Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why Have We Remained the Southern Baptist Convention?

Faced with the question of the abolition of slavery—which was everywhere and in every way a religious movement—many Christian denominations in the United States of America experienced bitter factionalism over the question of slavery. Before long, the splintering of denominations into branches North and South was a widespread and common phenomenon. In 1860, over 80% of Southern Christians self-identified with one of just four denominational families: Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians. The Episcopal church was prominent predominantly in the South, and had been since Colonial days, so it had no major North-South tension. The Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians were the three major denominations transcending the Mason-Dixon Line. All three of these denominations split in the years leading up to the War Between the States.

We sometimes think about Southern Baptist history with blinders on, as though the histories of other denominations do not matter. But they DO matter. The fact that every major denomination of Christianity in the South made a break with abolitionists and sided unequivocally with manumission is tremendously important. It shows that the explanation for this phenomenon is nothing unique about Baptists. This is a story about Southern culture, in which Southern Baptists have participated deeply, but only as one culture-bound denomination among others.

That the Southern Baptist Convention came into existence over the question of slavery and adopted for itself such a regional name is, you see, really not that interesting of a question and says very little that is unique about the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists, to their shame, and in the same way as every other denomination, were swept along with the culture to embrace racism. All we Southern Christians became Jonah.

The cause of the SBC's racist past was, at its root, the intense longing to keep pace with culture that is ever our temptation. The great need of the hour in the 1840s was for Southern Baptists to dare not to do what would make the denomination more acceptable in the culture and gain us favorable ratings from the outside. We needed to take a poll, find out what people wouldn't like for us to do, and then do precisely that.

The Methodist Episcopal Church South remained separate from 1844 until 1939, when it reunited with Northern Methodists (among others) to form The Methodist Church (a precursor of the present-day United Methodist Church). The Presbyterian Church in the United States lasted longer, waiting from 1861 to 1983 before merging with the PCUSA. Of course, one might argue that the Presbyterian Church in America represents a continued separate existence of Southern Presbyterianism.

For a while, some Southern Baptist leaders seem to have been presuming that Baptists North and South would eventually repair the breach. It might be accurate to label this the "Southern Baptist Theological Seminary" faction of the convention, although such a name would necessarily refer to SBTS in the long-ago past and would be no reflection on the current state of the seminary. Southern relocated after the war to Louisville, a border-state city just a vigorous swim from indisputable Yankeedom. Edgar Young Mullins came to the helm of Southern from a lengthy tenure among the Northern Baptists. Southern Baptists authors at the Louisville campus around the turn of the century sometimes published works with the northern American Baptist Publication Society, from which a number of Southern churches purchased material as well. Mullins's adaptation of the New Hampshire Baptist Confession to serve as the SBC's Baptist Faith & Message came just as Northern Baptists were considering the adoption of the New Hampshire Confession themselves (a proposal which eventually failed on the floor of the Northern meeting). The New Hampshire confession was the most likely doctrinal statement to serve as a reunification platform for Baptists North and South.

Southern and Northern Baptists jointly negotiated their missions work through comity agreements at Fortress Monroe, VA; Washington, DC; and Old Point Comfort, VA. Although the breaches of these comity agreements by the SBC's membership probably contributed to the widening gap between Southern and Northern Baptists, the initial negotiation of them revealed the desire among the SBC's leadership to maintain more than harmony with the Northern Baptists—a desire to keep the door open for eventual reunion.

But, although the other North & South denominations reunited, Baptists remained separate. Why?

That, in my opinion, is indeed an interesting question. If you came to this post expecting an essay arguing against or for a name-change for Southern Baptists, then I guess you're beginning to be disappointed at this point. As interesting as the question of our name might be, I'm far more intrigued by the question of why we've managed to maintain this separate existence for so long (and with such apparent success). A number of explanations are possible.

  1. Maybe it's still about slavery, and we Southern Baptists are just more perniciously and persistently racist than the Methodists and the Presbyterians in the South. Certainly, there are any number of people who think this of the Southern Baptist Convention (among those both without and within our denomination). There's a certain desperation today to wash our denominational hands clean of the blood of the slaves. And although measure after measure passes in the affirmative by the strength of just that promise, none of those adopted measures ever seem to satisfy anybody. "We need to do something! Let's apologize. OK, good. But I'm still not satisfied. We need to do something! Let's adopt quotas for representation in our leadership. OK, good. But I'm still not satisfied. We need to do something. Let's change our name to break with the past…"

    And if any of these things would really undo the past, they would certainly be worthwhile. Of course, if they would successfully cover over past sin, then the cross of Christ would be only one among other options. The only remedy for past sin is found in the grace of Jesus Christ, and not in resolutions or programs. The best response we could make to those who recall what past Southern Baptists did would be to proclaim that, by the grace of God, we've been forgiven, and that in that, praise be to God, we're not alone.

