by Gerald Harris
Southern Baptist Convention Presidential nominee Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, was interviewed by former Christian Index editor Gerald Harris. Stone’s responses should be of interest to every Baptist in the state and the nation as well. The interview reveals the heart and spirit of the Emmanuel pastor and his vision for involving grassroots Southern Baptists in the life of the convention.
Question: Pastor Stone, I think most Georgia Baptists know who you are, because of your long tenure at Emmanuel Baptist Church, your involvement in many aspects of Baptist life in the state and national conventions and your extensive preaching schedule outside of your local church. What else would you like for our readers to know about you?
Answer: I was raised in a wonderful Christian home. My parents are devout believers. But I was not raised Southern Baptist. I became a Southern Baptist by choice and conviction during my college years. Raised in a Pentecostal denomination, I saw a lot of experience-based Christianity. It forged in me a commitment to the authority and sufficiency of the Scriptures.
In my nearly 19 years pastoring Emmanuel, I have preached verse-by-verse through 34 books of the Bible. I believe that’s the best and healthiest way to teach the whole counsel of God. And it is a weekly reminder that we all need a word from God. Nothing more, nothing less, and certainly nothing else.
Q: It is obvious to those who know you that you are devoted to your family. Tell us about your wife, Andrea and your four children.
A: Andrea is a graduate of Brewton-Parker College. We met in the college/career Sunday
School class at a church in Macon. I was in middle Georgia attending law school at Mercer University. That is where the Lord confirmed a call to vocational ministry. I withdrew from law school and soon joined a church staff in Macon.
Andrea and I were married in 1995. After several years of struggling to begin our family, the Lord blessed us with the privilege of adopting two children at birth. Michaela is now 18 and Andrew is 16. A few years later we received two blessed and miraculous surprises. Sarah is 13 and Matthew is 8.
It has been a joy to see each of our children receive Christ as Savior and Lord. I can really relate to 3 John 4 in that I have no greater joy than to see my children walking in the truth of the Word of God.
Q: You are listed as a part of the Steering Council of the Conservative Baptist Network. I think our readers would be interested in what the CBN is and what it is not. Could you give us some insight on that issue?
A: Grassroots Southern Baptists have become increasingly uninvolved, unengaged, and uninvested in the work of the Convention. In our own state, churches are negatively designating funds or completely withdrawing from the Convention at a record rate. These churches, and there are thousands across the country, feel that the SBC no longer represents them.
Pastors across the country are tired of being called racists, legalists, and Christian nationalists, especially by convention employees whose salaries are paid with Cooperative Program dollars. And they are weary of social media headlines from SBC leaders who speak in condescending ways to rank-and-file Baptists.
There is a strong sentiment that our Convention is heading in an unhealthy direction. Whether it is the Critical Race Theory being taught and/or modeled by our seminary faculty or the constant apology and repentance tour that is the result of CRT and political correctness, Southern Baptists want leadership that will return our collective focus back to the Great Commission.
That is why the Conservative Baptist Network began. I did not found the CBN but I am glad to be a member. The CBN is not a group on the outside of the SBC encouraging people to leave. It is a group in the very center of convention life encouraging pastors and churches to remain engaged with the SBC.
Q: What are some of the specific matters that you believe are concerning to pastors and lay leaders?
A: There are many wonderful things to celebrate in SBC life. But there is also no question that there are many areas of concern. I know that making such a list will make me appear to be a critic but each of these matters are simply facts.
For example, we recently learned that NAMB gave $175,000 to a church plant in Atlanta that admits it was uneasy about even being a Southern Baptist church. And that church has now left the Convention. A 6-figure gift of Southern Baptist mission money was given with no strings attached.
Online reports indicate numerous NAMB-sponsored church plants that have female pastors. And when such issues are highlighted, it is often the “whistle-blower” that is viewed as the problem. Amid the constant and predictable calls for unity, let this much be clear: Southern Baptists have a doctrinal statement to provide clarity and avoid division. When the Baptist Faith and Message is not followed, the confusion is created by those who did not follow it, not by those who are pointing out the doctrinal breech.
A recent tweet from the ERLC stated that gender was a “complex issue” that raised “challenging questions.” I think most Southern Baptists believe gender is anything but a “complex issue.” And despite a round of criticism on social media, there has been no clarification, no apology, and no response. And many pastors are simply tired of things like this.
The leadership of the ERLC was highly critical of the January 6, 2021 events at the US Capitol and rightly so. But they were inexplicably silent when mobs rioted from coast to coast, destroyed public property, occupied police stations, and even declared an autonomous zone within the sovereign borders of the United States.
The ERLC filed, in a federal court, an amicus brief with known factual and doctrinal errors. These substantive errors were known before it was filed. Yet it took nearly 4 months and a tremendous amount of pressure to evoke an apology and a correction.
