Historically, boards of trustees govern Southern Baptist entitities and congregations are the highest authority in the church. Autonomous Southern Baptist churches choose to cooperate on missions and evangelism around the world, and elect trustees who govern our Convention's agencies. If a Southern Baptist agency becomes askew and needs correction, then individual trustees must do what they can to correct the problem. Then, if the problem is not corrected, the Southern Baptist Convention must replace trustees with those who will reflect the mind and heart of the highest authority in the Southern Baptist Convention - the local churches that compose our Convention. If and when there comes a time or occasion that the Southern Baptist Convention as a whole violates an inviolable (sacred) Baptist principle, then the only alternative for the Baptist who disagrees is to leave the Southern Baptist Convention. For this reason, our Convention, that is our local, autonomous churches who form the Southern Baptist Convention, should be very cautious about adopting any motion that takes "authority" away from autonomous churches and places it in the hands of a a few.
Concerns over "Liberalism" Brings the Loss of Autonomy
Concerns over "liberal" moves among Southern Baptist agencies have led our Convention to adopt a centralized form of control that seems to be destroying the fabric of Southern Baptist polity as we once knew it. Demands that Southern Baptist churches, pastors, trustees "conform" to doctrinal decrees issued from the top down has more in common to Roman Catholic papal bulls than the historic practice of autonomous Baptist churches issuing individual church confessions and cooperating in missions with other autonomuos Baptist churches around a basic confession of faith that left off tertiary doctrines. That's not to say tertiary doctrines are not important to local churches. Rather, to preserve the polity of individual autonomous churches and the spirit of cooperation in mission tasks, Southern Baptists have historically resisted the move toward a centralized hierachial authority on matters of doctrine. This centralized demand for "doctrinal conformity" began with the President of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998 appointing a Baptist Faith and Message that reflected a "conservative" viewpoint on doctrinal matters historically absent from Baptist Confessions. At the time I was bothered by this demand for doctrinal conformity, but said little because of my personal agreement with the doctrine. What bothered me was the forced separation from those who disagreed by using the document as a club of accountability against autonomous churches. That seemed to me, again, to be more Roman Catholic in polity than Baptist.
But in recent months, I have seen how the "centralized authority" of Southern Baptists has become far more dangerous. Recent doctrinal "bulls" on issues such as closed communion, the cessation of spiritual gifts, the authority of the baptizer, the prohibition of women teaching men, and other such "doctrines" which go even beyond the 2000 BFM are being forced on cooperating Southern Baptist churches by Southern Baptist trustee boards at the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, and some of our Southern Baptist seminaries. The rationale of these trustees is that they are the "authority" on such matters, and the decisions of individual, autonomous Southern Baptist churches have no merit.
Southern Baptists in the pew don't seem to really care about historic Baptist polity when it comes to doctrinal matters. But, one of these days, a hurricane in Gulf may wake us all up.
In 2005 the Southern Baptist Convention approved a recommendation called "sole membership." Sole membership grants legal ownership of every Southern Baptist agency to the Southern Baptist Convention. As explained by the Convention's attorneys at the time, sole membership, gives to the Southern Baptist Convention "the right to approve charter amendment, and to approve the dissolution, merger, or sale of the institution. This sounds really good - if the Convention as a whole makes those decisions. But in reality, the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist acts "as the Convention between Conventions," and decisions can be made by the Executive Committee without full Convention approval. This works fine and dandy when the Executive Committee takes actions respectful of, and consistent with, Baptist principles and Convention wishes, and when the Executive Committee is composed of men and women who understand the importance of local church and agency autonomy (as it does now). But we have seen at the International Mission Board what happens when an individual board of trustees acts without Convention approval and inverts historic Baptist polity by declaring they have "authority" over local Southern Baptist churches.
God forbid that the spirit of the SBC Executive Committee ever becomes like the spirit of some of the leaders on the 2005 International Mission Board regarding "authority" in the SBC. Church autonomy meant nothing to them. Local church authority was insignificant. "We" have the truth, and you better follow "us" or you are not a real Southern Baptist and cannot cooperate in Southern Baptist missions. In a similar manner, there were a few SBC agency heads and trustees who complained during the "sole membership" debate that the Executive Committee was taking over "their" authority as independent, autonomous Southern Baptist boards and agencies. In my opinion, they were right. BUT, the EC may have learned it from agency boards who have been doing the same thing to local churches.
