Denominations, Religions and Sects
Polity, Funding and Authority in Southern Baptist Life
Answer to a Critic of a Baptist University
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
In this article I will describe the general polity of the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest non-Catholic denomination of Christians in the US, and the largest Baptist Denomination in the world. Baptist are organized differently than other denominations, and it is hard for outsiders to understand the way various Baptist churches and entities relate to one another.
I originally outlined these basic principles of operation within the Southern Baptist Convention when I was given an article that addressed a matter related to Baptists, but the statements indicated an ignorance of how the Southern Baptist Convention relates to various regional conventions and churches within the United States. Offhand references and misleading statements and terms left an inaccurate impression of how the Southern Baptist Convention works and relates to churches in various levels of affiliation.
Overview of the Southern Baptist Convention
A confusing aspect of the way the Southern Baptist Convention works is how it relates to Baptist organizations in each state or region, called also conventions or associations. The state conventions are not state branches of the national organization Southern Baptist convention.
These state conventions are not even members of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Only individual churches can be "members" of the SBC. Actually a church does not "join" the SBC. The operative word in Southern Baptist polity is "cooperate" or "cooperation." An individual church decides to "cooperate" with the SBC.
The way they do this is to vote to contribute funds to causes of the SBC. This is all that is involved in being a "Southern Baptist" church. In the same way, any independent church may also make a separate conscious decision to cooperate with a convention or association in their state or region. Each association of churches sets its own parameters for what is loosely called "membership."
The stated purpose of the SBC is to provide a channel for cooperative efforts in common gospel endeavours. This includes mission work in the US and related territories, and throughout the world, and educational endeavours through six national theological seminaries and their related programs. Some additional commissions with various duties are also operated by the SBC. This act of financial contribution to gospel causes is the format of "affiliation" with the SBC.
Each contributing church may send one or more representatives to an annual meeting with representatives from other cooperating churches. This is why the denomination is called a "convention." These representatives from the churches are referred to as messengers. The SBC has no doctrinal authority or other power over individual churches or state or local conventions or associations of churches.
Observers will be aware that this pattern is beginning to change somewhat, however, in the actual practices of last 25 years under what its advocates call the "Conservative Resurgence." There has been a strong move to narrow down the range of relationships and to take a more directive approach to church-convention relationships.
We do note that, in recent years, there has been a decided move towards more top-down directive behaviour and decision-making by the national executive and SBC agencies. This is a matter for another discussion, not directly relevant to the principles addressed in this article.
The fact remains, however, that no formal structures have been changed in the constitutional definitions defining the convention and how it works. The "convention" remains defined by its annual meeting of messengers (representatives from churches). Any church can send one or more messengers, if it has made some financial contribution to any cause of the SBC.
In 1996, a friend forwarded me a copy of an email article published by David W. Cloud of the Fundamental Baptist Information Service. The article is now posted at http://www.wayoflife.org/fbns/president.htm.
In the article Cloud attacks Dr. Kirby Godsey, president of Mercer University in Georgia, for what Cloud sees as a modernist approach that denies the Bible. In the article Cloud is actually condemning the Southern Baptist Convention, and Mercer and Godsey are just the current focus of complaint.
I only later learned that this is primarily what David Cloud does. He attacks the Southern Baptist Convention. In the name of truth and the Bible, he judges all by a very narrow range of requirements to qualify as orthodox (he uses the term "fundamentalist" with a positive connotation).
Cloud is an avid crusader against what he sees as liberalism and modernism in the Southern Baptist Convention. He was previously a pastor of a church cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention, and informed me that he decided he could no longer stay with the Convention. He has an article on his website about this.
He seems to construe most things as modernism, and worthy of outright condemnation carte blanche. There is a lot I don't like about the SBC, but I have a lot more important things to do than look for things to attack related in some way to the SBC or one of its cooperative partners.
David now serves as a self-appointed watchdog sending up signals of violations of doctrine. And he is good at what he does. He regularly attacks various schools or individuals in various Baptist State Conventions, as proof of the liberalism of the Southern Baptist Convention. He appears to attack anything related to the Southern Baptist Convention with relish.