The immediate past board chairman at Lifeway has a contract with Lifeway. This is a clear violation of SBC Bylaws although apparently not a violation of the bylaws at Lifeway. Yet the chairman approved a $1,000,000 severance package for a CEO who left Lifeway in deep financial distress.
An internal inquiry at Lifeway recently found this arrangement “was not illegal or motivated by ill intent” and I am confident that is the case. But that is one reason the SBC bylaws clearly prohibit such an arrangement. I am grateful that Lifeway has enacted new policies to strengthen transparency. But frankly, it is disturbing that such protocols were not already in place and that the bylaws of the SBC are not being followed.
Grassroots Southern Baptists see that as a staggering example of a broken trustee system that too often acts in the best interest of entity heads, entity employees, and trustees themselves rather than operating in the best interest of the entity and of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Q: You have indicated that there are three specific things that God has used to prompt you to say “yes” to being nominated as SBC President. A renewed focus on evangelism was one of those issues. Please elaborate on that important motivator.
A: The SBC is in a precipitous decline. Our baptisms are at their lowest point since the presidency of FDR. And we clearly have more people, churches, and resources than we did in 1939.
Not only is evangelism our mandate from the Lord Jesus, it is the one thing that can truly bring Southern Baptists together. Our founders called it our “one sacred effort.” For the last few years we have seemed to label everything under the sun as a “gospel issue.” Meanwhile our evangelistic fruit is in deadly decline.
If elected, I would love to call the churches of the SBC to an 8-week wave revival. It would be wonderful to see our churches, associations, and state conventions partnering together for local, regional, state-wide, and national events to reach the lost.
Such a plan would necessarily be adapted by individual autonomous churches. One church might host a tent revival with one of our gifted vocational evangelists. Another church may have a one-day emphasis where their pastor preaches a well-announced salvation message in the context of a regular worship service. But we must challenge our people and our churches to be on evangelistic mission.
Q: The second issue that God impressed upon your heart had to do with the sufficiency of Scripture. How is that different from the infallibility of Scripture and why do you think that should be an emphasis at this time?
A: Most pastors I know in the SBC affirm the sufficiency of Scripture. But the passage of Resolution 9 in Birmingham and the subsequent response to it reveals that the SBC is not in agreement about Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality. These are two fallen ideologies that I find to be incompatible with Biblical truth.
CRT divides humanity into non-Scriptural categories of oppressor versus oppressed, abuser versus victim, and privileged versus marginalized. And worse, it does so on the basis of identity instead of actual behavior. Properly understood, there is no redemption in such a system because guilt and innocence are defined based on immutable identity traits. This is antithetical to the gospel and must be clearly repudiated at the 2021 annual meeting and beyond.
Despite strong statements from leaders, there are clear examples of Convention employees who are furthering the tenets of CRT, intersectionality, and standpoint hermeneutics. The latter is the false idea that the Bible must be interpreted through the lens of personal lived experience, ethnicity, and gender identity.
We must continue to proclaim and practice our belief that the Word of God is enough. We do not need to supplement our Biblical doctrine with cultural solutions and ideologies that do not address the root of the problem, which is sin.
Q: The third issue you mentioned had to do with a desire to foster greater involvement from grassroots in Southern Baptist life. Why is that important and how do you propose to accomplish that?
A: Anyone who has watched the Convention in the last 20 years knows that the “family tree” of SBC leadership does not have enough forks in its branches. The overwhelming majority of key leaders have come from the same relational, institutional, and even congregational stream. That is not a criticism against anyone. But as a fact of human nature, accountability becomes more difficult when key leaders tend to have the same relational loyalties and allegiances.
The SBC is not governed by a presbytery or a college of cardinals. We need greater involvement from grassroots Southern Baptists who will come to our annual meetings and let their voices and votes be heard.
Frankly, one way to promote grassroots involvement is to elect me as president of the SBC. My election would be a signal to rank-and-file Southern Baptists that grassroots participation is welcome, meaningful, and effective.
I describe myself as an organizational insider but a relational outsider. That is, I have been privileged to serve in strategic places in the SBC. Yet I have never really “run with” the more prominent leaders of the Convention. I will bring a unique combination of deep organizational knowledge and the experience of a more normative pastor within the SBC. My presidential appointments will reflect that reality.
Q: It is my contention that during the Conservative Resurgence our presidents were placing people on the Committee on Committees who would select people to be on the Nominating Committee who would recommend Baptists to serve as trustees of our institutions who were committed to the inerrancy of God’s Word. Today there are some who feel like current trustees are more accountable to the presidents of the entities they serve than Billy and Betty Baptist in the pew. Do you see that as a problem, and, and if so, how can it be solved?
A: As I have already indicated, I believe there are clear instances where this has been a significant problem. The SBC president has limited power in this regard, but I want to be clear how I would use those appointment duties.
