THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION
AN AID TO UNDERSTANDING
Rev. June 1, 2006
CONTACT: Kenyn Cureton
This brief paper is offered to assist those who wish to understand the Southern Baptist Convention, its work, perspectives, and governance, better.
BAPTISTS IN AMERICA
A recent poll found that almost one American in five claims to be a Baptist. Baptists in America are divided into more than fifty bodies, but 92 percent of Baptists are found in five of those bodies—the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC); National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc. (NBC); National Baptist Convention of America, Inc.; (NBCA); American Baptist Churches in the USA (ABC); and Baptist Bible Fellowship International (BBFI).1
More than half of the Baptists in the country belong to the Southern Baptist Convention, which is the single largest non-Catholic (or Protestant) denomination in the country.2
CURRENT STATUS OF THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION
Since its initial organization in 1845 in Augusta, Georgia, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has grown to more than 16.2 million members who worship in over 43,000 churches in the United States.
The Convention assigns and conducts its work through twelve boards and agencies (referred to in SBC parlance as “entities”), which are supported by the churches through their financial contributions to the Cooperative Program. They are organized for ministry, evangelism, missionary, educational, ethical, religious liberty, and other benevolent enterprises.
Article II of the SBC constitution states that the purpose of the Convention is to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories for the promotion of Christian missions at home and abroad, and any other objects such as Christian education, benevolent enterprises, and social services which it may deem proper and advisable for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God.
Working through 1,182 local associations (composed of the churches in single- or multi-county groupings), forty-one state conventions (composed of the churches in single-or multi-state groupings), Southern Baptists are bound together in their cooperative endeavors by basic biblical beliefs and a commitment to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the entire world.
Baptists are people of deep beliefs and cherished doctrines that can be broadly described as evangelical, or orthodox, and expressive of historic Christianity. Throughout their history they have been a confessional people, adopting statements of faith as a witness to their beliefs, and are formulated with the desire that they embody the teaching of Scripture in simple form.
The first of these statements of faith, approved by the convention in 1925, was titled the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M). In 1963, the BF&M was revised to address certain areas not dealt with in the earlier version. In 1998, a revision was made which included biblical teachings on the family. In 2000, the Convention approved a revised BF&M which specifically addressed certain moral and ethical issues that were not spoken to when the 1963 version was approved.
The Baptist Faith and Message is considered to be a consensus document of things most surely believed among the preponderance of Southern Baptists. You may print a copy of the Baptist Faith and Message at www.sbc.net.
PRESUPPOSITIONS BEHIND SOUTHERN BAPTIST POLITY
* The Believers’ Church
“A local church or congregation is basically a fellowship of persons each of whom has personal faith in Jesus Christ. Basic in Baptist beliefs is the conviction that a person who has not trusted his life to Jesus Christ for forgiveness and guidance is not ready for church membership. Baptists believe that no one who does not personally know and follow Christ can practice the bold challenges which Jesus set forth…” (Sullivan)
* The Lordship of Christ
“Baptists also believe that congregational decisions cannot be properly made unless the members discussing and voting on important spiritual matters in the church are seeking to do God’s will rather than their own. While the church uses democratic processes, it is, in fact, practicing theo democracy (democracy under the leadership of God).” (Sullivan)
Individual Christians, who are seen as believer-priests, can be expected to act in keeping with their Great High Priest.
* The Autonomy Of Churches And General Baptist Bodies
A Baptist church is free to decide its own affairs. This freedom is called autonomy, which means self-rule. Paul taught that each church had a full complement of gifts for leadership and service. The Southern Baptist Convention does not ordain ministers, assign ministers to churches, levy contributions to denominational causes, dictate literature and calendar, or assign persons to churches according to place of residence. These are matters for the local church to decide.
A free church may freely choose to work with other free churches. In Baptist bodies such as associations and conventions, messengers from the churches to these general bodies meet to share counsel and encouragement, discuss common problems, conduct business, and pool their resources to do ministries together which no one church could do alone. This is un-coerced cooperation.
Southern Baptists are wary of interdenominational councils. While Southern Baptists work with other churches on matters such as abortion and pornography, read and hear non-Southern Baptists, they do not enter into covenants with others who may wish to speak for them.
* The Value Of Cooperation
While self-governance is an indisputable right of every Baptist body, the necessity for, and the duty to, practice interdependence and cooperation temper that right. Churches in the New Testament partnered together for missions and ministry, they agreed upon common doctrine, and they adhered to commonly acceptable practices and policies.
