Belonging and Giving

The following article was originally published at Bart Barber’s personal blog, Praisegod Barebones (link).

The Southern Baptist Convention faces few questions more important than that of cooperative giving. Not that I’m trying to categorize it as a crisis, the lugubrious tone of some of our prophets and sons of prophets notwithstanding. In the boomiest of boom years, there are still few questions more important for our convention than that of cooperative giving. The voluntary cooperative giving of our churches makes the ministries of the SBC happen. We never take our eyes entirely off of that ball.

Nevertheless, the question does become more acute when we come to it with a spirit of fear. Most of the writing and discussion on the subject of the Cooperative Program in the past decade has revealed that perspective in the author and has engendered it in the average reader. The statistics reveal that we have passed what was the zenith (so far) of Cooperative Program giving as a percentage of church budgets, although we are nowhere near the nadir (which would approach 0% for the first half of our existence). Pressed by frequent comparisons of annualized CP numbers and gloomy forecasts, as well as by the specter of unmet needs and unsent missionaries, among those who care about the Cooperative Program there looms a growing sense of Somebody Has To Do Something.

The connection may not be immediately obvious between this context and Dr. John Mark Yeats’s motion in Houston this past summer that Southern Baptists review the membership requirements established in Article III of our constitution (see a mention of this motion buried in this article). Dr. Yeats is a friend and I was immediately interested in his motion simply because he offered it and I know how astute he is regarding the operations of our convention. In fact, I confess that he and I discussed this motion several weeks before he offered it. He is absolutely correct that we have a messenger allocation formula that has not been indexed for inflation in more than a century (although other adjustments have been made to that article). The only thing the status quo has going for it is that it is the status quo. It is time to revise this formula.

I was all the more interested in his motion because we faced the same questions in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention as we initiated the process of reviewing our own governing documents. For more than a year I’ve sat in committee meetings and participated in discussion from every imaginable perspective on questions related to membership and giving in Southern Baptist associational bodies. I’d like to offer some thoughts that arise out of that experience—convictions about the relationship between belonging and giving among Baptist churches. This motion provides the context in which these thoughts are important for Southern Baptists to consider.

I have observed that when we are concerned about declines in cooperative giving we almost instinctively consider imposing what are the equivalent of membership dues upon our churches. In other words, there is a way of approaching Baptist cooperation by which people give in order to belong. The rationale goes like this: “We have churches who are not doing their fair share. Why should we recognize them as peers alongside those churches who sacrifice in order to carry forward our work? Let’s raise the bar! Only those churches who are contributing significantly to the work through their gifts will we consider to be member churches with us.”

The present state of our constitution reveals both that we have tried this style of organization and that we have found it to be unprofitable. The constitution reveals that we have tried this style of organization because Article III presently awards additional convention messengers in proportion to contributions. Pay to play. But the nature of this requirement reveals that we were halfhearted from the very beginning concerning this approach. After all, any church can earn a single messenger simply by contributing a penny, as I understand our documents. Also, parallel to the “money track” of earning messengers is the “member track” by which churches can earn messengers simply by having large membership rolls without regard for their cooperative giving. Finally, the ten-messenger cap (no church can have more than ten messengers) also reveals our initial reticence about thoroughgoing pay-to-play Baptist associationalism—we weren’t comfortable with the idea that our largest givers would be able to dominate the annual meeting with messengers. This system has served us through many valleys (the Great Depression) and peaks (the 1950s). It even served us well before we had anything resembling the Cooperative Program. But, as Dr. Yeats so accurately brought to our attention, although we have not voted to change this system, it has changed by itself. The fact of monetary inflation has changed it. A gift of $250 is not today what it was a century ago. Down through the years, although we have amended this article multiple times, we have never increased the amount of the gift nor set up automatic indexes for inflation. I submit that this is the case because we have not seen value in this pay-to-play approach, otherwise, we would have given attention to maintaining it.

To be fair, we all know a great many organizations that thrive under the pay-to-play system. For example, some of my readers will be members in a country club. If that’s you, then you (or somebody) is paying membership dues for you to belong. Others of you are members of the Evangelical Theological Society. Yet others belong to Ducks Unlimited. Giving in order to belong is certainly not an approach doomed to universal failure.

And yet, organizations that thrive by requiring people to give in order to belong are generally those organizations that offer defined benefits to those members who will pay their dues. The country club offers you golf and the use of their facilities. ETS members get a subscription to JETS. Join Ducks Unlimited today and you’ll receive a DU-branded fleece pullover, as well as a magazine subscription and various other member benefits. The Southern Baptist Convention has never been this sort of organization. We exist not to give benefits to member churches but to provide a framework through which they can give without getting anything in return. That’s bad business…and great Christianity.

And yet it is easy for those who love the Southern Baptist Convention and who want to see an increase in cooperative giving to be deceived on this very point. It is easy for us to conclude (wrongly) that the SBC does indeed have something of value with which we can reward the good churches who give the most. Three “perks” come to the forefront in these discussions:

  1. We award messengers. As we have already seen, the Southern Baptist Convention awards proportional representation in our annual meeting according to (among other things) gifts made by affiliated churches to convention causes. This is the “perk” of convention membership. It is easy enough, as parliamentary actions go, to ramp up this scheme of proportionality by “charging” more and more to churches before we will award them messenger representation.

