Before the convention started, few people were making predictions about the outcome of the presidential election. Certainly, the word “landslide” was not in the ether, because so many things about the annual gathering were uncertain—starting with the presidency. Incumbent Bart Barber was being challenged after serving only the first year of a customary two terms in office, a rare move.
“He is not owed a second term, but he has more than earned it,” Barber’s nominator said in his short speech before the election. Pastor Jarrett Stevens of Houston listed a string of recent SBC accomplishments including aggressive confrontation of sexual abuse, and Barber’s noteworthy 60 Minutes interview in his first term.
Barber presided over most of the first day’s proceedings at the SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans June 13-14—including debate over upholding the dismissal of three churches, the denomination’s stance on women as pastors, and whether to renew the task force implementing sexual abuse reforms—not knowing if he would be in office two days later to finish what he started.
The avuncular rancher-pastor from a medium-size Texas church was reelected to a second one-year term by a 2-1 margin, turning away the challenge from Georgia pastor Mike Stone. Barber won 7,531 votes to Stone’s 3,458 votes, 68.38% to 31.40%.
Barber declined social media sparring, while Stone spoke in multiple churches and the Twitterverse was alight with arguments over concerns he raised.
Stone ran for office two years earlier as a candidate for the emerging Conservative Baptist Network (CBN). He ran on a similar platform this time, saying the denomination is adrift and has lost its evangelistic focus. Stone was critical of the abuse reform that moved responsibility for tracking abuse claims to the denomination at the national level, rather than leave it to autonomous local churches. He criticized Barber’s appointments to the Abuse Reform Implementation Task Force last year which included vocal abuse survivors.
Stone advocated a clearer constitutional stance on women in ministry. In online interviews, he called the “soft complementarian” views he’s heard expressed in the denomination just another form of egalitarianism.
Stone’s nominator, Pastor Willy Rice of Florida, told messengers that “a cancel culture has replaced a gospel culture” in the denomination. He urged messengers to “chisel” their objections “in stone.”
Stone was in attendance at a breakfast on the morning of the election hosted by the CBN. A series of men called for recommitment to Baptist distinctives and bold stands for biblical values in culture. Chuck Kelley, former president of New Orleans Seminary, stressed that the SBC has been in a crisis of evangelism for years. “Look at the Methodist denomination,” Kelley said. “That’s where we’re headed unless we put the Great Commission back at the center of what we do…. Continuing as we are right now is a road to insignificance.”
At a B-21 luncheon, a panel that included Southern Seminary President Al Mohler, Southeastern Seminary President Danny Akin, and former SBC President J.D. Greear affirmed Barber’s nomination.
Messengers went with Barber by more than two-thirds. In SBC elections, that is a huge landslide. It was what The Tennessean called a win for a “conservative mainstream faction” over a hard-edged conservatism. Announced late in the first day’s business, the outcome was met with vigorous applause.
Stone tweeted his congratulations to Barber. “May God continue to grace you with wisdom, discernment, and strength. That will continue to be my prayer for you as you lead.”
In his President’s message just three hours before the election, Barber did not deliver a campaign speech. Instead he preached from Philippians 4:8-9, where Paul urged believers to dwell on truth and beauty in a list of uplifting adjectives.
“God is calling on us to dwell on the right things—to develop a distinctively Christian sense of taste,” Barber said. Perhaps Barber was laying the house rules for ensuing debate on abuse, autonomy, women pastors, and church dismissal.
But Barber inserted a joke which was not in his manuscript. His illustration about personally disliking coffee included the comment, “Coffee is bitter water for bitter people facing bitter times.” After a few groans in the audience, he chuckled and said, “I think I just lost the election.”
FBC Fairview Heights pastor Scott Douglas tweeted: “I’m so glad for @bartbarber to be re-elected. But his opinion on coffee is mistaken. So, I happily drink this bitter water to finish the #SBC23 well.”
At a news conference after he had guided messengers through complicated but decisive actions, Barber said some people outside the SBC were having “real difficulty trying to put a label on what has happened here.
“The Bible calls us to defend those who are abused, to defend those who are weak, to oppose the kind of sexual misconduct that hurts people for the rest of their lives,’” Barber said. “We want to be a fellowship of churches who are all committed to that and to also be a fellowship of churches who are not afraid to say, we believe the Bible says things about the roles of men and women that are worth following.”
Barber’s influence will be felt for a long time, as now messengers have charged him with naming a panel to clarify “friendly cooperation,” the constitutional basis for determining which churches can stay in the SBC.