Great Commission Task Force podcast with David S. Dockery
On March 15, David Dockery, President of Union University, was interviewed following a presentation on the interim report of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force originally presented to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention on Feb. 22. The complete recording of the podcast is available at https://www.baptistmessenger.com/gcrtf-podcast-with-david-s-dockery/. The following is an edited transcript of part one of the interview. Part two will appear in next week’s edition.
In the fall of 2008, voices began to surface across various places in the Southern Baptist Convention calling for renewal and revival in local congregations and in the agencies, institutions, commissions and entities founded by Southern Baptists. The phrase “Great Commission Resurgence” was originally coined by LifeWay Christian Resources’ president Thom Rainer, further defined by Southeastern Seminary’s president, Danny Akin, in a chapel address, “Axioms for Our Great Commission Resurgence,” and championed by Johnny Hunt, the senior pastor of Woodstock, Ga., First, and current president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Before the formal launch of the idea, now turned movement, Union University president David Dockery convened two conferences in 2004 and 2006 on the Union campus, which many believe served as the catalyst and formal codification of Baptist identity in this decade, and Southern Baptist doctrine and polity in particular. Dockery wrote a small book distributed at the Southern Baptist Convention titled Building Bridges, and later wrote the book Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, a volume which has received widespread appreciation from all quadrants of the SBC. His newest volume, Southern Baptist Identity: an Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, is a compilation of the talks given across the span of the two Baptist identity conferences held on Union’s campus. For this special edition of the Messenger Insight, we feature Dockery, to discuss the initial findings of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, first presented on Feb. 22 to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Douglas E. Baker: The Great Commission Resurgence task force interim report has generated interest beyond the Southern Baptist Convention, even to secular journalists beyond our evangelical walls. They’re asking, “What is a Baptist and, particularly, a Southern Baptist?” In 1957, a series of books was published by the then-fledgling Thomas Nelson publishing house that took the religious world by storm. The books were, Why I’m a Methodist, by Roy L. Smith, Why I’m a Lutheran, by Victor E. Beck, Why I’m a Presbyterian, by Park Hays Miller. It fell to Louie Devotie Newton, the editor of the (Georgia) Christian Index to write Why I am a Baptist. Louie Newton was also a Southern Baptist and wrote: “Three great principles spring up when you consider someone a Baptist: one, the doctrine of church independency; two, a regenerated church membership; three, a rejection of infant baptism.” Is that the proper definition of a Baptist?
David Dockery: (It is) certainly a good place to begin the conversation, but I would say we must begin by saying that a Baptist is a Christ-follower, a Christ-follower who has embraced the Gospel and Who has repented of sin and trusted in Christ alone as Savior and Lord of his or her life, and followed and demonstrated that commitment to Christ through public baptism by immersion. And so in that sense, yes, a rejection of infant baptism would be a beginning place. We do not believe in baptizing infants or that you’re born into the church, but you become a member of the church by being a Christ-follower and committing yourself to the church and demonstrating that publicly in the waters of baptism. That would be the first thing. Secondly, to be a part of a church means you are a regenerate person, and we believe church membership is open only to those who are Christ-followers. And that is very important, because we think that decision making is made by the congregation, and you cannot know the will of God unless you know God and unless you follow Him through our Lord Jesus Christ. So regenerate church membership is more than just a ticket into the church; it is the understanding of how the church functions together in seeking the will of God in all things. And then thirdly, that the church does function without hierarchy. It functions without decisions external to the church. And so, even decisions by the Southern Baptist Convention are not binding on any local church. I like the term autonomous better than independency. Independency speaks of going it alone. Autonomous means we stand alone, but we cooperate with others, at least Southern Baptists do. So his definition is not entirely wrong, I would just want to begin further back than he did, with the Gospel itself, with embracing the Gospel, following Christ in the waters of baptism, being a part of a church because of one’s salvation commitment, and recognizing that that church seeks the will of God congregationally.
Baker: Let me ask you about what we know commonly as the Triennial Convention of Baptist Churches, meeting, as the name suggests, every three years, established in 1814 by Adoniran Judson, Luther Rice, among others. The proper title was the General Missionary Convention of the Baptist Denomination in the United States of America for Foreign Missions. By 1844, the issue of slavery caused the Triennial Convention to agree to disagree. In 1845, the northern Baptists organized the Foreign Missions Society, and that same year, William B. Johnson, the president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, proposed that a fellowship of Baptists be established in the South. He said the following in an address to the state convention, one week prior to the historic meeting of which you referenced previously in Augusta, Ga., in 1845. He stated: “I invite your attention to the consideration of two plans. The one is that which has been adopted for years past, namely separate and independent bodies for the prosecution of each object. The other proposes one convention, embodying the whole denomination together with separate and distinct boards for each object of benevolent enterprise, located in different places, and all amenable to the convention.” So the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845 was something quite different from the Triennial Convention, it seems, and the Northern Baptist Missionary Society. Is that right?