    But we ought to ask a question: How many of our member churches actually place much monetary value upon the number of messengers allotted to them? Not many, I think. How many churches actually send all of the messengers to which they are already entitled? Of those who attend, how many of them place a high priority upon being on the floor for the actual votes that we take (apart from those few items which attract some controversial attention)? Considering the fact that a person can attend the meeting as a visitor and can do everything a messenger can do, other than make motions and vote, how likely is any church to follow the (il)logical train of thought: “It’s about to cost more to have our ten-messenger allotment to the SBC Annual Meeting: We’ve got to start giving more!!!

    I wouldn’t bet the farm on it.

  2. We place individuals in positions of responsibility (convention officers, committee members, entity trustees, etc.). Beginning in 2006 Southern Baptists began to emphasize the idea that elected officers and appointees should belong to churches who are giving higher percentages of their undesignated gifts through the Cooperative Program. This is the “perk” of convention leadership.

    Southern Baptist messengers have proven that they will elect whom they wish to elect. Statistics do not appear to play that important of a role in our elections. Any particular year may serve as an exception to that rule, but in my opinion SBC elections are becoming more difficult to predict by ANY metric. I do not observe that CP giving or any other measurable item is beginning to correlate more closely with election to convention office.

    With regard to our appointees as well as our officers, the rationale seems to be (and OUGHT to be, in my opinion) simply that we entrust with the leadership jobs of the convention’s business those people whom we believe to be best fitted to discharge them with excellence. This makes sense—as churches we have the greatest confidence about the disposition of our gifts when we have confidence in the abilities of those who are putting them to use.

    I’m not saying that faithfulness to give is unimportant to Southern Baptists when we make these decisions. Rather, I’m simply saying that we have refused to make it the only important factor that we consider when we choose our leadership.

    I do not think it is likely that many churches would make their decisions about how to give based upon this “perk.” First, the preponderance of churches in our convention never have anyone in their membership who ever receives any appointment or election to any position of convention leadership. This “perk” simply is not distributed widely enough to motivate many churches. This is particularly true for most of our smaller churches. Our largest churches tend to be enterprises unto themselves. If they want outlets for leadership for their members, they have lots of options. This might be more important to those churches in the middle, but only to those churches in the middle that are meaningfully engaged in the governance of the convention. A lot of those churches are already giving at higher levels.

  3. We hire and educate individuals as a part of the Southern Baptist Convention’s family of entities. This is the “perk” of convention employment (or enrollment). Although not all of the gainful employment to be found under the auspices of the SBC and related entities requires membership in a Southern Baptist church, a good bit of it does. If a church successfully becomes an affiliated church, the members of that church become eligible to work for a few employers. In most cities and towns, this factor is irrelevant. In a few key locales, this “perk” is quite important. Also, when a church affiliates with the SBC its members can obtain an education at SBC seminaries at a deep discount.

    It is important to note that this “perk” does not cost the Cooperative Program a penny. That is, entities and seminaries receive the same CP allocations without regard to how many of their employees or students are members of Southern Baptist churches. Although the amount of money going to any particular SBC seminary changes based upon FTEs, this merely affects the way that our six seminaries divvy up a static pie—the aggregate amount of money going to seminary education is fixed by the budget, not by enrollments. The other SBC entities likewise receive their allocations from the CP budget without regard to the details of their workforces. This perk makes our seminaries a little poorer, but that’s about the extent of its impact upon convention operations.

    A few churches might be highly motivated by this last “perk.” If large portions of your church staff are receiving discounted seminary education by virtue of your church’s membership in the SBC, then the church staff might push for that church to meet any heightened requirements for affiliation. Most churches in the convention, however, do not participate in this “perk” at all. Most don’t have any members who work for the convention, and as students go, locally funded scholarships would be much cheaper for a church than would high “membership dues” for convention affiliation.

So, I conclude that the Southern Baptist Convention has little to nothing to offer the average Southern Baptist congregation in the way of a “perk” to generate increased cooperative giving. This is why our periodic flirtations with the concept of making churches give in order to belong have been ill-fated, not to consider the fact that they tend to inflame the negative passions of a body of autonomous and independent churches.

An Alternative

Here’s what works better: Southern Baptists need to recognize that rather than belonging because we give, we give because we belong. If the Southern Baptist Convention wishes to see increased giving and participation on the part of affiliated churches, it ought to seek to enhance the sense of belonging among SBC churches. Here’s why this works:

First, this is how the Christian life works. This is the gospel, right? I give (when I’m writing out my tithe check) not in order to belong to Jesus but BECAUSE I belong to Jesus. Of course, the gift of salvation is valuable enough to command a hefty sum. It is the pearl of great price! But I do not purchase it; I receive it as a gift. Out of my gratitude and my sense of belonging to Jesus I am motivated to give.

Second, this is how our local churches work. I remember how shocked I was as a seminary student to discover that at least some Jewish synagogues assess membership fees upon their member families. What a foreign concept to a Southern Baptist! Voluntarism is the model in our churches, and our members give to our local churches because they belong there. We all know (and bemoan) that a great many of our members give a pittance (or even nothing at all!), but we do not assess membership dues in our churches. Why? Because in a local Southern Baptist church you do not give in order to belong, you give BECAUSE you belong. This is a matter of conviction for us, not just a matter of convenience.

Third, our history has demonstrated that this has been the most successful strategy for promoting cooperative giving. The idea of requiring contributions to secure membership is a feature of the society method rather than the convention method of Baptist cooperation. Beyond the fact that Southern Baptists are distinctively committed to the convention method rather than the society method, one must take note of the fact that the convention method has historically been a revenue juggernaut compared to those Baptist entities eking out an existence by means of the society method.

