Long ago, Noah descended from Mt. Sinai carrying five smooth stones and a sling to Mt. Carmel where fire fell, parted the sea, and revealed stones upon which were written the essential principles of Southern Baptist polity.
The basis of that polity has been, is now, and forever will be the trustee system. Each year, autonomous local churches gather in a large metropolitan area to hear sermons, elect officers, receive reports and to approve trustees for our various boards, agencies and entities. Those entities are then run and managed by those trustees. It was quite a revelation to me a few years ago to find out how little the trustees of those entities are subject to the wishes of the messengers of the SBC.
I was loudly complaining about the failure of certain boards to obey the “Garner motion.” That motion, approved by the messengers, stated that the BF&M was “the only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs approved by the Southern Baptist Convention and as such is sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices of entities of the convention.” It was a reaction to the exclusionary policies of the IMB. I was under the impression that after the convention spoke, the IMB would be obligated to negate their policies. I received a tutorial in Baptist polity from the Rev. Dr. Bart Barber, who explained that this commonly held notion of convention oversight is not our actual system. We elect the trustees and the trustees govern the institutions, boards and agencies. Our authority over the process pretty much ends there.
We don’t have to like it, but there are few options available to us.
- We can pass motions, which the entities will receive as information and accept or not accept (usually the latter).
- We can vote at the SBC to defund an entity until it complies (kind of a nuclear option that would almost certainly not be passed).
- Or, we can replace the trustees – that option takes time. The last option was how the CR actually took place. We elected presidents who appointed the committee that nominated the committee that nominated the trustees. It took a decade to elect trustee majorities that supported the movement, and the CR was effectively complete.
- Of course, we can engage in the noble Baptist tradition of expressing dissenting opinions and trying to bring public opinion to bear on the trustees, but they can hear us or not. The trustees of a Baptist entity govern that entity and there is little you or I can really do about that.
So it is. So it has always been. So it probably will always be.
The trustees of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary are under a lot of criticism for their announced candidate for the vacant presidency. I have the following observations about this:
1) It is the right and privilege of Baptists to dissent from this decision and to express that dissent. We do not have a Pope. We have a free church system that gives a pastor of a medium-sized church in Iowa the right to say, “I don’t like this decision” (as I recently did with LifeWay’s decision to relocate its World Changers ministries away from the non-South states and into the Deep South states). I get to have an opinion and express that opinion.
If you don’t think Dr. Jason Allen is qualified, or that his association with Dr. Mohler makes him suspicious, have at it. Be the Baptist Madonna (without the garish clothing). Express yourself.
2) It is the right and privilege of trustees to make these decisions. We have no right to demand that the trustees answer our questions or give account to us as they make their decision. It is unfair to act as if they are in dereliction of their duty when they do not respond to blogger’s inquiries or other requests for information. Maybe they will hear you. Maybe they won’t. But there is nothing in Baptist polity that gives us the right to expect that the trustees of Midwestern will give account or information to us prior to their decision. Hopefully, after their decision, they will share with us why they made the choice that they made.
3) It doesn’t much matter whether we “trust the trustees” or not. In our current system, they have the right to meet and make their decision as to whether Dr. Allen is qualified to be their president. We don’t have to trust them. Whether we do or not, the power rests in their hands.
4) It is foolish if the trustees ignore the Baptist public’s desire for information. I assert that Baptist entities and even trustees are more open, transparent and accountable now than they have been in the past. But the world of today is different than the world of 50 years ago, and the closed system of that era will not be accepted today. Bloggers and others in social media are going to have their say and the entities are foolish if they completely ignore public opinion or try to squelch it and intimidate those who speak it. The trustees of the seminary will be wise if, after making their decision, they are open, candid and transparent about the decision.
5) Just because someone dislikes the outcome does not mean that the system is broken. That has become the common refrain among us when we don’t like the vote at the SBC or at the trustee level. If they did not vote the way I wanted, the system must be corrupt or broken or rigged. But Baptist polity, for good or ill, is based on the fact that the majority that matters is the majority that votes at the SBC. They (we) decide. Any one of us can go there (if our churches send us) and have our voice. But Baptist polity only works if those who cannot muster a majority accept that decision. The only other option is the one liberal/moderates took back in the 90s – to leave.
But that is our system. We discuss. We vote. We do what the majority believes is right. We hope and pray that this majority was spiritually attuned. We move on.
These are just a few thoughts. Now, you can give your opinion.