful vision. We really don’t need any elected official, in my opinion, to come in for two years and expect the whole apparatus to fall in line with his temporary emphases. The actual constitutional duties of the president of the SBC are important, but modest in a convention structure that rightfully decentralizes power.

I believe that it is time to decrease partisanship and bring Southern Baptists together, as many of them as are willing to cooperate with one another. There have been concerted efforts, I think on more than one side, to undermine trust in the convention. The actual constitutional duties of the president make important contributions to this effort [to decrease partisanship]. 

First, the president moderates the annual meeting. I will make it my top priority to moderate the meeting fairly, safeguarding the rights of every messenger. Fairness will help to bring us together. 

Second, the president appoints several key committees. Among those are the Committee on Committees, which is the first step in the process by which our messenger body appoints the trustees who govern our entities. I believe that our trustees need better and more independent training. Although it does not lie within the authority of the president to set policies for trustee orientation, it does lie within the president’s authority, where he makes appointments, to appoint people who understand the need—always present, but acute right now—for transparency and accountability in the manner of operation of our entities. Transparency and accountability will help to bring us together.

Third, the president serves often as a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, and he therefore has the chance to affect the tone of discourse within our convention. While we maintain our commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, we ought not to lose sight of those passages the teach us about the fruit of the Spirit, the command to avoid foolish quarrels, or the obligation, as much as it lies within us, to live at peace with all men. Civility will help to bring us together.

What do you consider to be the significant challenges Southern Baptists face as we endeavor to cooperate for worldwide missions?

Challenges? We are the spiritual descendants of martyrs. The idea that God is bigger than all our challenges is not mere theory; our present challenges pale in comparison to those that we have seen God overcome for us already. I believe that the cultural changes brought on by the internet pose substantial challenges for us. Whether by corralling us into opposing factions on social media, permeating every aspect of our society with a caustic brew of pornography, or even by causing more and more of us to pursue our theological education alone in a living room with a screen rather than building lifelong relationships with classmates, the internet is making fundamental changes to our society, the depth and breadth of which we may not realize for decades. Against this challenge stands the work of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us and to fit us together, stone by stone, into a living temple.

The report of the Sex Abuse Task Force is going to pose substantial challenges for us as a convention. As someone who has demonstrated both an earnest commitment to doing the right thing about sex abuse and an earnest commitment to Baptist polity, I believe I am well equipped to lead us during this time. Sex abuse in Baptist churches looks different than it does in Roman Catholic parishes because of our unique theological and ecclesiological attributes. The way we address sex abuse must also be adapted to our polity. I believe that the decentralized nature of Baptist ecclesiology will prove to be an asset for us as we face this challenge.

Against this challenge stands a God who hears the cry of Abel’s blood from the ground while also showing compassion to murderous Cain even as He administered justice against him. He is the God who called to mourning a Corinthian church who, while themselves not guilty of the infamous incestuous relationship among them, arrogantly disregarded the unholiness in their midst.

The largest challenge we face is the growing hostility in American culture toward anyone who affirms biblical truth on any number of topics, but especially with regard to sexual orientation and gender identity. People are going to compromise all around us, but Southern Baptists must hold the ground of biblical truth at all costs. This is actually a good reason for us to avoid foolish quarrels now. We are going to need one another more and more as time passes.

But again, it has never been a profitable move to bet against the church of Jesus Christ. Against this challenge stands a God who brought Sodom to ruins while delivering Abraham and Lot. I am not afraid of our challenges.

Are important doctrinal issues dividing our Southern Baptist fellowship?

Yes. I believe that a number of the core distinctive beliefs that make us Baptist have been attenuated in recent decades. Tom Ascol and I have both expressed concern and have taken action to try to shore up our commitment to meaningful regenerate church membership. Our commitment to congregational church polity is as weak as it has been since our inception as a convention. Frightening cracks are appearing in our commitment to the biblical doctrine of religious liberty. An open approach to receiving infant baptism, once all-but-absent among Southern Baptists, is sometimes now found among us. 

Our commitment to (and understanding of) the priesthood of all believers is sometimes eroded by a celebrity culture that fixes a wide gulf between the pulpit and the pew. Our embrace of local church autonomy has faced new tests as we have experimented with multi-site churches. The rise of Internet remote worship calls into question the meaning of having a “gathered church.” The addition of more and more staff positions has caused us to lack clarity about how the biblical offices of pastor/elder/overseer and deacon fit in to the growing category of “staff members.” Our commitment to associationalism and the doctrine of cooperation have waned as our churches have grown more isolated. We are losing sight of what it means to be Southern Baptists. In almost every one of these doctrines, the Southern Baptist position has been a range on the continuum rather than a single, fixed point. There are a lot of ways to practice congregationalism that all are legitimately congregationalism, for example. But sometimes our flirtations at the boundaries seem to denude a weakening attraction toward the center of Southern Baptist theology. 

