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FIRST-PERSON: What does it mean to be the Southern Baptist Convention (rather than a Southern Baptist Denomination)?

I have an embarrassing admission to make. Before I tell you what the admission is, let me set it in context for how common my error most likely is among other Southern Baptists.

I grew up and was saved in a Southern Baptist church. I went to a Southern Baptist church camp at Centrifuge. I became a staffer for Centrifuge. I married a Southern Baptist pastor’s daughter inside a Southern Baptist church. I graduated from a Southern Baptist College and seminary. I am a member and teach a community group in a Southern Baptist church. I have now worked for two Southern Baptist entities, one where I train future pastors and church leaders on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’ve written numerous resolutions for the Southern Baptist Convention.

To mimic the verbiage of Paul in Philippians, my credentials as a Southern Baptist are as impeccable as the Apostle Paul’s credentials were as a Pharisee (Phil. 3:4-6).

And guess what?

It was not until I served on the Cooperation Group that I learned that Southern Baptists are not, technically, a denomination in how we conceive of that term. I was familiar with our governing structure, of course, but I just casually assumed we were a denomination in how everyone thinks of a denomination. But as our original 1845 constitution intimates, while we are a “denomination” of the larger evangelical tradition, we are unique in our governance. We are, by both conviction and polity, neither ecclesiastically hierarchical nor missiologically disconnected. So, the Southern Baptist Convention is most technically an annual convening of messengers from invested and involved Baptist churches rather than a perpetual denominational body. For this reason our emphasis is, as it should be, on the word “Convention” rather than the word “denomination.”

That distinction has important implications.

The difference between the two is vast and yet, because Southern Baptists consider themselves part of America’s religious patchwork, it is easy to assume that we are just another denomination like the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod or Presbyterian Church in America or the Anglican Church in North America. As I understood it, the Southern Baptist Convention was just one additional religious body in the alphabet soup of American denominationalism.

As we evaluate and study what it means to cooperate as Southern Baptists, it is essential that we refocus our attention on what distinguishes the Southern Baptist Convention from other typical American denominations. Functionally, we are a yearly meeting, not a standing denomination.

If you asked your average Southern Baptist what Southern Baptists are about, the answer (we hope) would be that Southern Baptists are a people united in cooperation for global evangelism.

That is, of course, true. With the funds given through the Cooperative Program, Southern Baptists channel their collective efforts to share Christ locally, nationally, and globally through the North American Mission and the International Mission Board. It also funds seminaries along with a public affairs entity (the ERLC). Even apart from Cooperative Program funding, Southern Baptists cooperate for the production of Christian literature, health and retirement benefits for ministers, and further missions education and fundraising through Lifeway, Guidestone, and the WMU, respectively. Although the entities each have their own ministry assignment, when all is said and done, each of these entities is tasked with making disciples of Jesus Christ.

What separates us as a convention from a denomination is how all of these entities and efforts are governed.

With millions of members and thousands of churches, the real power of the Southern Baptist Convention comes through its annual meeting and even more specifically, through its attendees—we call them “messengers”—from Southern Baptist churches.

Churches deemed in friendly cooperation are eligible to seat messengers at the annual meeting. That’s where the decisions are made on how to allocate our collective efforts, financial and institutional. It is at this annual meeting where ultimate authority resides. Messengers hear reports, vote on presidents and budgets, select trustees, and affirm the work of committees that have been tasked with various assignments.

Let us lay it out even more simply: The Southern Baptist “Convention” only exists two days a year in between a gavel that calls it to order and a gavel that concludes it. All the work of the Convention done throughout the rest of the year is work done on its behalf by the Executive Committee and the entities that have taken their marching orders from the messengers.

That’s it. The Southern Baptist “Convention” is not a top-down, hierarchical denomination with a centralized authority. Every Southern Baptist church is autonomous and self-governing. The Southern Baptist Convention can exercise absolutely zero authority over a local church. There is no pastoral appointee-arm that puts pastors on a traveling circuit between churches. We are a confessional people as a convention, but how churches relate to the convention’s confession is one of the admitted “gray areas” of Southern Baptist polity (it is also one of the reasons why the Cooperation Group task was formed). Because, once again, we’re not a denomination. No pope, prelate, priest or bishop decrees doctrines or authoritative actions on local churches.

That does not mean, however, “anything goes” theologically. Messengers do have the authority at each meeting to declare that a church that wishes to seat messengers in the annual meeting is no longer in friendly cooperation with the convention on the basis of disagreement with the Baptist Faith and Message. Once again, though, this is ultimately the decision of the messengers, not a standing committee of theological experts that rule on doctrinal accuracy. It is the will of messengers and messengers alone to deliberate and vote on the issues before them.

While the messengers at the annual convention are free to set the boundaries for what defines a cooperating church, a local church’s cooperation is entirely voluntary. If a church does not want to signal its cooperation through giving financially the next year or filling out the annual church profile or sending messengers, it is under no compulsion to do so. The Southern Baptist Convention is less about a standing membership and more about an annual meeting.

Allow me (Andrew) to close with a personal story that will drive the point of this essay home. Years ago when I worked at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, a friend and I got in a little bit of hot water for an interview with National Public Radio. The article framed my remarks as though I was dictating to local churches what a suggested age should be on when individuals should marry.

The article suggested that denominational employees in Nashville can tell other Baptists and Baptist churches what to do. But here’s the truth: We cannot.

We got letters, phone calls, and emails criticizing our statements for appearing as though the Southern Baptist Convention was headquartered in Nashville issuing theological guidance to other churches. Sure, that’s where the offices of the Executive Committee are, but as those emails and letters rightly observed in their protest: The headquarters of the Southern Baptist Convention are in each of the thousands upon thousands of Southern Baptist churches that comprise its cooperating body.

In addition to Andrew Walker, this essay was co-written by Cooperation Group members Tony Wolfe, Matt Henslee and Jason Paredes.

    About the Author

  • Andrew Walker