A week before the election, Truett McConnell University president Emir Caner told fellow Southern Baptists, “We are in a battle for the soul of our nation and denomination.”
Over 500 people gathered Tuesday night for a religious liberty event at the university’s campus in Cleveland, Georgia, and within a few days over 10,000 had watched on Facebook. Speakers criticized political correctness and cancel culture, urging believers to focus on biblical justice over social justice. They prayed for bold, biblical preaching and godly leadership for their churches and the country.
Radio host Todd Starnes characterized the gathering as an attempt “to save the nation’s largest denomination from a radical group of Never Trumpers and woke critical race theorists.”
The group responsible for the event is the Conservative Baptist Network. This newly formed coalition of conservative pastors and leaders worry the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is drifting toward more worldly approaches and away from the convictions of millions of everyday churchgoers in the pews (or, in pandemic times, over the screens)—and they believe now’s the time to do something about it.
Their concerns emerged or accelerated over the past four years when, like the rest of the country, Southern Baptists found themselves in disagreement over Donald Trump’s presidency as well as the appropriate response to rising social unrest nationwide.
‘Heartbeat’ to Stay in the SBC
What began as ad hoc meetings in late 2019 grew into a formal network in February of this year, and now the network has 6,000 members and a 54-person steering council made up of influential Southern Baptists: seminary and university presidents, state convention leaders, evangelists, politicians, and pastors, names ranging from Mike Huckabee to Charles Stanley.
As the group gains momentum, the question among network partners and naysayers alike is whether the rise of the Conservative Baptist Network represents a fissure in the Southern Baptist Convention or just the latest round of cyclical denominational disputes.
The early members of the network began to convene last year in Georgia, Tennessee, Texas, and Louisiana, and they discovered they held similar concerns regarding the SBC. Some pastors worried about apparent opposition to Trump by the SBC’s public policy arm, the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC). Others suggested that recent approaches to racism and abuse relied too much on secular thinking and diluted the denomination’s distinctive voice.
These pastors came to view SBC leadership as out of sync with rank-and-file Baptists and SBC entities as not sufficiently accountable to the convention. They blamed that disconnect, in part, for a drop in giving to the SBC’s main missions and ministries fund, the Cooperative Program. Between 2014 and 2019, total annual giving to the fund decreased by $16 million. Meanwhile, the convention continued to suffer declining baptism numbers.
The Conservative Baptist Network was their solution to unify Southern Baptists and reinvigorate the SBC for missions and evangelism. “The heartbeat of the network,” said Louisiana pastor and CBN steering council member Brad Jurkovich, was to “stay a part of the SBC” but “help have a more cohesive voice on addressing issues.”
The coalition of Baptists who share the CBN’s perspective is “bigger than a small corner” of the convention, said Leo Endel, executive director of the Minnesota-Wisconsin Baptist Convention, who sees the group as a small but vocal minority of “people who do watch very seriously the national agencies and want to hold them accountable.”
From the outside, the idea of a Conservative Baptist Network can seem unnecessary. Already Southern Baptists are more politically and theologically conservative than most Christians. Within the denomination, critics have questioned its existence as well. Some don’t sense there is sufficient momentum to carry the network forward, and they worry it could hurt rather than help SBC missions and evangelism.
The network’s detractors—though they may share concerns over specific issues raised like pushing back against critical race theory or supporting President Trump—disagree with its premise. They doubt the claim by network partners that SBC leaders have drifted from the sufficiency of Scripture in their response to political and social issues. In other words, they say Southern Baptists are conservative enough without the network.
“Honestly, I do not understand why they exist,” said Ed Litton, a former SBC Pastors’ Conference president and pastor of Redemption Church in Saraland, Alabama. “I do not know a single professor, seminary, or for that matter a single SBC pastor who does not wholeheartedly stand with the inerrancy of Scripture.”
SBC president J. D. Greear expressed a similar sentiment earlier this year when he stated, “Don’t launch a network that says it’s about the recovery of conservative theology or the mission when it’s really not.”
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president Albert Mohler, who was the likely nominee to succeed Greear before the 2020 annual meeting was canceled due to the coronavirus, quipped on Twitter in February, “The real network of Southern Baptists is called the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Conservative Reengagement, Not Conservative Resurgence
This is not the first time a group of conservatives have called for realignment within the SBC. In the 1980s and 1990s, Southern Baptists responded to progressive theology making its way into its seminaries and other entities with a major effort to restore theologically conservative leadership across the SBC. The era was known as the Conservative Resurgence.
Paige Patterson, an architect of the Conservative Resurgence, was among the SBC leaders approached by CBN founders as they considered launching an official network, but he “is not leading this effort,” Jurkovich said. (Patterson’s brother-in-law Chuck Kelley, retired president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and his former chief of staff Scott Colter are involved.)
Leaders also see the current circumstances as different from decades past. “We do not need another Conservative Resurgence,” said Mike Stone, a CBN steering council member and immediate past chairman of the SBC Executive Committee, “because the convention, at least on paper, is squarely within the mainstream of conservative theology.”
Caner said at the event this week that the first generation of a movement fights for the inerrancy of Scripture—as the SBC did with the Resurgence—and the second for the sufficiency of Scripture. “It doesn’t ask, ‘Do you believe it?’” he said. “The second generation asks, ‘Will you live it?’ That’s where you and I find ourselves today.”
Some conservative evangelicals see overreliance on secular teachings or philosophies to address societal problems as betraying the idea that Scripture is all Christians need for a life of faith and service. That’s often the charge against fellow believers who speak up about issues like social justice.
On this front, a recent resolution on critical race theory and intersectionality comes up as exhibit A. The statement was approved by the convention at its annual meeting in 2019, citing both theories as useful for confronting racial divisions even though they “have been appropriated by individuals with worldviews that are contrary to the Christian faith.”