One might read this list of doctrinal concerns and expect to find an angry man behind them. Not at all. Quite the opposite. I care very much when the churches I love so much are struggling to know who they are. I am not angry because I cannot help but love us. Also, I am not angry because I believe it is good strategy to live in the fruit of the Spirit—these spiritual attributes are profitable. Love and kindness are rare, powerful, and persuasive. For example, I think we’ve seen great improvement in the past 30 years among Southern Baptists in the areas of congregationalism, the understanding of biblical offices, and regenerate church membership. Much of the credit for that goes to one man, Mark Dever, who with a conspicuous absence of belligerence has winsomely led Southern Baptists (among others) back toward our biblical heritage in these areas. I believe that historians will call IX Marks the most successful theological movement of the turn of the 21st century, and none of it is built upon insult and slander.

In a similar way, we are going to have to find the center of complementarianism that pulls us together toward a continuum of practice that is closely and tightly centered upon biblical truth. But that work is going to need to be done with love and kindness. I think we cannot wander off over the edges and pretend that we are embarrassed of this doctrinal commitment or that it is unimportant. As I wrote in my chapter, “A Denomination of Churches: Biblical and Useful” in the book “Upon This Rock: A Baptist Understanding of the Church,” I believe that denominations are, essentially, families of churches that freely exchange members and pastors without much in the way of barriers, and that this lack of barriers is indispensable. Profound differences about pastoral qualifications always eventually split families of churches. We cannot pretend that this question is unimportant, and we cannot square egalitarianism with our commitment to biblical inerrancy. But the way I have chosen is one that can take issue with early indications of Beth Moore’s movement away from that complementarian center without losing all sight of what it means to be a Christian gentleman. I am not ashamed of being a strict complementarian. I am not ashamed of telling people who move away from complementarianism that I think they are wandering away from biblical truth. I am also not ashamed to call Beth Moore a friend. We disagree about complementarianism, but she’s never deliberately tweeted a dishonest half-snippet of something I’ve said to suggest fraudulently that I hate democracy and prefer totalitarianism.

I think loving people in such a manner even while taking firm doctrinal stands is the way of Jesus, much more so than is the conjuring up of shock-jock phraseology to throw red meat to a (paying) mob. This is the double-tragedy of the way that secular political questions have invaded our discourse of late. They commit us to the losing strategy of anger and slanderous false accusation. Even if you win with that strategy, you lose. Those salacious questions also take all the oxygen out of the room and leave us very little room to discuss looming problems in what have for centuries been the core doctrines of our churches. Who wants to talk about the autonomy of the local church when you can have a good fight about wokeness instead?

How would you use the prominence of the SBC presidency to address the challenges you see?

I believe that our family of churches contains an army of peacemakers who are steadfastly committed to cooperation on the basis of the Baptist Faith & Message and the Cooperative Program. Some of them are just afraid to stick their heads out of their doors while shooting is taking place in the streets. I want to stand up first and give them courage and resolve to do it themselves. If we can do that, they will solve these problems for us.

To be frank, I have long suspected that this could better be accomplished without my being encumbered with official denominational office. If Southern Baptists elect someone else, I will be content to continue this mission in that way and will take it as divine validation of that theory. Nevertheless, contrary to my previous expectation, I believe that God may be leading me to call out to those peacemakers from the podium of our convention, and I will undertake that task if Southern Baptists entrust it to me. 

But mark my words, no matter who is elected, no elective office will ever be powerful enough to overcome that army of peacemakers once they have stepped out of their trenches and begun to march.

Why should a church affiliate or remain with Southern Baptists? 

You can’t love the Bible without loving efforts to fulfill the Great Commission. You can’t love efforts to fulfill the Great Commission without loving what God has used the Southern Baptist Convention to do. The Baptist Faith & Message is a wise and helpful statement of faith. The Cooperative Program is a work of genius that has helped us to accomplish so much more together than we could accomplish on our own.

Do we debate issues? Every year. But the topics we are debating in 2022 are completely different than the ones that we were debating in 2014. Our system for making decisions really works to help us resolve differences and move on. I believe that will continue to be true into the future.

What’s more, even in our times of division, our God who works all things together for good for us is using those seasons to bring us closer together. Some of my closest friendships in this convention were forged during times of denominational conflict. Whatever you think the climate may be today, the Southern Baptist Convention remains a great place to combat lostness and loneliness, and I commend it to everyone who will stand still long enough to listen to me.

Any final comment?

Dear Southern Baptists, I may never again have as prominent a place to say it. You funded half of my seminary education. You sent out church planters long before I was born to plant the churches who taught me about Jesus, won me to faith, and sent me out into ministry. You connected my church with missionary opportunities that have changed my life. You created a disaster relief ministry through which my wife has enjoyed years of fulfilling service. You have been a place where my children have made friends and built memories that they will keep forever. Thank you.

SBC President Candidate Q&A:

Tom Ascol

SBC President Candidate Q&A:

Bart Barber

SBC President Candidate Q&A:

Robin Hadaway

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