I don’t know who it was who once called the Southern Baptist Convention a “Rope of Sand,” but I remember hearing that from Dr. J.P. Dane, who was the professor of the church administration class I took in college. Dr. Dane was the epitome of a Southern Baptist gentleman through and through. He brought a wealth of pastoral experience right into his college classroom with him, mostly from his time of service at Portland Avenue Baptist Church in Oklahoma City. I had him for several classes and as he told of his pastoral experiences at Portland Avenue, I imagined that it was probably a model of what Southern Baptists would have thought an ideal church should have been.
What Dr. Dane meant to convey by using the “rope of sand” analogy was that the Southern Baptist Convention did not function the way that most other denominations worked. The churches were all independent, autonomous, and were at the highest level of structure in the convention organization. Each church voluntarily cooperated with the various levels of autonomous organizations, including associations, state conventions and the SBC, by designating a portion of its resources to the institutions, agencies, and missions ministries of those organizations. They also provided leadership from within their congregations to these denominational organizations and direction by consensus by sending messengers to the annual business meetings where the convention business was decided. The sense that the SBC was a rope meant that the churches found enough in common in terms of the way they did ministry, and the way they interpreted scripture, to be able to work together to provide for an efficient cooperative missions ministry. The sand was an analogy to illustrate the independence and autonomy of each local church and the idea that the convention does not impose doctrine or interpretation, or even polity, upon any of its affiliated churches.
Certainly, for cooperation in ministry and missions to take place, convention institutions would need some sort of general guidelines, but none of those guidelines or doctrinal positions could be imposed on independent, autonomous congregations. At least, in theory. However, in practice, what that really means is that unless a church accepts certain doctrinal stances that have been voted on by majority rule at an associational, state convention or SBC meeting, they can be disfellowshiped from cooperation. What that means is that the church would be excluded from having its members serve in denominational leadership positions, its gifts to Cooperative Program ministries would not be accepted for use, and it would not be allowed to have its members seated as messengers at whatever denominational organization disfellowshipped it.
There are those who insist that this is not a violation of the church’s autonomy, that it can continue to hold the same views without interference. But a voluntary decision that the church made to support the SBC has been violated, and the church’s ability to support what it has chosen to support has been denied.
I can see disfellowshipping a church which denied some aspect of salvation, such as the divinity of Christ, or salvation by grace through faith in Christ, or the divine nature of God, something along those lines. Churches that baptized infants, if such a congregation sought to join the SBC, would probably not be compatible from a doctrinal perspective. Even churches that denied the authority of the Bible might not find a home in the SBC. But some of the things that have caused a breach of fellowship today are, in my opinion, not acceptable reasons for disfellowshipping an affiliated congregation.
It seems the rope of sand is giving way to a wind that is changing the SBC into a more connectional, heirarchial body and placing cooperation at the denominational level above the autonomy and independence of the local church. Perhaps that is why so many Southern Baptists are choosing seminaries outside the convention for their theological education and missions sending agencies other than NAMB and the IMB as options. Churches that are independent and autonomous do not have to accept pastors and staff exclusively from SBC related educational institutions, and mission sending agencies, especially evangelical ones like Campus Crusade, do not mind a steady stream of Southern Baptists as volunteers or churches as contributors.