It is self-evident that churches can accomplish much more by working together in advancing the gospel than they can alone and isolated. This kind of fruitful partnership is reflected in SBC denominational organization. Southern Baptist churches are independent in the area of leadership and local organization, and interdependent in matters of missions, ministry, and common orthodoxy.
To summarize, Southern Baptists stress both local church autonomy and the power of voluntary cooperation. They do not want to lose or compromise either of these important principles. Fortunately, they need not give up either, for freedom and cooperation do not compete. Instead, they complement each other. Southern Baptist churches are both independent and interdependent.
POLITY—HOW THE CONVENTION WORKS
Southern Baptist churches meet annually in convention. They do so by electing “messengers” who attend the Convention, and participate in the business of the Convention. In Southern Baptist parlance, representatives from churches are “messengers,” not “delegates.” Theoretically, they bring no authority from the churches over the Convention, and they take no authority from the Convention back to the churches. From the Convention’s beginning, this relationship has been based on trust.3 Usually those elected bring back to the church a report of the meeting. In this way, all members of the church can feel vitally involved in the work of the Convention.
During the annual convention meeting, thousands of messengers make decisions relative to the organization’s worldwide ministry. When those decisions are made, Convention entities and the Executive Committee carry out those assignments.
Southern Baptist churches provide financial support for the work of the denomination through the Cooperative Program (See below.) This unified funding program enables individual churches of any size to join with others in carrying out significant national and international projects. At the annual convention meeting, the messengers hear reports and vote on policies and budget allocations for each of the twelve SBC entities, or ministry agencies. (See below for list of entities.)
Each Southern Baptist church can send as many as ten messengers to this annual convention meeting. The cap on the number of voting messengers is intended to ensure equality of small and large congregations alike. Any cooperating church of any size that contributes to SBC causes can send at least one messenger. It may send an additional messenger for each additional 250 members or $250 in contributions, up to a maximum of ten. When this plan of representation was first adopted, most churches were small and had little money. Now, however, churches are larger, and inflation has made $250 worth much less than when this figure was set a century ago. The result is that presently more than 70 percent of all Southern Baptist churches could send the maximum of ten messengers to the Convention. Of course, if they should do so, there would not be room in a convention center for all of them.
During each Convention, messengers also elect a Convention president to a one-year term, who is eligible to serve two consecutive terms. The president presides over Convention business sessions, and appoints the Committee on Committees that in turn nominates a Committee on Nominations, made up of two representatives from each cooperating state. When elected by the Convention, this committee then nominates persons for election by the Convention to serve as trustees who oversee the work of the various boards, seminaries, and other Convention entities. Through this appointment process, the Convention president can, in time, greatly influence the policies and directions of the Convention and its work.
The entities of the SBC (not including WMU) are under the direction of boards of trustees elected by the Southern Baptist Convention. They select the chief executive officers who oversee general operations. These persons operate under the authority given them by the trustees under whom they work. The trustees have no authority except that given them by the Southern Baptist Convention appointing them. Each year in annual session, the executive officers of the entities subject themselves to public reporting and interrogation. If complex questions are asked to which immediate answers cannot be supplied, those answers are to be determined by research and dealt with by the appropriate trustees. Subsequent full reporting is required at the next annual meeting of the Convention.
THE EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE
In order to understand contemporary Southern Baptist Convention operations, it is important to understand the work of the Executive Committee. The Executive Committee is to act on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention ad interim, or between sessions. It reviews the work of the Convention’s entities. This Committee itself is subject to the review of the Convention.
In 1917, the Southern Baptist Convention altered its basic structure when it authorized the formation of the Executive Committee. Its formation was the outgrowth of four years of efforts to bring order to the Convention’s growing agenda and complicated structure that had developed over the years. At that time at least thirty-three committees were appointed each year.
In his history of the Executive Committee, Albert McClellan stated, “the use of so many committees created problems: (1) They were in some instances assigned complex issues without full information. (2) They consumed too much of the Convention’s time in reporting. Twenty nine of the committees had to do their work and report to the Convention within a six day period. (3) The committees of reference for board reports were barriers between the persons responsible for the boards and the Convention. (4) Too many committees were keeping the Convention preoccupied with mechanics, when it should have been concerned with message. (5) The four committees appointed to plan for the 1911 Convention pointed to the need for standing committees to work between sessions. (6) There still was no general committee to gather up the loose ends. Too much time was spent admiring the library, and there was little time left to study the books.”4
The Convention elects the members of this Committee, which now number eighty-two, who come from the forty-one state conventions. The Executive Committee is not a board, but a committee. That is, while it can make recommendations to or about entities or issue reports on entities; no entity is directly accountable to it. Each entity is directly responsible to the Convention of church messengers in annual session. This provides a direct approach to problems.
