A Few Out-of-the-Box Thoughts on SBC Name Change

Posted by in Baptist Life, Church & Missions

In general, if it can be demonstrated that changing the name of the SBC will help us to be more effective in our overall Great Commission efforts and better stewards of the resources God has entrusted us with, then I am in favor. I think the great majority of Southern Baptists are in agreement on this. And it does indeed appear that in some cases, mostly related with church planting and evangelism within the U.S. but outside of the South, the name Southern Baptist is a negative factor related to potential effectiveness in reaching and discipling the unchurched. At the same time, however, it appears there is a significant amount of legal and administrative red tape to cut through in order to pull something like this off. Also, it appears that the groundswell of nostalgia and fear of the unknown implications among many Southern Baptists may make trying to force this through really divisive, and, as a result, ultimately unproductive for our overall purposes.

Up to here, nothing new. From what I have read, those are basically the same points everyone else commenting on this issue is making. Overall, due to the complications involved, though I am generally sympathetic to the basic idea of name change, I am still undecided as to how I would vote on such a proposal until hearing the results and recommendations the study committee is being called on to put together. I want to remain open-minded.

In the meantime, I’d like to raise a few questions I have not yet seen discussed related to all this.

I think we* need to think a little more about the implications of the basic concept of geographically based identity for a group of cooperating Baptist churches. Of course, the social and cultural context of the New Testament was much different than our social and cultural context today. But, from a NT perspective, there is no specific precedent for grouping churches together on the basis of strictly defined geo-political borders. It seems that local “house churches” considered themselves to jointly comprise the church in whatever city they were located. There is, however, some question as to whether each NT “city church” actually gathered together on a regular basis in the same place, whether the elders of each separate “house church” considered themselves to exercise spiritual authority jointly together with all the other elders within the entire “city church,” and to what degree the links between various “house churches” were loose and informal, or tight and official.**

Early in church history, local churches began to officially group together under the pastoral supervision of a “metropolitan bishop.” Over the next few centuries, the tendency toward administrative centralization was gradually heightened culminating in the de facto blending of the concepts of church catholicity (i.e. the worldwide scope of the Body of Christ) and the administrative and pastoral submission of each local congregation to the authority of the metropolitan bishop of Rome.

At the time of the Protestant Reformation, most of the churches that came out from under their historic submission to Rome came under the protectorate of some local secular political authority (i.e. Luther and Frederick III, Calvin and the civil magistrates/Consistory of Geneva, the Anglican Church and Henry VIII, etc.), eventually morphing into the various Protestant state churches. The joining of ecclesiastical structures with geo-political ones was further defined as a result of the development of European sovereign nation-states as we know them today on the heels of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

As Baptists, of course, we do not subscribe to the state church system either in its Roman Catholic or Protestant iterations. The earliest form of Baptist inter-congregational cooperation was on the level of local associations of churches. The forming of region-wide or nation-wide associations or conventions of churches came about, as I understand it, with one specific aim in mind: strategic cooperation for the furtherance of the Great Commission. Beyond this, there is no specific reason for Baptists joining together in any one organization, whether on a regional, national, or worldwide basis.

Originally, a significant grouping of Baptist churches throughout the United States came together to cooperate in missions under the aegis of the Triennial Convention. As we are all aware, however, social and historical circumstances which happily no longer exist, and for which we have since officially repented, led a significant group of Baptist churches in the South to organize their cooperation on a regional instead of a national basis.

All that is water under the bridge. The reality today is we are a group of churches spread out among all of the United States, though still centered primarily in the South. At the same time, we share a sense of calling and stewardship to be more strategic and effective in putting the resources we jointly represent to good use in Great Commission work not only in the South, but also throughout North America, and the world.

In all of this, I think it is important to remember that we, in and of ourselves, are not, in any sense, the Body of Christ, either in the South, throughout the United States, or around the world. Neither do we officially represent all those who hold to Baptist distinctives within the confines of any of these geo-political boundaries. We are merely a group of like-minded local churches, who have come together to cooperate with each other in Great Commission ministry.