In our relationships with Jesus, with our local churches, and even with our families, we give because we belong, not the other way around. The best way to get Southern Baptist churches to give more to our cooperative work is to give them a greater sense of belonging together in this work.

How to Cultivate Belonging

“OK, Barber, that’s all well and good, but tell us how, exactly, the Southern Baptist Convention is going to make local churches feel a greater sense of belonging?” I’m so glad you asked!

My enthusiasm comes not because I don’t see the challenges before us. Although our giving levels have been worse at some moments in our history, I don’t think that our sense of belonging has ever been weaker. I’d better hasten to clarify what I mean: We’ve got great churches, and we get along better than people like to acknowledge in giving us credit for it. I’m not trying to say that we do not belong together or that we can’t move forward together. I’m just drawing a conclusion from several measurable phenomena:

  1. An increasing number of our churches are hiding the fact that they are affiliated with us.
  2. The number of conclusions that you can safely draw about a church when I tell you that it is a Southern Baptist church is decreasing. One does not have to believe that diversity is bad to understand that diversity does not build a sense of belonging. Something else has to exist alongside diversity in order to build a sense of belonging among diverse churches. The more diverse the churches are, the more robust that something else has to be.
  3. Recent decades have witnessed the growth of sub-affiliations and dual-affiliations among SBC churches.
  4. Even among those churches that have long, historic relationships with the other churches of the SBC, active participation in those relationships has been declining. That is, the number of people interacting with sister churches at associational meetings, state convention meetings, and national SBC meetings is certainly not growing (and I’m including in this not only the official annual meetings but also the various conferences, camps, and other events that characterize our fellowship).

All of these phenomenon, unless they are offset by items that have somehow escaped my notice, bespeak an erosion of the sense of belonging that ought to characterize a church’s membership in the SBC. It is no surprise to me that cooperative giving would not experience stratospheric increases in such an environment. I am aware of the challenges.

Here’s Dr. Barber’s prescription for increasing that sense of belonging:

First, I recommend that we embrace formally the confessional nature of our convention. Southern Baptist churches have associated with one another organically wherever three factors have overlapped: (1) doctrinal similarity, (2) geographical proximity, and (3) strategic commonality. In this Internet age, geographical proximity is becoming less important, but the cultural, linguistic, and governmental factors that often accompany geographical proximity keep it from going away entirely. Because of the factors that brought about the Conservative Resurgence, many Southern Baptist bodies have explicitly shied away from emphasizing doctrinal similarity as a basis for association. The idea that “doctrine divides” leads panicky denominational employees to try to de-emphasize doctrine in order to keep the base together. This kind of thinking is a poison pill.

After all, look at all of the new sub-affiliations (the 3:16 conference, Founders, IX Marks, etc.) and competing affiliations (Acts 29, Willow Creek, etc.). Most of them emphasize a specific doctrinal viewpoint even stricter than our Baptist Faith & Message. Several of them even adopt some methodological stackpole. Such “divisiveness” has not sapped their strength; it has made them grow!

It is not enough to give churches no reason to leave; we have to give them a reason to belong. That reason cannot be atheological if it will succeed. Churches are, at their essence, theological entities (or else they are not churches). For this reason, the SBC ought to embrace the confessional nature of our convention and do so formally.

Informally, we already are a confessional fellowship of churches. The Baptist Faith & Message already defines the work of our entities and defines the parameters by which churches participate in the convention, even though it does not yet define the parameters by which churches belong to the convention. Informally, a church has to be in agreement with the BF&M in order to participate robustly in convention work.

The time has come to take that next step and to state formally what we practice informally. My state convention, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, already exists as a confessional fellowship of churches. Although the Baptist Faith & Message need not be the formal statement of faith of a member church, all affiliated churches of the SBTC must, as a condition of affiliation, affirm the BF&M. This has been the approach of the SBTC since its inception, and the convention has grown both in population and in enthusiasm.

To accomplish this in the Southern Baptist Convention may require that we adopt a tiered approach to our statement of faith, identifying some subset of doctrinal ideas in the BF&M that are mandatory upon affiliated churches. After all, the BF&M was not drafted with this particular purpose in mind, and it may not perfectly articulate the items that constitute the bond of belonging among SBC churches. Of course, our periodic amendments of the BF&M could continue to adapt the document for suitable use as our statement of affiliation parameters, but the more we try to do with the BF&M (i.e., we use it as our terms of employment for seminary professors, rules of affiliation for member churches, apologetic document for interdenominational dialogue and for evangelism, etc.), the more difficult we may find that it is to craft a single document that serves all of those purposes equally well.

I’m comfortable with the BF&M exactly as it stands, but I’d prefer a confessional fellowship along the lines of some similar-but-not-identical faith statement than a continued dichotomy between our de facto and de jure parameters for convention affiliation. Accomplishing this would be hard work. The stakes would be high. Done poorly, it could cause trouble. Done well, it could be a B-12 shot in the Southern Baptist arm.

Second, we need to look to the activity of our churches to learn how to improve what we do with our convention.