Dockery: The naming of things in the 19th Century was just about all you needed to know. But I think it is key to recognize that in 1814, they came together for foreign missions. That was at the heartbeat of bringing Baptists together. Baptists in the South participated in the Triennial Convention. Richard Furman, a pastor of the great First Church of Charleston, was the first president of the Triannual Convention. But there were two concerns that began to develop in the 1840s, and one was that most of the mission efforts domestically were being focused in the North and those in the South wanted more attention to starting churches in the South and in the Southwest. And then, secondly, who could be a missionary domestically or internationally. Could slave holders be missionaries? And of course the divide fell along northern and southern lines, for the most part, but there were many leaders in the South who opposed slavery. I think it is important to recognize that fact. But Baptists then came together in 1845 for those two purposes, with the intention to starting churches in the South and the Southwest and because of the difference in who could be a missionary. But as you can see, it all developed around missions, domestic missions and global missions. So when Southern Baptists came together in 1845 as a convention, something different than anything that had previously existed, they came together in order to do mission work together and appointed or started two mission boards, the Foreign Mission Board and the Domestic Mission Board in 1845. Baptists in the South were more than just a mirror of the Northern Baptist Convention, doing things differently because one group believed in slavery, having missionaries who supported slaves and the other did not. It was a different way of doing convention, more focused on the South, a different way of cooperating, and W. B. Johnson was a genius.
Baker: Was there disagreement in any way regarding the formation or the establishment of the Southern Baptist Convention by the existing state conventions of Baptists?
Dockery: I think it’s important to recognize that there was no attempt on the part of those who came together in 1845 to start the Southern Baptist Convention to do away with the existing state conventions. The one large convention did not replace nine smaller conventions. That was not the idea at all. Baptist bodies exist autonomously. They exist in partnership and cooperation together. That has been our understanding since 1845, and so those nine state conventions that existed prior to 1845 continued to do so. There was no attempt to undo them or to replace them or to restructure them in any way. And so people then were a part of the South Carolina Convention or the Georgia Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention and worked together in that way.
Baker: You mentioned two boards were formed when the SBC came together in 1845, the Foreign Mission Board and the Domestic Mission Board. How were these boards originally financed and supported?
Dockery: Through gifts from churches but with direct appeals from the boards to the churches. And the work of the original leaders was largely that of solicitation.
Baker: Well let me follow up on that idea of what you said about direct appeals to the churches. Leon McBeth in his Baptist Heritage volume writes these words about the method of fundraising present at the beginning of these boards, “The boards of state conventions, as well as the SBC, employed `agents’ to preach among the churches raising money of their particular cause.” McBeth writes that the method was inefficient, and “created problems for the churches, often one or more of them showing up unannounced and expecting pulpit time to make an appeal for his cause, a pattern disruptive and often demoralizing to pastors and people alike.” Continuing with McBeth, “The boards which got to the churches first with the best speakers raised the most money. By raising its own funds, each board was practically independent and the convention itself more an observer than a determiner of Baptist ministries.” Is he right?
Dockery: Yes, he is exactly right. And it was a problem. There was competition. The churches grew weary of always having these appeals. So Southern Baptists looked for ways to do it better, but it took them nearly 80 years to come up with a way to do it better. It actually started in the $75 million campaign that was launched in 1919, largely through the vision of George W. Truett and Lee Scarborough. Unfortunately, the pledges exceeded $75 million, but the gifts never materialized. It put the mission boards and Baptist entities in debt for years to come because they developed budgets based on pledges that did not materialize. Many people look back upon the 1919 campaign as a failure, but I think a better analysis is to see it as the forerunner for the Cooperative Program. In fact, L. L. Gwaltny, the great editor of the Alabama Baptist, said the Cooperative Program actually began in 1919 with this campaign. He said that in 1929, “a decade ago, when the Cooperative Program began” rather than “four years ago”, when we usually date it to in 1925. But certainly we learned in 1919 at least two things. One, that Baptists could work together cooperatively in partnership and do more together than we could do alone. We could raise funds cooperatively in ways that would be good for the overall work. And secondly, the people who could do that best were those closest to the church, and state conventions were a key to the success of the 1919 campaign.
Baker: Let me follow up with the year 1920. The SBC appointed yet another committee, a “Conservation Committee,” to establish a permanent convention financial plan. Now, you’ve mentioned the Cooperative Program. Was that the permanent convention financial plan?
