Heath Lambert came out of nowhere, relatively speaking, to become the pastor of a huge, historic, influential SBC church.

Recently he's made news by demanding his congregation sign an agreement with a "biblical sexuality" statement that is extremely bigoted, misogynistic, and transphobic.

We trace Lambert's rise to power and examine what factors might have made him decide to pull this stunt.

Reading Time: 14 minutes

As time goes on, religion researchers are discovering all kinds of things about evangelicals’ culture wars—which is to say, their constant attempts to strong-arm popular culture into line with their demands. We now know that if pastors take any specific side in those culture wars, they can alienate church members with differing opinions. But one evangelical pastor with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), Heath Lambert, has decided to put the pedal to the evangelical-decline metal by demanding his congregation sign official loyalty tests about the culture wars.

This stunt didn’t come out of nowhere, however. Let’s trace the genealogy of this decision—and see where its genetic line will likely end.

This is the rabbit hole that never ends; it just goes on and on, my friends…

Before beginning deep dives like this one, I like to find out a little background information about the person at its center. I usually present this information in a section titled something like “Everyone, meet This Person.” For me, it’s a way to gain a larger perspective about a story.

Boy oh boy was this background-info gathering sesh ever different, though.

At the end, or at least where I decided I really had to stop now, I felt like Calvin after his dad gave in to his demand for the same bedtime story for the billionth time in a row:

From Calvin and Hobbes

No, I was not expecting in the least to find myself falling down an endless rabbit hole when I began researching this story. It just never ended!

The upshot of these dozens of tabs open on my browser: Heath Lambert is the perfect ur-example of a scheming evangelical culture warrior. Scheming and culture wars are part of his emotional DNA. I want you to know why this decision of his was so incredibly boneheaded—and yet so perfectly in character for the exact type of evangelical he is, as well as the type of evangelicals he wants to impress by making it.

Everyone, meet Heath Lambert: A veteran of the culture wars

According to his church’s bio blurb, Heath Lambert arose from the evangelical muck around 2009 with a PhD in biblical counseling and systematic theology. Biblical counseling is not secular counseling with Jesus frosting. It is completely different, with completely different objectives and methods.

He got this degree from something he calls “Southern Seminary.” While that name can refer to three different schools, it most likely refers to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS). SBTS is an SBC-affiliated school. Online, I see numerous other references to “Southern Seminary” that all mean SBTS. Incidentally, our old pal Al Mohler runs it.

The newly-hatched Lambert hit the ground running. According to another bio from the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC), around this time he worked as an associate professor at SBTS. He taught biblical counseling.

In 2011, he published the first of many books about this topic, The Biblical Counseling Movement After Adams. (“Adams” refers to the founder of the “biblical counseling” movement, Jay Adams.) In 2012, Lambert explained his take on biblical counseling over at The Gospel Coalition (TGC, a very Calvinist and hardline evangelical group). To anyone with a bit of background in real psychology, it is absolutely alarming stuff.

Lambert appears to have joined ACBC fairly early on. That 2012 post doesn’t even say he’s a member yet. But once he joined ACBC, he clearly rose up the ranks quickly. A 2014 blog post calls him the ACBC Executive Director. Not bad for just a few short years of professional life and, at most, two years at ACBC!

Though he doesn’t tend to talk much about it, Lambert is a very strict, hardline Calvinist, as well as a biblical literalist and inerrantist. This crowd also really likes church discipline, which puts church leaders in complete control of congregants’ personal lives.

Heath Lambert: The ACBC years

Once firmly ensconced in the leadership of ACBC, Lambert wrote constantly about what he saw as the future of biblical counseling. Around 2017, he arrogantly offered up what he called “95 Theses for an Authentic Commitment to Counseling.”

Mostly, his “95 theses” consist of endless Bible verses meant to prop up his erroneous assumption that the Bible must be both the end-all be-all resource for counselors and entirely sufficient to solve all psychological problems. Moreover (he tells us in #23), any other kind of counseling besides biblical counseling is doomed to fail through a lack of Jesus Power. Then he completely misunderstands his burden of proof in #40, which is a defiant-sounding CHECKMATE, ATHEISTS if I ever saw one.

