Wednesday morning Kathy Finn, a stringer for Reuters, asked if she could speak with me about recent events at the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans. I had just sat down after losing an appeal to overrule the Chair regarding a motion I made. The motion had been ruled out of order. My brother Paul texted me to tell me I was out of order. You have to love brothers with a satirical sense of humor.
We moved to the hallway where Kathy turned on the recorder. After a series of questions regarding Dr. Luter’s election and my motion she asked about another vote. Finn wanted to know how I felt about the approval of Great Commission Baptists as a descriptor, or tag line, for Southern Baptists.
I searched my own website to see if I had written anything about the matter. Nothing came up in the search. That should tell you something. I was/am ambivalent. When the vote was taken, I was in a coffee shop with a couple of friends. We celebrated the election of Dr. Luter.
We Southern Baptists hold autonomy in high regard. Just ask the fellows who for years have been trying to get full disclosure on Executive salaries in the SBC. Autonomy is the patterned response. Folks at my church know what I make. They read the line each month when we approve our Treasurer’s report. Many think this old fashioned, out of date. I think it keeps suspicion down. After all, members’ tithes and offerings provide my salary and benefits. It works the same in all SBC denominational structures, save for Lifeway.
Patti Swaggert, of Colyell, Louisiana, disagreed with the proposal, saying on Wednesday that use of the new name could “change who we are.”
“I feel like, if you joined the Southern Baptist Church, then you intended to be Southern Baptist,” she told Reuters. “You don’t go to a Methodist church and ask them to change it to Catholic.”
Now that is a reporter’s dream. Ask someone who makes category mistakes how they feel and you can be sure to get a whopper like that. Where would Finn find a different opinion. I confess, my comments on Dr. Luter’s election and my motion seemed more provocative to me. Finn quoted me at the end of her piece.
But Todd Littleton, pastor of the Snow Hill Baptist Church in Tuttle, Oklahoma, said allowing use of the Great Commission Baptists name on a voluntary basis could help to expand the reach of a church that has long been identified with one section of the country.
One of my good friends is a religion reporter. I trust him when he edits any comments he solicits. This statement is more summary, and a good one. Let me explain. Nathan Finn could have easily helped Ms. Finn understand that for Baptists, Southern Baptists in particular, our sense of autonomy would have allowed any church to self-identify as a Great Commission Baptist Church. Why, if a Southern Baptist Church wanted to identify themselves in any particular way they could. That is how we play autonomy as Southern Baptists.
The confusing part would be for folks visiting such a church. Since there is no denomination incorporated as Great Commission Baptists the question would inevitably be, “What kind of Baptist are you?” Trust me, the first phrase would not be, “We are autonomous Baptists.” The response would indicate that while cooperating with the Southern Baptist Convention they preferred to publicly identify differently. “Cooperating Southern Baptist Church” is gobbledygook, euphemism, for “we give money.” How do you explain that without sounding critical like that last sentence?
Our option is to play to our peculiar confessional theology. The only problem is that we don’t always coalesce around the Baptist Faith and Message. We did pass a resolution on the matter. But, the fine print of Southern Baptist resolutions is that they are non-binding statements. Yes, you guessed it, autonomy again.
Maybe you see the difficulty in expressing enthusiasm over a decision that really does not mean anything different than what any Southern Baptist Church could have already practiced. My comment, and Kathy Finn picked this up well, was intended to suggest that there are parts of the Country where Southern may not be so endearing. For those like Dave Miller in Iowa, he simply needs to spend some time in Oklahoma. He would soon realize that many here view Southern, as in Southern Baptist, the same way.
In our autonomy we did not give an overwhelming mandate to the much ballyhooed vote either. Even Dave, who won the election for 2nd Vice-President, acknowledged the slim margin. While he pointed to the 52.78% who voted for the addition, it should not get a pass that less than 5000 people voted. It was just over 4800 out of 7800+ messengers. Remember, I was at the coffee shop. I was/am ambivalent about the issue.
Lifeway reported SBC numbers are down. But, they are not down to a level that helps explain less than 10,000 messengers from 44,000 churches and missions. It is easy to see why Dave, who favored the new descriptor for sensible reasons, felt less than enthusiastic.
Why so much e-ink on this subject about which I am ambivalent? Largely because the piece demonstrates what we Southern Baptists often do. Talk about things that change little and keep quiet about things that should change much. Like, say, repudiating racism/racial comments and plagiarism publicly as a Convention and re-orienting our practices around our stated commitment to racial reconciliation. We should take action not offer a majority opinion. More on that to come.