Answering Questions about the Southern Baptist Convention

Posted on February 6, 2014, by

Southern-Baptist-ConventionOn a fairly regular basis Southern Baptist friends and acquaintances will ask me about relationships and cooperative efforts within the convention. I recently found myself fielding such questions from two congregations whose experiences and backgrounds are widely divergent. Though each church situation has its own unique challenges and concerns, there are several principles that might help a congregation think through these questions with care.

In this post I address three of the most recent questions I’ve received on this subject. My comments are offered not as some definitive assessment but as food for thought. I often say that if I were to take a snapshot of the SBC today I could find many reasons be discouraged as that image would reveal many faults and blemishes. But if I make that snapshot one frame of a video spanning the last 35 years, I cannot help but be tremendously encouraged. There is a renewal that is taking place within many of our churches as the Word of God is restored to its pride of place in congregational life. My responses below are an attempt to speak in terms of the video, not the snapshot.

1) Are we as a church supporting false teaching when we allow our funds to be used to support those who hold to theological views that differ from ours?

One of the most important points for Southern Baptist Churches and pastors to understand is that by nature of our polity every church is independent and autonomous. Cooperation with other churches in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is purely voluntary. Such cooperation does not come at the expense of local church autonomy. Here is what Article III of the SBC constitution states:

The Convention shall consist of messengers who are members of missionary Baptist churches cooperating with the Convention as follows:

1. One (1) messenger from each church which: (1) Is in friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work.  Among churches not in cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.  And, (2) Has been a bona fide contributor to the Convention’s work during the fiscal year preceding.

“Bona fide contributor” is left undefined although the next paragraph indicates that for each additional “$250.00 paid to the work of the convention” an additional messenger will be allowed (up to a total of 10 per church).

There are a number of ways that a church can make a “bona fide” contribution to ministries carried out through the SBC. The most notable way is through the Cooperative Program (CP). The CP is an ingenuous method for funding missions, education, church planting and disaster relief work (among other things) through local churches. It is certainly not without its problems (as I have addressed before) but those problems are being progressively diminished while the incredible good that the CP promotes continues to increase.

A church can also be a “bona fide contributor” if it gives to any SBC entity, such as a seminary, the International Mission Board (IMB) or North American Mission Board (NAMB). Many if not most SBC churches do this each year with special offerings that are designated for the two missions agencies. Some churches designate all their giving through the SBC this way. Others designate their giving so as to exclude certain SBC entities for theological reasons. This is simply the Baptist way. Autonomous churches cannot be coerced into supporting anything or anyone in violation of their principles.

Regardless of how a church gives to the “Convention’s work” it is safe to say that not every  missionary, professor and denominational worker thus supported will precisely agree with its theology. Personally, I am more encouraged at the doctrinal integrity of our SBC employees today than I have ever been in my lifetime. With greater awareness and regard for accountability to the churches than was true 35 years ago, every missionary and seminary professor must sign the Baptist Faith and Message as a condition of their receiving a salary. In the case of two of our seminaries (Southeastern and Southern), the professors must also sign the first confession officially used in SBC life, the Abstract of Principles.

Given these realities, there is little reason for any Southern Baptist church to fear that their giving to support SBC work will be used to support false teaching.

2) With all the animosity against Calvinists by some within the SBC, what hope can we have of seeing the convention move in a more biblical direction?

It is true that there is animosity against Calvinists in the SBC but, from my vantage point, its point of origin is narrowing. A couple of years ago I gave my analysis of the SBC with regard to Calvinism by denoting 4 groups of varying persuasions: Intolerant Calvinists, Cooperative Calvinists, Cooperative Non-Calvinists and Anti-Calvinists. Using that same paradigm today I would argue that there has been a healthy, if at times tentative, engagement between the two center groups while the other two groups have narrowed and retrenched.

Many Anti-Calvinists in the SBC are just as vocal as ever but it is becoming increasingly obvious that their numbers are dwindling. The vitriol, character-assassination, fear-mongering and outright dishonesty employed by the most vocal of the Anti-Calvinists have caused many Non-Calvinists to distance themselves from that movement.