  • People who don’t yet feel a sense of belonging to our local churches but who participate in some of our activities and consume some of our services are called “prospects” at the local church level, not “freeloaders.” Our approach to them is generally not to chastise them for not giving enough but to make to them the positive case for belonging. Where belonging takes root, giving will blossom.
  • In our local churches we have learned how to implement a warm welcome for people on the way in. Why don’t we do that at the level of the Southern Baptist Convention? Where are the first-time attendee badges for messengers to the SBC? Why not host a meeting for them at the beginning of the annual meeting at which they get to meet all of our entity heads and hear about convention ministries? When was the last time you were given the opportunity to call a newly affiliated pastor and welcome him to the convention in the way that one of our church’s members might contact a new member or a first-time visitor and welcome them? What are we really doing to cultivate a sense of belonging in those who are on the way into the SBC?
  • Our local churches know that the cultivation of belonging is a process, not a one-time event. The process takes more or less time for different people, depending upon their personalities and their past experiences. Consider, for example, the ethnic diversity that the Southern Baptist Convention has been cultivating in the makeup of its member churches. We have been able to see the new affiliation of larger numbers of non-anglo SBC churches than at any previous point in our history. But just because those churches have affiliated does not mean that they already feel a full sense of belonging to the convention. Draconian pay-to-play strategies designed with anglo churches in mind (to elicit stronger cooperative giving from them) might have disastrous unintended consequences among those churches, anglo or otherwise, who are on the way into the convention.

Third, we cannot be afraid of losing some churches along the way. We do not need to go on any sort of gleeful purge, but we need to acknowledge the fact that some of the churches who once belonged within the SBC no longer belong there. For example, alongside Dr. Yeats’s motion in the article that I linked above you’ll find a motion to disfellowship a church in Waco, TX. That church responded to the motion by stating that they long ago considered themselves to have departed the SBC. We know that they no longer belong here. They know that they no longer belong here.

It is an axiom of human relationships: Where everyone belongs, nobody does. Relationships are defined both by inclusion and exclusion. Your relationship with your spouse is both inclusive and exclusive. Your relationship with your local church is both inclusive and exclusive. Both inclusion and exclusion define the nature of the relationship. Skittishness about exclusivity will kill the convention.

Kowtowing to the most exclusive voices in the convention would likewise destroy it, of course. A sensible approach focused upon reasonable doctrinal similarity, geographical proximity, and strategic commonality is the winning move.

Fourth, we certainly do not need to reduce further the opportunities for involvement in the convention. The “Covenant for a New Century” in the 1990s eliminated and consolidated entities, reducing the number of boards and commissions on which Southern Baptists could participate. Doing things like consolidating our entities further (combining our mission boards, for example), whatever else they might accomplish, would result in reduced opportunity for involving individual Southern Baptists. Involvement fosters a sense of belonging. We ought not to dole out positions of responsibility to those who have given no indication of a sense of belonging and commitment to the convention, but we also ought to acknowledge the potential of involvement in convention ministries to deepen and solidify the sense of belonging that participants bring into the experience.

Fifth, we need always to make the phenomenon of belonging in the SBC (that is, the degree to which a person values belonging to the convention and is publicly associated with belonging to the convention family) one factor that we consider when we define success and promote heroes. If the platform at our meetings, the bookshelves at our stores, and the articles in our newsfeeds are dominated by people who do not belong among us, whatever else they communicate verbally, we are nonverbally communicating that belonging does not matter. I’m not advocating isolationism—I’m not calling for this to be the only factor or even the most important factor. But if denominational meetings and publications do not value belonging and commitment to the SBC family, who will?


Rather than writing all of the recommendations that I have just written, I might simply have spouted off this little axiom and left well-enough alone: The best way to cultivate a sense of belonging is to cultivate a reality of belonging. Belonging is more a state of affairs than a sentiment. The sentiment (“I feel like I belong”) and the state of affairs (“I really do belong here”) can and do get out of sync sometimes, but the mismatch will not long endure. It is in doubling-down on the three elements of our identity as Southern Baptists (doctrinal, geographical, missiological) that we rediscover the reality of why we belong together. Feelings will follow facts, and giving will follow belonging.

For this reason, we in the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention have abandoned proportional representation and membership dues. Affiliated churches receive ten messengers, no matter what size they are or how much they give. In place of carrot-and-stick we have a confessional fellowship that cultivates a sense of belonging. This is not only the way forward for Southern Baptists in Texas; it is the way forward for Southern Baptists everywhere, I believe.


  1. Bart Barber says

    Dave Miller is not around, comments wound up being closed on this post by default, the “Discussion” module for my admin account was hidden (the default setting), and it took me a little while to discover how to get to it to open discussion. I apologize to you early birds who wanted to comment but were unable to do so.

  2. William Thornton says

    I appreciate Bart Barber’s thoughtful and lengthy piece on the Cooperative Program. It is the nature of discussions here that the original poster pours a lot more time and effort into his article than responders do into their reaction but I have given most of his points considerable thought already and offer a few observations.

    I agree that changing the messenger allocation formula is unlikely to be a route to enhance CP giving by the churches although it may be beneficial for other reasons.

    I agree that creating a sense of belonging would be beneficial to the CP but I’m not sure how this is done or if Bart’s suggestions would accomplish that goal. The devil would be in the details if any tiered system of confessional statements is created. Just the simple, straightforward requirement of having affiliation of any church with the SBC contingent on formal affirmation of the BFM I would judge to be unlikely to accomplish much other than to immediately sever relationships with thousands of churches that are currently SBC. The experience of the SBCT in this regard is not normative, unless someone is thinking of replacing the SBC with a totally new national convention. But I’m open to the concept.

    I mildly disagree that “reduc[ing] further the opportunities for involvement in the convention” in the context Bart describes it, is a hindrance to the CP. Perhaps more clarity in what is meant here would change my mind (and I agree that merging IMB and NAMB would not be helpful) but the efficacy of CP giving, seems to me, would be enhanced by some changes (e.g., check the cost of maintaining almost 100 trustees for the IMB). I will need to be persuaded that a broad spectrum of trusteeships lends much to increasing the average SBCer’s sense of belonging, especially in light of the rather narrow pool of churches that seem to always “belong” in view of the trustee appointments from those churches.