I would appoint a committee on committees that shared the view that these challenges exist. It would be my goal that our committee on nominations would nominate trustees who understand their fiduciary responsibility is not to the entity head. Training, of course, is vitally important. But no amount of trustee training will work if entity employees are able to influence the committee on nominations to recommend best friends, family members, former employees, and the like to serve on the boards.
Q: You have served on the Executive Committee of the SBC and were the chairman of that august body from 2018 to 2020. From your perspective in that role what did you see as the major challenges facing Southern Baptists?
A: Let me mention three challenges. First, the decline of the Cooperative Program is a major challenge. Nation-wide, CP giving has declined in the last 10-12 years by tens of millions of dollars. For example, Georgia is the second-largest CP contributor in the SBC. In my first year of committee service to Georgia Baptists, we had a $50 million budget. This year GBC messengers adopted a $37.5 million budget. The Cooperative Program is the primary giving vehicle that fuels our collective missionary effort. When it declines as it has, that is the very definition of a major challenge.
Second, we face a major challenge in our discussions of ethnicity. I want to clearly submit that the SBC does not have a racism problem as much as we have a problem with how we discuss the subject. Much of the challenge is a result of CRT and identity politics that has already infiltrated our denominational discourse. We will never solve a spiritual problem with a socially-constructed analytical tool.
One convention officer recently tweeted that if a person does not accept “Resolution 9” then they have denied the actual personhood of African Americans. Statements like this are not only untrue, they are unhelpful. We must speak to one another Biblically and not socially if we are ever going to find a Christ-honoring solution to this challenge.
Finally, the SBC needs to continue to make strategic advancements among our non- English-speaking population. There are over 60 million Spanish-speaking people in our country and around 20 million Asian Americans. I was honored to support Dr. Ronnie Floyd’s desire to create executive level positions for strategists to lead our ministries to African Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic Americans. Based on the sheer number of souls and the amount of lostness, the SBC must rise to seize this opportunity.
By the way, this is just one of many reasons I am very excited about the announcements of Dr. Lee Brand as First Vice President and Dr. Javier Chavez as Second Vice President. I want to encourage all Southern Baptists to research and support these great nominees.
Q: I have heard you express your concern about the Cooperative Program’s declining revenue over the past ten years. As a potential Southern Baptist Convention president what is your degree of commitment to the Cooperative Program and to what level has your church’s budget reflected that commitment?
A: My church is deeply committed to the Cooperative Program. We have averaged 9% CP giving over my nearly 25 years at Emmanuel. I believe that would make my election reflect the highest CP% of a president since 2006 and one of the highest since the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence.
Q: If present plans are maintained the Southern Baptist Convention will be held in Nashville, Tn., June 13-16, 2021. Why should people attend the SBC and how can they be qualified to represent their churches as messengers?
A: I believe 2021 is going to be a watershed convention. In addition to the election of a new president and other officers, there will be a Biblical resolution on Critical Race Theory, and certainly discussion related to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
The SBC has over 47,000 churches yet we usually have between 8,000-9,000 registered messengers at an annual meeting. This is how decisions are made at an annual meeting that do not reflect the convictions and positions of our churches.
Every SBC church can send at least 2 messengers. And based on giving, each church can qualify for as many as 10 additional messengers for a total maximum of 12. Each church elects its messengers in its own way. But I would encourage every pastor and staff member to attend this year. And I would strongly urge every concerned Southern Baptist lay person to tell their church leadership they would like to attend as a messenger. Your pastor can assist you from that point.
Keep in mind that Nashville is a great destination city. With plenty to keep a family busy, it would be a great time to attend the convention and add on a few much-needed vacation days in Music City.
Q: The Executive Committee formed a task force to review the work of our Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission while you were EC chairman. Since you chaired that task force, can you comment on the recently-released report?
A: The report was published on Feb. 1 and clearly indicates there are hundreds of SBC churches and millions of potential SBC mission dollars at stake with pastors and churches who do not like the direction and leadership of the ERLC. The initial response to the report has been fairly divided which is indicative of the problem we face. When an entity is a source and subject of such division, it should not be a surprise that the report is met with a mixed response. But let me make a couple of observations.
First, the report simply gave the facts. These facts were obtained from our state executive directors across the SBC. One might argue with those facts but it will be like arguing with a fence post. The facts will not change and neither will the problem.
Second, these are facts with which the SBC must contend. Under our trustee system, messengers do not hire or fire entity heads. That duty belongs to the boards of trustees. But I believe messengers to the next several annual meetings are going to have to decide if an ERLC, led by anyone, is the best and most effective means of addressing the public policy concerns of the Convention, especially when its current leadership has placed multiplied millions of mission dollars in jeopardy.
This issue is just one more reason I want to encourage concerned Southern Baptists to reengage in the life of the SBC. Make your reservations now and join us in Nashville on June 13-16.
This article was originally published at The Christian Index.