(Related: Things the Bible doesn’t talk about, like PTSD.)

But he also made sure to get his organization into the news. In 2015, ACBC ran a conference about homosexuality with all the usual hallmarks of the evangelical culture wars. Protestors picketed the conference, getting ACBC splashed onto news sites everywhere.

(Related: Anatomy of doublespeak: That ACBC conference.)

ACBC made the news again in 2018, when Lambert (then the “outgoing” leader) decided to move its conference from the campus of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary over the Paige Patterson scandal. Hey, even a broken clock tells the correct time twice a day.

Around the same time, Wartburg Watch had a whole lot to say in criticism of ACBC’s brand of counseling (archive). Among many, many other problems, they accused ACBC of inadequate education and certification, poorly-educated leaders, misogyny, and serious issues with confidentiality. The 2014 blog post I mentioned confirms all of these issues and more besides.

Heath Lambert and his bigger ambitions

But Heath Lambert had bigger ambitions than just leading the ACBC, it seems. That’s where First Baptist Church in Jacksonville (FBCJ), a huge SBC church, enters the chat.

From 1982 to 2006, Jerry Vines was FBCJ’s lead pastor. SBC watchers might recognize him as one of the primary movers-and-shakers of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence. In fact, he was the president of the SBC from 1988-1989, at the very height of that fight.

The Conservative Resurgence was nothing less than an evangelical schism. A small handful of conspirators got angry about what they saw as the SBC’s drift into liberalism (particularly around the lightning-rod topic of women pastors). They decided to bring the SBC back to its ultra-conservative roots.

Vines’ election was part of the conspirators’ scheme. The president of the SBC appoints a whole lot of people to a whole lot of posts. The conspirators knew that if they could get their man in the top spot for a certain number of consecutive years, they would win the schism through simple numbers. By Vines’ second election, his side’s victory was assured.

Vines retired in 2006. Afterward, FBCJ elected Mac Brunson to be their new pastor.

Sometime around 2015, Mac Brunson hired Heath Lambert as an associate pastor. Soon after, Brunson resigned with no explanation whatsoever.

That left Heath Lambert as the new lead pastor of FBCJ in 2017. He quit ACBC the next year, so now FBCJ was his only job.

Alas for him, by then FBCJ’s membership—and income—had been dwindling for years.

FBCJ’s chaotic recent history before Heath Lambert…

Under its first pastors and then Vines, FBCJ enjoyed a bunch of great boom years. But by Brunson’s ascension, those days were long past. Worse, its enrolled members clearly did very little for the church. Even by the SBC’s lackadaisical attendance standards, its membership barely ever bothered to show up for Sunday services.

The percentage and number of butts in pews (BIPs, and no, that’s not an official SBC term) are a direct indicator of a church’s financial health and its cultural power in a community, as well as the church’s status in evangelicalism generally. And the SBC knows it. Every year for their Annual Report, the mother ship asks member churches to do a headcount of actual attendees. Though the pandemic obviously has thrown these counts into chaos, these headcounts generally reveal that about a third of their enrolled members can be found in church on any given Sunday.

In 2014, FBCJ had 28,000 enrolled members and 3k attendance on average. That’s a 10.7% attendance rate. Still, thanks to their leadership and overall size, FBCJ was a powerful force in the denomination.

(A few weeks after Brunson resigned from FBCJ, he began his new gig as the pastor of the considerably smaller Valleydale Church in Birmingham, AL. As of this writing, he’s still there. It appears to be SBC.)

By the time Heath Lambert took control of FBCJ, the church had an absolutely humongous facility with ten sprawling city blocks of land around it. However, they couldn’t afford its upkeep at all with their 3200-ish members, and they were sliding deeper and deeper into debt.

One of Lambert’s first moves as pastor involved trying to “jolt [FBCJ] back to life with a loan” and sell off about 90% of its property. The pandemic completely destroyed those sales plans, unfortunately. As of 2021, Lambert seems to be slowly gathering money to get some renovations going.

…And its equally troubling history

If you’re wondering if a scandal was involved with Brunson’s resignation from FBCJ, you probably should. This guy was entirely too sanctimonious about adultery.