    The SBCT policy of 10 messengers to every church is fine by me and I am pleased that the convention is thriving; however, I doubt that the same enhanced sense of belonging is easily created in mature state conventions.

    In regard to stopping the generations long decline in CP percentages I would offer a couple of suggestions:

    1. State conventions, and the SBC to a considerable extent, are locked into legacy spending and unless they are forced into it by decreased giving, very little changes are made in spending. We shift a little here, a little there; increase this percentage, give a fraction more to the SBC but nothing sufficient to move the enthusiasm needle. I think the substantial changes at NAMB can be proven to have contributed to increased Annie Armstrong offerings. Is it possible to do the same on a state level without starting a parallel state convention entity like SBCT? I don’t know. It hasn’t been tried. Is it possible to do so on the national level? In light of the experience of the Great Commission Resurgence, I am not optimistic about this.

    2. Although we have shown no inclination to apply any minimum CP percentage to elected SBC officers (save for just a couple of times in the last several decades), my view is that voting messengers should, in the herd-of-cats usual SBC manner, find the threshold percentage under which a nominee would not be elected. This is unlikely to be done as a constitutional requirement but might coalesce among the individual brethren/sistren. Accordingly and concomitantly, I would favor setting a minimum percentage for trustee nominees. If your church doesn’t give at least X%, then we are not going to put you on this trustee board. I don’t know if this would move CP percentages but the idea makes sense to me.

    3. Find someone in SBC leadership willing to speak plainly about rebranding the Cooperative Program and stop the tired laments about the halcyon days now past and never to return. Stop blaming the churches. Stop with the usual CP increase program of just saying that “you churches need to give us administrators and entities more of your offerings” – hasn’t worked. There are bound to be ideas here that neither Bart nor I have thought of in this regard.

    One of the reasons I really appreciate Bart’s thoughts here is that there is a dearth of plain talk about the future of the CP, unless one wants to do some public hand wringing. It’s time for fresh ideas and new thoughts.

    • Bart Barber says

      Most of today will be given to holiday travel with me at the wheel, so I apologize in advance for how little I will be able to interact. I want to thank you, William, for a comment that is clearly the fruit of ongoing consideration of our convention’s nature and thoughtful interest in the SBC’s future. Here are my thoughts in reply.

      1. I do not know how many “thousands” of SBC churches would no longer be SBC if our convention became confessional. I do believe, however, that the departure of some churches would actually benefit the convention. I’m talking only about churches like the one in Waco discussed above in the article. The cut-the-tail-off-one-inch-at-a-time process presently unfolding by which churches are departing the SBC is not healthy. What’s more, we face in the near future either the SBC’s capitulation on homosexuality or an almost-yearly dismissal of local churches from the SBC under Article III as it presently stands. Whichever churches would leave the SBC rather than affirm the BF&M, it would include all (or at least almost all) of the churches who would be the subject of these messy proceedings in the years shortly forthcoming. And although this would not be reason enough to do it by itself, a two-year controversy over the role of our confession of faith would play a lot better in the media than a year-after-year contest over dismissing the latest church to embrace same-sex marriage.

      2. It has been my experience both in church work and in denominational service that people increase their commitment to an organization when you entrust them with a position of responsibility. It is based upon that observation that I believe it erodes the level of belonging and commitment among the population when you continually eliminate opportunities for individual involvement.

      3. I really do not understand the rationale by which people set aside the innovations of new state conventions simply by observing that they are new state conventions. Yes, the SBTC is new, but a state convention is neither more nor less than the aggregation of the churches who give it leadership and support. The SBTC’s churches are as old and traditional as are the churches in every other state convention in SBC life. Anything we can do, you can do. Anything that our churches appreciate is likely to resonate with at least some churches in every state convention.

      4. The idea of minimal financial support makes sense to me, too. Certainly CP giving is one factor that influences my own voting patterns at our annual meetings. Nevertheless, with you, I affirm the freedom of the messengers to make their own choices as a more important principle, and there are issues more important to me than the question of financial support.

      5. I absolutely agree that we need to be looking forward rather than behind with regard to the CP. Thanks for your kind encouragement and well-considered interaction with the post. It’s always a privilege to attract the attention of such a prominent and long-established Baptist blogger.

      • William Thornton says

        I don’t see a huge hemorrhage of churches over the homosexuality issue. Here in GA churches expelled for that may be counted on the fingers of one hand.

        As to innovative state conventions, can anyone point to one or more legacy state conventions that have shown any inclination towards such? Forgive the pessimism but I think it virtually impossible to manage the established constituencies (and their budgets and jobs) so as to bring substantial change. New state conventions start with a cleaner slate, instant excitement, and enthusiastic participants.

        It’s a conversation we should be having.

  3. says

    Very good article. I’m always glad when we get to publish articles like this. Thank you, Bart.

    Readers, read this! It’s long but it’s worth it.

    Now, back to staring at the beach.

    • Bart Barber says

      Dave, in addition to the other statistics that the site tracks, can you set up WordPress to count in the comments the instances of words like “long” and “lengthy”? :-)

  4. says


    A pair of honest questions:

    1. Are SBCT churches required to agree with the following statement from the BF&M: “Being a church ordinance, [baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper”?

    2. If so, is it a fair assumption that the 61% of SBC pastors who do not require believers baptism for participation in the Lord’s Supper ( are not represented in the SBCT?

