Southern Baptist leaders are defending their outgoing Executive Committee chairman, who was tarred as a racist on social media following a misunderstanding over how officers are appointed to the committee.
Amid ongoing unease about the theological direction of the nation's largest Protestant group, allegations emerged last week that a new theologically conservative network within the Southern Baptist Convention was attempting to take over the denomination's Executive Committee, and that its now former chairman, Mike Stone, was a racist for denying the new chairman, Rolland Slade — the first-ever African American to hold the position — from nominating new EC officers.
The EC, which has 86 members, serves as the administrative arm of the SBC that some have referred to as the Southern Baptist “House of Representatives.” It reviews the work of the Convention's many ministry endeavors, distributes funds given for the various missions, plans and manages the denomination's annual meeting, and handles legal matters, among other things.
Stone explained in an interview with The Christian Post Monday that the bylaws of the SBC only allow the election of officers to occur at a meeting held the day before the denomination's annual meeting and state specifically that they are to occur at the convention hotel. Yet due to the cancellation of the 2020 annual meeting as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, a special EC meeting had to be called. The bylaws had to be amended to permit the election of officers, a simple revision that had been discussed for nearly a month by EC officers, including Stone and Slade.
Four days before the required deadline to announce the new bylaw amendment, Stone became aware that the CEO of the EC, Ronnie Floyd, was proposing a substantial revision to the process to elect officers, which would have given the incoming chairman, Slade, the ability to make the nominations of officers. Historically, that responsibility has always been given to the outgoing chairman, and revising this process had not been previously discussed. When Stone realized how substantial the change was, Stone convened a meeting, the officers reviewed it and unanimously declined Floyd's recommendation, a unanimity which included the new chairman. SBC bylaws also require 10 days' notice if the bylaws are to be amended.
"Therefore, it came painted as my attempt to take a nomination privilege away from Mr. Slade, the first-ever African-American chair of the committee. That's where the racial accusation (against Stone) came in," Stone told CP.
An amendment offered at a recent EC meeting by SBC pastor and EC member Jared Wellman that mirrored what Floyd had previously pitched to the officers was voted down. Wellman published a blog post in SBC Voices on June 24 accusing Stone of manipulating the process and argued that the Conservative Baptist Network was operating in a heavy-handed manner with "double-minded messaging."
"The Executive Committee had restructured the Committee into four new Standing Committees that had not yet been populated, and I recommended during the meeting that we wait until those Committees were populated which would allow the new Chairman to have the opportunity, like former Chairmans, to have a significant part in electing new Chairmans. This recommendation was declared 'out of order' by Stone because it would have 'substantially changed the nature of the bylaw,'" Wellman argued last week.
Soon after Wellman's article went live, the SBC social media world added to it, asserting that Stone's actions were motivated by racial prejudice. Stone told CP that though Wellman has never accused Stone of racism, the inaccurate information nevertheless led others to make such claims. CP reached out Monday to Wellman for further comment on this article but received no response.
"When it came time for me to place nominations before the committees which I'm required to place by the bylaws, to my total surprise Mr. Slade offered alternative candidates. That's his right to do because these are not appointments, they're nominations. I nominate as the chair and then the floor is open. Nowhere in our precedent have there been opposing nominations between the outgoing and incoming chair," Stone said.
Yet on Thursday at another EC meeting, Slade acknowledged that he had misread and misunderstood the relevant bylaws pertaining to officer nomination procedures, and apologized for how he had handled the situation, and noted that the way Stone was vilified online was wrong.
"Mike is a man of integrity and high ethical character. He does not deserve to be characterized in any negative way. He is my predecessor, my friend and, most importantly, my brother in Christ. He deserved better from me. I sincerely apologize for the hurt and damage my actions this week have caused to him, his reputation, his family and the Emmanuel Baptist Church of Blackshear, Georgia," Slade said in a statement to Baptist Press Friday.
Stone told CP that all is forgiven and his respect for Slade remains but Wellman has reportedly doubled down.
"To me, it strains at credulity that [Wellman] cannot read the bylaw and see that he was inaccurate. Mr. Wellman has been upset with my leadership of the Executive Committee for the better part of my term," the former EC chairman said.
