Georgia mega-church pastor Johnny Hunt won a surprise first-ballot election as next president of the Southern Baptist Convention in the most wide-open race in many years.
This year’s presidential race featured six candidates announced prior to the convention annual meeting, which concludes today in Indianapolis. Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ga., received 3,100 votes, 53 percent of the total, more than twice as many as the second-place finisher, fellow Georgian Frank Cox. Cox, pastor of North Metro First Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., garnered 1,286 votes, or about 22 percent of the total.
Unlike two years ago, when Southern Baptists elected a relative outsider, South Carolina pastor Frank Page, this year both front-runners were clearly identified with the “conservative resurgence” movement led by old-guard fundamentalists including Adrian Rogers, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler.
Hunt is pastor to former SBC president Jerry Vines, who moved his ministry to Georgia after retiring in 2006 after 23 years as pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla. Vines is now a member of First Baptist Church of Woodstock, and a staff member at the church handles booking for Vines’ speaking engagements.
Cox is a former president of the Georgia Baptist Convention and former first vice president of the SBC. He also served on the SBC Executive Committee for nine years.
The four remaining presidential candidates split the dissenting vote that two years ago propelled Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., to a shocking first-ballot victory over two loyalists of the conservative movement–Ronnie Floyd of Arkansas and Jerry Sutton of Tennessee.
After hinting he might be nominated for SBC president in 2006, Hunt reneged and instead gave the nominating speech for Floyd, pastor of First Baptist Church in Springdale, Ark., who finished second in a three-way race widely regarded as a repudiation of exclusionary leadership of previous years.
Johnny Hunt’s election confirms that Frank Page’s election in 2006 did not signal the emergence of a ‘kinder, gentler;’ SBC,” said Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics. “The founding fathers of SBC fundamentalism have reasserted their political power. Their continued direction is away from the center. That makes hollow the months of chatter in the media about the emerging evangelical center. If there is no trending away from extremism in the SBC, there is no trending away from the Christian Right among conservative evangelicals.
“It is my joy today to do what many have wanted to do for 10 years,” Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., said in a speech nominating Hunt for the presidency. Part of Hunt’s appeal, Traylor said, is his “heart for the next generation,” a group Traylor said has been noticeably absent at SBC annual meetings for years.
Over the last 20 years, Traylor said, Hunt has trained some 25,000 young leaders through his Timothy Barnabas conference ministry.
“They have said this is our hero, and as you elect him today you will send a message to that young generation that they have a place at the SBC table,” Traylor said.
Though some observers said so many candidates this year indicated an opening up of SBC leadership, Hunt and Cox were widely viewed as frontrunners coming in to the convention.
Avery Willis, a long time International Mission Board missionary and administrator best known years ago for creating the MasterLife discipleship training materials, drew 962 votes, or 16 percent. Bill Wagner, another former missionary who also taught missions at an SBC seminary, got 255 votes. Les Puryear, a small-church pastor from North Carolina, got 188 votes.
Wiley Drake, a flamboyant Californian elected as second vice president in 2006, received just 45 votes for president following a term in which he used his title to gain publicity for acts like calling for “imprecatory” prayer against Americans United for Separation of Church and State after the group suggested the IRS investigate whether he violated tax-exemption law by endorsing Mike Huckabee for president.
Tuesday’s sessions also featured introduction of motions. Three already referred to the SBC Executive Committee could have major impact if they are passed.
One, proposed by recently retired Executive Committee Vice President Jack Wilkerson, called for changing bylaws to prevent SBC agency heads from being eligible to serve as president of the SBC as a way to avoid the potential for conflict of interest.
The last such executive to hold the office was Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, who was elected in 1999 and 2000. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was announced as a candidate months ago, but withdrew because of health problems.
Another proposed motion would amend membership bylaws to add to churches that endorse homosexuals defined as not in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC churches that also hire women as senior pastors.
Another referred motion asks the Executive Committee to “revisit, re-evaluate and reconsider” the decision by the SBC to disaffiliate with the Baptist World Alliance in 2004.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.