    Does our past racial sin explain why we never reunited with the Northern Baptists? To explain our separate existence as Southern Baptists, one must demonstrate that Southern Baptists have been and are significantly MORE stubbornly racist than are Southern Presbyterians and Southern Methodists. One must show that Southern Methodists in 1939 held remarkably progressive views on race vis-a-vis their Baptist neighbors, and likewise for Presbyterians in 1983.

    That's a tall order, and I've never seen any evidence supporting such a theory. I don't think this is the answer.

  2. Maybe it's just a function of our polity Methodists and Presbyterians are more hierarchical than Baptists are. Maybe it is harder to get the masses to agree to reunion (which Baptists would have to do) than it is to convince the relatively few people in leadership to do so.

    There's some evidence to support this theory. Certainly the idea of reunification with Northern Baptists has been, at times, far more popular within certain circles of the SBC elite than it has been among rank-and-file Southern Baptists. E.Y. Mullins and our other leaders might have stitched us back together with the Yankees a couple of generations ago if it had lain within their power (although such speculative history is dangerous).

    And yet, our polity has, in most cases, tended not to make us move in a totally different direction from the Methodists and Presbyterians. Usually it just makes us move more slowly than they do, but in the same direction. In the case of reunification with the North, Southern Baptists are steadily moving away from the slightest possibility of that ever happening, and have been moving in that direction for well more than a century. Whatever might have been the case once upon a time, at this moment not even the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention gives evidence of any support for reunification with Northern Baptists.

    Polity is not the explanation.

  3. Maybe the factors that caused us to BECOME the Southern Baptist Convention are different from the factors that caused us to REMAIN the Southern Baptist Convention. And I think that's the correct answer. At this date, the dissimilarity between the average Southern Baptist church and the average ABC church is striking.

Being Southern Baptist has, over the past century and a half, consisted of much more substance than simply being "the Baptist group who supported slavery." We derive a portion of our identity from the fact that we are Baptists, and these are items that all Southern Baptists who are true Baptists share with all true Baptists in other places and in other groups. Over the course of our history, however, we have accumulated a number of things that constitute a distinctively Southern Baptist identity. These things exemplify what it means to be Southern Baptist.

  1. The Cooperative Program. The only people I know who don't value the Cooperative Program and recognize it as one of the major distinctives of the Southern Baptist Convention…are people INSIDE the Southern Baptist Convention. This manner of funding cooperative endeavors has been the genius of our missionary efforts—a great gift from God to our convention.

    Anyone who does not wholeheartedly participate in the Cooperative Program either does not understand what it means to be Southern Baptist or disdains what it is to be Southern Baptist.

  2. Biblicism. Even in our liberal days, Southern Baptists have (generally) been more conservative than our Northern counterparts, seminally with regard to our view of the Bible. John D. Rockefeller rebuffed repeated attempts by E.Y. Mullins to persuade Rockefeller to make a major donation to Southern Seminary. One factor involved was that the Rockefeller family (eventually pastored by Harry Emerson Fosdick), regarded Southern Baptists as too conservative.

    Certainly since 1979 Southern Baptists have earned a strong identification with biblicist, conservative theology. And yet even if one were to take the position that 1979 was the birth of this movement among Southern Baptists, one must concede a lengthy and highly visible period of gestation (and I think that it was something more than that).

  3. Revivalism, Evangelism, and Missions. Northern Baptists have been more closely identified with liberal "social justice" pursuits. Southern Baptists have, since the earliest days of the denomination, been more zealous for the conversion and spiritual vitality of the individual person than with the reform of society or the physical well being of the individual.

    There is no nice way to say it: Northern Baptists have been abysmal failures at the spreading of the gospel. Southern Baptists spread (somewhat) into Northern Baptist "territory" not as an army breaches a wall and invades a stronghold, but as nomadic tribes wander into empty space and occupy it. Southern Baptists have come into many of these areas at the invitation of those who lived there and were entirely underserved by Northern Baptist apathy.