The work of the Executive Committee is basically fiscal and advisory. It operates in harmony with the Convention’s desire to provide checks and balances essential to effective democratic processes. The Southern Baptist Convention has assigned it two different kinds of responsibility. First, it is charged with administrative duty for the Southern Baptist Convention when it is not in session. Thus, the Executive Committee receives and distributes funds given for the various missions, evangelism, educational, and ministry enterprises for the Southern Baptist Convention, plans and manages the annual meeting, publishes the Convention Annual, assists Convention committees, handles legal matters, and provides staff assistance to the elected officials of the Convention. The Committee also handles any matters that have not been otherwise assigned specifically to any entity arising between Convention sessions.
The Executive Committee is also assigned program responsibilities: 1) for Cooperative Program promotion, 2) managing the Southern Baptist Foundation, which manages proceeds from wills, bequests and other investments, 3) operating Baptist Press, the SBC news service, and 4) providing a convention relations office, which articulates Southern Baptist positions to constituents and to the public through the media as well as producing SBC LIFE newsmagazine.
The local churches are considered the most basic, and most authoritative, element in Southern Baptist life. They give emphasis to the trustworthiness of the Bible as God’s Word, the necessity of men and women trusting Christ alone for salvation, the power of the Gospel to change anyone who truly believes and receives it, and the importance of missions to the entire earth. A church technically becomes Southern Baptist by contributing to the mission causes of the Convention.
If that contribution is made within the fiscal year (October-September) preceding a particular annual meeting (June), the church is entitled to send up to ten messengers to the Convention.
Requirements for a church to be affiliated as a Southern Baptist church are straightforward and simple. Southern Baptist Convention bylaws on membership state that in order for a church to represent and vote at the SBC, it must “be in friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work” and be “a bona fide contributor to the Convention’s work during the fiscal year preceding” (Southern Baptist Convention 2004 Annual, p. 4). No exact amount of financial support is specified; it simply must be a “bona fide contributor.” It further specifies, “Among churches not in friendly cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”
“Friendly cooperation” can be demonstrated by various means … the adoption of The Baptist Faith and Message, use of Bible study materials published by the Southern Baptist Convention, and so forth. It certainly implies that a church should give very serious consideration to whether it understands that it is following the Lord in aligning with the Southern Baptist Convention, and is committed to doing so.
Within the Southern Baptist Convention, the licensing and ordination of ministers is a local church matter.
There is no denominational ordination service. The list of Southern Baptist ministers is simply a compilation from the reports of the churches. The Southern Baptist convention neither frocks nor defrocks ministers.
Individuals do not join the Southern Baptist Convention per se. Rather, they become Southern Baptists by virtue of becoming a member of a Southern Baptist church. Each church establishes its own individual enrollment procedure, which ordinarily includes the profession of individual faith and baptism of each candidate for church membership.
THE SBC AS A DENOMINATION
As has been described earlier, the SBC is an alliance of independent, autonomous, churches working together voluntarily in friendly cooperation under the heading “Southern Baptist.” Southern Baptists have concluded that the denomination gives churches a way to collectively express their convictions and realize their vision. Denominations allow churches to be a part of a larger enterprise, pooling their resources to establish and advance Great Commission work. A denomination can have an impact larger than the sum of the impacts of the individual churches.
Incidentally, you may ask, “Isn’t a convention a meeting and not a denomination?” In one sense of the word, the Southern Baptist Convention exists for only two days a year, at the annual gathering. During the course of the rest of the year, denominational entities carry out the instructions of the messengers to the Convention.
However, the SBC frequently identifies itself with the term “denomination” or one of its forms. Thus, it is correct to speak of the Southern Baptist Convention as a denomination.
UNIFIED FUNDING MECHANISM — THE COOPERATIVE PROGRAM
Cooperation helps fuel the fire of Southern Baptist mission and ministry around the world. Following its founding in 1845, support of Convention work depended on the societal financial principle, i.e., support flowed to the specific enterprises of the Convention based on the attractiveness of the enterprise and persuasive powers of the various leaders.
In 1925, Southern Baptists instituted the Cooperative Program through which they have since funded the advance of the gospel locally, statewide, nationally and internationally. This unified program for funding Convention work has made possible the more comprehensive denominationalism contemporary Southern Baptists have come to expect.
The Cooperative Program has been described by some as “the greatest voluntary funding program in the history of Christendom,” providing support for approximately 10,500 foreign and domestic missionaries, theological education through the six Southern Baptist seminaries, ethical challenge and leadership through the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, plus the facilitating ministries of the Executive Committee and the GuideStone Financial Resources.
