Mission Lab

What’s ‘Southern Baptist’ mean?

November 11th, 2019 / By: Gary Ledbetter | Editor / comments

It seems to be the frequent need of organizations to debate, and eventually agree, about what it means to be “us.” The Conservative Resurgence was in many ways a struggle to define “Southern Baptist,” and thus what we would be in the future. During the Resurgence the SBC pressroom was full of reporters each June. I would often jump in ahead of another editor to explain Southern Baptists to outside media. In those days of struggle, this one colleague would imply that missions and freedom to believe whatever you want pretty much summed it up. My version was different, though less popular with non-Baptist reporters.

An exclusive concern for orthodoxy (among some conservatives) and missions without a concern for orthodoxy (among some SBC “moderates”) have proven to be equally inadequate for our denomination. Things have settled down a bit now and those who remain with us generally agree on a few things that combine to make “Southern Baptist” a unique identity.

Local church autonomy-This trait distinguishes us from “organized” religion—hierarchical denominations that can dictate some things to local churches, even owning their buildings in some cases. Our churches decide, under the lordship of Christ, how they will conduct their ministries. They call as pastor whoever they believe they should and give to whatever causes they believe they should. This congregational polity can be a check against the weaknesses of only one leader but also depends on the congregation being made up of redeemed and maturing believers. Local church autonomy is built also on soul competence (the ability of an individual to discern God’s will for himself) and the priesthood of believers under the high priesthood of Christ. Soul competence does not mean, by the way, that everyone’s interpretation of Scripture is equally valid. This is the theological anarchy that led “moderate” Southern Baptists from being the center-left of a very conservative denomination to being the center-right wing of the gay rights movement.

Strategic cooperation-This one sets us apart from most Baptists. Although our brothers and sisters in other Baptist fellowships do work together to fund missions and educational enterprises, their “every institution raising its own funds” approach has been less effective. The Cooperative Program is the envy of other Baptist groups. Southern Baptists dallied with this independent missions funding plan for a while until their vision for expansion was greater than the societal plan could support. The growth and strength that have come through the Cooperative Program are unmatched by other evangelical denominations.  

Confessionalism-Although modern Southern Baptists are only confessional in their institutions and a few state conventions and associations, we do generally agree on Baptist doctrine as described in the Baptist Faith & Message 2000. Baptists have used confessions to codify our interpretations of Scripture since the early 16thcentury and have re-crafted them to fit the challenges of each era, though the foundational doctrines regarding the authority of Scripture, the Trinity and salvation have not changed. Confessional Baptists don’t have to re-write themselves every time they change leaders, or every time the culture challenges biblical orthodoxy. A well-written confession will lash the fellowship to biblical essentials without tying its hands as it ministers within diverse cultures.

Missions-Each autonomous church is led by its Lord to reach beyond its walls with the gospel. Churches cooperate with one another to do things beyond their horizons or solitary ability. Churches are in confessional fellowship because they agree on not only the missionary imperative but also on the content of the gospel. When we work with other churches or build an infrastructure that will support worldwide outreach, missions is the reason we do it. Keeping this priority in place will drive us to these other traits that combine to make Southern Baptists distinctive.   

The things we do together, the good works and the good news we share, spring from these characteristics. While there is no chance our churches will every cease being self-governing, a falling off in cooperation or confessional agreement will either sap our strength for the Great Commission or destroy our agreement on the gospel we share. We will no longer be a great missionary denomination if those things occur.