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Kelley assesses: ‘Why bother with the Southern Baptist Convention?’

NEW ORLEANS (BP)—“Why bother with the Southern Baptist Convention?”

In his convocation address at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, NOBTS President Chuck Kelley felt it important to address this important question.

“It seems appropriate to acknowledge a question making the rounds in some circles across our convention, particularly among the emerging generation of church leaders,” Kelley said.

Some young leaders are driven away by the number of plateaued and declining Southern Baptist churches, Kelley said. Others focus on Baptist battles.

“They want to be a part of something positive, not embroiled in a constant controversy,” he said.

Controversy derails, distracts and disrupts, Kelley said; it may plunge a business into bankruptcy, cost a politician an election or drive a denomination into the ground. While Southern Baptists have had their share of controversies over the years, Kelley said he sees remarkable signs of life.

“For the first time in my ministry, I am going to explain publicly why I made the adult commitment to be a Southern Baptist,” Kelley said during the Sept. 7 convocation. “Perhaps I can spice it up by using some Baptist battles from our past to illustrate why I am a passionate Southern Baptist.”

He began with the Sunday School Board controversy of 1891. During the 1891 SBC annual meeting in Birmingham, Ala., it was suggested that Southern Baptists form their own board to produce Sunday School material. Until then, Sunday School material came only from non-Southern Baptist publishers. Some within the convention staunchly opposed the plan.

“In retrospect, the advantages of creating a board to publish Sunday School resources for our churches seems obvious,” Kelley said. “What was the problem? Why was it controversial?”

The concern for those against the idea was that the formation of a Southern Baptist publishing house could possibly encourage denominational loyalty at the expense of the effectiveness of a church. The cooperative mission of Southern Baptists is to spread the Gospel as opposed to building a loyal denomination.

Despite the disagreement, Southern Baptists joined together to form the Sunday School Board. While the report from the committee researching the issue encouraged congregations to consider using the new board’s materials, it also reminded them the mission to which they were committed was far more important than any particular methodology, Kelley said.

“I am a Southern Baptist because Southern Baptists have always focused on accomplishing a mission as opposed to building a denomination or perpetuating a set methodology,” Kelley said. “Cooperation is at the heart of our identity, because working together helps us evangelize the world more effectively.”

A second controversy Kelley mentioned involved Southern Baptists and evangelism.

“At the 1904 SBC, Georgia pastor Len Broughton made a motion to create a department of evangelism in the Home Mission Board [now North American Mission Board],” Kelley said.

Though now the idea seems like a given, the motion ignited a three-year dispute. For two years, a committee studied the idea. By the 1906 convention, rumors circulated that the committee planned to recommend the formation of the department of evangelism.

“By the time the 1906 convention convened, it had all the earmarks of a classic Baptist battle –- behind-the-scenes maneuvering, the manipulation of parliamentary procedure and a great deal of debate and discussion,” Kelley recounted.

What was the problem? Why did they object to the new department?

“Many Southern Baptists were concerned that the creation of a department of evangelism in the Home Mission Board would result in a convention ministry replacing the ministry of local churches,” Kelley said. “I am a Southern Baptist because Southern Baptists are passionate about the centrality of the local church.”

If a money scandal was bound to strike Southern Baptists, the one in 1928 could not have come at a worse time. C.S. Starnes, treasurer of the Home Mission Board, embezzled nearly a million dollars and fled the country. With the financial onslaught of the Great Depression, the scandal drove the Home Mission Board almost to bankruptcy. It is not surprising that so much control over financial affairs of the convention now is never entrusted to one person, Kelley said.

“I am a Southern Baptist because Southern Baptists take the sinfulness of human nature seriously,” Kelley said. “We trust each other, but we use systems that discourage abuse and encourage accountability.”

The last controversy Kelley mentioned was the SBC’s conservative resurgence.

“There was a day when many SBC entities were moving to the left theologically, further and further away from the grass roots of the convention,” Kelly said.

In 1979, messengers to the convention determined to begin changing the direction of the SBC and its entities. This change was not immediate.

“They did not do it by issuing instruction for the entities to change from the floor of the convention,” Kelley said. “They did it the Baptist way, using traditional Baptist polity to implement long-term change of direction…. The will of the messengers was implemented by the trustees they elected. The commitment of Southern Baptists to the inerrancy of Scripture is firmly established.”

The process lasted through the early 1990s. Baptist polity worked, Kelley said.

“I am a Southern Baptist because Southern Baptists are people of the Book. We believe that the Bible is the Word of God, and we want that belief to be reflected throughout Baptist life,” Kelley said.

Kelley said it reminded him of the legend of Scylla and Charybdis from Greek mythology. The monster Scylla and the whirlpool Charybdis guarded both sides of a narrow channel. In avoiding one peril, ships seeking safe passage through the channel would inevitably drift too far to the other side and be engulfed by the other beast. The key to safe passage was to keep focused on sailing between them and accomplishing the mission at hand.

“Southern Baptists have been at their best when we have kept our attention focused on the mission to be accomplished and not the dangers on both sides of the boat. Move forward and not sideways, for the further you push away from one danger, the more likely you are pushing yourself into another danger,” Kelley said. “Feeling tensions is not a sign of death. It is a sign of life.

“For all our problems, I believe Southern Baptists have done that exceptionally well,” he said. “I am a Christian first and foremost, but I am also proud to be a Southern Baptist.”

During the convocation service, NOBTS students, faculty and staff recognized God’s faithfulness over the years as faculty members celebrating significant anniversaries were recognized. Those present looked to the future as new faculty members signed the Articles of Religious Belief and the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message 2000 statement of beliefs.

Dan Holcomb and Clay Corvin were honored for 25 years of service at NOBTS Holcomb is professor of church history and chairperson of the seminary’s division of theological and historical Studies. Corvin is vice president for business affairs and professor of administration.

Jimmy Dukes, dean extension center system and professor of New Testament and Greek, was honored for 20 years of service. Walter Brown, professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, was recognized for 15 years of teaching at NOBTS.

Darryl Ferrington, associate professor of music education; Allen Jackson, associate professor of youth education; and Francis Kimmitt, associate dean for Leavell College and associate professor of Old Testament and Hebrew, were each honored for 10 years.

    About the Author

  • Michael McCormack