    3. If we were to make strict adherence to the BF&M a criterion for participation in the SBC, do you have any suggestions for dealing with this particular anomaly?

    • Bart Barber says


      I think what I’ve already written in the post provides a framework for addressing that question. I’m committed to a view of the Lord’s Supper that maintains biblical consistency between our view of Christian unity in the Lord’s Supper and our view of Christian unity in church membership. If rather win people over to the merits of that view than attempt to impose it by confessional brute force.

      • says

        I see what you write here (and have written previously) about “a tiered approach to our statement of faith.” What I am specifically wondering about, though, is how you handle this issue in the SBCT, and if you have any thoughts or suggestions about how we might word an appropriately tiered approach to this particular issue (i.e. baptism as a prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper).

        • Bart Barber says


          The SBTC is in a little bit of a different position on this. We have not authored our own statement of faith. One of the defining characteristics of the SBTC’s character—a significant portion of our raison d’être—is an intentional commitment to a close and healthy relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention. Although I affirm that there could be circumstances in which it might be good for a state convention to author its own statement of faith, it is undoubtably (for me) the right thing to do for the SBTC to leave the job of tinkering with the confessional position of Southern Baptists to the Southern Baptist Convention.

          And so, we simply place before churches the BF&M as we receive it from the SBC and ask member churches to affirm it.

        • Bart Barber says

          As to your second question about how I would write or develop a tiered approach on this particular issue, I have a simple answer that may seem like an utter cop-out, but I’m pleased with how Baptist an answer it is:

          How would I word it? Sitting around a table with help from the Pattersons, Mohlers, Yarnells, Garretts, et al, among us. Seriously, I’d need help, and I’d ask for it.

  5. says

    You ask a great question. It is one that I have had to deal with many times in the past 26 years. Is a person who partakes of the Lords Supper without first being baptized in sin?

    As I have thought through this over the years I always come back to a simple truth: If baptism is commanded of the believer as the first outward sign of their salvation, how could one partake without getting that first commanded act in line with God?

    Do you see it differently?

    • says


      That gets us back into the same questions we (myself, and various others, including Bart and yourself) have hashed over again and again in recent years.

      Personally, I believe that if someone honestly reads Scripture and comes to the conclusion that their pre-conversion baptism (or sprinkling, or effusion) was biblical baptism (or, at least, a sufficiently biblical baptism), it is not my place to accuse them of sin on this account. That is between them and the Lord. I can show them the passages and line of biblical reasoning that I believe support the credo-baptist position, but the Holy Spirit must convict them of the truth on these matters.

      I believe that the Lord’s Supper (among other things) is a celebration of the unity of the Body of Christ, and that the Body of Christ consists of all those who have been truly born again, whether they have correctly understood and put into practice biblical teaching on water baptism or not.

      If I were to take a similar position on other debatable matters, which are not essential matters of the faith, and are not what we might consider “damnable heresies,” with regard to what you are proposing for baptism, I do not know who in the end we might admit to the Lord’s Table. As I understand it, it is a common profession of faith in the power of the gospel to save that marks us apart as members of the Body of Christ, and, as a result, as legitimate partakers of the Lord’s Supper, not agreement on secondary and tertiary points of doctrine and practice.

      Apparently, as well, if I am interpreting correctly the Lifeway study I link to above, a majority of Southern Baptist pastors have a position fairly similar to mine on this.

      • Bart Barber says

        Personally, I doubt that the majority position is nearly so thoughtful as that. Any regulation of the Lord’s table is unpopular and looks mean spirited. I don’t know that we’d have to go any further than that to offer a plausible explanation for the statistics.

    • Greg Harvey says

      I’m inclined to offer that there is no passage in the Bible that requires baptism prior to first participation in the Lord’s Supper, so calling it “sin” seems extreme to me. Encouraging baptism prior to participation in the other ordinance seems to create an appropriate order of worship to the benefit of the believer and the body.

      The idea that many Baptists subscribe to that the only legitimate expression of the Body of Christ is the local, Southern Baptist congregation is both fully understandable and false at the same time.

      • says

        You stated “The idea that many Baptists subscribe to that the only legitimate expression of the Body of Christ is the local, Southern Baptist congregation…”

        I would say that the Body of Christ is one thing and the local church is another. Thus, IMHO the Body of Christ is everyone who accepts Christ but is not a universal church. Each local church is autonomous.

        To me the difference in what you stated and what I stated are huge and actually relate to this post in an incredible manner.

      • Bart Barber says

        I’d say that the sin lies in refusing to be baptized. I’ve been commanded by Christ to baptize disciples, and converts have been commanded to be baptized. For a believer stubbornly to refuse baptism is a sin.

        Believers ought to refrain from participation in the Lord’s Supper over any stubborn point of sinful rebellion against the Lord. Refusal to be baptized is no different from any of the other possibilities in this category.

  6. says

    David, I understand. I have often wondered how one would even begin to enforce the baptismal requirement. Though I believe one needs to be immersed as soon as one accepts Christ, I have wondered how applying such other than instructions at the front end of the Lords Supper would work. Even when I was growing up, if a person accepted Christ during the Sunday AM service and their baptism was not going to be until the following week – they were served the Lords Supper.

    My question was to see how in light of Barts post and your question you would view such a confessional being lived out in our churches from either side.

  7. Bill Mac says

    Baptism and participation in the LS are both commanded to the Christian. We should encourage both, but neglecting one does not require neglecting the other.

  8. David Rogers says

    Though I am very interested in the topic of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, I don’t imagine this is the discussion Bart envisioned on this post, and I don’t want to be responsible for hijacking it. In the meantime, I am sure Bart is busy with other matters, but I would love to hear some reply from him with regard to my last comment directed to him, which I do consider to be germane to his post.

