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How the Southern Baptist Convention Works

The Southern Baptist Convention has been in the news this week as Dr. Russell Moore resigned as the President of the SBC’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. Moore has been a voice on the frontlines of racial reconciliation and pro-life issues over the past decade. He was also outspoken in his criticism of Donald Trump’s character and behavior during his 2016 bid for the Presidency. Moore faced harsh criticism during his years of service at the ERLC, and his resignation highlights the growing tension over the direction of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

Those of you who read the news will see a lot about the Southern Baptist Convention in the coming days as messengers from churches around the country prepare to meet in Nashville for the Convention’s Annual Meeting. The workings of the SBC, with its 47,000 churches and 14 million members, are different than almost every other major denomination. This post will briefly explain how the SBC works and hopefully help you decipher some of the stories you will hear over the next few weeks.

In Southern Baptist life, churches are autonomous. Where many denominations have a top-down structure, the SBC has a bottom-up structure. Each church owns its own property, calls its own leaders, and makes its own decisions. The denomination has a statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, but churches are not required to adopt it. The SBC can declare that a church is no longer in “friendly cooperation” with the Convention for a variety of reasons and the Convention can choose not to seat a church’s messengers at the Annual Meeting, but the Southern Baptist Convention has no power to tell any of its churches that they are required to do anything.

Technically speaking, the Southern Baptist Convention only exists for two days every year. The SBC carries out its work through agencies, often called “entities,” and boards. These entities include six Seminaries – Southern, New Orleans, Midwestern, Southwestern, Southeastern, and Gateway – and the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board, the ERLC, Guidestone Financial Resources and the SBC Executive Committee. The SBC’s churches support these ministries through a common fund called the Cooperative Program.

At each Annual Meeting, the messengers elect the President of the Southern Baptist Convention. The President does not oversee the day-to-day operations of the Convention – that task falls to the President of the Executive Committee – but he instead chairs the Annual Meeting and makes appointments to Convention committees. Most SBC Presidents serve two consecutive one-year terms and are rarely opposed in their second year. When the Convention is at odds over controversial issues, the Presidential election takes on added significance since the President has influence over the direction of the Convention’s entities.

However, any changes sought by an SBC President take years to implement, usually after he has served his second term. The President elected this year will choose the Committee on Committees for the 2022 Annual Meeting. The Committee on Committees selects the Committee on Nominations, pending approval by the messengers to the Annual Meeting in June 2022. Then, the Committee on Nominations brings a slate of candidates to serve as trustees for the Convention’s seminaries and entities. Those trustees usually serve terms of 4 or 5 years, so it takes that long to completely change the leadership of a Seminary or entity. Therefore, the amount of change that one Southern Baptist Convention President can bring about is limited. A change in the direction of the Convention usually takes the election of multiple Presidents in a row who share the same vision.

Another cause of controversy at the Annual Meeting is the adoption of resolutions. These statements are not binding on the churches or entities of the SBC. Instead, they are merely meant to express the opinion or concern of the messengers at the Annual Meeting. The subjects of the resolutions can vary from moral issues in American culture to points of controversy within the Convention. Any member of a Southern Baptist church can submit a resolution for consideration, but the messengers only vote on the resolutions ultimately brought out by the Committee on Resolutions. Since Baptist stances on moral issues usually run counter to the prevailing culture, the media coverage of Annual Meetings often focuses on the wording of these resolutions.

Christians who are not part of a denomination might wonder why Baptists would bother with a Convention of churches like the SBC. Most Baptists would answer by pointing to the thousands of missionaries and church planters serving around the world through the North American and International Mission Boards as well as the thousands of future pastors and missionaries who are training at one of the Seminaries. Baptist churches recognize that they can do more together than they can apart. Many SBC churches are not large enough to support even one missionary or church planter, but with over 47,000 churches working together, they can support thousands. In the minds of many Baptists, the kingdom advance that takes place because of 47,000 churches working together far outweighs the impact of the family squabbles that take place each year around the time of the Annual Meeting.

The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.

Photo courtesy: Fair Use/Southern Baptist Convention


Scott Slayton writes at “One Degree to Another.”

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