He does stick to his agenda – he is exposing "liberalism" and "modernism" (though these terms have far outlived their usefulness to describe anything now current in theological thought). But the problem is, everywhere he looks, apparently, all David Cloud sees is liberalism and modernism.
Mercer was at that time owned and operated by the Georgia Baptist Convention, and is unrelated to the Southern Baptist Convention. The Georgia Convention later terminated its cooperative relationship with Mercer University.
I wrote to David Cloud in regard to some misconstrued information, which assumes a direct tie of the Southern Baptist Convention and some measure of control over the school by the Southern Baptist Convention.
I felt his simplistic approach caused misleading inaccuracies, leaving the wrong impression about the SBC. Cloud overlooks (or ignores, from later comments he made in explanation - see end of this article) the clear fact that the SBC has no authority over any other convention's agencies. He lumped all Baptist agencies into one basket, unfairly misrepresenting the complex polity of Baptist churches and conventions or associations which all operate independently, but may be involved in various cooperative relationships at the state or national level, at the pleasure of each local church individually.
Ten Years Later
It is now ten years later. I recently noted that Cloud continues to write on Mercer University, the Georgia Baptist Convention and other state conventions, but refers to them all as Southern Baptist. Thus I thought it might still be pertinent to readdress the question of the polity and spheres of responsibility of the Southern Baptist Convention and its various partner associations and agencies.
Note that in this article I am not commenting on the content or validity of writings or statements of Dr. Godsey or any other person. I am commenting on the misconceptions or erroneous claims by David Cloud about the polity of the Southern Baptist Convention.
In the rest of this article, comments by David Cloud to which I am responding will be in italics. My comments will be in regular text.
I will respond primarily to some points of factual errors or other accuracy on items related to SBC life. I will number my points in sequence.
Mercer University is not a Southern Baptist School
Mercer University is the largest and most prominent SBC educational institution in Georgia. It receives $2.5 million a year from the convention. Salaries of professors at Mercer are paid by Southern Baptist churches which give to the Cooperative Program.
Mercer University is not related to the SBC. It is an agency of the Georgia Baptist Convention. Thus the SBC has no authority over Mercer. Mercer receives no funds from the SBC. Additionally, the SBC has no control over Cooperative Program funds of the Georgia Baptist Convention.
The funds he refers to come from Georgia Baptist churches, most of whom also cooperate with the SBC, but from Georgia money, not from SBC money. In strict Baptist tradition, no convention can exercise authority over another convention or any cooperating church.
"The Cooperative Program" refers to funds collected by state conventions, where they decide how much to send on as a contribution to the SBC. So funds supporting Mercer come directly from Georgia churches and are dispersed to the university by the state convention. The SBC contributes no money to Mercer, and in fact, is prohibited from doing so by its cooperative agreement with the GBC.
1. The SBC is not composed of state conventions, but is a national body only, and works through negotiated cooperative agreements with regional (usually state) conventions and associations. There is no integral relationship between the SBC and state conventions.
Churches may relate independently and separately to various levels of associations or conventions. There is no administrative tie between local associations (usually city or county), state associations or conventions (just a difference in naming) and the Southern Baptist Convention.
2. Churches represent directly to each one of these levels, and may represent at one without relating to the other. There is no unitary denominational obligation upon any church.
3. The SBC agrees in its cooperative agreement with state conventions that it will not operate colleges or universities, only seminaries.
4. State conventions are under no limitation as to what level of schools they may undertake.
5. Neither body (state, local or national) may interfere or exercise any authority in the autonomous sphere of the other. Thus the SBC has no authority over any officer or agency of any state convention. That is the responsibility of that state convention.
Likewise no state convention has any authority over any local association within its boundaries, and it may work only in voluntary cooperative relationships with those associations who wish to. The SBC usually has no contact at the local association level, except for fraternal relations through pastors or others.
6. Mercer University is owned by the Georgia Baptist Convention. Thus the SBC has no authority or responsibility for the school. It is affected, however, because of its cooperative agreement with the Georgia Baptist Convention.
