Will the real Baptists please stand up?
December 4, 2002
I’ve been doing some reading about the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1845, and I’ve rediscovered something that seems to have new relevancy for Baptists in Missouri.
One of the reasons for the formation of a new convention of Baptists from the South was due to structures in national Baptist life for supporting benevolent and missionary organizations that were perceived by southern Baptists to have become inequitable. In particular, Baptists in the South felt that the American Baptist Home Mission Society was unresponsive to the missionary and evangelistic needs of southern states. The result was a call for new organizations to meet the needs.
One of the great Baptist minds of that day was William B. Johnson, president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. Johnson would have considerable influence in forming the structure of the new convention of Southern Baptists and would be elected its first president. In speaking at a state-wide meeting of South Carolinian Baptists one week before the meeting of Baptists in Augusta, Ga., to form the SBC, Johnson said:
"Such, I trust, will be the result of the separation between the Baptists of these United States in their general benevolent Institutions. When we embarked in the cause of Foreign Missions, the union of the whole denomination was necessary, for it was then comparatively small. But now, such [is the] state of things, that we may part asunder and open two lines of service to the heathen and the destitute, instead of one only, and the vast increase in our numbers, and the wide extent of territory, over which we are spread, seem to indicate the hope, that our separation will be attended with no sharpness of contention, with no bitterness of spirit. We are all the servants of the same Master, "desirous of doing the will of God from the heart." Let us, then, in generous rivalry, "provoke each other to love and good works."
Johnson went on to say in his message that Baptists in the South needed a new structure for doing missions.
During the Colonial period, when they were few and far between, Baptists — North and South — saw the need for cooperating in benevolent and mission causes. Autonomous ‘Societies,’ such as the American Baptist Home Missions Society, were cobbled together to fill the needs. Individual Baptists and congregations could contribute to specific causes through these societies. Representatives – usually mission-minded pastors – were enlisted by the society to go church-to-church explaining the work and encouraging support.
These societies were intermediate agencies that stood between the ‘need’ and the ‘need suppliers’ and were instrumental in supporting early overseas mission work by Adoniram Judson and Luther Rice. Thus, Societies were formed in order to solicit and collect funds or materials from interested individual Baptists or churches and then redistributing those funds or materials to missionaries or to benevolent needs. For the new convention, Johnson proposed:
". . . one Convention, embodying the whole Denomination, together with separate and distinct Boards, for each object of benevolent enterprise, located at different places, and all amenable to the Convention (emphasis is mine). In its successful operation, the whole Denomination will be united in one body for the purpose of well-doing, with perfect liberty secured to each contributor of specifying the object or objects, to which his amount shall be applied, as he please, whilst he or his Delegation may share in the deliberations and control of all the objects, promoted by the Convention."
In his book, The Southern Baptist Convention and its People, Robert Baker summarizes:
"It is evident from this that Johnson was suggesting a different kind of denominational organization than the one utilizing the three autonomous benevolent societies as had been done heretofore . . . Johnson was suggesting a more centralized body that would have control over all the benevolent objects projected by Southern Baptists (emphasis is mine)."
There were numerous reasons why Baptists in the South separated from Baptists in the North, not least of which was the slavery issue. But long before the slavery issue became a serious controversy between Baptists North and South, there had been allegations from all parts of the South, that the various missionary and benevolent societies– all located in the North and dominated by northerners – were perceived as ignoring the mission needs of the southern states. As early as 1837 the editor of the Kentucky Baptist paper wrote:
"It appears from the ‘last report of the Executive Committee of the American Baptist Home Mission Society’ that they have not a single missionary in all Kentucky, Alabama, Louisiana and Florida, and that they partially or entirely sustain one missionary in Mississippi, three in Tennessee and three in Arkansas, making in all seven missionaries for these six states and one Territory . . . only one missionary to every 428,581 souls, while in the state of Michigan, . . . they have sixteen missionaries . . . one to every 4,000 souls . . . Why are these states (Illinois and Indiana) so liberally supplied? Are they more needy? Are they more destitute? They are more liberally supplied because of Northern contributions, and because Northern preachers refuse to come to the South."
