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. 


About LS

I'm 56, happily married for 25 years, B.A., M.A., career educator with experience in education as a teacher and administrator, native Arizonan living in Pennsylvania, working on a PhD and a big fan of the Arizona Wildcats, mainly in football and basketball.

7 responses

  1. Ken Coffee says:

    We need more of this kind of thing in the blogosphere. It is helpful. I once worked with a church that was having strong discussions (fight) about which version of the BF&M to use. To settle the question I suggested they just not use either and write their own values statement, which they did. With no reference to BF&M, the local association told them that the association required adherance to the BF&M, so they had to go back and add this line at the bottom of their list. “These values are consistant with the BF&M”, with no year version in the statement. Since that time I have suggested this to several churches, all of which have done it successfully. I absolutely agree with you that churches should have to think through their statement of beliefs instead of just pledging allegiance to a document most of them have never even read.

  2. Lee says:

    I can go along with an association adopting the BFM 2000 as their official statement, and as a basis of cooperation in associational ministries, to ask churches to recognize that. But to require a church to include it in their doctrinal statement and “adhere” to it in their local ministry is a violation of local church autonomy. If that were the case, then I would conclude that the association could do its work without our financial contribution, and find another association to join.

  3. Ken Coffee says:

    Most associations ask at the admission point if the church adheres to the BF&M, without attaching any year’s version to it.

  4. tpylant says:

    I agree with your statement, “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.” However, it is increasingly clear that many others do not. Many would reverse that and claim “Being Southern Baptist means that you belong to a church that believes doctrinal agreement is a greater cause than ministry and missions cooperation.”
    Todd Pylant

  5. Tim Dahl says:


    I wish more people (especially in SBC leadership) were like you.


  6. Paul W. Foltz DD says:

    Saying that A Southern Baptist can’t be defined in doctrinal terms, shows how far the convention has gone away from its founding fathers, who were all
    Calvinists-Mell, Dagg, Boyce, Robertson etc.

    There is no cure for apostasy but Judgment-The decline of the convention manifests this.

    Paul W. Foltz DD

  7. Lee says:

    The SBC has never been defined in doctrinal terms, with the exception of a strong belief in God’s salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, by the firm conviction that the Bible is the authoritative, inspired, written Word of God, by a belief that anyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved, by belief in a triune God whose Holy Spirit is the active agent of justification and sanctification as well as God’s indwelling presence in the life of the believer and in the church, and belief in the church both as a local body of regenerate believers in Christ as well as the universal body of believers in Christ.

    From a historical perspective, the Southern Baptist Convention came together because the missionary board of the triennial convention of Baptists would not appoint slave owners as missionaries. It has, however, over the course of time, come to adopt the belief that churches which held the essential doctrines of scripture regarding salvation and the nature of God could cooperate together in the tasks of discipleship and global evangelism without sacrificing the cherished Baptist principles of soul freedom and local church autonomy.

    Calvinism is a theological system developed by human reason and intellect. It is not necessarily exclusive or incompatible with other doctrinal positions held by other Christians who are just as saved and secure in Christ as any Calvinist is. It is just as limited as other human theological systems in that there is a point at which it is limited in its interpretation of truth. The genius of Baptists in the past has been in recognizing that churches can cooperate together for the sake of the Kingdom without having to agree on every doctrinal point. It is only when the essentials are narrowed down that cooperation becomes an issue, which is what I believe the SBC is now experiencing.