When the invitation of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) President Bryant Wright came to serve on a task force dedicated to deliberating the possibility of changing the name of the SBC, I was thankful for the invitation and excited to serve with other men and women who care about the SBC. I was not sure what to expect, but I found myself surrounded by some of Southern Baptists’ brightest minds from a variety of regions, age groups and ethnic communities. It was a blessing to serve with them – many of whom have become friends through this process.
In the end, we recommended to President Wright that we not change the name, but that we instead officially recognize an informal descriptor, or tag line, for use by Southern Baptist churches and entities. President Wright received our recommendation. It became an official motion to the Executive Committee of the SBC, who overwhelmingly supported it, and now stands approved for consideration this summer at the annual meeting of the SBC. Since the announcement of this new descriptor in our name came out, there have been many opinions about whether or not this is actually a good move for the SBC. I have heard from a significant number of Southern Baptists who love the new concept, many who are not in favor of it, and even more who are fairly ambivalent about the entire matter. Almost to a person, however, I have heard a bit of confusion as to what this exactly means for the SBC and how this name was chosen by the task force. While I obviously do not speak for the Task Force, I do believe the choice we made was good and helpful for the future of the SBC and I would like to make an attempt at clarifying how and why we arrived at the conclusion we did.
The Task Force convened on two occasions, but we were tasked with a fair amount of work apart from our face-to-face meetings. There were a number of issues that must be addressed. Was there a benefit to a new descriptor for the Southern Baptist Convention? If so, what should it be? How would it affect Southern Baptist life? What legal ramifications would be involved? Would there be a cost in terms of reputation and influence? What were the financial costs associated with such a change? These and other matters weighed on our minds as we progressed through our proceedings.
We requested opinions from across SBC life, specifically from the executive directors of each of the state conventions. The responses we received were quite varied. A significant number of people (both at the grassroots level and those in positions of denominational influence) believed that some sort of name change would be beneficial to them and their Great Commission work. While no one believed this to be a “fix” for the decrease in baptisms or lack of evangelistic fervor, many did believe this would be helpful step toward that end. There was not uniform agreement about the need for a name change, but there was a large and vocal group of Southern Baptists who were convinced it would be helpful to their work. This indicated to us that we should at least consider options to see if there might be a solution that would prove helpful.
Once we determined that we possessed sufficient evidence to allow us to move forward in our study, we began to research the legal options and ramifications of some sort of a name change. This involved a multitude of questions and answers that would need to be addressed concurrently. We studied the history of name change proposals and discovered this issue had been at the forefront of Southern Baptist consciousness throughout our history. Starting with George Hillyer of Georgia in 1903, Southern Baptists have dealt with this issue over and over again.
As we began to consider the legal options, we quickly learned it would be nearly impossible (and not necessarily beneficial) to change the name of the SBC. There are many Southern Baptists who believe a name change would be valuable to our cooperative work. There are many others who believe it would be of no value to us. Across the nation, we understood there is great equity and name recognition with the Southern Baptist Convention’s name. SBC Disaster relief efforts in New Orleans and New York City in recent years have only helped to solidify this reality. Our unity in theological conviction on critical aspects of biblical fidelity has proven to be of great worth in many places in our nation and around the world.
When the SBC was founded in 1845 in Augusta, Ga., it was organized under a charter issued by the legislature of the state of Georgia. Southern Baptists were granted some legal exemptions that have proven to be extremely valuable to us. Should we have chosen to recommend a legal name change, we would face a possible change to our charter that would potentially require that our updated charter be under the jurisdiction of current Georgia non-profit statute. This would place the SBC in the vulnerable position of forfeiting our current legal status. Moreover, current non-profit statutes require that a non-profit organization operate under the administration of a board of directors, as ultimate authority. This poses a problem, as the SBC officially only exists two days each year. Our messengers, not a board of directors, are the ultimate decision-making body of the convention. Southern Baptist polity would have been compromised and radically reoriented our life together by placing ultimate authority in the hands of a board of directors. How would such a board be selected? How could they function within our polity? These problematic questions stymied our ability to change the legal name of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Serious financial implications confronted us. As we began to contemplate the potential financial costs of everything from the legal professionals required to assist in this process to the modification of logos, the cost estimates became counterproductive and insurmountable. We literally could not calculate the enormous financial cost to a legal name change.
Another option was that of a doing-business-as (DBA) recognition. From a legal perspective, this option forces some binding, legal obligations on local churches, organizations and/or entities affiliated with the SBC which would cause widespread (and unnecessary) problems. The task force also rejected this option.
Southern Baptists have long held various monikers for our cooperative work. These have been used in publications, websites, etc. Until now, we have never considered selecting any of these descriptors as an official descriptor of the work of our convention. Selecting a formal descriptor/moniker for our identity and work preserves our legal status and allows us to honor those who live in areas where “Southern Baptist” continues to maintain a position of goodwill and brand equity. It honors those who love the SBC because of our doctrine and missions, but who may find our name to be a hindrance from time to time. It communicates to them that we care about them and value them as partners in the gospel. A significant number of our ethnic partners pled for a name change, and this action demonstrates our love and appreciation for them as we desire to join them in their struggle with others in their traditions who do not understand and/or appreciate Southern Baptists. To our church planters and other church leaders in non-traditional SBC areas, it highlights our love and thankfulness for them. This option is voluntary and allows every church and/or entity in the SBC to utilize the new moniker (or not) depending on the approval of their leadership/congregation/trustees.
Why ‘Great Commission Baptists’? Obviously we had to eliminate names that were utilized by other organizations and names that struck at our polity (such as ‘International Baptists’, ‘Global Baptist’ etc. as the SBC simply does not exist outside of the USA). ‘Great Commission Baptists’ continued to rise to the top. While some in SBC life seemed concerned (or excited) that we would consider a more ‘contemporary’ name, I was of the opinion that any option be what I called a ‘legacy name’. In other words, it must be a name that would stand the test of time. Changing the name to something that sounded good today, but would lose potency and effectiveness over time had little appeal to me. From my perspective, Great Commission Baptists was a great choice, as it did not preserve some of the baggage that comes with a name like Southern Baptist all the while clearly explaining our desire to unite around the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Task Force came to the unanimous recommendation that ‘Great Commission Baptists’ captures well who we have historically aspired to be and propels us forward to a bright Great Commission focused future.
I would encourage you to prayerfully consider supporting this recommendation from the Executive Committee of the SBC. Southern Baptists are a Great Commission people, and this new option for our ministry together is such that each congregation will be able to assist others in their gospel labors. I am looking forward to my travel to New Orleans in June where I will gladly, and enthusiastically, place my vote for ‘Great Commission Baptists’.