    Southern Baptists have done much better, now realistically pursuing a goal to adopt every known unreached people group and to mobilize our members to reach them with the gospel. Such an attempt is hard to imagine within the ABC.

  4. Education. Yes, it's true that many people will lampoon Southern Baptists as an unlettered, anti-education people. Such caricatures are not based in fact; they are simply the natural function of Southern Baptist conservatism. The default position of an unthinking liberal is always to denounce conservatives as stupid.

    And yet, the fact remains that even today Southern Baptists have one of the most robust and well-populated networks of seminaries in the Christian world. This denomination that does not require ANY educational minima for people to serve as pastors has nevertheless placed a very high value on the formal training of those who serve our local churches.

These passions may not describe every individual Southern Baptist, but they have become part of the fabric of our collective identity. However and why ever we began, we remain and are vital today because of these things (and perhaps others that I did not have the energy to catalog in this post). In our origins, we were wrong. God chose to redeem us and the bless us anyway. There's something of the story of the gospel in those facts, isn't there? Certainly that's my testimony as a believer: a wrong start intercepted by the grace of God and turned into something else.

As an individual believer, it would be anti-gospel and disrespectful of the work of Christ if I were to dwell constantly on the sinfulness of my beginnings. My job today is to praise Jesus Christ and to honor Him for what He has done in my life subsequently, as well as to rejoice in the hope of what is to come. I feel the same way about the Southern Baptist Convention. I do not wallow in remorse over the wrongful things done by Southern Baptists who were my great-grand-ancestors in this family of faith. I celebrate the grace of God. I praise His name for what He is doing among us, and for what He has promised to do among us as we remain faithful. Forgetting what lies behind, I want to press on.

I'm thankful that the Southern Baptist Convention still exists separately. I'm thankful to be a part of this Southern Baptist story. I hope that I can remain faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ and fall asleep in Christ someday as a faithful and grateful Southern Baptist.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Uphill Climb for a Name Change

The name-change effort in the Southern Baptist Convention faces a long, uphill climb. Allow me to sketch out some of the obstacles it will have to overcome in order to succeed:

  1. Voting Requirement

    Any change to the name of the Southern Baptist Convention will necessitate a change to the convention's constitution. To accomplish this, a supermajority of two-thirds of the convention messengers would have to vote in the affirmative for two consecutive annual meetings.

    As recently as 2004, it was not possible to find a simple majority (50% + 1) even willing to have a task force to STUDY having a name change. Has the makeup of the convention changed so dramatically in a mere eight years that two-thirds of the convention will now support what was such a minority position so recently?

    Perhaps it has, but I have seen no evidence yet of such a dramatic sea-change in the convention.

  2. Annual Meeting Locations

    If one were interested in accomplishing this political feat, the time to have done it would either be two years ago or two years from now. This is the worst possible time to attempt this simply because of the location schedule for the annual meetings.

    If one had attempted this starting in Orlando, then one would be trying to win a supermajority out of crowds in Orlando and Phoenix. Winning in Orlando might have been slightly touch-and-go (and there was the risk that this divisive issue would have harmed the GCR push), but the odds for this proposal would have been far greater in Phoenix, simply because of depressed messenger count. In general, the less of a voice Southern Baptists have in this process, the better its chances of success.

    Two years from now, the convention will begin a two-year tour through Baltimore (2014) and Columbus (2015). Maryland and Ohio are probably places where convention turnout will be low and where the hurdle of obtaining a two-thirds supermajority will be much, much lower. A serious attempt to push the name-change through would have been wise to delay itself for two years. And, indeed, perhaps some strategy of delay is still possible for proponents to implement.

    But at this time, Bryant Wright's proposal will face messenger bodies in New Orleans (2012) and Houston (2013). Two worse locations could hardly have been imagined. Messenger turnout will be high and will contain large numbers of the same people who have defeated these measures over and over. I'm willing to predict the odds of clearing the 66% threshold in both New Orleans and Houston as being well lower than the odds of President Obama's attending the Collin County Lincoln Day gala.

  3. A Poison-Pill Process

    The way that the will of the messengers has been sidestepped in the beginning of this process has been divisive. It divided the Executive Committee, with many EC members not learning about this until the press releases were being distributed in the public meeting, after the story had already gone out on Twitter. It has scandalized some of us to see how this initiative is being railroaded through. As was discussed in the Executive Committee meeting, this comes at a time when many Southern Baptists are still a bit bruised and tender from the way that the GCR report was pushed through with high-pressure political tactics that are still fresh in the memories of Southern Baptists and that are unprecedented in our polity.