This perceived neglect resulted in southern pastors, editors of Baptist newspapers, and some state conventions calling for new organizations – based in the South – to meet the need. Also in 1837, Baptists in Tennessee were openly discussing the dearth of missionaries being sent to the South by the American Baptist Home Mission Society;
"The expediency of the measure was argued on the ground that the American Baptist Home Mission Society . . . had treated the south and southwest (i.e. Mississippi, Arkansas, and Texas) with almost total neglect; that the distance of our region from New York . . . was so great that they obtained but little information of our circumstances, and consequently did not, as was believed, feel so deep an interest in our affairs as they otherwise would."
To their credit, the minutes of the American Baptist Home Mission Society reflect that the society was attempting to meet the needs of the southern states, but had difficulty finding qualified men who were willing to go. Barnes concludes:
"However little foundation there was for the complaints of Baptist in the South that the Society was neglecting that area, those who were registering the complaints were sincere. They did not know how greatly the board was endeavoring to secure the men needed for the work. The effect on Southern minds was the same as if the charges of neglect had been true."
In the end, Baptists of the South chose to separate from Baptists in the North. In doing so, they chose a convention type denominational structure for, among other reasons, centralizing missions giving, and keeping control over the missions and benevolent agencies they started. It is true that the boards had authority to act in behalf of their own benevolence on matters arising between the meetings of the convention, but review by committees and discussion from the floor were the regular pattern in each case. Baker writes:
"This public review of decisions made and activity carried on opened the way for public discussion of any item in the work of the boards or of the convention itself.
"Doubtless one of the reasons that almost three hundred Southern Baptists were willing to change from the society type of organization to the more centralized associational plan in the concentration of benevolences was the fact that the financial basis of representation provided an effective method of control."
Though many Baptists in the South continued to favor the society method of missions and benevolent support rather then the convention method, it is clear that from the inception of the SBC our founders saw the wisdom of implementing the convention method for support of ministries they deemed worthy. The fifth Article of the first SBC Constitution made provision for a comprehensive plan of supporting mission and benevolent causes:
"The Convention shall elect at each triennial meeting as many Boards of Managers, as in its judgment will be necessary for carrying out the benevolent objects it may determine to promote . . . ."
It took time for Southern Baptists to accept the convention method of supporting mission and benevolent work. With the adoption of the Cooperative Program in 1925, the transformation was complete. By 1939 the Cooperative Program had proved more successful than anyone would have imagined. That year the SBC Executive Committee reported to the Convention:
"The Cooperative Program is the greatest step forward in Kingdom finance Southern Baptists have ever taken. It was slow and gradual in its formation. It arose out of the desires and efforts of pastors and churches to find a plan whereby all worthy denominational causes might be cared for fully and fairly . . . . It is believed to be sane, scriptural, comprehensive, unifying, equitable, economical and thoroughly workable."
There was a second reason why Baptists of the South chose the convention method over the society method of supporting missions and benevolent work. They believed that the mission societies of that day actually usurped the authority of the local church when they made decisions without first consulting the local church. The Baptists of the North, many of whom were abolitionists, claimed that the Home Mission Society had the right to judge the moral character and Christian integrity of slaveholders. Those men from the South who felt called of God to serve and who sought appointment to become missionaries were denied appointment by the mission societies if they were slaveholders.
The implication in southern minds was that the governing boards of mission societies did not have the right to judge a man as "immoral of character" or as "lacking integrity" just because he happened to own slaves. After all, they argued, the Bible did not forbid slavery, but did command slave owners to treat their slaves well. Baptists of the South argued that judgment of a man’s morality and character was the prerogative of the local church. If the church endorsed a man to be a missionary, that ought to be good enough for the society. For the mission society to make such a judgment was seen as infringing on the local autonomous body that alone had the right to discipline members. They saw this as a breach of Baptist ecclesiology.
What are some of the lessons that we can learn from our Baptist forbearers that apply to the situation we now find in the Missouri Baptist Convention?
First, Southern Baptists who seek to control the institutions and agencies they began and nurtured into great institutions, are traditional Baptists. We hear much rhetoric these days from moderates that the MBC Executive Board is trying to "control" the agencies of the convention. This is one reason, they maintain, why The Baptist Home, Missouri Baptist Foundation, Missouri Baptist College, Windermere Baptist Conference Center and Word & Way, chose to break away. Those Baptists and Baptist Churches who support the breakaway agencies insist that they are the traditional Baptists among us. History shows otherwise.