But his esteem for Slade has "increased exponentially," Stone said.
"What I saw Thursday when Mr. Slade apologized in front of the whole committee, even though it was a Zoom call, you sense the spirit of the call and Brother Rolland’s esteem in the minds of Christian brothers and sisters increased."
Speaking to the charge that the recently-formed Conservative Baptist Network was conspiring to take over the SBC EC, Stone explained that of the four officers that he nominated, he had no idea that two were in any way connected with CBN and he had never discussed it with them. He knew a third nominee was sympathetic to the CBN and the fourth was Rod Martin, the highly publicized co-founder of the group. Stone added that if the recent activity of the EC was evidence of a secret agenda, he does not know how it could be characterized as such.
"Nominations of officers for the Executive Committee have never given rundowns of affiliations," he noted, partly because it is a small body and they all know each other.
The EC is already a theologically orthodox, philosophically conservative group and when leaders are pulled from it no one should be surprised that many have an affinity for the new network, he said.
Asked if the accusation that the CBN was scheming to pack the EC with their people because some are suspicious of some of the network's other aims on a more macro level, Stone said: "I definitely think that's true."
The Conservative Baptist Network "is a fairly new organization that is still largely unknown to the wider circle of Southern Baptists and because of that, there is a natural hesitancy or concern. So I think it's a legitimate question: Who is this group and what are their goals?" he said.
He believes once the CBN becomes more widely known it will become clear that the network is manifestly in favor of a strong SBC and its Cooperative Program.
Rod Martin, the CBN co-founder who was nominated by Stone to be an EC officer, said in a Tuesday CP interview that the idea some seem to have that the new Baptist network set in motion an ominous plot to take over a key denominational entity — a notion he pushed back on in a Todd Starnes Media piece last week challenging Wellman's assertions — is "silly" and "facially foolish."
"Everybody in the world knew exactly who Mike Stone was and he did what every chairman did before him was required to do by the bylaws to do, which is to nominate a slate of officers," Martin said.
Broadly speaking within the denomination at large, the new network has been well-received, he explained.
The network co-founder has spoken with a number of SBC pastors who appear ready to "throw in the towel," are presently considering redirecting the funds they contribute to the denomination's Cooperative Program, and are thinking they can further the Gospel in keeping with the denomination's statement of faith — the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 — as independent congregations.
"To me, that's horrifying because I don't believe there has ever been a greater amalgamation of the Lord's resources than the Cooperative Program and the Cooperative Program funded ministries, and the Southern Baptist Convention. And CBN is in large part to give those guys a voice and some hope that somebody stands with them."
For those within the SBC currently entertaining views espoused in other evangelical movements like Baptist21 and The Gospel Coalition like critical race theory — one of the CBN's greatest stated concerns about the direction of the denomination — Martin believes many are well-intentioned and are earnestly trying to address race issues besetting the church and wider culture. But critical race theory is not a useful tool to do that because the Gospel is sufficient, he maintains.
"I think the big problem that is being missed in certain circles in SBC life is that merely because certain leaders articulate an agenda such as critical race theory, it doesn't mean that the Baptist in the pew is following along. I would say that the Baptist in the pew does not listen to what gets talked about on The Gospel Coalition's website. So that being the case, they are a bit shocked to hear that things are going on in denominational life that sound more like CNN than the Conservative Resurgence, and they're disturbed by that," Martin said.
"In some cases I think it may stem from the 2016 election. They were turned off by politics in some way and so they've thrown out the baby with the bath water, so if anybody has an answer that falls on the conservative side of anything it must be wrong because of Trump. But I believe that they are going down not just a dangerous road but a road that is fraught with damage all along its path, because every step down that road further alienates people from one another," he said.
"I believe that the Gospel is the way to save not just the souls of Americans but America itself. I think the SBC is one of the greatest tools God has ever created to achieve that end. And I think if we can have this family discussion and sort out some issues that I think matter a great deal, and more importantly, matter to a great many Southern Baptists, we will be healthier as a result and the outcome will be something we can be very happy about."