ANAHEIM, California (AP) — Bart Barber is a staunch Southern Baptist conservative who would welcome bans on abortion, opposes critical race theory and believes only men should serve as pastors.
Yet Barber, elected Tuesday as the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, says he has a track record of dialogue with those who disagree on those and other issues. He has called for an “army of peacemakers” amid bitter political battles in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
He defeated three other candidates and ultimately prevailed in a run-off vote at the SBC’s national meeting in Anaheim. His closest rival, Tom Ascol, had complained of too much “wokeness” in the denomination and sought to move it further to the right.
In the runoff, Barber won about 61% of the delegates’ votes, to 39% for Ascol.
Barber, pastor of First Baptist Church of Farmersville, Texas, says theology was at the heart of epic Southern Baptist battles of the late 20th century, in which conservatives gained control and purged moderate members from leadership and teaching positions. But today “secular politics are setting both the tone and the subject matter of many of our most hotly debated issues,” creating a “toxic” environment, he said on his church website.
Barber also has expressed dismay at the mean-spirited behaviors attributed to some SBC officials in a recent investigative report that details how the denomination stonewalled sex abuse victims.
“I’m praying that God will give me the wisdom to know what to do,” he said in a recent broadcast interview. “We’re sailing into uncharted waters.”
He has said that the scathing 288-page investigative report from Guidepost Solutions with disturbing details about how the church mishandled sex abuse claims and mistreated victims is only the beginning of a long and arduous journey.
“The work’s not done,” he added. “We’ve gotten the report, but I think everybody in the survivor community that I’ve heard from has said reports are one thing, but we’ll see if this family of churches has the courage and resolve to take action.”
He has agreed with the SBC Sexual Abuse Task Force’s proposal, approved Tuesday at the annual meeting, to hire a national staffer to receive reports of abuse allegations and determine which church or entity within the denomination should respond to them.
Barber, 52, is pastor of a predominantly white church in rural Texas where about 320 attend each week, which is notable because historically many SBC presidents have been pastors of large churches. He was appointed by SBC President Ed Litton to serve as chairman of the 2022 SBC Committee on Resolutions.
Barber served as SBC first vice president from 2013 to 2014 and as a trustee over the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas from 2009 to 2019. During his tenure with the school, Paige Patterson, an architect of the SBC conservative takeover, was removed as seminary president for his response to rape allegations from students. Barber also co-developed legislation protecting churches and other charities from civil liability for reporting alleged sexual predators, which became Texas law in 2019.
Barber has talked about moving the denomination away from polarization and toward unification.
“I believe that sometimes our rhetoric has become so inflamed and the tactics of some among us have become so worldly and threatening that the peacemakers are intimidated into silence,” he said on his website. “I want to embolden our army of peacemakers to step forward and bring us back together.”
While he has rejected critical race theory, Barber has said he would like to see the denomination be inclusive and accepting of all Southern Baptist congregations. He has said few in the SBC embrace the theory and that it should not be the major controversy that some have made it to be.
Barber opposes abortion and has welcomed the expected reversal of the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which could end the nationwide right to legal abortion. Barber has also said he believes “the best legal approach is to prosecute abortion providers for abortions.”
Barber says he is “not a Calvinist” — a theological system emphasizing the complete power of God over human free will. It has been controversial in Southern Baptist circles for decades. While many prominent Southern Baptists promote Calvinism, Barber says he can’t accept one of its tenets — that God only predestines some to be saved. But he said Southern Baptists can work together despite these differences.
He interprets the denomination’s statement of belief, the Baptist Faith and Message, as prohibiting women from any role as pastor, not just as senior pastor of a church. He said this stance is not “inherently boorish” or “misogynistic” and that he tries to listen to supporters of equal gender roles. In an era when many churches have multiple ministers on staff, Southern Baptists have been debating how to apply their official stance that “the office of pastor is limited to men.”
Deepa Bharath and Peter Smith reported from Pittsburgh.
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