But I have other—and far more potent—reasons to wonder about just why he left FBCJ without explanation.

As a start, FBCJ shows up in the massive 2022 abuse report that the SBC commissioned to deal with its huge sex abuse crisis. On page 145, we read this testimony:

Tiffany Thigpen grew up in a Christian home, and her family attended First Baptist Church Jacksonville (FBC-Jax). Ms. Thigpen was committed to her church and committed to going into ministry. During Ms. Thigpen’s high school years, Darrell Gilyard, a mentee of Pastor Jerry Vines and Paige Patterson, preached at FBC-Jax. [. . .] Mr. Gilyard groomed Ms. Thigpen with late-night phone calls and promises of a summer job in Texas. In the spring of 1991, after a revival meeting at FBC-JAX, Mr. Gilyard attacked Ms. Thigpen and attempted to rape her. Ms. Thigpen fought to get away from him and was able to escape. She was terrified and traumatized. Ms. Thigpen and her mother went to Dr. Vines to tell him about the attack. Dr. Vines was dismissive of her report and told Ms. Thigpen that it would be embarrassing for her if others knew about it.

2022 SBC abuse report, p. 145

I’m sure it wasn’t fun for Heath Lambert to have to respond to this report. But he tried hard to communicate the policy changes that had occurred after Vines’ pastorship. Then, he offered the reporter this exceedingly odd disclaimer:

Lambert did add that Gilyard isn’t affiliated with the First Baptist Church.

Action News Jax

Wait, what?

The FBCJ-Gilyard connection

That statement caught my attention in a major way.

Nobody had said anything about Gilyard’s current affiliation. Rather, he was preaching there at the time of the attack in 1991. So why go to such pains to stress a lack of current affiliation?

Well, I sure found out why: Darrell Gilyard and FBCJ go way, way back. Heath Lambert clearly knows how far back, too.

In fact, 44 women in Jacksonville (among others outside the city) have accused Gilyard of what the report euphemistically calls “inappropriate conduct.” And this conduct appears to have been an open secret among FBCJ and SBC leadership at the time.

The super-secret SBC-maintained database of pastoral predators contains quite a few links and leads to Gilyard’s crimes. Two solid gobsmacking pages of the database are devoted to him alone (pp 73-74). At the end of his two-page database entry, we learn that the SBC’s top leaders knew that Jerry Vines stood accused of knowing all about the situation but doing nothing to protect women from Gilyard. (This is the possible blog post the database mentions, but it might also be this one.)

In fact, Vines helped Gilyard escape consequences. For a while beforehand, he’d taken quite an interest in Gilyard’s career. Along with Paige Patterson, Vines gave the young preacher considerable help in getting established in his profession.

In addition, that secret database reveals (on page 56) another criminal lurking at FBCJ, Stephen Edmonds. In 2002, Edmonds was the church’s youth minister and one of its deacons. Numerous victims accused him of child sexual abuse. Eventually, he was sentenced to a year in prison and five years’ probation, then listed on the state’s sex offender registry. This happened under Vines’ leadership.

As well, FBCJ’s leadership, particularly under Brunson, has been credibly accused of all kinds of other misconduct, mostly financial but occasionally touching upon the silencing of critics (archive).

Heath Lambert didn’t choose FBCJ by accident

Goodness gracious, Heath Lambert inherited quite an impressive mess with FBCJ, didn’t he? But I can see why he was willing to shoulder such a burden. His ascension to this church’s pastorship was not some wacky, divinely-orchestrated series of impossible coincidences.

Though FBCJ was struggling mightily hard for a number of reasons, it was still quite a plum for the picking. It’s a historic church with an impressive pedigree of leadership, an undeniably powerful role in SBC politics for decades, and loads of potential for rebounding despite its past debilitating debt and downturned attendance and fortunes. I’m sure Lambert didn’t see any way he could lose with those conditions.