The Woman’s Missionary Union, an auxiliary to the SBC, serves in partnership with the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board in encouraging the churches to give generously through the Cooperative Program.
COOPERATIVE PROGRAM SUPPORT STATISTICS
Cooperative Program giving for national causes in 2004-05 finished above giving for the previous year, the 11th rise in 12 years. Receipts totaled $195,948,422.55, an increase of $6,083,167.70, or 3.20 percent over the 2003-04 amount of $189,865,254.85.
Importantly, 2004-05 contributions exceeded the approved budget by $12,496,728.55 and because of budget actions taken in September, the extra amount will be redirected to meet extraordinary hurricane recovery needs of Southern Baptists.
On September 19, the Executive Committee, acting ad interim on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention, voted unanimously to use beyond-the-budget Cooperative Program contributions for SBC national causes, received for the fiscal year ending September 30, in three areas of great need among Southern Baptists. One-half of the total is earmarked for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary (to aid faculty and students recover from losses and to help rebuild the campus), one-fourth will go to the three state conventions most affected by the hurricane (to keep ministers in the field and to assist churches in recovery) and one-fourth to the North American Mission Board (to support the extensive hurricane disaster relief operations).
The committee also voted that the same formula be followed with beyond-the-budget receipts for the Cooperative Program Allocation Budget during the first quarter (October, November, December) of the new fiscal year.
As of September 30, 2005, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong mission offering gifts totaled $173,433,970.01.
The SBC operates on an October 1-September 30 fiscal year.
If it were not for the Cooperative Program, this opportunity and avenue for emergency relief would have never happened!
Faithful Southern Baptists continue to provide funds in record amounts in obedience to the Great Commission; to reach the peoples of the world with the good news that the Bible is true, God’s care for men and women is real and strong, and eternal life in Jesus Christ is available for all through God’s grace.
AGENCIES/ENTITIES OF THE SOUTHERN BAPTIST CONVENTION
The Southern Baptist Convention operates twelve agencies or entities, as we now call them:
* World mission ministries are the International Mission Board, and the North American Mission Board.
* Theological education ministries are Southern Seminary, Southwestern Seminary, New Orleans Seminary, Golden Gate Seminary, Southeastern Seminary, and Midwestern Seminary.
* Christian ethics and religious liberty ministry is assigned to the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.
* Very expansive church enrichment ministry and literature publication are assignments of LifeWay Christian Resources.
* The GuideStone Financial Resources (formerly the Annuity Board), which manages ministerial retirement and insurance needs, and the Executive Committee are facilitating ministries.
* (NOTE) The Woman’s Missionary Union is not owned and nor operated by the Convention, and is the sole auxiliary of the SBC. It cooperates very closely with the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board to encourage churches to give generously through the Cooperative Program.
Southern Baptists believe that God is at work in their efforts around the world. The following data illustrates some of what the Lord has done through Southern Baptists’ service and sacrifice.
Data below is from the last complete annual report.
Evangelism and Church Growth
* Baptisms – 371,850 people were baptized in Southern Baptist churches in the U.S., and 459,725 were baptized in SBC related churches overseas. This averages about one baptism every 38 seconds.
* Southern Baptists started 1,717 new congregations in the United States, an average of 4.7 new churches every day.
* The six seminaries operated by the Southern Baptist Convention provided theological preparation for 16,163 students for ministry at home and around the world.
* In addition, Seminary Extension provided biblical and theological courses to 3,436 laymen and lay ministers through 450 extension centers.
* The SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is leading Southern Baptists to study and act upon a broad range of social and moral issues such as alcohol abuse, gambling, racism, pornography, homosexuality, abortion, world hunger, AIDS, homelessness, religious liberty, religious persecution, euthanasia, and bioethical issues like human cloning and fetal stem cell research.
Helping Ministry Families in Need
* In addition to assisting pastors in insurance and retirement needs, GuideStone Financial Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention (formerly the SBC Annuity Board) provided direct financial assistance to 1,856 low-income retired ministers, and their spouses or widows last year.
* Southern Baptists supported approximately 5,100 IMB missionaries, reaching 1,193 people groups. They reported 459,725 baptisms and 17,676 new churches started outside the United States.
* Southern Baptists continue to step up in record numbers to serve in short-term volunteer projects overseas with more than 30,000 volunteers participating last year. That compares to 12,756 volunteers in 1994 and 6,066 in 1984.
Ministry in North America
* Southern Baptists supported approximately 5,364 missionaries and more than 400,000 volunteers served in mission projects in the U.S., Puerto Rico, Canada, American Samoa, and the Virgin Islands through the North American Mission Board — the greatest number in SBC history.
