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Southern Baptists need to grasp their ‘polity,’ Sullivan counsels

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A request to define the word “polity” likely would elicit blank stares from many Southern Baptists.
Understanding polity and how it works in their churches and denomination is something Southern Baptist statesman James L. Sullivan hopes to change through a revised edition of his book, “Baptist Polity As I See It,” being released in June by the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board’s Broadman & Holman Publishers.
“Southern Baptist polity is essentially our Southern Baptist way of doing things,” Sullivan, who served as president of the Sunday School Board from 1953-75 and SBC president in 1976, writes in the introduction to his book. The first edition was published in 1983 from lectures he delivered at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
The 1998 edition has been updated to include the denominational restructuring, “Covenant for a New Century,” and rewritten in a more readable style which Sullivan hopes will draw a wider readership.
Sullivan undertook the revision at the urging of Sunday School Board President James T. Draper Jr., who said it is needed to help Baptists “understand better how we functon at our best. Baptist polity is virtually unique in modern evangelical Christianity. I hope this book will have wide use and distribution across the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Sullivan believes Southern Baptists need to understand not only what they do, but why. For example, why does a church vote at the end of a service to receive people into its membership?
“We do this because we have a congregational form of government,” he writes. “This forces us to let the congregation express itself in this matter so that we have a knowledge of what the congregation thinks. The vote taken is not literally for the purpose of voting people into the church. Rather, it expresses a congregation’s impression about the qualification of the candidate for membership in the body.”
In his book, Sullivan relies on experience gained from 72 years of preaching as well as observations from his leadership roles as pastor, trustee, agency head and SBC president. Chapters address forces that shaped polity, the trustee system, the annual SBC meeting, financing SBC ministries and areas needing attention and improvement.
Outlining least-understood areas of Southern Baptist polity, Sullivan repeated from the first edition of his book 12 common misunderstandings of beliefs and methods. He begins with the mistaken perception of many that the denomination is hierarchical in nature, with churches uniting to form associations, associations joining forces to form state conventions and state conventions uniting to form the SBC.
“Every Baptist body is autonomous and self-governing,” Sullivan emphasized in an interview. “With a democratic process you must have checks and balances.”
In another area, he said some mistakenly believe the SBC controls its institutions by making or withholding allocations from the Cooperative Program (Southern Baptists’ method of supporting national causes).
“Cooperative Program funds are for support, not control,” Sullivan writes. “Therefore, if correction needs to be made in a Baptist institution or agency, the best way to accomplish the desired change is through contact with the agency president or chairman of trustees and not through seeking to adjust Cooperative Program funds or gifts given to support that institution.”
In the chapter on the recent SBC restructuring which reduced the number of national entities from 19 to 12, Sullivan predicted implementation of the changes “should help us move toward greater unity and accomplishments.”
However, he wrote that taking more time to develop the plan and communicate its goals might have enhanced understanding and support.
“Had there been opportunity for greater discussion between the Executive Committee, the Program and Structure Study Committee and the state conventions, it would have been easier to implement the actions and bring about the changes desired for maximum efficiency in making the covenant come to pass more rapidly as dreamed by our denomination,” Sullivan writes.
“Circumstances perhaps made it necessary to move more quickly,” he told Baptist Press.
Sullivan said he opted for a personal approach in his writing to “candidly express my own viewpoints and opinions and be personally accountable for them.”
He hopes the book will be read widely by church leaders, persons serving as trustees at every level of the denomination, students and others.
“Where weaknesses still exist in Baptist polity, or where there is lack of knowledge or disregard for principles under which Southern Baptists are supposed to operate, I have tried to point them out with a hope that corrections will be made. If corrections cannot come forth, perhaps at least improvements can be experienced,” he writes in the preface.
At age 88, Sullivan expresses optimism about the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Church members, churches, associations, state conventions and national entities “must work together to bring persons to God through Jesus Christ by way of the doors open to us as Christian witnesses. Unless Christ is magnified, we have nothing to say. Unless the lost are redeemed and the redeemed are instructed, we have little or nothing to do.”
“Baptist Polity As I See It” costs $10.99 and is available through Baptist Book Stores and other Christian stores or by calling 1-800-233-1123.

    About the Author

  • Linda Lawson