SBC Messengers Should Retain Their Right To End Debate

The President of the Southern Baptist Convention, Bart Barber, has just announced that the platform will be recommending a new rule for the annual meeting this summer in Indianapolis (see below). They are recommending that messengers relinquish their right to end debate before at least 12 minutes of debate have taken place. If messengers were to approve such a rule, every single matter of business that comes up for a vote would require at least 12 minutes of deliberation.

I could be wrong, but I suspect that the platform would not be offering such a rule were the Law Amendment not on the agenda. [UPDATE 5/23/24: It turns out that my suspicion was in fact wrong. Since writing this, I have learned that the proposed rule change has nothing to do with the Law Amendment. I’m still against the rule change, but I wanted to add that clarification. One more clarification, I do not mean to suggest that the chair is trying to “cook the books” against the amendment. I suspected that he was trying to guarantee that it got debated sufficiently, but it turns out even that was incorrect. Nevertheless, I did not mean to suggest any nefarious motives on the part of the chair. I apologize for any lack of clarity on that point.] I’m all for debating the Law amendment on the merits. I believe the proposal is built on a solid biblical foundation and that messengers will be persuaded by biblical arguments. I also believe that opponents of the amendment have the tougher argument to make as to why we should reject a measure that affirms what the Bible and our own confession teach about the qualifications for pastor. So by all means, let the debate happen. I suspect that if someone were to call the question early during debate about the Law Amendment, the messengers would vote it down anyway. There is nothing to fear about a debate on the merits.

Having said that, I’m against the rule that Bart proposes for the following reasons:

1. Some opponents of the Law Amendment are likely going to try and derail the amendment by offering an amendment to the amendment. If they are able to amend the amendment, then the clock restarts, and we would have to have a second vote next year on the amended amendment. In other words, if opponents can’t win on the merits, they may try to delay final passage by offering endless amendments. Opponents could also kill the Law Amendment altogether by amending it. For example, let’s say opponents successfully amend the amendment with a 51% vote. The amended amendment may then fall short of the two-thirds necessary to even get it to a second vote the following year. The Law Amendment would be dead at that point, and there would be no second vote. This again is another parliamentary tactic designed to kill the amendment without actually arguing against it on the merits. By guaranteeing that there are at least 12 minutes of debate, opponents will have a better shot at being successful with these kinds of tactics. I’m happy to have a debate on the merits of the amendment. I am not happy to assist opponents of the Law Amendment in their attempts to thwart its final passage in Indianapolis.

2. Why would the messengers tie their own hands in every vote by adopting a rule like this? The messengers should reserve the right to end debate whenever they want, especially on issues that have 80% or 90% agreement. The Law Amendment aside, why should messengers relinquish their right to vote to end debate on all the other matters of business that come before them? It is often a mercy when someone calls the question on uncontroversial measures, and I for one don’t want to lose that right during the course of business. Do we want business sessions to drag and perhaps fall behind schedule? That’s what would likely happen if we were to adopt such a rule.

3. Again, I’m happy to have a debate on the merits of the Law Amendment. Indeed, I plan to be at a microphone in order to make the case myself. Nevertheless, if someone does call the question before 12 minutes are up, why shouldn’t the messengers have the right to end debate? If there is widespread agreement, they may wish to do that. What is the point of adopting a rule to take that right away from them? We had a debate about the Law Amendment last year, and the debate has spilled over into countless articles and tweets and blogs since then. Messengers will have had plenty of time to be informed about the Law Amendment, and they may be ready to vote without debate. Again, I suspect messengers will insist on at least 12 minutes of debate with or without this rule, but they may feel otherwise once we get into the room. Why should they tie their own hands by adopting a rule like this? It’s worth mentioning that the messengers voted to end debate early last year on the renewal of the ARITF. A messenger called the question well before 12 minutes were up. Messengers voted to end debate, and that was that. If the messengers exercised their right to do this in renewing ARITF, why should they waive that right with respect to the Law Amendment?

For these reasons, I oppose this rule. I hope that the majority of messengers will oppose it as well.