Dockery: That was the beginning of what became the Cooperative Program funding plan. It was not the full essence of the plan. Going back and reading Baptist history from 1919 to 1933, each year was a further development, a better idea on how we could do this work together. The Executive Committee was formed in 1917, the $75 Million Campaign was launched in 1919. The Conservation Committee was formed in 1920, the plan for future program made its report in 1925 by M. E. Dodd which became the Cooperative Program. There was the business and efficiency plan of 1928 which Austin Crouch was a part of, the first leader of the Executive Committee, but everybody who has read that report and has read E.Y. Mullins knows that E.Y. Mullins wrote that report, almost every line of it. W. J. McGloughlin, who was the president of Furman University, a former professor at Southern Seminary, was the president of the Southern Baptist Convention and put together a committee to try to even do it better than what we’d done in 1928, encouraging the states to take the lead again in cooperative program funding. There was ambiguity at best on how we were to work together. And that changed again in 1933 with Cooperative Program funding promotion moving to the Executive Committee, where it stayed until the start of the stewardship campaign in late 1950s, early 1960s. This was a developing idea. We must not think that four or five people got together around a table and came up with an idea, came out with a plan, and we ran with that plan forever. It was slow and experimental. We tried to get it right. We’d come back the next year and say, this works, but this doesn’t. There were far too many committees, probably. Baptists appointed a committee every time you turned around during those years. A decade later, they came out with something good. But you have to recognize its origins, 1919, 1920, and the importance of state conventions and the national convention working together in partnership was the key and is the key if we have a future.
Baker: Albert McClellan, former editor of The Baptist Messenger, wrote a history of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, and he talked about just what you’re referencing here, the state conventions and their promotional aspect of the Cooperative Program. “It was understood,” McClellan writes, “from the beginning state conventions should be responsible for promoting the Cooperative Program in the field and gathering the funds from the churches. The Southern Baptist Convention was quite willing for this as long as it held the right of direct access to the churches.” So, what McClellan writes here is what you’ve echoed, that the state conventions were the promotional partner in the Cooperative Program and the collective agents since its beginning, right?
Dockery: Exactly. In 1925, when the report from the Committee on Future Program, led by M. E. Dodd, was presented, there was the establishment of the Committee on Cooperative Promotion, which eventually became or was worked into the Executive Committee in 1927. But from 1917 to 1927, the Executive Committee functioned as just that, a committee. It had no permanent staff or leaders, not until 1927 when Austin Crouch became the first full-time leader of the executive committee. So you can see, all these are things in process. But McClellan, who has done more research on the Executive Committee than anyone else has ever dreamed of doing, or dared to do, certainly understood these things better than anyone else, and his statement, I think, is right on target. If you go back and read the 1925 report, it says that the Southern Baptist Convention will work in partnership with the state conventions and that field responsibility, that’s the term ‘field responsibility,’ for promotion rests with the states. So it was a partnership, not one over the other, but working together with comprehensive coordination, at the national level, and the promotion, and stewardship education best carried on by those closest to the churches. And for McClellan to make that statement was understood that from the beginning the state conventions should be responsible for promoting the Cooperative Program in the field and gathering the funds from the churches, seems to me, right on target and has been proven over and over again, from the 1919 campaign to the early years of the Cooperative Program. And when CP has been at its best, it has been when state conventions and the national convention have been best aligned in mission and purpose.
Baker: One of the recommendations brought forth by the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force, is that the promotion of the Cooperative Program be returned to the states in a way that maximizes their ability. Is that a change? And from whence are we changing? Has the Executive Committee taken on promotion of the Cooperative Program?
Dockery: In 1933, the Executive Committee was given responsibility for promotion of the Cooperative Program and, as I said, continued to do so until the establishment of the Stewardship Commission. The Stewardship Commission then took over for stewardship education and Cooperative Program funding. And those were great years for us. It was when we had the six- point record system and you checked all the boxes and learned to be a good self-righteous Southern Baptist, all of us did. I was raised in that context. I say that facetiously about being a self-righteous Southern Baptist, but the goal was to show up at Sunday School and be able to check all the boxes and be 100 percent each week, and one of (those boxes) was did you bring your offering? I think those were important things for us to learn. We’ve lost some of that, you know, and we’ve tried to find better ways and sometimes we have, sometimes we haven’t. But the Executive Committee did have that responsibility. Then when the Stewardship Commission was deleted, the restructuring in the mid-90s, again the Executive Committee took on the responsibility of CP promotion, stewardship education went to LifeWay and then came back to the Executive Committee. These things have bounced around a bit. So there’s not just one way to do it. This is not an attempt to say the Executive Committee has done something wrong or done something inappropriate or failed or anything like that. As a matter of fact, the recommendation calls for the president of the Executive Committee and the Executive Committee to work in enthusiastic support and coordination of the work of the promotion being done by the states. So I think it is not an either/or and I hope people won’t hear it as an either/or. It’s a both/and, with an emphasis being upon those closest to the churches.