Many men in the SBC are upset about the heresies contained in Godsey's book, but the steps which have been taken to deal with it are only half measures. The book was pulled from the shelves of most bookstores operated by the Southern Baptist Sunday School Board, but the store owners were told they are free to order the book.
7. Since the SBC has no authority over or responsibility over Mercer University or the Georgia Baptist Convention, the only recourse the SBC has, therefore, is to pull the books from stores or schools owned by the SBC, and to make formal protests to its partner convention, the Georgia Baptist Convention. They are of course free to use all the moral persuasions and arguments to persuade Mercer and GBC to take the necessary steps. The point of discipline, however, is the GBC.
Mention of the book stores brings up another question here. In a society, and a Christian tradition such as the Baptist one, which values an informed membership, is the purpose of a book store
(1) to make materials available for individual critical study and evaluation, or to
(2) determine what books people should be able to choose?
It appears here that the principle on which the decision was made was two-fold.
(1) LifeWay Christian Stores (a commercial agency of the Southern Baptist Convention, unsupported by SBC funds) would not endorse and recommend the book (consistent with the "official" view of the leadership – the SBC never voted on this); and
(2) the elected leadership of the SBC would not infringe on the individual freedom and spiritual responsibility of pastors or members to seek the book out, consistent with the services advertised by Lifeway Ministries bookstores.
These two reference points seem consistent with both the Baptist tradition and the broad feeling toward this book at the time.
Autonomy of Churches and Individual Conventions
There have been attempts since 1987 to have Godsey step down, but the fact remains that this man has been the head of one of the SBC's most influential schools since 1979, and he is still the head of the school. [My emphasis]
8. Mercer is not one of the SBC's schools. This is important in Southern Baptist polity, and clearly understood. Mercer, and all regional schools are owned and operated by state conventions or local associations, and have no relationship to the SBC other than fraternal relations to the level of interaction they choose.Autonomy of local churches and the corollary autonomy of the various fellowships of churches from one another are guarded and honoured in our Baptist tradition. (I admit that this tradition is weakening under the current leadership of the SBC, who have a tendency to make decisions from the top and try to impose them upon churches, but the formal patterns of relationship and cooperation have not changed yet.)
No SBC Cooperative Program Funds go to Mercer
Hundreds of thousands of dollars of SBC Cooperative Fund money have gone into the pocket of this one heretic alone.
9. No SBC money goes to Mercer or any other college/university. The full support of the school comes from Georgia money (plus any private gifts). It may look the same to you, but there is a clear distinction within the SBC and its partner conventions. The SBC is not composed of state conventions, but is a cooperative agency for churches who represent directly in its annual meetings.
The SBC is Funded by State Conventions
The SBC has cooperative agreements with state conventions for ministries of common interest and for cooperative funding agreements, by which the state conventions agree to forward a portion of general offerings to the SBC. The SBC is prohibited from direct solicitations for funds.
General mission offerings are also managed by these cooperative agreements. Thus Georgia money is managed in Georgia and then a portion is sent to the SBC for it to use for its agreed ministry areas. The SBC has no "Cooperative Program funds" until a state convention send them some. These funds have nothing to do with whatever uses state conventions might make of offerings from their churches.
Autonomy – A Baptist Non-Negotiable
I can understand how an important concern like this might make it seem desirable for some national group to have administrative control over some errant local church or agency. But this violates a very basic principle in Baptist polity: autonomy of the local church and its corollaries.
An associated working corollary of this autonomy is expressed in the constitutional principle among Southern Baptists that each convention or association is "autonomous in its own sphere."
Healthy Exchange of Views
Of course, as Baptists, we are free, and encouraged, to make our views known and to persuade others of our points of view, and this informal fraternal pressure is an important part of New Testament discipline. This autonomy and this discipline are both important and vital New Testament principles.
It will be helpful if these points of polity are kept in mind and references try to reflect these considerations as clearly as possible.
Orville Boyd Jenkins
Above points originally written from Nairobi, Kenya, in 1996
Updated and slightly expanded for this article.
Cloud wrote me back commenting that he was aware of the differences in levels of ownerships and responsibility between the SBC and various state conventions. But he thought that since they all participate in the Cooperative Program it was simpler to use a common shorthand reference to everything as "Southern Baptist."
