LOUISVILLE, Ky. (BP)–This article speaks to something near and dear to the heart of Southern Baptists — cooperation. A key concept in understanding Southern Baptists is voluntary cooperation.
Each Southern Baptist church is autonomous and self-governing under the Lordship of Christ. These churches, though, may decide to cooperate with other like-minded churches to provide for mutual encouragement and the advancement of God’s kingdom through evangelism and missions.
Since the 1600s, Baptists have formed associations. An association is a group of churches that voluntarily join together for fellowship, encouragement and missions. Churches are the members of the association, but the association does not rule its member churches.
Churches may also choose to form a convention. In the United States, Southern Baptist churches have organized both state conventions and a national body, the Southern Baptist Convention.
Churches comprise the membership of state conventions and the SBC. They join voluntarily and may withdraw voluntarily.
Conventions exercise no control over the churches. Each level is autonomous. Thus, an association cannot dictate to a church or to the state convention. Of course, the reverse is true as well. A church might be a member of one body but not another, though that is unusual. Associations and conventions are governed by votes cast by messengers sent from member churches.
Southern Baptist churches formed state conventions and the SBC in order to conduct work on a wider geographical basis. State conventions operate on a state-wide basis, while the SBC is concerned with national and international ministry.
In 2000, the SBC celebrated the 75th anniversary of the Cooperative Program. This program was adopted in 1925 at the SBC annual meeting with E.Y. Mullins, president of Southern Seminary, moderating as president of the SBC.
Through the Cooperative Program churches are able to pool their resources voluntarily in order to do missions, education and benevolent ministries. Before the Cooperative Program was adopted, Baptist institutions and entities supported themselves by sending out agents to solicit money from the churches. This system did not work well, and many pastors called for a better system.
Under the Cooperative Program, each church decides to send a certain percentage (or amount) of its undesignated income to the Cooperative Program. These funds are remitted to the state convention where an approved percentage is retained for the state convention’s use, and the remainder is sent to the treasurer of the Executive Committee of the SBC in Nashville, Tenn.
The Cooperative Program was a major step forward for the SBC. The program provided more funds for Baptist institutions and entities, and it also made systematic budgeting possible. The support Southern Seminary receives from the program makes it possible for students to study at a modest cost compared to independent seminaries.
One might well ask two questions of this system of cooperation. Is it biblical? And does it work?
In 2 Corinthians 8-9, the Apostle Paul discusses the offering he was gathering for the Christians in Jerusalem who were suffering because of a famine. Paul encouraged all the churches of Macedonia and Achaia to join together in giving to meet this need. This is an excellent example of how churches of the New Testament era combined their efforts in order to minister to suffering saints.
Does cooperation work? Our system of cooperation has been a significant factor in the growth of the SBC to become the largest non-Catholic denomination in the United States.
What about cooperation with other churches and denominations? Southern Baptists belong to the Baptist World Alliance, but we have declined to join the National Council of Churches or the World Council of Churches because of doctrinal concerns. We do cooperate with other churches to accomplish projects like evangelistic campaigns and Bible publishing.
Terry is the A.P. and Faye Stone Professor of Christian Missions and Evangelism at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
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Full text of Article 14: Cooperation
Christ’s people should, as occasion requires, organize such associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God. Such organizations have no authority over one another or over the churches. They are voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner. Members of New Testament churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom. Christian unity in the New Testament sense is spiritual harmony and voluntary cooperation for common ends by various groups of Christ’s people.
Cooperation is desirable between the various Christian denominations, when the end to be attained is itself justified, and when such cooperation involves no violation of conscience or compromise of loyalty to Christ and His Word as revealed in the New Testament.
Exodus 17:12; 18:17ff.; Judges 7:21; Ezra 1:3-4; 2:68-69; 5:14-15; Nehemiah 4; 8:1-5; Matthew 10:5-15; 20:1-16; 22:1-10; 28:19-20; Mark 2:3; Luke 10:1ff.; Acts 1:13-14; 2:1ff.; 4:31-37; 13:2-3; 15:1-35; 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; 3:5-15; 12; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Galatians 1:6-10; Ephesians 4:1-16; Philippians 1:15-18.
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