Becoming more biblical means more than becoming more doctrinally precise. It necessarily also includes becoming more conformed to the ways of Christ and more given to biblical love, without which, even the most accurate, erudite theologian in the world is “nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:2). From my vantage points the SBC is moving in a healthy direction with regard to both the teachings and the spirit of Christ. I am encouraged by fellowship I have with brothers who hold strongly to their doctrinal commitments with humility and love. Even when some of those commitments differ with my own. The Bible is being taken more seriously today across the spectrum of the SBC than at any other time in the last 35 years. The trajectory is healthy and should make all Bible-believing SBCers encouraged.

3) Are there compelling reasons to remain within the SBC?  If so, in your opinion, what are they?  What motivates you to remain within the SBC?

What I have already written (in this post and elsewhere) makes a compelling argument for remaining in the SBC. That being said, I regularly tell pastors that the SBC is not for everyone. It is, after all, a parachurch organization, and a church can be faithful to Jesus Christ without aligning with it or an organization like it.

Here are some good reasons that a church should remain SBC or consider joining if it is Baptist:

  1. Cooperating with other SBC churches does not infringe on a congregation’s autonomy in the slightest. I regularly tell my independent Baptist pastor friends that the church I serve (which is SBC) is just as independent as the church they serve. Cooperation is voluntary.
  2. There is not one thing that our church could do tomorrow that we cannot do today if we left the SBC tonight.
  3. There are many things that our church is doing today that we could not do tomorrow if we left the SBC tonight. Among them are having our missionaries serviced through the IMB (and helping with the support of other missionaries around the world), cooperating in theological education with Southeastern Seminary, engaging in disaster relief through NAMB and cooperating in local ministry efforts through our local association of churches.
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Written by

Tom Ascol

Tom has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. His major field of study was Baptist Theology. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Reformed Theological Seminary, the Midwest Center for Theological Studies and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He is a Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida and adjunct professor for Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary through their Southwest Florida Equip Center. Tom serves as the Executive Director of Founders Ministries, an organization committed to reformation and revival in local churches. He edits the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books in addition to authoring From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist Convention and Traditional Theology and the SBC. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition to contributing to the Founders Blog he also blogs at tomascol.com. Tom coaches a girls High School basketball team that is comprised of homeschooled students. He also enjoys hunting and riding motorcycles, and, though he currently is "in between bikes," lives with the hope that one day he will have his own Harley. He and Donna have eight children, including 2 sons-in-law. They also have one granddaughter who stole his heart at first sight.

6 Responses to "Answering Questions about the Southern Baptist Convention"

  1. Sean McDonald says:

    I am a Reformed Presbyterian (RPCNA). Both you and I would recognize that, due to our ecclesiological and other differences, it makes sense for us to be in different churches. Nevertheless, we would also recognize that we have a substantial amount of theological agreement, more so than disagreement. We would probably have more substantial agreement than you would have with certain others in the Southern Baptist Convention.

    I have always respected the Founders Ministries, for the work that you are doing in the SBC. I do have to ask, though: does it make sense for you to fellowship with churches with which you have less substantial unity (both in doctrine and practice) than with paedobaptist churches with which you cannot, almost by definition, be in fellowship (in the denominational sense)? Practically speaking, does this have a tendency to elevate your positions regarding baptism and church government above even the Bible’s teaching regarding grace, salvation, the atonement, etc.?

    • Tom Ascol Tom Ascol says:

      Thanks for your comments and question, Sean. I think the rub comes in at the point of your phrase, “fellowship (in the denominational sense).” There could never be a denomination called “The ____ Baptist Church of North American” in the way that there can be a Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America. As such a Baptist church could not belong to such an entity that conceived its local congregations as comprising one identifiable church. A Baptist church can, however, associate with other churches of like faith and order in the form of denominations or conventions. And it can have various levels of fellowship with other churches of other denominations. Some Baptist denominations define their “faith and order” more narrowly than others. For reasons that I mentioned in the post, I am comfortable being in a church that affiliates with a denomination that defines it more broadly. The SBC does not define our church nor does it dictate the boundaries of our fellowship. So while our church has fellowship “in the denominational sense” with churches that are farther apart from us on the doctrine of election, for instance, that the RPCNA might be, we do not find that fellowship to be encumbering or restricting. We can (and have) enjoyed genuine fellowship with churches that are not SBC.