Is control bad? Theologically moderate Baptists say, yes. Our Baptist forefathers did not think so. They formed an entire convention – what we call the SBC – so that they could control what the agencies did via the election of governing boards. As Johnson said, these institutions and agencies should be amenable to the Convention (emphasis is mine). What does amenable mean? Amenable: i.e., complying, obedient, submissive, conformable, compliant, willing to carry out the wishes of others.
Here then is the very reason for the existence of the SBC as well as individual state conventions: That the agencies and institutions of the convention exist to carry out the will of the messengers from local churches. When the five breakaway agencies of the Missouri Baptist Convention decided to nominate and elect their own trustees, they broke faith with long-standing and traditional Southern Baptist ecclesiology.
Second, the five breakaway agencies of the Missouri Baptist Convention, have in essence, reverted back to the society method of benevolent and missionary work. It is a growing trend in Southern Baptist life and one that threatens to destroy Baptist unity and fragment Baptist mission, benevolent and educational work. Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School, speaking to the moderate Texas Baptists Committed in 1998 acknowledged such and encouraged Texas Baptists to continue "model[ing] these changes in polity." Said Leonard:
"An important element of the Texas reformation involves Baptist polity _ what it means to be together in specific Christian community . . . The ‘Texas Solution’…illustrates…a return to the older society method of church cooperation . . . These days, a de facto society method is apparent throughout Baptist life."
The great flaw in the society method of mission and benevolent support is the grave lack of accountability to the local church. The five breakaway institutions in Missouri Baptist life – by nature of their desire to be autonomous societies – are now accountable only to their trustees and those individuals or churches that provide donations. The very real possibility exists that the larger the donor, the more beholden the institution is to that person or persons, who will, more than likely, eventually wind up serving on the board of trustees of said agency or institution. Thus, the true "covenant relationship" that the five breakaway agencies claim they want to establish with the convention, will exist – not with local, autonomous Baptist congregations that have faithfully supported them – but with donors who have deep pockets who may well assert influence by threatening to withhold funds if the institution does not "play ball" their way.
As the years go by to whom are these institutions going to listen? A small, rural Missouri Baptist church with whom they have promised a "covenantal relationship" or a donor who gives them $500,000? We have already seen in the case of one of the breakaway agencies – Missouri Baptist College – that theologically conservative trustees, loyal to the SBC and MBC, are being rotated off. We can only assume that the same will happen with the other breakaway agencies. The result is that representation on these boards will no longer come from a broad spectrum of Missouri Baptists, but from a small handful of sympathetic and theologically moderate churches. They have denied Missouri Baptists the very thing our Baptist forefathers separated from their brethren in the North over – accountability.
If the breakaway agencies of the Missouri Baptist Convention wish to be autonomous societies, they must also be willing to reap the results of that autonomy – financial non-support from the convention of Southern Baptist churches in Missouri.
Third, in the same way that the Baptists of the North claimed that the mission and benevolent societies of their day had the right to judge the moral character and Christian integrity of slave holders (and no, I am not defending slavery by any means), so the boards of the breakaway agencies have reserved the right to do similarly: If you’re an inerrantist, or loyal to the MBC and SBC, or you have attended a Project 1000 meeting, you are unqualified to serve on their board.
I submit that, as the Baptists of the South asserted, this is an infringement on the autonomy of the local Baptist church and is a breach of Baptist ecclesiology.
It is Baptists from local churches who submit nominees to serve on the boards of agencies, institutions and committees of the state Baptist Convention. It is a nominating committee, voted on at annual meetings by messengers from local Baptist churches, who meet, pray, and do the work of trying to match qualified Baptists with an agency, institution, or committee. It is Baptists, voting at annual meetings to approve those recommendations made by the nominating committee.
In every step of placing a Baptist on an agency or institution board or state-wide committee, the local Baptist church is involved and in control. The five breakaway agencies seem to have forgotten that. They are, in affect, telling local, autonomous Missouri Baptist churches, that; "We no longer trust your judgment to do what is best for our institution." By nominating and electing their own trustees the theological moderates who control these boards have abandoned the (Southern) Baptist way of doing things and have denied what they so piously claim is preeminent in their pantheon of sacred Baptist principles – the autonomy of the local church!
So I ask you: Will the real Baptist please stand up?