    The GCR was not so bad of an idea (with the exception of Great Commission Giving) that it deserved such heavy-handedness from the platform. Good ideas can rise on their own merits. God's people can be trusted to seek God's will. Missing from the process seems to be faith in the action of the Holy Spirit to build consensus among SBC messengers around those things that are His will. Tell the truth and trust the people, I say.

    What President Wright ought to do, instead of bringing a report from this task force in New Orleans, is to backtrack and ask the convention to approve the formation of the task force to begin with. Such a humble, conciliatory, and congregationalist move would do much to counter criticisms and to pour oil on the waters of this process. The inherent delay would also, by the way, cause his proposal to come to more favorable locations for the annual meeting, as outlined above.

    That's not likely to happen. Apart from something like that, the procedural aspects of this initiative will make it less likely to gain a broad and dispassionate hearing. The discourse up to this point has included plenty of people who falsely presume that I got so worked up about this just because I don't favor a name-change. Not so. My previous post on this topic is the kind of post that I produce when we're just exploring the possibility of changing the convention's name. It is the disregard and disrespect for the convention's messengers that bothers me most about President Wright's task force initiative and that catapults me into a more energetic and confrontational mode of writing.

  4. The Paucity of Alternatives

    Southern Baptists were eyeing the name "American Baptist Convention" back before the Northern Baptist Convention snapped it up out from under us in 1951. That would have been a good name, but it is no longer available. "Baptist Convention of the Americas" is also gone. Nothing with "Cooperative" in it will be feasible, because of the CBF. A few alternatives remain that still communicate a gathering of Baptists, but not many.

    Of course, a great many Southern Baptists will want to ditch both "Southern" and "Baptist" (and probably even "Convention"). "Convention" speaks of a business meeting, and anti-congregationalists will want something warmer and fuzzier. "Southern" is, of course, the most offensive label, and a strong argument can be made for ditching Southern. After all, our churches that happen to be in the South really aren't Southern any longer, by and large. As I wrote in a post last year:

    As a historian I would assert that the distinctiveness of Southern culture is at its lowest point since the Colonial period. Everything from media to chain restaurants and big box stores have made it more true than ever before that Boston = Atlanta = Houston = Los Angeles. Of course, these equations are not absolutely true, but they are more true than they have ever been before.

    Moving from culture-at-large to church culture, a Cowboy Church movement has arisen largely because the standard Southern Baptist church culture has almost nothing Southern about it. The music is Rock, the marketing is Madison Avenue, the platform dress is Abercrombie & Fitch, and the A-V technology is Times Square.

    What's Southern about that?

    So, with a convention full of churches in the South that are embarrassed of their Southernness, one can see a rationale for eliminating the word "Southern."

    But the word "Baptist" will be examined as well. Just yesterday a Southern Baptist from Idaho reported that, in his state, "Baptist" presents far more of an obstacle than "Southern" does. One cannot ignore the phenomenon that an alarmingly growing number of Southern Baptist churches is removing the word "Baptist" from church signs throughout the nation. Many of the agitators for change are people who have already taken this action in their local churches—not all of them, but many of them.

    Now, what makes all of this interesting is that we probably can't go about changing the name of the denomination every decade (although it seems that we can reorganize it on that timetable). The safe bet is to keep "Baptist" in the name and go for changing only "Southern" (or, at the most, do away with both "Southern" and "Convention"). And perhaps that would be a sufficient change for those who wish to do away with "Baptist" as well, so long as they thought they could easily work incrementally. But multiple changes of the denominational name are likely to weaken it over the long run, and so I think there's going to be an inclination to see this as the one, best opportunity to do this thing all the way.

    Moderation and incrementalism are often successful political strategies, but it remains to be seen whether a moderate, incremental change to the name will really satisfy anybody. A good alternative would need to be a name that enjoyed broader support than the present name enjoys. Maybe such an alternative exists, and we probably won't know until people are finished dreaming up the options, but the selection of the right candidate name remains one of the more difficult obstacles for this process to overcome.

For all of these reasons, I predict that it is going to be very difficult for the task force to succeed at their objective. Certainly, there are members of this task force who have accomplished the improbable before, and we do well not to count them out before the first bell has rung. Nevertheless, if they will change the name of the Southern Baptist Convention, all of these are among the more prominent obstacles that they will have to overcome.

