I am a Baptist.
That seems like a very simple statement, but it carries many different meanings with a variety of responses. For some, the idea merely states that I have a view of baptism and church governance that informs the way I affiliate with a local congregation. For others, it carries a wilder, more contentious idea of boycott and anger towards the latest societal wave.
While both have merit, neither of these sentiments fully encapsulate what it means to be Baptist (though, I would argue the first is much more on point!). And, because there is no singular, clear way to be Baptist, the last 4 centuries have been replete with groups and organizations seeking to provide clarity of what their “brand” of Baptist should look like.
Enter the 19th century and there, just to stage left, you will find a group of Baptists in the southern states emerging with their own ideas. What began in the 1820s as the Triennial Convention, later found a more defined geographical and theological identity in 1845 and called itself the Southern Baptist Convention. This was a group of Baptists from Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi who identified missions as the primary reason for cross-congregational cooperation. They had strong statesmen like Richard Furman, Jesse Mercer, William B. Johnson, and Basil Manly as their leaders.
Even though missions was the basis of the overarching cooperation of these churches, slavery lurked in the shadows as a dark reason for the southern churches to break from the American Baptist Convetion and Triennial Convention. A brief history would place Georgia at the center of the controversy as churches in our state demanded that the Triennial Convetion appoint James Reeve as a missionary in the Home Mission Society. They rightfully refused, as Reeve was a slaveholder.
From the beginning, we have been mired in controversy.
But, what is the purpose of the Convention? How are we organized? Where does the authority lie within our groupings? Knowing a little about when and why we started is informative for these questions and will help us as we go.
Our task here is to discuss the structure. Yes…the boring stuff about our cooperation and convention.
Since its founding on May 8, 1845 in Augusta, GA, the Southern Baptist Convention has gone through various phases and shifts as an organization. Our original structure included a Home Mission Society, a Foreign Mission Society, and a Publication Society. Each of these societies needed to pull independent funding from local churches and state conventions. One of the earliest amendments to this structure was the addition of a theological education society, which led to the establishment of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Greenville, SC.
What is imperative with this structure is a sense of cooperation and a common goal. For Southern Baptists, the goal was to tell the world about Jesus. Churches did not have to agree on everything, just the main thing. Unfortunately, it also led these churches to overlook important things like slavery and racism. In most cases, our convention of churches has made definitive statements against racism and many Southern Baptist leaders in the 1850s pushed their state governments to end slavery.
But, Southern Baptist churches sought to avoid some of the theological controversies that plagued our British counterparts and led to a disintegration of their mutual cooperation for the Gospel. In early SBC life, you would find (just as you do now) churches that did music differently, churches that preached very Calvinistic views of salvation, churches that did Sunday school, churches that were run entirely by their deacons, and many other differences among the churches.
This is an important piece to the structure of the convention. Baptists have historically been autonomous congregational churches. Simply put, each church has been free to organize itself as it biblically sees fit. There is not an external governing board to tell each church how it must be organized, how it must budget, or even who its pastor must be.
It is this autonomous congregational structure of the local church that informs our cooperation as a larger convention. While the executive offices of our Convention are located in Nashville, TN, no one in that office has the authority to tell our church what we can and cannot do. This is intrinsic to what it means to be Baptist and is core to our conventional identity.
So, what does all of this mean for our current structure as a convention?
Let me start to answer that question with a brief description of our agencies. We can break the SBC into 6 different agencies, some who are under direct control of the Convention and some who are not. Let’s start with the one within our control, the Executive Committee of the SBC. This small group has offices in Nashville, TN, a full staff, and is led by the Executive Director-Treasurer. This position and committee work for us. The committee is made up of 86 pastors and church members from local churches across the Convention. They do not have authority over us as a local church. Their charge is to execute and implement the decisions made at the annual meeting of the Convention.
Not directly in our control, we have the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, 6 theological seminaries, and Guidestone Financial Resources. We have fiduciary responsibilities to each of these entities, but they are all given license to operate independently of the Convention under the guise of their own trustees. We also have LifeWay Christian Resources, though they function financially and governmentally independent of the Convention. The Woman’s Missionary Union is an auxiliary of the Convention, assisting with mission education. You can find out more about these agencies here: https://www.sbc.net/about/what-we-do/sbc-entities/
In getting to the issues at hand in our Convention (come back for that in a few weeks), the organization of the Convention is important. Our Convention is simply a voluntary cooperation of like-minded churches to advance missions and theological education. The question of authority rises at this point. It is necessary to remember our congregational roots as a people. Without a congregational backdrop, the structure of our Convention becomes a top-down bureaucracy rather than a local church association.
Every year, churches like ours can elect and send messengers to the annual meeting. This is where the authority of our Convention rests: in one room for two days in June every year. It is not in an office in Nashville, a NAMB board room, or a seminary campus. In the annual meeting, the structure of our Convention is dictated by the people from churches like ours. Policy changes, institutional investigations and accountability, and even decisions about cooperating churches are made in that room by the messengers.
It isn’t big churches telling little churches how to do it. It isn’t one agency ruling over another. It is a group of men and women who love Jesus and want to make Him known to the world…at least, that’s what it is supposed to be. Remember why we started?
So, to end this long entry, I want to ask you to begin thinking with me about where we have gotten off track? Where have we begun meddling in other churches with no true regard for the Gospel going forward? How have we silenced otherwise faithful voices for Jesus because of man-made rules?
Next time, we will look at two documents that bind us together as a Convention. I hope you join in for the ride.