    • says

      Agreed. I was simply trying to figure out how you would view a confessional approach being implemented on the larger scale. I am also curious to see how Bart sees this occurring in Texas. In my travels to churches in Texas, I see all types of application with little consistency. Maybe a church teaches one thing, but is limited in how it applies it.

      I see giving time for the Holy Spirit to work. I did this in south LA. With many converts coming from Catholic backgrounds we did not “force” anything but allowed God to work in them.

  9. Bart Barber says

    I’m back! I’m sitting in my mother’s living room. Thanks for your patience, all of you, as I have been traveling today and then giving her my undivided attention. But all are asleep now (except for me!), and I will devote my attention to your comments and questions.

  10. says

    The more I travel and partner with churches the more difference I see. It is impressive and troublesome both at the same time. How do you see the Confessional approach working with such vast diversity?

    • Bart Barber says

      Great question! But not quite good enough. :-) In other words, I need to ask for clarification to make sure that I understand the question and give the right answer. Which of these is it?

      1. “I see vast theological diversity within our convention regarding not just one or two of the doctrinal items mentioned in the BF&M but extending all throughout the document, such that it no longer serves as a unifying confession of faith for Southern Baptists. How, in such an environment, will we ever be able to unite with one another through this confessional approach?”

      2. “I see basic agreement among Southern Baptists regarding the content of the BF&M, but I see vast diversity within our convention on matters beyond the BF&M. How will the unity on these doctrinal matters ever be strong enough to overcome this bewildering diversity that exists outside the items covered in the BF&M?”

      Of course, I guess you could be getting at a combination of these two, or at something altogether different. It’s just that, as I was formulating an answer, I found that I was wanting to reply differently depending upon which of these represented the core idea of your question.

      • says

        How about if I word it this way:

        I see basic agreement among Southern Baptists regarding the content of the BF&M, but I see vast diversity within our convention on matters of applying the BF&M. How will the unity on these doctrinal matters ever be strong enough to overcome this bewildering diversity that exists on the items covered in the BF&M in relation to their application? The issues of Lords Supper, Baptism, and church membership being central in this discussion.

  11. says


    Thanks for your answers to my questions. I appreciate the time and the thought you have put in to responding forthrightly. Now that I see a little more where you are coming from, let me offer a few thoughts of my own with regard to your proposal.

    1. I agree with you that it is preferable that our motivation for giving, as Southern Baptists, be more intrinsic than prescriptive. I agree that in the long run this is best, not only from the perspective of individual contributions (i.e. tithes and offerings) to local congregations, but also from that of the contributions of local congregations to the Cooperative Program. The best motivation for giving is because we truly believe in the causes our contributions are going to support, and we truly believe that our giving to support these causes is a good way to express our faithfulness to the Lord.

    2. While it is true that, as the SBC, we must continue to provide to those congregations and individuals within congregations that support us good reasons for choosing to direct that support our way instead of for any number of other good causes, I am not personally convinced that a greater sense of denominational identity and brand loyalty is the best way to do this. We as Southern Baptists are primarily a people of the Book, and (at least as I understand it) our primary loyalty as people of the Book is to the Body of Christ as a whole and the Great Commission given to the Body of Christ as a while, and not to our particular part of the harvest, or our particular section of the whole building that God is putting together (Eph. 2:19-22). Our motivation for giving specifically to SBC-related ministries and causes should be a sense of good stewardship, believing that this is the most effective and God-honoring way to contribute toward the greater cause in which we as Southern Baptists participate along with the rest of the Body of Christ (i.e. Eph. 4:11-16).

    3. While I agree that, in general, it is good as Southern Baptists to have statements of faith such as the BF&M, and that there ought to be doctrinal guidelines that keep our ministries on track with our understanding of what the Bible teaches, I am wary of where making strict and formal adherence to the BF&M a requirement for participation in our joint projects might lead us.

    While I hear and appreciate your recognition of the need for some type of system of tiers with regard to applying these doctrinal guidelines, I am concerned that such a system may end up squeezing people such as myself out of the circle of cooperation.

    If my particular position were an insignificant minority position among our present constituency, that might not be such a bad thing. In such a case, it would likely be best for people like me to find another group more in line with our system of beliefs and cooperate and contribute instead through the channels they set up.

    The big problem, as I see it, though, has to do specifically with the phrase “Being a church ordinance, [baptism] is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper” in the BF&M. Why this particular phrase and not others? Is it just because it happens to be the phrase with which I personally disagree? I don’t believe so. It is because, from what I can tell, this is the only phrase in the BF&M for which there is good evidence to show the majority of Southern Baptists are not in agreement.

    4. It is tempting from my perspective to take a position of benign neglect toward your proposal. Your post was long (as are many of my own, and as is this comment), and thinking through what you propose requires a bit of work I could dedicate to other things. But I believe, given what I have observed in the past several years, I need to take it seriously. You have obviously put a lot of thought into it, and appear convinced that this is something that needs to happen. I also think that though you are not likely influential enough on your own to pull something like this off unilaterally, you have the ears of several key influencers within our convention who may well have the power to get the ball rolling on something like this. And the fact that you in the SBCT are already doing something akin to what you propose suggests to me that this is not just wishful thinking on the part of a few, but something “with teeth in it.”

    It is for this last reason I am so interested to know how in practice this works within the context of the SBCT. Frankly, your answers, though no doubt sincere, and no doubt worthy of respect, concern me.

