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Devilstower recently posted an interesting article about the decline in membership of the Southern Baptist Convention (God of War Losing Popularity). It is, on the whole, a useful article to read, but it is also, on the whole, a complete misunderstanding of what the Southern Baptist Convention is, what it does, and what it represents. It is also a misunderstanding that plays right into their hands -- it is an understanding the reflects the perception they want everyone to have.

As a Southern Baptist, I would like to take this opportunity to clear up some things you really need to know about the Southern Baptist Convention.

Devilstower's article reads as if the Southern Baptist Convention were the ruling body of the Southern Baptist denomination. This is a reasonable assumption to make to anyone who isn't actually a Southern Baptist -- and, sadly, it's also becoming something that people who profess to be Southern Baptists are starting to believe more and more. That's because the SBC is acting as if they are -- they like to pass resolutions and announce those resolutions as if they were proclamations made Ex Cathedra, to borrow a Catholic concept, and they're more than happy to pretend that when they speak they are the official ruling voice of Southern Baptists all over the globe.

The truth, however, is that they have absolutely no control over their member churches. The purpose of the Southern Baptist Convention, primarily, is to oversee the monetary donations made by individual member churches for the purpose of funding missionary work. Any resolutions they pass are inherently non-binding, and they can't prevent member churches from doing anything: the most they can do is refuse to accept donations from a member church.

In other words: if a Southern Baptist church wanted to ordain a woman as a pastor (and there are SB churches who have women as pastors, though they are pretty rare these days) the SBC has no power to stop them.

The Southern Baptist denomination is built around and focused on individual churches: each church is autonomous and operates independently from every other church. A church committee, usually made up of deacons, makes hiring and firing decisions (including the hiring and firing of the pastor). Each church decides how it will donate its money. Many churches donate their money to more than one organization: I've heard of more than one church that donates funds to the Southern Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and even the Alliance of Baptist Churches (the CBF and ABC are much more politically moderate Baptist conventions).

The Southern Baptist denomination does not have a credal statement -- that is to say, there is no catechism or creed you are required to recite and endorse in order to be a member in good standing. The closest we have is the Baptist Faith and Message which has gone under at least three revisions, and even the most recent revision, which has been "reworked" by the SBC in order order to make it more compatible with their current hyperconservative mindset, has the following statement:

(4) That the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.

The 1963 version of the Baptist Faith and Message (the one that was still "in use" when I joined the church, and the one that most closely reflects my understanding of being a Baptist) goes on to state:

A living faith must experience a growing understanding of truth and must be continually interpreted and related to the needs of each new generation. Throughout their history Baptist bodies, both large and small, have issued statements of faith which comprise a consensus of their beliefs. Such statements have never been regarded as complete, infallible statements of faith, nor as official creeds carrying mandatory authority. Thus this generation of Southern Baptists is in historic succession of intent and purpose as it endeavors to state for its time and theological climate those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us.

This was (and still is) the culture that the hyper-Fundamentalists have been battling ever since they took control of the SBC. They have managed to make great gains in terms of how they are perceived, but most of those gains have been undercut by the simple fact that the Southern Baptist denomination is decentralized to such a degree that any church can tell the SBC to pike off and there's nothing the SBC can really do about it.

This is not to say they are not without resources. The SBC has been trying to change the culture of the Southern Baptist Denomination for decades -- but because it cannot directly control churches it has had to go the long way around:

  1. It does directly control SBC-owned seminaries, and it makes the teachers and staff in those seminaries sign off on the most recent version of the Baptist Faith and Message in order to continue teaching there (in effect making it as close to a credal statement as it can be for Baptists).
  1. The SBC owns a fair amount of publishing resources and has been able to use that to spread their message.
  1. The SBC uses its convention to attempt to create "cultural shifts" in its member churches by passing (toothless) resolutions that reflect its theological and political views.
  1. The mainstream press are hopelessly inept when it comes to understanding the Southern Baptist denomination, too lazy to try, and therefore treat the SBC as if it were the ruling body of the denomination.

Of these, #4 has been their most effective tool as far as how it is perceived by the outside world. Why not? Methodists, Presbyterians, Catholics, Jews, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics, Moslems, and every other type of belief or non-belief aren't raised Southern Baptist and have no real understanding of that culture. So when the Press decides to take a shortcut and interpret the SBC's resolution that women should not be ordained as "Southern Baptists Ban The Ordination Of Women" -- despite the fact that Southern Baptist churches can ordain women, if the church body feels a woman is called to ordination, irrespective of what the SBC decided -- then that's the only perspective non-Baptists will have. And that perspective helps the current people sitting in the SBC, and makes life more difficult for the member churches.

And that understanding leads to statements like these:

In the 1980s, ultra-conservatives seized control of the Southern Baptist Convention and forced both individuals and congregations to either knuckle under to their radical revisions to the whole idea of what it meant to be Baptist, or leave.

Devilstower's statement is not wholly wrong -- certainly the people who have left the SBC describe in terms of being forced out. The SBC did everything in its power to make life unpleasant for moderate Southern Baptist Churches, and it has managed to argue its way into getting a lot of SBC-affiliated churches to adopt their basic worldview. But given the standard perception of what the SBC is, it comes awfully close to sounding like the SBC used its authority to kick all those people out, and that's not what happened. What happened is that the moderate members looked at what was going on, shook their heads in disgust, and went somewhere else. (Ironically, that is also a classic Southern Baptist reaction -- it is essentially how the Southern Baptists were formed in the first place... a rather sad and sordid tale in its own right, and an interesting precursor to the American Civil War).

And when Devilstower writes

It became the only major church to endorse the invasion of Iraq, calling it "a just war."

That is also wrong, because the SBC does not set official church policy, and all of its resolutions are non-binding.

But they want you to think it's right. They want you to think that the Southern Baptists, as one, stood up to endorse the war, because they want everyone to believe that the SBC is the controlling body of the entire denomination and speaks for all the member churches. They are trying to actually make that come to pass, but they haven't.

In other words: the SBC is not the protestant version of Rome... it desperately wants to be, but it isn't. But the more they're treated like it, the easier it will be for them to make that come to pass. So please don't!

I write this because it's important that people understand that when you treat them as if they are, you feed them and feed the perception they want everyone to have of them. It helps them, and it hurts those of us who are fighting them.

Edit: ... holy cow! My first rec...

Originally posted to The Baptist Death Ray on Tue Jun 24, 2008 at 09:59 AM PDT.

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