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FIRST-PERSON: What does it mean to be a cooperating church in the Southern Baptist Convention?

SBC President Bart Barber gives his address to messengers at the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans June 13. Photo by Jose Santiago

Churches cooperate with other churches through the Southern Baptist Convention for the propagation of the gospel.

People are sometimes shocked to learn how lean of an institution the Southern Baptist Convention is. It produces no financial statements because it has no financial assets. It has no employees, no telephone number, and no budget.

And yet, when people think about the Southern Baptist Convention, they think about one of the largest missionary forces in Christian history, one of the largest disaster relief organizations in the world, six of the largest seminaries in America, and the largest democratic meeting in the world—so large that some of our major cities do not have meeting spaces large enough to house the SBC’s annual meeting.

How can such delicacies come from so threadbare a cupboard? At its heart, any church’s relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention is a relationship with other churches, not with a corporation. Although sometimes it is rhetorically convenient to speak about churches’ cooperating with the SBC, what is really happening is that churches are cooperating with one another by way of the framework and forum that the SBC provides. It is in those churches that one finds legions of volunteers, seemingly unlimited generosity, and an enviable cornucopia of experiences, skills, and genius. More valuable than even all of that, it is to those local churches alone that Jesus has promised His empowering presence and the binding-and-loosing authority of Heaven.

Because so many churches across such a wide geographic distribution cooperate through the Southern Baptist Convention, it is easy to fall into the misperception that a church who cooperates through the Southern Baptist Convention is a church who has joined an institution (or, even further from the truth, that the individual members of the church have joined the Southern Baptist Convention). In reality, the Southern Baptist Convention has no members. It is a mechanism through which churches cooperate with one another. Churches cooperate with other churches through the Southern Baptist Convention.

That cooperation is directed toward a purpose. From the preamble to our constitution: “[Southern Baptists gathered in 1845 to make a plan] for eliciting, combining, and directing the energies of our denomination for the propagation of the gospel.” Southern Baptists rejected the “society method” of organization, which would generally prefer a much more narrowly tailored purpose statement, limiting themselves solely to international missions or Sunday School publication or some other single purpose.

Instead, they developed a “convention method” open to “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” (emphasis mine). In such a cooperative enterprise, cooperation means more than money (but not less than money). Churches in the Southern Baptist Convention cooperate by (a) proposing ministries we will undertake together, (b) inviting compatible churches to join the cooperative effort, (c) determining the governance and organization of those ministry enterprises, (d) providing the personnel to execute our plans, (e) providing the funding to carry out the work, (f) praying for God’s blessing upon our labors, (g) offering constructive correction when those ministries stray from their purposes, and (h) choosing to utilize the various products and services that we have created together.

What does it mean for a church to cooperate through the Southern Baptist Convention? It means that a church voluntarily takes upon itself all of those aspects of cooperation.

Which churches should cooperate through the Southern Baptist Convention? At the 1845 founding of the SBC, those who organized the Convention did not see themselves as creating a denomination. If asked to give a denominational label for their churches, rather than “Southern Baptist,” they would simply have replied, “Baptist.” Indeed, the original constitution of the SBC mentions in multiple places “the Baptist denomination.” The doctrinal parameters of cooperation were simply that set of doctrinal convictions that would place a church within the Baptist denomination.

Eventually, the Convention started to speak of “Missionary Baptists” as the nature of our cooperating churches, in contradistinction against the anti-missionary Baptist churches that had declared spiritual war upon such organizations as the Southern Baptist Convention. This was a self-enforcing distinction—by definition, such churches would in no way seek to initiate or maintain cooperation with any church that would cooperate through the SBC.

As the twentieth century unfolded, a specifically Southern Baptist doctrinal cachet began to emerge. Southern Baptists adapted the New Hampshire Confession of Faith in 1925 to compose their own statement of faith, The Baptist Faith & Message. We amended that statement in 1963, 1998, 2000, and 2023. Each time (except in 2023) the amendments included inserting language that set apart the Southern Baptist confession of faith as unique among Baptist confessions of faith. Southern Baptists are not the only ones who have developed doctrinally; the beliefs of other Baptist bodies have undergone further development since 1845. Some of these developments among other groups of Baptists have created and then subsequently widened a doctrinal gap between Southern Baptists and other Baptists. The existence of a distinct set of Southern Baptist doctrinal convictions, although unimaginable in 1845, is now undeniable.

How should that distinct set of doctrinal convictions affect the boundaries of cooperation through the Southern Baptist Convention? When Southern Baptists face difficult choices about which churches should cooperate through the SBC and which churches should not, two themes sometimes emerge. Some will say that we must merely agree upon and be willing to fund the purposes and the mission of the Convention, regardless of the doctrinal variances among the churches. Others will say that the cooperating churches must be sound doctrinally and aligned closely with the beliefs of the Convention. The framing of these two concepts sometimes positions them as though they are in conflict with one another. Instead, they serve one another.

Because in a “convention method” the cooperating churches do not merely fund the mission—they also choose the extent of the mission and govern the pursuit of the mission—it matters that the churches cooperating through the Southern Baptist Convention be meaningfully Southern Baptist. They need not necessarily be “Reformed” or “Traditionalist,” multi-site or single-campus, Southern Gospel or Contemporary or Modern Hymnody, but they need to fall within the outer boundaries of what it means to be a Southern Baptist church in terms of doctrinal and ethical character. Who decides what those boundaries are? The messenger body, ultimately in a case-by-case manner.

The mission requires that we have those doctrinal boundaries, but we need not draw those outer boundaries any closer than the mission requires. Our churches are cooperating with one another, not taking conservatorship over one another. The fact that my church cooperates with yours does not make my church responsible in the least respect for your church’s beliefs or behaviors. Jesus is the Lord of both churches. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls?” the apostle reminds us.

Sometimes people mistakenly believe that the existence of such boundaries or their enforcement constitutes a violation of local church autonomy. The Southern Baptist Convention can no more violate the doctrine of local church autonomy than it can violate the law of gravity. The autonomy of a local Baptist church is a legal and spiritual reality that the church enjoys in and of itself, not some tenuous boon granted to a church by the SBC. No, we are not violating autonomy, but alongside the autonomy of the local churches is the matter of showing appropriate respect for the sacred status of a local church. In the letters to the churches at the beginning of the Revelation, Jesus scolded churches for their faults. He threatened one of them with the “removal” of its “lampstand,” so serious were its faults. And yet, even the Lord of that church gave the church more time to repent and to return to its first love. If Jesus is like this, what justification can we mere mortal find for being impatient with and ungracious toward wayward local churches? Even when we acknowledge and act upon the violation of our boundaries, as sometimes we must, we must do so with appropriate deference and respect.

For these reasons, it serves the mission of the Convention to draw our doctrinal boundaries as generously as we can but as strictly as we must for the sake of the propagation of the gospel and the furtherance of the kingdom of God (the two purposes quoted above from our governing documents).

Which churches should cooperate through the Southern Baptist Convention? If your church generally holds Southern Baptist beliefs and wants to join us in sharing the gospel around the world and planting Baptist churches, then your church should cooperate with mine and with many others through the Southern Baptist Convention.

In addition to Bart Barber, this essay was co-written by Cooperation Group members Juan Sanchez, Jerome Coleman and Don Currence.