* SBC Disaster Relief teams respond to ice storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, flooding, and chemical spills across the U.S. Disaster Relief operations have included long-term rebuilding in the wake of flooding and flood cleanup efforts. Southern Baptist volunteers prepare most of the meals distributed by the American Red Cross as well as provide cleanup and recovery, communications, childcare and other vital disaster services. Southern Baptists are the third-largest disaster relief operation in the country behind the Red Cross and The Salvation Army, with more than 50,000 trained volunteers and 730 mobile disaster response units on call for local, state and national emergencies.
* In 1996, Elizabeth Dole of the American Red Cross declared that Southern Baptists fed more meals in disaster situations under Red Cross auspices since Hurricane Hugo in 1989 than any private or religious group in the nation – about 80 percent of the total! (BP – 9/9/96).
* In 2001, a dramatic Disaster Relief effort was made in response to the September 11 attack. Within hours of the news, Disaster Relief units manned by Southern Baptist volunteers mobilized and began providing relief for victims, family members, and the New York City community. More than 3,800 volunteers from Southern Baptist churches around the country partnered with the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and more than 200 Southern Baptist churches in the New York City area to prepare 1,250,000 meals; clean and sanitize almost 700 apartments from debris; care for more than 850 children at mobile child care units while their parents sought assistance from private, governmental, and religious charities. The SBC North American Mission Board sent some 90 chaplains from 18 states to New York City, where they counseled with victims and their families in the city morgue and throughout the city. During the 9/11 relief efforts a Red Cross worker in New York said, “Everywhere I turn there’s a Southern Baptist!”
* In early 2005, Southern Baptists were involved in international relief efforts in the aftermath of the south Asia tsunami and the earthquake in Pakistan, giving over $16 million toward tsunami relief efforts alone..
* In late 2005, Southern Baptists responded to the deadly hurricanes. Some 500 Southern Baptist Disaster Relief units representing 41 state conventions operated for 184 days, utilizing 21,000 volunteers whose time amounted to 165,748 volunteer days. That accounted for more than 14.5 million of the 17,124,738 meals prepared by Southern Baptist crews all year. (BP 4/28/06) In addition, Southern Baptists contributed more than $21 million to hurricane relief efforts in 2005 (BP 12/29/05).
World Hunger Relief
* In 2005, Southern Baptists contributed $5,848,345 to the Southern Baptist World Hunger Relief Fund, none of which was used for administration. Southern Baptists provided food and poverty relief assistance through 325 projects in 62 countries overseas. Last year in the U.S. and Canada, Southern Baptist hunger ministries provided over 6 million meals which opened the door to 550,000 opportunities to share the gospel resulting in over 33,000 profession of faith.
SBC COMPARISON WITH MAINLINE DENOMINATIONS
SBC and Mainline Denomination Membership Trends
* Methodists: 1961 –11,709,629; 1998 – 8,500,000. Decrease about 27%
* Episcopal: 1961 – 3,500,000; 1998 – 2,500,000. Decrease about 28%
* Presbyterian Church USA: 1965 – 4,000,000; 1999 – 2,600,000. Decrease about 36%
* Christian Church (Disciples of Christ): 1961 – 1,800,000; 1998 – 879,000. Decrease about 52%
* The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America formed in 1987 as a result of the merging of the Lutheran Church of America, the American Lutheran Church, and the Association of Evangelical Lutherans. In 1987 they reported membership of 5,290,000 – in 1998 they reported 5,185,055 (in 2002 they report 5,125,919).
* American Baptist Churches in the USA reported 1,500,000 in 1960 and 1,503,267 in 1998 (the Baptist World Alliance Website reported 1,455,855 in 2000)
* Southern Baptist Convention: 1961 – 9,978,000; 1998 – 15,851,356. Increase about 59%
The polity of the Southern Baptist Convention is practically unique in the world of religious denominations. Though unusual, it has been remarkably effective in facilitating the cooperative work of the more than 43,000 Southern Baptist churches together through the Convention.
SOURCES AND CITATIONS:
James L. Sullivan, How Southern Baptists Work Together, Baptist Heritage, pamphlet series, (1979).
Bill Merrell, Article, “A Sad Story Of Seven Sisters”, SBC Life, May 1996.
1 Albert W. Wardin, Baptists Around the World (Nashville: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 1995) p. 367
2 Ibid., p. 367.
3 H. Leon McBeth, Autonomy and Cooperation, Foundations of Baptist Heritage, pamphlet series, (1989).
4 Albert McClelland, The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention 1917-1984 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985) p.41