Baptist Identification and Article IX

As many BtT readers know, no section of the GCR Declaration has caused more angst than Article IX: A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure. While Morris Chapman has recently come out against the current movement because of Article IX (though one could argue he voted for it before he voted against it) and other SBC leaders have signed the Declaration with caveats (not necessarily related to Article IX), by far the most vocal critics of the GCR document have been “high-ranking” employees of state conventions. While a handful of state convention leaders have signed on, a number of state convention executive directors have complained about the movement in Baptist Press, email circulars, and Baptist state paper articles and interviews. I’ve also talked to a number of state convention employees, in several different states, who either (1) strongly agree with their leadership and oppose the GCR or (2) support the GCR but are unwilling to do so publicly because they do not wish to openly disagree with their bosses.

While any observer of Baptist life knows there is a bit of tension between some of the state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention (for a variety of reasons), you may be interested to know that this is nothing new. Ever since Southern Baptists adopted the Cooperative Program and then tasked the state conventions with determining the amount of CP funds they pass on to the SBC, there have been discussions–sometimes heated–about percentages, priorities, and programs. Note the following quote from the mid-2oth century:

[O]ther Baptist bodies in Southern Baptist life have been jousting with the agencies of the Convention during the entire existence of the general body. State conventions, for example, have been very active in asserting their prerogatives in relation to the larger body. It is certainly true that the state bodies are no less centralized than the Southern Baptist Convention. In many respects they have seized the initiative in outlining the program to be carried on. The division of Cooperative Program funds rests also upon their initiative. These state bodies have a geographical and traditional proximinity to the people, and although Baptist principles clearly assert that all bodies, whether association, state, or southwide, stand at an equal distance from the local congregations, there continues to exist a basic state loyalty that stamps that body as a primary area for cooperation. This, of course, is no new problem.

Robert A. Baker, “Reflections on the Southern Baptist Convention,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 6, no. 2 (April 1964): 21.

Some things never change. Putting aside my obvious sympathies for the GCR for a moment, I want to make an observation as a historian and a somewhat informed observer of current SBC life: one’s personal understanding of “Baptist identification” (not to be confused here with “Baptist identity”, which is related more to beliefs) could significantly influence how one thinks about the GCR.

I have argued in the past that there are several different “layers” of Baptist polity and different Baptists identify with different layers. Some of us are merely “First Baptist” Baptists–our only connection with any element of Baptist life is our local church membership. This is likely where the overwhelming majority of our churches’ (active) members are. This is the way things ought to be because the local church is the only layer of our polity ordained by our Lord and essential to the Christian life. This is most assuredly enough. But many folks also identify with any number of other layers as well.

Some of us are both “First Baptist” Baptists and “Local Association” Baptists. In addition to our connection with our local church, we are at least somewhat involved with the work of our local association through annual meetings or (more likely) outreach events, mercy ministries, or camps. I would argue that from the 18th century until the mid-20th century most Baptists who cared about any layer of polity besides their local churches cared about their associations. It’s only as the associations have become simply the “bottom rung” of the denomination–a result of programs such as the $75 Million Campaign, the CP, and A Million More in ’54–that many associations have lost some of this loyalty. (In some places associations never lost this.)

Some of us are also “State Convention” Baptists because we attend annual meetings or (more likely) send our kids to state colleges, attend Sunday School and/or evangelism training, participate in disaster relief, or live in Baptist retirement homes (to name a few examples). As Robert Baker noted in the aforementioned article, there is also a long tradition of Baptists identifying more with their state conventions than the SBC proper. Part of this is because the state convention is “closer” that the SBC (at least for most folks). Keep in mind also that our oldest state conventions are also found in states that were part of the old Confederacy and have historically instilled a sense of state loyalty among their respective citizenries. Many folks in this category consider themselves to be North Carolina Baptists, which by virtue of the CP also makes them Southern Baptists.

Finally, some of us are also “Southern Baptist” Baptists because we attend the annual meetings or (more likely) appreciate the boards and seminaries of the SBC. Many Baptists in this category are members of churches that get fired-up about our mission boards and/or have pastors and other staff who regularly brag on their seminary of choice. Many folks in this category consider themselves to be Southern Baptists who happen to live in North Carolina, which in most cases also makes them North Carolina Baptists via geography.

I’m really just thinking out loud here, but I am convinced that at least some people react to the GCR the way they do because of the layer(s) of Baptist polity with which they choose to identify. This is obvious with paid employees (like seminary presidents and state executive directors), but I think it is also at least potentially true of “normal” Southern Baptists who are engaged in the life of the wider denomination. Many of the pro-GCR people I meet most definitely think of themselves as Southern Baptists first and state convention or association Baptists second (if at all). Many of the anti-GCR people I meet think of themselves as state convention or association Baptists first and Southern Baptist second (if at all). And most people I meet just consider themselves to be members of their local Baptist church and are blissfully unaware that there is even a debate.

I don’t want to paint too broadly–I know there are plenty of exceptions to what I’ve written. There are plenty of other factors, including loyalty to specific entities, Convention politics, following the opinions of favorite leaders, theological convictions, and vocational self-preservation. But I think Baptist identification influences how at least some Baptists think about the GCR, especially Article IX.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of Louisville. I am thankful that many of our churches are already in the midst of local versions of a Great Commission Resurgence. This is enough because the local churches are the only layer that ultimately matters. But I do hope that God will allow our shared denominational ministries, in every layer of our polity, to be a part of what He is already doing in so many of our churches.

Lord willing, I will see many of you in Louisville.