Monday, September 19, 2011

SBC Name Change Proposal

Tonight at a meeting of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, President Bryant Wright led the Executive Committee to appoint by fiat a task force to study a name change for the denomination (BP). In a matter of hours, Twitter is already alive with discussion over the proposal. People are likely to take sides on this matter based upon their opinions of the idea of changing the name alone. I'll give my opinion on whether we should change the name of the SBC at the end of this post. For now, I'd like to direct your attention to the procedural intricacies of this proposal.

First, it might be helpful to give a brief review of the history of this concept. The messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention are not as clearly on record in our opposition to Satan and Hell as we are in our opposition to changing the name of our denomination (not necessarily a good thing). It has been voted down and voted down and voted down, starting since long before I realized that I was either Southern or Baptist—since long before anyone discussing this matter today was ever born. In 1974, W. A. Criswell came to the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention and asked them to appoint a study committee to explore a possible name-change. The messengers approved the committee, the committee chose not to change the name, and Dr. Criswell honored the will of the messengers.

In 1999, an attempt was made by members of the Executive Committee to initiate the name-change process within the EC rather than on the convention floor. The Executive Committee declined to do so. An excellent report by Augie Boto outlined the advantages of retaining the historic name of the convention.

In 2004, SBC President Jack Graham asked the messengers in the convention meeting to appoint a task force to consider a name change. Graham, astute president that he was, noted that by 2004 this question had come to the convention floor "seven or eight times" and opined that our convention needed in 2004 "to stop meeting and just talking about this…We need to either put it to bed forever or get on with it."

The convention chose to "put it to bed forever" by a considerable margin.

Here's hoping that, when we use "forever" in speaking about the promises of the gospel, Southern Baptists mean something longer than eight years!

The question of a name-change arose during the GCR debates of recent memory, but no name change task force arose out of the GCR report.

And now, SBC President Bryant Wright has chosen to lead the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention to take an action that the messenger body of the SBC has explicitly and repeatedly refused to take—to appoint a task force to study a name change. The normal course of affairs is for SBC Presidents who desire the appointment of task forces to ask for the approval of the convention's messengers before doing so, especially on questions of such importance. Why not follow that time-honored process now?

On Twitter, Dr. Albert Mohler reported that Wright had indicated that he followed this process "out of respect for the SBC Executive Committee." I can understand how it would be an indication of respect for the Executive Committee to make them the people from whom Wright sought authorization to take this action. And yet, if it is an action of respect to seek this consent from the Executive Committee, is it not therefore, by Wright's own definition, an action of disrespect of the messengers of the Southern Baptist Convention to decline to seek their consent for this action, especially since the seeking of messenger consent is the standard operating procedure of the convention in matters such as this? Certainly, it may be inadvertent disrespect, but it is disrespect nonetheless.

Southern Baptists on various sides of the issues that we face in this day and time are demonstrating what I believe is a dangerous inclination to belittle and disrespect the messenger body in order to accomplish at all costs the will of the empowered few. This threat was evident during the GCR process when anti-GCR voices were privately expressing the opinion that the messengers of the convention COULD NOT instruct the Executive Committee to do anything—that the Executive Committee was not beholden to the messengers of the convention to follow their instructions. This threat was evident during the GCR debate itself in Orlando when the rules of order were violated and the rights of a messenger were trampled underfoot as he attempted to amend the GCR recommendations. But for the courage of a bold lady standing at a microphone, our convention might have done something possibly illegal that day. This threat is evident tonight, when rather than poll the convention messengers to see whether their opinion has changed on the question of appointing a name-change task force, the action has been taken to short-circuit the expressed will of the SBC and to have this task force after all, messengers be…disrespected.

Let no one supporting such a thing ever breathe a word of criticism about unelected, unaccountable activist judges wresting legislative authority out of the hands of the people where it belongs. Let no one supporting such a thing ever utter the slightest complaint about Presidential Czars and Executive Orders bypassing the will of the Congress. People on all sides of SBC debate have adopted an "ends justifies the means" approach to our denominational polity. We need to repent of it. We need to quit it. We need to start acting in good faith.

Now, I promised to offer my opinion of the name change idea itself. Here it is. If this process goes forward to the messengers of the convention, then I will fully support a name-change so long as it removes the word "Baptist" from the name of our denomination. When the will of the messengers has become an obstacle to get around by any means necessary rather than the sacred core of our polity, then we are no longer Baptists, and we no longer deserve to own that name.