This is a post I wrote over a year ago, related to the “identity” of being a Southern Baptist. It still gets a lot of hits, so I have modified it a bit, and reposted it.
Friday I had lunch with a friend of mine who serves in a church staff position similar to mine in a congregation affiliated with a denomination that is far more connectional in its structure than the Southern Baptist churches to which I have always belonged and served. His church is not too far from mine, and we have developed a relationship in which we can encourage and support each other. Theologically, we really aren’t very far apart, and it is somewhat interesting to me that we both probably reflect views that many people would think are “typical” for people in the denominations with which we identify. We are further apart on some perspectives than I would be with most other Southern Baptist church leaders, but, I know him, I know his heart, I trust him, I understand his motives and his vision, and I would not have a problem if he were in the SBC and desired to serve in a leadership position. I know that his theological perspective would not be harmful to cooperative missions and ministry in that context.
As a Southern Baptist, I believe that the independent, autonomous, local church is the highest level of “authority,” if you will, in our denominational structure. As far as I know, the only way a person can become a Southern Baptist is to join, and be accepted into the membership of, a local church that is supporting the work of the denomination through the Cooperative Program. Each church, in its own community, determines who the Southern Baptists are. I don’t believe being “Southern Baptist” can be defined in doctrinal terms, at least, not nearly as “distinctly” or as closely as some people think.
Each church determines what its own doctrinal statement, or confession of faith, will be. It is not handed down from above. Although many churches simply accept the current version of the Baptist Faith and Message as a general statement or confession, they are not required to do so in order to cooperate. I’ve been somewhat surprised to learn that there are a lot of SBC congregations that don’t even use it as a guideline, but prefer to write and revise their own statements as a congregation, by consensus.
It is the local churches who voluntarily decide to cooperate with the various associations, state conventions and the SBC itself. Of course, the associations, state and national conventions are autonomous and independent as well, and can decide not to cooperate with a particular local church over whatever standard they choose, the fact remains that, in Southern Baptist life, the makeup of the denomination is largely controlled by those independent, autonomous local congregations. I’ve read of very few instances where local churches were disfellowshipped over doctrinal positions, and most of those cases have been on the associational level. There are many churches which are at odds with the SBC on some hot button issues that, for whatever reason, still continue to participate in cooperative ministry and missions through the SBC. Their members would not be asked to serve on any trustee board or committee, but they are still participating.
I grew up in Arizona, in the West, in a Southern Baptist church that was influenced by the culture and essence of Southern Baptists who migrated there from Dixie. But the churches out there have adapted and developed their own unique identity, and while there may be a little of the “southern” flavor here and there, and you can readily identify the programs and literature, there are noticeable differences. The Southern Baptists there are conservative and evangelical, but they are not, by and large, involved with the “conservative resurgence.” Large segments of most congregations there are made up of natives, transplants from the North and Midwest, and lots of people from non-Baptist backgrounds. They are more like mainstream evangelicals, and much more prone to work in broader cooperation, yet they are as “Southern Baptist” as the people in the First Baptist Church on the town square in small town Alabama.
We tend to want to identify the essence of being “Southern Baptist” through the lens of the denomination on the national level, the executive committee and the seminaries and mission boards which are high profile because they are supported nationally and their leaders have a high level of visibility. However, in the whole scope of the denomination, the national body really controls a smaller percentage of cooperative miniistry than the state conventions do collectively, or the associational missions collectively, and a far smaller percentage of the total ministry when each local church is factored into the picture.
More likely than not, the perspective and view of who “Southern Baptists” really are, to the eye of those who are observing, will be determined by what the most visible local Southern Baptist church is doing in their community. Being a “Southern Baptist” means that you belong to a church that believes ministry and missions cooperation is a greater cause than doctrinal agreement, and invests in the broader vision of cooperative ministry.