Originally posted Monday, Feb. 20. Updated 1:10 p.m. Eastern Thursday, Feb. 22 with updated estimate of members present for vote.
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) — The task force appointed to study a possible name change of the Southern Baptist Convention is recommending the convention maintain its legal name but adopt an informal, non-legal name for those who want to use it: “Great Commission Baptists.”
The report Monday (Feb. 20) ended weeks of speculation by Southern Baptists and fellow evangelicals as to what the task force would do. The convention was formed in 1845, and a name change was first proposed in 1903, although one was not adopted then, or since.
The task force was appointed by Southern Baptist Convention President Bryant Wright.
“This is an issue that just won’t die,” task force chairman Jimmy Draper said in presenting the task force’s recommendation to the Executive Committee, which approved the recommendation Tuesday, sending it to SBC messengers for a vote at the June annual meeting in New Orleans. With about 70 Executive Committee members present, only about six members voted in opposition.
The name “Southern,” Draper said, is a barrier to the Gospel in some regions of the country.
The recommendation would mean that the legal name of the convention would remain “Southern Baptist Convention” and could be used by any church which wishes to use it. But other SBC churches could call themselves “Great Commission Baptists” if they wish. Draper said the new term would be a “descriptor.”
“We believe that the equity that we have in the name Southern Baptist Convention is valuable,” Draper said during the task force’s recommendation. “It is a strong name that identifies who we are in theology, morality and ethics, compassion, ministry and mission in the world. It is a name that is recognized globally in these areas.”
Draper continued: “We also recognize the need that some may have to use a name that is not associated with a national region as indicated by the word ‘Southern.’ We want to do everything we can to encourage those who do feel a name change would be beneficial without recommending a legal name change for the convention. We believe we have found a way to do that.”
The goal from the beginning, Draper said, “was to consider the removal of any barrier to the effective proclamation of the Gospel and reaching people for Christ.”
Website URLs already have been secured, the task force said, in case the convention approves the informal name.
Changing the legal name, Draper said, would have been fraught with problems.
“We believe that the potential benefits of a legal name change do not outweigh the potential risks that would be involved in a legal name change,” Draper said. “Changing the name of the convention would require a great cost in dollars and in energy, and would present huge challenges legally that create a multitude of issues. The value of a name change does not justify the risks involved.
“At the same time, we are concerned about the negative perception that the word ‘Southern’ may carry in certain geographic areas of North America. But even there, the opinions are mixed on this issue. From leaders in non-Southern states, one-half of those we heard from reported that it would be a benefit to them to change the name, but the other half said it would not be a benefit. It is true that the leaders of African American and other ethnic Southern Baptist churches indicated that it would be helpful to them.”
Keeping the legal name while using an informal, non-legal name would be a “win-win” situation, Draper said.
Two task force members spoke to the Executive Committee regarding the report: Ken Fentress, pastor of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Md., and Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
“Why am I Southern Baptist?” Fentress asked. “This is a question that I’ve been confronted with several times over the years, and it’s probably true that most African Americans are Southern Baptist despite objections of many in the larger black Christian community.”
The convention’s ties to slavery upon its founding in 1845 are a barrier to some in the African American community, Fentress said, saying the name “Southern Baptist” is “full of meaning, significance and history.
“For many African Americans, our reasons for being Southern Baptist are theological — not cultural, not political, not geographical,” Fentress said. “… I am a Southern Baptist specifically because of the theology for which the Conservative Resurgence stood.”
The 2009 SBC Annual Church Profile report showed that 6.5 percent of SBC congregations were predominantly African American while an additional 12.5 percent reflected other ethnic identities.
The SBC name, he said, has been “a source of difficulty for church planters … serving in areas outside the American South.” It also “has been a source of difficulty among African Americans precisely because of its identity and the history of the Confederacy.”
During Tuesday’s discussion about the report in the Executive Committee, Darrell Orman — an Executive Committee member who was staunchly opposed to a name change last fall — said he supported the recommended. He called it a “brilliant Solomonic compromise.” Orman is pastor of First Baptist Church in Stuart, Fla.
“We have an opportunity,” Orman said, “to keep our name and fortify ‘Southern Baptist Convention,’ and we have an opportunity to extend an empathetic hand to some of our other brothers and sisters in Christ and say, ‘I love you and I’m sensitive to your situation. It’s not just about me in South Florida or Georgia or Alabama or Mississippi. It’s all about you, too.'”
Borrowing an illustration from Draper, Orman likened the “Great Commission Baptists” descriptor to the “good hands” phrase used in Allstate advertisements. People know what “good hands” references, Orman said, but it’s not the name of the insurance company.
Paige Patterson, a task force member and president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told Executive Committee members Monday he has favored a name change of the convention for a while, saying the convention is no longer regional and that “Southern” is offensive to some.
The report, he said, is one that “satisfies my conscience on all levels to a degree I never thought possible. I support it enthusiastically.”
Patterson also urged Southern Baptists to discuss the issue with charity in coming months.
“If at the end of the process, you do not agree, that is fine,” Patterson said. “But may we agree that we will debate and decide the issue without recourse to a discussion of motives and intentions of the heart which only God can see and know.”
At a news conference, Draper said that in recent history, messengers have not been given a report explaining the rationale behind the argument for a new name.
“I don’t think Southern Baptists, at large, ever really saw the bigger picture, and when we came to the conventions, the vote was usually an emotional vote,” Draper said.
The task force, Draper said, is praying that when messengers come to the convention in June “the people [will] at least have a background on which to make a decision.”
“We’re not stipulating that anybody do anything,” Draper said of a church’s usage of a name. “Already, Southern Baptists can do anything they want to do. But it really would very helpful … to so many that have become disenchanted [that] if they use a name other than Southern Baptist, Southern Baptists said, ‘That’s OK.'”
The task force believes “Great Commission Baptists” can be trademarked, Draper said.
The usage of the term, Wright emphasized, is purely voluntary.
“Every entity, every state convention, every local church is just going to have to decide how they can best use the phrase ‘Great Commission Baptists’ as a way of communicating to the world who we are and what our mission is.”
Added Draper: “It can become a rallying call.”
Frank Page, president of the Executive Committee, was asked by one Executive Committee member if adoption of the recommendation would necessitate a change in the SBC logo. Page said the logo “would not have to change,” but that “we would do everything that we could” — if messengers approve the recommendation — “to put that descriptor as part of our publications, as part of our publicity.”
Michael Foust is associate editor of Baptist Press.