Affirming critical race theory as a tool for engaging culture suggests a dangerous desire to accommodate secular American culture, said Rod Martin, a Florida businessman and Executive Committee member. He said the theory’s claim that members of the oppressive class “must constantly repent” but “can never actually be forgiven” is “not consistent with Scripture.”
A documentary released last December by the Calvinist-oriented Founders Ministries alleged critical race theory is being advanced by the ERLC, SBC seminaries, and president Greear. While Founders President Tom Ascol is not officially involved in the Conservative Baptist Network, network leaders call him a friend.
Many of the leaders and entities targeted over critical race theory have talked about racial justice, the importance of listening to racial minorities, and diversifying leadership. None have spoken out to endorse critical race theory, and some have criticized it. Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary President Danny Akin, for example, commended an article called “The Incompatibility of Critical Theory and Christianity.”
Stone has also challenged what he sees as the propagation of unbiblical ideology within SBC’s otherwise commendable campaign to stamp out sexual abuse. Last year, some Southern Baptists were concerned when after the Houston Chronicle exposé, Greear publicly targeted ten churches for scrutiny over sexual abuse claims without first contacting the congregations.
“The presumption that we have all been derelict” related to abuse “is not born out of statistics,” said Stone, himself an abuse survivor and one of two primary authors of a 2019 SBC bylaw amendment to help the convention confront sexual abuse. “There seems to be this desire to appeal to a left-leaning culture in America that does not embrace the gospel.”
While Conservative Baptist Network leaders say their network is not a Republican political arm, those interviewed by CT were clear about their opposition to the Democratic Party and their shared stances with the current president. Several Republican political figures are on the steering council, including former Arkansas Gov. Huckabee, former US Congressman Bob McEwen, and Family Research Council president Tony Perkins.
Martin complained that Southern Baptists “who talk about a desire to depoliticize the pulpit” seem to give cover for “Democratic Party politics.”
ERLC president Russell Moore’s critique of Trump and his supporters during the 2016 election cycle stirred suspicion among certain Southern Baptists that has lingered through the formation of the Conservative Baptist Network and this year’s election.
It twice led to investigative action, but not much to show as a result thus far. First, an ad hoc committee found in 2017 that barely any churches (0.0016%) withheld funding to the SBC after Moore’s election stance. The issue came up again this year when the Executive Committee called on a task force to “review past and present activities” of the ERLC in light of “ongoing concerns.” The latest study has continued despite opposition from the ERLC board of trustees, who called the query “unwarranted, divisive, and disrespectful.” The task force report was delayed due to logistical challenges during the pandemic but is anticipated prior to the February 2021 Executive Committee meeting.
In the 2020 election, the involvement of a recently departed ERLC staff member in an Evangelicals for Biden panel also became a flashpoint. Moore responded to criticism with a statement that ERLC staff members “do not endorse or campaign for any candidates” while working for the commission but “sometimes express their respective views” after leaving the ERLC.
“Anybody that says, ‘I am passionately pro-life but I can vote for [Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden]’—they define pro-life in a way that I think strains the very definition of the word,” Stone said.
Some in the network were also disappointed in proposals to exclude Vice President Mike Pence from speaking as scheduled at the convention’s 2018 annual meeting. Jurkovich said in a Conservative Baptist Network press release, “As Southern Baptists can we not love both Jesus and America? Is it no longer okay to be a pastor and a patriot?”
A poll by Pew Research finds white evangelicals’ support for Trump is near 2016 levels, with 77 percent backing the president. (Some 85 percent of Southern Baptists are white.) But enthusiasm for Trump is up markedly this year. Mohler announced in April that he would vote for Trump this year after publicly opposing him in 2016.
Conservative Baptist Network steering council member Javier Chavez said the network is not just a group of white evangelicals supporting Trump. It also includes black and brown Baptists who support the president for his stands on traditional pro-family issues.
“We Hispanics are conservative,” said Chavez, pastor of Amistad Cristiana, a Hispanic church in Gainesville, Georgia. Democrats “have made us believe that we vote based on our race,” but when the issues are presented to Latino Christians, they “vote based on values.”
A Way Forward
The Conservative Baptist Network has hosted gatherings over the past few months and is planning a special event at the SBC annual meeting in Nashville next year.
Both the network and its detractors say they want unity in the SBC—which has always functioned as a group of independent churches but affiliated together for the sake of fellowship and mission.
In June, SBC Executive Committee member Jared Wellman claimed the Conservative Baptist Network “took control” of the Executive Committee through Stone’s nominations of subcommittee chairmen at his last meeting as chair, which fell immediately before the announcement of the formation of the Conservative Baptist Network. Stone has denied the charge.
In the future, Wellman suggested, Conservative Baptist Network leaders could exert inordinate influence over Executive Committee decisions through their leadership of subcommittees. Six Conservative Baptist Network steering committee members are on the Executive Committee, including Tom Tucker, its vice chair.
Atlanta-area pastor Aaron Menikoff, who isn’t associated with either side in the Conservative Baptist Network discussion, said he understands some of the network’s critiques. He voted against the critical race theory resolution, for one.
But he is concerned both the network and its detractors may be caricaturing one another while not providing ample evidence to support their claims. He also worries the Conservative Baptist Network may lead nonbelievers to think Southern Baptists are more bothered by critical race theory than they are by racism.
“We run the risk of turning the volume up on our discord to such a degree that we’re making it more difficult for our neighbors to hear the good news of Jesus Christ,” said Menikoff, pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Sandy Springs, Georgia. “The answer isn’t to stop disagreeing. The answer is to start disagreeing really well and really patiently.”
David Roach is a writer in Nashville.