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Seeking Renewal: Will the GCR Change the SBC?

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.

Author: Douglas Baker

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  • Lee Guardison

    I can’t remember when I’ve read something so clear and knowledgeable about the culture of the SBC. Though not a pastor, I’ve been around the SBC all my life. If state conventions do not change and the national organizations begin to work together better, I fear the SBC may be history.

    The pastors that I know just aren’t that interested in all the programs. They are interested in sending missionaries.

    Thanks for your work!

  • Doug:

    The SBC may or may not “exist in great danger”. But, if so, I don’t see how this is a function of either adopting or not adopting any or all of the task force’s six points.

    1. You say, “Yet, even if the SBC disintegrates. . . .”. Do you see any linkage between the adoption or non-adoption of any of the six task force recommendations and the disintegration of the SBC?

    2. You say, “Jesus will continue to build His church unhindered by quarrels of men”. Do you believe that all or some of the task force recommendations should be withdrawn because they serve as a platform for the “quarrels of men”?

    3. You say, “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.” Do you see something involved in: (a) debating the merits or non-merits of any of the six task force recommendations and/or (b) adopting any or all of the task force recommendations which could potentially put our polity of local church autonomy under attack?

    Don’t leave us trying to read between the lines. As Paul Harvey would say, give us “the rest of the story”. Otherwise, dumb guys like me, might rubber stamp the task force recommendations blissfully unaware of the consequences.

    The six points look pretty good to me. What am I missing?

    Orlando is looming. How about the Messenger running some side-by-side pro and con stories for each of the six proposals?

    Is the Messenger going to take an editorial position on any of the proposals?

    Roger K. Simpson
    Oklahoma City OK

  • Doug:

    Please excuse me. I guess I’m a little slow to catch on.

    In the last week I’ve done more research on the “cooperative agreements” between the NAMB and the states. I didn’t know that there were two types of cooperative agreements: one type to fund “approved positions” and one type to fund “appointed positions”. I didn’t know that agreements to fund “approved positions” are instruments which provide for NAMB subsidies for the bulk of the personnel budgets of most of the state conventions in “pioneer” areas.

    Now I realize why someone could broach the subject of the disintegration of the SBC in the context of discussing the Great Commission Task Force report. It is now evident to me that a likely result of the task force’s initial recommendations would in fact be the demise of some of the state conventions — at least those in pioneer areas.

    I find that for a “guy in the pew” like me — it is very difficult to mine down into the depths of what the task force is actually trying to pull off. To be able to understand their report you have to have an encyclopedic understanding of the inner workings of the state conventions and SBC-wide entities and the fund flows between them.

    Only is recent days have I come to realize what the task force means when they say they are “releasing the NAMB” by tearing up the cooperative agreements. This is just their euphemistic way of describing their mechanism for destroying many of the state conventions.

    If some or all of the state conventions really are “bloated and bureaucratic”, and they should be abolished, then I think the task force should come out and clearly make this case. They need to acknowledge that the “marginalization and/or destruction” of the state conventions is implicit in their plan and show why this is necessary for the greater good of spreading the gospel in North America.

    One problem I have is that people on all sides of this debate are speaking in “coded” language such that the real issues are hidden from view.

    Roger K. Simpson
    Oklahoma City OK

  • Doug:

    The task force proposal regarding the NAMB is moving faster than the speed of light!

    According to a news release from the GCR task force yesterday (“Big Changes in Store for NAMB, State Conventions Under GCR Proposal” — Christian Index 11 Mar 2010) the task force is now proposing >>

    {Below is an exact quote}


    Under the proposal, NAMB’s role for nurturing young and smaller state conventions would be left for the various state conventions themselves, with the hope that the larger ones would fill the gap — thus freeing up the $50.6 million [in monies returned to the states by the NAMB as a result of the fund flows of the phasing out of the “cooperative agreements”] for IMB to reprioritize.


    I have inserted words in brackets so the sense is clear.

    I’ve read the “proposal” with a fine-tooth-comb and there is no mention of cross subsidies between state conventions in there, so I don’t know what the GCR task force means by “under the proposal”. How many proposals do they have?

    In any case, this whole task force report is very fluid. It is morphing before our eyes. We better all pay attention.

    This latest task force report [some secret document that has evidently never been published] is not budget neutral. It is dependent upon $50.6 million in new money. The NAMB is going to redirect the $50.6 million it now sends to the states to NAMB missionaries instead. The states are being asked to backfill the $50.6 million that they no longer get from the NAMB and distribute it among themselves such that much of it will flow from old-line state conventions to the “pioneer” state conventions.

    I think the task force’s report should be budget neutral — or put another way — I don’t think the successful implementation of the task force’s plans should be contingent upon the states coming up with $50.6 million in additional money.

    If states are able to raise the additional $50 million and send it to pioneer area then I’m all for that idea. However, I don’t think the task force should set up a plan so that the very existence of the state conventions in pioneer states is predicated upon the old line state conventions having to pick up the tab.

    What’s next! How about having the IMB commission 2,000 more missionaries and sending the bill to the state conventions! Those state conventions are a veritable gold mine.

    Every time I drive down May and cross over I-44 I pass by that big six story Baptist Building. That thing sort of looks like Scrooge McDuck’s money bin — is there some type of metaphor at work here?

    RK Simpson — Oklahoma City OK

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