“Were the moderates right?” The sheer posing of such a question sent a collective gasp across Alumni Chapel. During a recent panel discussion when Southern Seminary President R. Albert Mohler, Jr., uttered these words in a place where moderates once dominated one of the world’s largest seminaries, it was not as though such a theory was not without a plausible grounding. Some 20 years earlier Bill Leonard, a notable moderate who once served on the faculty of Southern Seminary, predicted that once the conservatives took control of the SBC’s massive infrastructure, they would soon turn on one another.
Russell D. Moore, the Dean of Southern Seminary’s faculty went a step further. As a young doctoral student, Moore observed the doctrinal deliberations of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. His conclusion? “You are wrong about the Bible. You are wrong about Jesus. You are right about us.” By being “right,” he meant the ferocious relational controversy that still (perhaps now more than ever) envelops the Southern Baptist Convention.
The mere mention of the words—Great Commission Resurgence—can send most every Southern Baptist gravitating one way or another. For some, the movement that began with a 95 percent vote by messengers to last year’s annual meeting in Louisville indicated a seismic shift was taking place within the denomination.
They thought that the embrace of a comprehensive theological worldview would gladly result in an objective examination of the denomination’s agencies and entities resulting in a process for streamlining, focusing and targeting funding allocations toward areas where little or no Christian witness is present.
Others saw it as a power grab—a political movement intent only on taking money away from some and moving it toward others. Places like seminaries and the SBC’s two mission boards stood to gain more of the funds of the denomination’s most coveted possession—the Cooperative Program—while state conventions were in the spotlight like never before and called to account, as it were, for their actions. Some believed the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force represented a small fraction of the SBC’s demographic makeup.
By the numbers, it doesn’t look good. More than $300 million remains confined in the region of the American southeast, while a funding matrix that would make the federal government look simple is intertwined with the North American Mission Board. The amount of money directly involved with international missions is miniscule compared to the management and consultant enterprise that is funded by the Cooperative Program in state conventions and SBC agencies.
Overnight, this has made every denominational employee a missiologist. Intent on retaining the portion of funds allocated to the various agencies, the entire denominational superstructure has morphed into a public relations machine showing how their particular program or initiative is “mission critical.”
The tactics employed by men supposedly committed to theological unity have proved to be downright political. Blogs now rival the established denominational media as places where truth and accuracy are debated. Dissenting views are demonized as “unspiritual” and “fatuous.” Information is leaked to the press, and meetings thought confidential are now brought into the open. Given the current trajectory, it might well turn into the establishment versus the churches if things do not change very quickly.
At bottom, the issue surrounds the very definition of the Cooperative Program. On one side stand those committed to a unified budget under a unified funding structure which has been, until now, the original funding formula for the Cooperative Program since its formation in 1925. At its founding, the various institutions and agencies of the SBC had a very limited purpose reserving the bulk of ministry to local congregations to order for themselves their unique priorities and prerogatives of their community outreach and proclamation of the Gospel. The partnership between state conventions and national entities was spelled out in clear detail. State conventions would serve as the collecting agent for the CP and forward a portion of the money they received to Nashville for disbursement to the seminaries and mission boards.
Others believe that the Cooperative Program should be amended to include all contributions to various ministries of the Southern Baptist Convention. Embracing more of a market-based approach, they feel that churches should be able to give what they want, to whom they want, how they want without being forced to follow what many consider to be an outdated funding spectrum. They desire that more money be given toward international missions and domestic church planting.
Why the fight? Were the Cooperative Program to be changed, it would result in a dramatic shift in the Southern Baptist Convention that would shatter models of cooperation and dismantle entire ministries overnight as a new iteration of a form of societal giving would erupt throughout the denomination. The Cooperative Program as it has been known would change and never return to the way it was originally conceived. Why? As painful as it might be to realize, not all SBC ministries have the same stock value with local churches. Depending on the congregation, some ministries are preferred over others. Until now, no one had dared think that it would or could change.
At this point all roads lead to Orlando, where the messengers to the 2010 annual meeting will hear recommendations from the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force. Ultimately, it will be the messengers who decide the future of the Southern Baptist Convention. In their hands will reside the power and authority to direct the means of ministry for future generations of Southern Baptists who purpose to preach the Gospel to the nations.
Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.