The Southern Baptist Convention-Name that Denomination

By now you’ve probably read that SBC president Bryant Wright has appointed a task force to study the possibility of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. Wright’s announcement has elicited a number of responses, ranging from elation to despair. Besides differing opinions about the possible name change itself, there is an ongoing debate about whether or not Wright’s task force violates Southern Baptist polity, the stated will of engaged Southern Baptists, or both. I suspect much more will be written on these issues in the coming days.

I confess I’m somewhat ambivalent about the name change debate. On the one hand, I have no personal qualms with the Southern Baptist name and seriously doubt that people are going to hell in Vermont or Oregon simply because they object, in principle, to new church plants that affiliate with a denomination that has the word Southern in its name. Furthermore, while the name Southern Baptist Convention is clearly regional in its origin, over time our name has come to mean far more than a group of Baptist churches down in Dixie. I also have some concerns about the timing-like it or not, a lot of Southern Baptists are still upset with either the agenda or the execution (or both) of the Great Commission Resurgence.

On the other hand, I can’t say I object in principle to changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention-no denominational name should be sacrosanct. Furthermore, we’ve been a national denomination since the mid-twentieth century and have what I believe is a godly desire to further expand our witness to those places in America that are most underserved in terms of the gospel-most of which are outside of the South and Southwest. I understand why many Southern Baptists think our regional name doesn’t accurately represent our national reality (or at least our national aspirations). Will the name Southern Baptist look silly in a generation if, say, 40% of our churches are located outside of the South and Southwest? Perhaps.

All that to say, I’m not enthusiastic about changing the name, but I’m certainly not opposed to it. I have nothing but respect for Southern Baptists with stronger opinions than mine one way or the other-I think there are good arguments on both sides. I suspect we’ll change the name at some point, even if not now. For what it’s worth, if we do change the name in the next couple of years-and I have serious doubts we will-I’d recommend something like the Baptist Convention of North America.

Having laid my own irresolute cards on the table, what I want to offer some thoughts on the manner in which we will have this family discussion in the coming months. I’m urging my fellow Southern Baptists (even those who don’t want to be called that anymore) to be as civil and Christ-like as possible. I seriously doubt that the overwhelming majority of those who want to change the name are closet Presbyterians who are embarrassed of our Convention’s southern roots. I also seriously doubt that the overwhelming majority of those who want to keep the name are redneck racists who don’t care about reaching all of America with the good news.

That said, I think it’s both inevitable and unfortunate that we’ll hear from some obnoxious voices on both sides of the debate. I’ve already vented via Twitter about anti-southern hipsters who love all things urban and are embarrassed by all things rural and southern and southwestern. Let me say now on this blog I’m also troubled by those who imply that the South and/or Southwest are somehow superior than other parts of the country because we have more Baptists, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, and Republicans. I hope few voices will argue for or against the name change who represent even a close approximation to these two (admittedly exaggerated) extremes. But I suspect some will.

I want to plead with you, whatever your opinion might be on a name change, to call down the strident and unhelpful voices that share your perspective. Don’t let the mean or arrogant or irascible or elitist or ignorant tones dominate this conversation. For the sake of our collective witness, let’s mortify the name-calling, motives-judging, power-grabbing tendencies that appear almost every time we engage in some sort of public debate. Let’s agree to act like Christian grownups and love one another on the other side of this debate, whatever our name may be. And let’s agree to continue to cooperate together for the sake of the gospel, even if we don’t get our way when it comes to our denomination’s name.

(This post is cross-published at my personal website, Christian Thought & Tradition)