We appeared totally to have forgot the business for which we were sent. We adopted principles which would be right and proper, only on the supposition that there were no State governments at all.

Luther Martin – Maryland Delegate to the Constitutional Convention 1787

The very idea that any federalized system of government could ever trump that which was established earlier and resided closest to the people was offensive to Martin and others like him who opposed the ratification of the United States Constitution. Fearing the encroachment of a large and powerful federal government, Martin worked to oppose any idea or law that sought to make the states the servant of a national government.

While the United States technically still exists as a constitutional republic, federal law often regulates the actions of states in ways which would be thought quite oppressive by some of the framers of the U.S. Constitution. Historically, it stands to reason that centralized power must be curtailed. Majorities often act in ways that run roughshod over the rights of individuals unsupportive of a particular governmental action or law. To check and limit power, state governments initially fiercely opposed all such movements to strengthen the power of a centralized (federal) government.

Such ideas were part of the culture of early Baptists – many of whom opposed any involvement of government in the affairs of the church.  The Danbury Baptists and their famous letter in 1801 to President Thomas Jefferson only underscored the impression that Baptists were a fiercely independent lot – skeptical of powerful hierarchies and organizations which move too far beyond the individual and the local church. Many were somewhat anti-establishment and sought to capture the essence of the local congregation by refusing to create large systems of religious governance that could (regardless of motive in the founding of a board or institution) grow past a mere advisory role to the local church.

Consequently, when the idea for the Southern Baptist Convention was proposed in the mid 1800’s, some Baptists were opposed to its formation. Thomas Meredith, the founding editor of The Biblical Recorder (North Carolina’s state paper), was highly influential in the region and vocally opposed the establishment of what he saw as a federalized denomination capable of direct authority over state conventions and local churches. Over time, however, he acquiesced and supported the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.

Through the years, the autonomous nature of interdependent levels of SBC ministry has grown to form what has become something almost unworkable. Duplication of ministry services has resulted in confusion as to who exactly is to do what at the various levels of Southern Baptist life. The SBC has grown to resemble something which many of its founders feared – a nationalized ministry that requires boards, extensive governance, and large sums of money to support the administration of missionary outreach at home and abroad.

Formal organization(s) and structure(s) in Baptist life has often resulted (at some point in time) in tension among those who are active in administration of cooperative ministry priorities entrusted to them by local churches. The modern Southern Baptist Convention and its emphasis on a Great Commission Resurgence resembles the debate once encountered by the Northern Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention in the early 1900’s. At that time the Northern Baptist Convention and the SBC were in a squabble as to who would evangelize and congregationalize the state of New Mexico.  Tensions rose so high that representatives from both conventions came together to establish a comity agreement. Comity (the idea that mutual courtesy and some sort of civility should exist between two opposing parties) was an idea that Baptists were slow to embrace.

It was not until after months of meetings that an agreement was worked out between the two conventions on January 24, 1912 in Hot Springs, Ark. At this meeting a unanimous affirmative vote cemented what was to be a short-lived agreement between the Baptist conventions. Yet, their commitment to one another was marked by rhetoric that warned no “Baptist body should use its influence to disintegrate or injure the work” of any other Baptist body. They pledged to “put aside all unholy competitions” and realize their unity in Jesus Christ.

The agreement reads like a modern day contract. In the end, New Mexico resided under the care of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Home Mission Board. Comity basically existed until 1942 when Oklahoman J.B. Rounds (founding pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Oklahoma City, Executive Director-Treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, and, with W.D. Moorer, founded Falls Creek Baptist Camp) made a motion that the state of California be admitted to membership in the SBC.  Following this action, all such efforts toward a defined “territorial position” were soon ended and the SBC expanded into states beyond America’s Southland.

Turf, even in gospel ministry, is always an issue. Comity, especially in gospel ministry, is always difficult. Historically, this is true. Presently, it is the case in the SBC.  The preliminary recommendations of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force seemingly have raised more questions than answers.

Many Southern Baptist leaders agree something radically different must be attempted with the North American Mission Board. It simply cannot continue its current trajectory. Some Southern Baptist leaders support scaling back the SBC Executive Committee to execute its original purpose of administration and not the formal discharge of Convention-wide ministry initiatives. The International Mission Board remains central to the Convention’s identity and original purpose and many SBC leaders desire to more fully fund international mission efforts.

State conventions and the Cooperative Program frame the Southern Baptist culture of collective cooperation to fund the very expensive monetary requirements for world ministry outreach. Few Southern Baptists, however, fully understand just how all the components of the proposed changes by the GCR Task Force will be detailed and how they will impact the local congregations who financially enable the Southern Baptist Convention to exist in the first place.

The future is not all together clear, and that could be a good thing. The initial report of the task force might change to look something quite different from the original framework proposed this week. Chairman Ronnie Floyd still maintains that it is a work in progress and desires to hear from Southern Baptists about their initial impressions of the GCR report.

Unlike other formal denominations, the SBC exists more as an informal convention of local congregations who willingly work together to advance the gospel. In SBC life, no one forces anyone to do much of anything. Baptist polity demands that congregations possess ultimate authority over all that transpires beyond their walls.

This is a time for great humility and respect lest what has taken over a century to establish might well collapse under the weight of passionate, yet misguided, individuals on all sides of the issues. Consensus must form.

If the Baptist past is prologue, the SBC abides in a state of a great danger. Yet, even if the SBC disintegrates, the theological conviction of Southern Baptists will remain: Jesus will continue to build His church unhindered by quarrels of men.

Douglas E. Baker is the Executive Editor of The Baptist Messenger.