Some have suggested that, while shedding the name “Southern,” it might be a good idea to replace it with something like “Global” or “World,” or “International.” While, indeed, as a group of cooperating churches, I think we need to have our eyes on the entire world, and we need to be more catholic (little c, not big C) in our fellowship with other believers, I think the inherent implications of such a name change may well create more new problems than it might solve. On the part of many Baptists around the world that already have their own Baptist unions and conventions, a new group called, for instance, the Global Baptist Alliance, could easily be perceived as the Globalizing Baptist Alliance. Especially, given our recent history with the Baptist World Alliance, such a move could easily be viewed by many as an attempt on our part to officially internationalize the SBC in-house conservative resurgence, and set up a competing alternative organization.

At the same time, the reality in world missions is that more and more of the sending force, both among Baptists and evangelicals in general, is coming from places outside of the United States. Some of the most effective mission work across the world is being carried out today on an international basis, with international teams of missionaries, and international sending partnerships that allow churches and believers with a comparatively greater pool of personnel resources and lesser pool of financial resources to cooperate with churches and believers with a comparatively greater pool of financial resources in a way that makes the best strategic use of all the resources they collectively represent.

If we are serious in our commitment to the Great Commission, this is a factor we must take into serious consideration. The truth of the matter is that we as Southern Baptists, by whatever name we choose to call ourselves, are not going to win the world for Christ or fulfill the Great Commission all by ourselves. We must seek out new and creative ways of partnering together with the rest of the Body of Christ around the world in order to see the Great Commission fulfilled both in North America and around the world. But this is complicated on several levels. We must be careful to avoid unhealthy dependency and anything that might discourage or undermine indigenous self-governance, self-support, and self-propagation.

Additionally, as a group of cooperating churches, it has made sense up till now for each church to send a group of messengers to come together physically once a year in order to make joint decisions. This one factor, in turn, has made it more practical to limit ourselves to hold annual meetings at places where it is relatively easy for the majority of participating churches to send messengers. It has also led us to do business primarily in one common language—the English language. Unless we come up with some other model for making joint decisions, these are some pretty important practical reasons for keeping the geographic confines of our grouping of churches within North America. But, at the same time, we must continue to remember that we do not represent all the Baptists in North America. We are only one particular group of Baptist churches who have come together to make an impact for in the Lord’s work, both throughout North America, as well as around the world.

For all of the above reasons, if we do end up deciding to change names, I personally would lean toward some name that doesn’t have either “Southern,” “American,” “North American,” “Global,” or “International” (or their cognates) in it. I think something more generic that doesn’t tie us to any particular geo-political boundary would be best. I also think it best to choose some name that doesn’t have a connotation of us looking at ourselves as anything more than one group (among many) of like-minded churches cooperating for the fulfillment of the Great Commission.

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*Though I think it is good that “we” as rank-and-file Southern Baptists think about these issues, right now, I recognize it is more specifically the responsibility of the committee named by SBC president Bryant Wright (in a sense, unofficially representing the rest of us) to think through them and bring some sort of a report and recommendation, before we are all called to vote on any proposal at an official convention meeting, if indeed that ends up taking place.

**If there was more than one house church in Ephesus at the time of the events recorded in Acts 20, it appears that the group of elders called together by Paul did view themselves as exercising a joint eldership over the entire “city church” in Ephesus. Also, on the basis of Acts 9:31, it is possible to assume a regional confraternity of churches (or “one church”) throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria. And, there are regional groups of churches that were joint recipients of the same apostolic correspondence (i.e. Colossae/Laodicea—Col 4:16; the churches of Galatia—Gal 1:2; and the “seven churches” in Asia Minor—Rev 4:4). Also, several of the churches connected to the apostolic ministry of Paul cooperated together on a trans-local basis in sending an offering for the relief of the believers in Jerusalem who were suffering as a result of a localized famine.