Is the Southern Baptist Convention a "church"? How about a state convention body? A local association? A mission board? A seminary?
Ecclesiologically, Southern Baptists tend to regard the cooperative efforts of multiple local congregations as something other than a church. In Nashville in 2005, Bobby Welch was careful to note that the SBC was not performing the baptisms that were taking place beside the stage—that we were merely witnessing the baptisms that Nashville area churches were performing in our presence. Churches, not people, constitute the membership of the convention, which is a fellowship of churches rather than a church itself. Strictly speaking, we consider our cooperative entities to be more para-church than church.
Nevertheless, our Baptist commitment to religious liberty has caused us to hold that the government has no business employing our theology against us to grant favorable treatment to one denomination over another because of the various ways that various denominations draw the boundaries of church. Such action constitutes at least a partial de facto establishment of special privilege to one denomination of faith over another.
Consider, for example, the recent case that pitted the tax assessor of Tarrant County, Texas, against the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC). The SBTC constructed its headquarters in Tarrant County and applied for religious exemption from property tax. The tax assessor initially denied the application, arguing that the SBTC, according to its own theology, is not a church and is not employed primarily for "religious worship." Other denominational headquarters within Tarrant County (the Methodists, for example) had been granted exemption for facilities that served nearly precisely the same functions as the SBTC headquarters, solely on the grounds that the polities of these denominations defined the boundaries of the church differently.
The SBTC appealed the ruling and the courts overturned the decision of the tax assessor. The eventual decision was the right one: The government has no authority to apply the same laws differently to various denominations because of their differing theological views. Theology is beyond the government's authority.
So, is a Southern Baptist seminary a church? As far as the brusque arm of federal intrusiveness is concerned, you bet it is. I'm not even saying that the federal government has no right to answer the question differently than I have; I'm saying that the federal government has no right to consider the question at all on a denomination-by-denomination basis.
As I've been saying for more than a year, the proponents of the Klouda case are, in their short-sightedness, hard at work to sell our Baptist and American birthright of religious liberty for a bowl of vindictive porridge. As the SBTC case demonstrates, the issues at play here are far-reaching and significant. Let's keep Pandora's grubby hands off of this particular box.