Wartburg Watch thinks that hardline Calvinists have been looking for struggling churches that fit this general description for a long time. Their goal, apparently, is steeplejacking. The term means a local, single-church version of the Conservative Resurgence itself. Once these Calvinists achieve leadership roles within a struggling-but-paid-for nice church, they set about making it a new hub of hardline Calvinism. Anyone who doesn’t like the new shift gets driven away. I’ll let them explain the process:

The SBC has been involved in the revitalization of older churches. Let me translate that for you. One of the most difficult things about starting a new church plant is trying to find and rent facilities. There are many within the leadership which urge SBC Baptist preacher types to find a church facility that is already bought and paid for.

Last year I received a call from church in the Boston area. Twenty Calvinist young folks arrived at their church and began to join committees, etc. They were attempting to get themselves elected to position of leadership in the church. Why might that be? This church was an historical church with paid for facilities. I explained to the pastor what was likely happening. Those 20 young church revitalizers were given the boot.

Wartburg Watch (archive)

That does seem to fit exactly how Heath Lambert came to power.

Well, he’s found a new way to court the attention of his fellow Calvinists:

He’s set forth a loyalty test for his congregation.

Heath Lambert and his new loyalty test

Last year around October, according to his church’s FAQ, Heath Lambert decided to force his remaining church members to sign a statement about “biblical sexuality.” The church apparently “overwhelmingly approved” the idea. They appear to have rolled it out in January.

Anyone in the membership who chooses not to sign the document by March 19, 2023 will be stripped of membership. If they wish to become members again of the church, they will need to follow its procedures for any prospective new member. These include “attending the membership class, meeting with a pastor, and being voted on by the congregation.” I’m guessing that signing the statement will be a mandatory part of that onboarding process.

So what does this statement say about “biblical sexuality”?

Biblical, when used by evangelicals as an adjective for anything, just means a culture-war-enabling interpretation of the noun being modified. So biblical marriage means marriage reserved for straight cisgender couples seeking opposite-sex-only marriage, and then idealized-1950s-style strict gender roles and constant childbearing afterward. Biblical parenting means beating children and raising them in a very authoritarian manner. Biblical counseling means extremely Jesus-y fake counseling that seeks to eradicate sin in a client’s life, while laying no particular care upon confidentiality.

Thus, biblical sexuality means the only kind of sexuality that evangelical culture warriors approve of humans having. No LGBT orientations or identities are allowed. Sex may occur only within a straights-and-cisgender-only, opposite-sex marriage. And constant, unending disapproval must be expressed at anyone who goes off-script.

How Heath Lambert’s loyalty test came about

In part, the statement reads:

As a member of First Baptist Church, I believe that God creates people in his image as either male or female, and that this creation is a fixed matter of human biology, not individual choice. I believe marriage is instituted by God, not government, is between one man and one woman, and is the only context for sexual desire and expression.

Baptist Press

It’s not anything new for SBC leaders, particularly hardline Calvinist ones. But Heath Lambert feels that this statement is absolutely necessary now. As he explained recently:

We believe [that] in a sexually confused culture, it is important for our church to be united and to be clear about a matter like this which is a closely held religious conviction held by every member in our congregation.

Heath Lambert for Baptist Press

Of course, the decision to run this loyalty test was not solely made out of a desire to be super-Jesus-y, nor to make absolutely sure that the church’s culture-war enemies and victims know exactly how much its members hate them.

It’s actually way more pragmatic than that. You see, the Jacksonville City Council recently passed an ordinance that includes better protections for LGBT people.

They gave religious organizations an exemption from those rules. However, it appears that Lambert is desperately worried that unless his church makes adamantly clear that they’re bigoted and transphobic as a core part of their religious identity, the exemptions might not apply to them. Lambert even told his church so in a YouTube video from September:

Protecting our church legally means that we must do everything possible to communicate that our biblical beliefs about gender are a core conviction, absolutely central to who we are as a church of Jesus Christ.

Heath Lambert, YouTube video quoted in Baptist Press

My suspicion here is that Heath Lambert has become aware that some of his congregants have and love LGBT people in their families, and he wants to head off lawsuits from those congregants.

That the statement also serves as a loyalty test is probably just an added bonus to Lambert. By mid-March, he’ll know exactly which congregants are loyal to him—and which ones he must drive away.