    What concerns me is I don’t see any formally spelled-out tiered approach to confessionalism in the SBCT. On the SBCT website, I do see that you spell out senior female pastors and approval of homosexual behavior as exemplary issues that would preclude a congregation from participation, as well as hold out inerrancy as a key confessional concern. But, at the same time, I see nothing that indicates in any way that a caveat such as I have regarding the BF&M might not be a deal-breaker for continued cooperative participation in the SBCT.

    You say churches are merely required to indicate in a general way consent to the BF&M. This leads me to ask myself, how many of these churches which have indicated such consent really follow through on 100% of what they have signed off on? If it is anywhere close to 100% of the churches, this indicates a fairly big discrepancy between churches in the SBCT and pastors in the SBC overall on the issue of close/closed communion, according to the Lifeway study.

    Perhaps, though, some of the representatives of these congregations signed on to the BF&M stipulation without thinking it through thoroughly. Though this might absolve them of a certain degree of dishonesty, I can hardly think this is a good thing. Some, perhaps, are even aware of a discrepancy between their views and practice on this point and that called for in the BF&M, but signed anyway, rationalizing that in the big scheme of things it isn’t really a hill worth dying on. Once again, while I somewhat understand this position, I can hardly think it is a good thing, either.

    The problem is that, unless conformance to this phrase in the BF&M is specifically spelled out as optional, you put many participating churches in a bit of a conundrum. Either they must hedge a bit on the conscientiousness side of things, or they must opt out of participation on the basis of something as minor as modified open communion vs. close/closed communion.

    On an SBC-wide level, I can’t help but thinking that this would split the convention right down the middle. Or, in the case of a few, perhaps, would lead them to violate their conscience, and sign on anyway, even though they in reality and in practice did not support the implications of this particular phrase in the BF&M.

    5. Perhaps you think a narrower circle of cooperation within the SBC is not such a bad thing. Overall, I am not totally opposed to this line of thinking. From a pragmatic point of view, it probably does make for more effective ministry, for example, to not have to sort out in each individual ministry decision whether we are going to take a position that favors or allows for female pastors, that allows for homosexuality, etc. It is good that those questions are already decided for us in advance.

    But, from my perspective, I think it would be tragic, and a decidedly bad stewardship of the resources God has commended into our hands, to force a de facto division into two conventions between those who affirm the BF&M on everything without caveats, and those who affirm the BF&M on everything except close/closed communion and/or other comparatively minor issues. We agree on far too much to let something like this preclude continued cooperation.

    On the basis of all of the above, I urge you to seriously think these matters through before moving ahead with efforts to bring this proposal before the SBC.

    • Bart Barber says


      I assure you that I am not trying to exclude people from the SBC based upon their views of the extent of communion. Yes, I think it is gross error and a sin to blackball people from church membership over those things that one does not even consider to be sinful at all, but I am neither so narrow nor so foolish as to try to make over the SBC in my image through parliamentary hijinks.

      Do I wish to drive open communion out of the SBC? Yes. Absolutely.

      Do I wish to do so through enforcement of our statement of faith? Never in a million years.

      I wish to eradicate your doctrinal position by convincing all of you, not by excluding you.

      Allow me to offer some clarification regarding the SBTC. I offer this not necessarily for your benefit—you probably already understand this—but for the benefit of anyone else who may be lurking silently in the thread:

      1. I do not write this post on behalf of the SBTC or in any official capacity for the SBTC.

      2. The SBTC has never endorsed the idea of tiers within the BF&M. To my knowledge, the SBTC has never even discussed this concept. The SBTC receives its statement of faith from the SBC.

      3. The SBTC has, however, unanimously approved the first reading of constitutional changes that would eliminate any ongoing financial tests or financial apportionments for affiliated churches in the SBTC and would simply award 10 messengers to every affiliated church regardless of size or financial contribution to the convention.

      4. The SBTC is a confessional fellowship, but this is not new. The SBTC has had this as its nature since the earliest days of the convention.

      Now, in conclusion, I would say this about the state of our teaching about communion in SBC churches: Although I doubt that I will really persuade all who hold to your position that they ought either to go the whole way to open membership for consistency’s sake or they ought to adopt a better position on the Lord’s Supper, I do believe that the pendulum will swing in my favor. If the students of my generation are at all dependent upon the kind of education that I received from a Southern Baptist university and an SBC seminary, then it is likely that they have no theology of the ordinances at all. Our seminaries are doing a better job these days, and I remain optimistic about the future.

  12. David Rogers says

    Bart, I understand and accept that you are not personally “trying to exclude people from the SBC based upon their views of the extent of communion.”
    This is helpful and an important point for on-going dialogue. My continued concern, though, is that this may be the de facto albeit inadvertent consequence of what you propose in your post unless very intentional steps are taken to avoid it.

  13. says

    In regard to the over all theme of the post, Bart I think part of the issue at hand is the basic role of the SBC on the national level. When one considers the people in the pews and chairs of our churches, the IMB gets the strongest response and thus, the most money. The actually worth of all else is where the great disconnect seems to be from this position when one considers dollars and cents.

    I think we also have to include in the discussion the fact that many Pastors today only teach stewardship from a budgeting position and fail to teach the foundation of stewardship being that we are stewards (the tithe and grace giving) of all we have been entrusted including money.

  14. Dave Miller says

    At the root level, most SBCers used to believe that we could do more thru cooperation than flying solo. I don’t think most of us believe that today.

    The key to the SBC’S success is that we do what we do with a level if excellence that lends inspires cooperation.