Prior to 2005, for any Southern Baptist entitity to be dissolved, merged, or sold, it required agency trustee approval. The only "control" the Southern Baptist Convention had over individual agencies prior to the 2005 "sole membership" vote was the appointment of agency trustees. This, however, did not seem enough to some conservative Southern Baptist leaders. Afraid of the actions of rogue Baptist trustee boards, the Southern Baptist Convention pressed for "sole membership." The cause for concern included Baptist agencies in Texas, including Baylor trustees who voted to cut ties with the Convention. Likewise, in Missouri, five Baptist agencies separated from the Missouri Baptist Convention.
Concerns over "liberal" moves among Southern Baptist agencies have led our Convention to adopt a centralized form of control that may one day, in practice, destroy the fabric of Southern Baptist polity as we once knew it. Dr. Chuck Kelley, pictured here signing the documents handing over the assets of NOBTS to the SBC Executive Committee (Update: please see Augie Boto's comments after this post where he states my conclusions in this paragraph and the next three are erroneous), vigorously opposed "sole membership" because he knew the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention could one day close New Orleans Seminary, sell the assets, and the trustees of New Orleans Theological Seminary would have no say in the matter. Dr. Kelley said during the debate over "sole membership."
Sole membership is a step toward the centralization of control authority," Kelley said. "It is not the size of the step but the direction of the step which causes our concern."
He pointed to a story the seminary submitted to Baptist Press, in which Kelley said BP "refused to print a brief statement from the trustees ... explaining to Southern Baptists why they did not want to do sole membership."
"Whatever you think about this issue, denying a messenger-elected board of conservative trustees the opportunity to communicate with Southern Baptist Convention
I sympathize with Dr. Kelley. If hurricane Gustav had destroyed New Orleans, or if hurricane Hannah turns west and brings flooding to New Orleans, or if another future hurricane brings devastation to the city which hosts New Orleans Theological Seminary, the Executive Committee in Nashville, Tennessee, NOT the board of directors of NOTBS, could vote to sell, merge or otherwise close the New Orleans Theological Seminary - without the seminary's trustees approval, OR Southern Baptist Convention approval. Attorneys for the Executive Committee would argue that the Executive Committee IS the Convention between Conventions, and legally, they would be right. But it is really dangerous when just a few men control entire Conventions or autonomous churches by their personal whims or feelings. One day the Executive Committee just up and get tired of rebuilding New Orleans Seminary (as some IMB trustees seemed to tire of missionaries who prayed in tongues), and they very well might shut it down. The New Orleans President and NOBTS trustees may wake up one day and wondered what happened to their seminary. Where did "their authority" in answering the question of whether or not New Orleans Seminary should remain open go? They might just feel a little like what an autonomous Southern Baptist church feels when a Southern Baptist agency forbids to appoint a missionary candidate whose baptism by immersion, which the church accepted, has been rejected. The missionary candidate's baptism, which meets the qualifications of the concensus doctrinal statement of the Convention (the 2000 BFM) - but doesn't meet the personal doctrinal whims of IMB trustees. The Board of Trustees of the IMB just might justify their actions by saying, "We are a higher authority than the local church and we don't have to accept the missionary's baptism if we don't want to accept it."
When those kinds of twisted, distorted views of authority are allowed to stand, then we are all in trouble as a Convention.
As much as I dislike saying it, it might take a hurricane for Southern Baptists to finally realize that the historic principle of Baptist autonomy is in danger. If demands for doctrinal conformity on matters non-essential to the gospel don't wake up the Southern Baptist congregations, maybe a decision to close a Southern Baptist seminary, bypassing the authority of the seminary's own board of trustees will wake us up.
Then, again, maybe not. If people don't care about the authority of a local church, the HIGHEST authority in our Convention, why should they ever care about an agency who has lesser historic Baptist authority? Or, even worse, it could be that Southern Baptists have no concept of local church authority and autonomy and how authority flows up, not down.
I sometimes wonder if modern Southern Baptists even care about historic Baptist principles such as local church authority and congregational autonomy. I won't, however, stop trying to make my fellow Southern Baptists care.
In His Grace,