I believe the principle of accuracy requires a more careful scholarship. It is unfair to the uninformed to hide important information behind inaccurate terms or phrasing.
American Financial Coercion
In his response to my initial explanation, Cloud averred that the Cooperative Program funding system provided a way for the SBC to exert pressure on the Georgia Convention or the individual school to toe the line.
He said this could be done by the SBC refusing to accept Cooperative Program funds from the Georgia Convention until they straightened out Mercer University. This financial approach to control and coercion is a common approach by protestors, and a common principle used by Americans in general.
Misunderstanding of the Cooperative Program
But let's take a look at just what the Cooperative Program is. How does it work? The Cooperative Program is a common funding program, based on a contractual agreement between the SBC and cooperating state conventions or associations that undesignated offerings sent by churches through the state convention will be shared with the SBC, in order to prevent competition and fund-raising at the state level.
I have stated above that the SBC gets its money from undesignated funds sent to it from the various state conventions. Additionally any individual or church may contribute to the SBC by sending funds directly to the SBC Executive Committee or to a particular agency, such as the International Mission Board, or a certain seminary.
These are not Cooperative Program funds, which by definition must be undesignated offerings sent to a state convention by a church. There are no Southern Baptist Cooperative Program Funds until a state convention sends the SBC some of the undesignated funds that come in from churches affiliated with that state convention. Each Baptist convention decides what percentage of funds it received will be sent on to the SBC for division by the SBC to its various agencies.
Who Gets Hurt?
Cloud overlooks the fact that the sad result of this approach, however, will not affect Mercer University, but only innocent ministries unrelated to the Georgia Convention. The only ones who will ultimately suffer are the missionaries in about 200 countries worldwide, about 5000 missionaries working within territories of the United States and Canada, and pastoral students in the 6 seminaries operated by the Southern Baptist Convention.
It won't hurt Georgia or Mercer University at all! It would, in fact, provide a good excuse for them to just keep that mission and education money within Georgia, since the SBC rejected it. Then a large portion of the support of about 10,000 missionaries would be lost to the Southern Baptist Convention, which has no organic ties, legal relationship or authority over Mercer University.
This seems pretty silly in the long run, asking the SBC to cut off the nose of its missionaries to spite the face of alleged liberals in a convention that happens to have a funding relationship with the SBC. Does this make sense? It sounds short-sighted and vindictive, at best.
I don't find anything like this in the teachings of Jesus. Are we not supposed to follow him in our Kingdom Life?
Additionally, I was disappointed to find that even though he acknowledged that his references to Southern Baptist Convention used short cuts that did not fill out the full picture of the relationships and responsibilities involved, I notice that he has not changed the misleading way he refers to various matters he sees as problems in Baptist life.
He still follows his lump-sum approach making references to problems in the Southern Baptist Convention in various states schools. But these state schools, as explained above, are not Southern Baptist Schools, nor or they affiliated with the SBC, other than through indirect cooperative relationships related to their respective state conventions.
In fairness, the logic behind this seems to be that if you affiliate with anyone for any particular reason, you also become responsible for all the other things he does that you might not agree with. I really can't see the validity of this.
If I refused to associate with everyone I had some disagreement with, I would have no one to fellowship with. Because I have opinions on just about everything. My beliefs often fail to match on some score while finding resonance on some other point. And I see too much positive need I can meet.
But is intellectual agreement the basis of Christian fellowship? While all believers may help one another by questioning another's actions and statements, don't I have the greatest responsibility to apply the judgement of insights God gives me to myself first? That does not leave me much time to judge other people's motives and insights from their words.
Related on this Site
Polity, Funding and Authority in Southern Baptist Life: An Answer to a Critic of a Baptist University
For Further Reading
For your information, here are other commentaries by David Cloud on Mercer University and his charges of modernism and liberalness against Dr. Godsey.
More General Comments about Liberalism in the SBC
November 1996, revisions 2002
Mercer University's Website
Topic first addressed in personal email in 1996
Finalized as an article 1 September 2006
Last edited 19 September 2006
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2006 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Other rights reserved.