Baker: The SBC is no stranger to study commissions. You’ve mentioned several during this interview. In 1914, the Commission on Efficiency “resisted,” McBeth writes, “heavy pressure to merge the two mission boards into one.” It seems that this is a thought that we’ve had throughout Southern Baptist life, to merge the Home Mission Board and Foreign Mission Board into one global mission board. But they recommended in 1914 instead that the general boards retain their separate identities and locations. However, the report did make an interesting recommendation, “The report stated that the convention herewith expressly instructs the general boards, including the seminary, to maintain affectionate relations with each other, keeping in view of their common cause and the necessity of their cooperation with each other and the avoidance of any appearance of competition between them.” Dr. Dockery, has there been and is there now competition between entities and agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention?
Dockery: Yes, there is. And it’s largely due to our polity. Now our polity is wonderful. But it at times is quite messy. And I think it’s important to understand our polity. That local churches are autonomous, local associations are autonomous, state Baptist conventions are autonomous, the national convention is autonomous. The national convention is not made up of all the state conventions, who are made up of all the associations, who are made up of all the churches. It is not some big corporation with smaller companies in it. We work together, not as members of these groups, but as partners and cooperative partners together. So, one of the great things of being a Baptist is that you can choose to participate at any level you want to, and one of the frightening things is you realize people don’t have to participate. So in order to cover the bases, there’s been a sense of overlap, and we’re all about one big goal, but different ways to do it and trying to get it done at different places and different levels. And so, yes, there is some overlap. And you can’t just go in and clean it up and say, OK, we want the national convention to do this and the state conventions to do that, and dictate one to another. The only thing you can do is to suggest a vision, a general, over-arching big idea and say, “let’s buy into the big idea and then figure out how we can cooperate together.”
And that’s what the role of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force is. It does not have authority over the national convention, over the state conventions, over local associations or over local churches. Our idea is to present a new dream. Much of the vision driving the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force is that there are billions of people living on planet Earth today who’ve never heard the Gospel, and we have to find ways to do so. And so we want to be as strategic as possible in trying to eliminate duplication, trying to focus on broad-base participation, but streamlining mission and direction. How all that comes about will take time. It’s not something we’ll bring a report in to Orlando, and the world will change the next day. This will take years to implement. Two, four, six, seven, 10 years for it all to be implemented. And everybody needs to understand that we recognize that. We make this report with full understanding of our Baptist history, the history of the Cooperative Program, and not only an awareness of it, but a commitment to Baptist polity and how we work together, cooperatively and in partnership. So there will always be some degree of overlap. There will always be some degree of competition. There will always be some degree of tension. But, by God’s grace, if we can focus on the big picture, on the over-arching idea, on those things which drive us, the commission of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can succeed.
Baker: Let me briefly ask you about the original agreement between the state conventions and the national entities. McBeth writes, “The goal has been a 50/50 division between the state and SBC work.” Is that correct? This seems to be a subject of controversy today.
Dockery: If you go back and read the 1925 report, that was the suggested ideal. But it also made room for the fact that if state conventions were going to do the work of Cooperative Program promotion, they could set that aside as a preferred item; that the cost expenditures involved in Cooperative Program funding would not count as part of the 50/50 split. And that ideal actually has never been reached. You go back and look at it throughout the years. If you try to apply that, states that have colleges or hospitals to support need more money in the state than those that don’t. States that are involved in new work need more money to stay there than old line states that are well established. There’s not a one-size-fits-all pattern for the 40-plus state conventions, and we need to recognize that. The goal is to get as much money as possible to the nations. That should be the over-arching goal. How we do that is going to be different from state to state. We must not fail to recognize that putting money in state conventions to help start churches, to fund colleges that are training the next generation of pastors, missionaries and lay leaders is very, very important. And so we want to continue to do that. We don’t want to miss aspects of this by focusing solely on the Great Commission and miss cultural mandates or Great Commandment obligations that are also ours from the New Testament, to serve others, to love our neighbor as ourself, to do benevolent work, to help churches have a place to train leaders who can love God with all their minds. All these things are very, very important, and we have this sense of lostness, people who are lost around the world, gripping us, driving us, but there is much work to do in order to get at that overall goal. And so state conventions are different. What works in one is different than another: location, time, experience, the things that have been developed within a state. Some states don’t have colleges, some states don’t have hospitals. Some states do, and they’re pretty expensive to operate, and we need to put funding there. Those that are good Great Commission partners are worthy of Cooperative Program support.