      In short, I think that our differing estimation of what constitutes a denomination causes us to estimate differently the nature of fellowship within one.

  2. Johnny Appleton says:

    Any association with the SBC strikes me as troubling, to be honest. No matter what the good points might be, the larger issues seems to be we’re saying that there’s no issue standing together as brothers with goofy megachurches like Saddleback. The theology at some of these SBC mega’s is so wonky that to me it seems insulting to even be a part of the same group with churches like this.

    • Tom Ascol Tom Ascol says:

      Johnny,
      You are not alone in your judgment. Obviously, I do not share it. The article I wrote several years ago that is linked in the post gives some of my reasons. Thanks for commenting.

  3. David Dickmann says:

    Tom, A couple of questions that I have never heard answered: 1) You liken the denominational affiliation to the local churches in Revelation who had within them known sinners. I am sure that Jesus was expecting that there would be discipline exercised on those people and if there was no repentance then they would be cast out of the church for the sake of His name and for the good of the unrepentant person. What is the correlation within the denomination? 2)What is the historical evidence that anything but people can be reformed and where is the scriptural support for such an expectation? 3)There is overwhelming historical evidence that every institution goes the way of everything in this world that is away from God. Why is it a good idea to put God’s money toward any institution (except the local church) when we know that eventually it will be an institution used by the devil to battle against the church? 4)While it was undoubtedly wrong or sinful for the arminians to take over the sbc and use money that had been donated by calvinists to further their beliefs is it not equally wrong or sinful for the calvinists to now do the same thing? I am thinking mostly of seminaries but the principle can be applied anywhere.

    • Tom Ascol Tom Ascol says:

      David,
      Thanks for your comment and questions. I did not mean to equate affiliation to a denomination to affiliation to a local church. Perhaps I should have been clearer. What I have tried to say is that Baptist polity, which recognizes no higher institutional authority than a local church, sheds much light on the whole question of denominational affiliation. That is why I have shied away from speaking about “reforming the SBC” and rather think in terms of working for biblical reformation “within the SBC.” What I want to see, and what Founders Ministries has worked for, is local churches being re-formed by the Word of God. Yes, I do believe that this can happen. Indeed it has, with the church I now serve and with numerous others that I know. Scriptural support from this emerges out of the whole doctrine of sanctification applied corporately to churches. A case in point is the church at Corinth that was biblically re-formed from tolerance of flagrant, open immorality within its membership (1 Co. 5) to renewed commitment to love and holiness (2 Cor. 2).

      There is no doubt a downward pull on every institution that results from fall. However, denominations aside, using that as a reason not to invest in those agencies and initiatives that can and should help subdue the earth seems terribly short-sighted to me and a failure to appreciate our cultural mandate in Genesis 1:28. Medicine and education are two realms where easy application can be made. Part of my thinking in this regard is the fact that every generation must stand on its own. There are no guarantees that any institution, including a local church, will not become an instrument of the devil. We must do what we can with what we have by the light of God’s Word and power of His Spirit and encourage others to do the same for generations to come.

      Your final question is also worth considering but I think it better to do so in confessional rather than historical terms; that is, in terms of stated confessions of faith rather than “Arminianism” vs. “Calvinism.” Did the founders and early supporters of Southern Seminary have an understanding of the kind of teaching that students would receive who matriculated there? Absolutely. In fact, James Boyce, the 1st President, did his best to insure that they would be taught “in accordance with and not contrary to” the Abstract of Principles. That is why he had that confession written into the charter. When later administrations and faculty violated the charter by their hiring and teaching practices, it constituted theological apostasy. The recovery that has taken place the last 20 years is not morally equivalent to that apostasy at all. Rather, it is a recovery of the original, chartered, doctrinal vision of the school.

      This may be more than you asked for at some points and less at others. I truly appreciate your questions. Thanks for raising them.

      Blessings,
      tom

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