The rumblings of dissent grow louder for Heath Lambert

Though Heath Lambert claims that the only opposition he’s received to his loyalty test have come from outside FBCJ, it’s very easy to find church members expressing profound disagreement with the statement. Someone even posted the letter that one household, possibly theirs, received:

Via Reddit

As well, FBCJ hosted some kind of open-mic forum at the end of January for people to discuss their opinions about the loyalty test. During that forum, a woman who identified herself as “queer” described an FBCJ member family in her acquaintance that had told her they’d decided to stop attending the church because of this new requirement. I doubt they’re the only ones.

To me, it sounds like very few dissenters dare to openly discuss their opinions. Instead, they take to sites online or go through intermediaries who have nothing to lose. Considering how authoritarians tend to respond to dissent, such decisions are completely understandable.

How Heath Lambert’s church likely shakes out in the culture wars

FBCJ is already seriously dwindling in membership. Before the pandemic, they reported about 3200 members. If the pandemic did to them what it’s done to other evangelical churches, they’ve likely lost a good third of their members in the past couple of years. (That’s only a general estimate, of course. I’ve heard of some churches facing considerably greater losses, some up in the 75%-80% nosebleed ranges.) And if the average applies to FBCJ, that means they’re hovering around 2000 members now.

According to a 2023 Pew Research report, a good 15% or so of white evangelicals in America don’t buy into biblical sexuality regarding gender identity. About a third of them think the United States is either accepting enough or needs to become more accepting of trans people. Almost a third don’t consider their religion much or at all when coming to their opinions about LGBT people. So that’s potentially 400-1000 pre-pandemic FBCJ members who aren’t in lockstep there.

When it comes to equal marriage, Pew Research found even more dissent in the flocks. Almost a third of evangelicals “strongly favor/favor” same-sex marriage. This finding might mean that almost a thousand congregants at FBCJ’s previous membership level are fine with equal marriage.

If I’m right and they’re sitting at around 2000 members, Heath Lambert might potentially be facing about 600 culture-war traitors hiding in his hallowed pews.

What those dissenters are likely to do

Authoritarian leaders love to demand loyalty tests of their followers. It sets their followers off-base and makes them feel ill at ease. It makes followers try extra-hard to please their leaders, too.

But these tests can backfire for pastors. When they take a stand about any political matter, anyone on the other side becomes alienated. Without a way for pastors to force their followers to stick around, this alienation can quickly lead to dissenters leaving the church for a better political fit. It doesn’t even seem to matter which side the pastor takes. All that matters is that some congregants don’t agree with it.

Heath Lambert thinks that by demanding this loyalty test from his congregation, he will end with a smaller congregation that is intensely loyal to him. That’s unlikely. Whoever remains will be extra-aware that their pastor feels very comfortable with making extremely personal demands of them.

I expect at least some of those dissenters to sign the agreement anyway. After all, how is their disloyalty to be exposed? If they’re careful, it’s unlikely that King Heath or his lickspittle informants and lackeys will ever find out about it.

For those who have a crisis of conscience about dishonestly signing it, they may well drift away. Many may contrive the usual excuses for doing so: They’re just so busy lately, or they’re moving, or whatever else. Or they’ll just leave and not talk to anyone about it.

The possible real target of this stunt

Whatever happens, though, this demand is perfectly within Heath Lambert’s character. It bears the hallmarks of both his ambition and his overarching control-lust.

Also whatever happens, hardliner Calvinists will be very impressed by his demand for a loyalty test. And their esteem might well be the key to understanding Heath Lambert’s thought processes.

This entire situation might be a signal flare meant to catch the eye of those outranking him in the tribe. In the past, I’ve seen hardline Calvinists do very similar things to get attention from their thought leaders.

In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this stunt is part of a plan to get elected to the SBC’s presidency—if not this summer, then next. If I’m right, then it doesn’t matter at all how many people Heath Lambert loses over his demand. What matters is that his side’s leaders are impressed enough by it to push him higher up the ladder of power.

And thus, this story perfectly illustrates exactly why evangelicals, and the SBC in particular, are in a freefall decline with no end in sight.

Avatar photo

ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...