As Baptist Press has reported, and as William Thornton has already discussed, Dr. John Mark Yeats’s motion about revising Article III in the SBC Constitution has passed the Executive Committee and is likely coming in some form or another to this year’s SBC Annual Meeting. Thornton’s previous post and the ensuing comment thread examined several aspects of this proposal, but one question in Thornton’s initial article is perhaps the most poignant: “Does the Executive Committee think that there is some compelling reason to make a change other than that the dollar figure hasn’t been changed since 1888. If so, what is that reason?”
John Godfrey Saxe (and not Otto von Bismark) famously said, “Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion as we know how they are made.” This is perhaps equally true of Southern Baptist parliamentary work, and in this particular case, God gave me the opportunity to observe this sausage’s progress from feedlot to frying pan. A few months before last year’s Annual Meeting I spoke with John Mark Yeats about the motion he was planning to make. I was present in Houston when he made it and when it was referred to the Executive Committee. I attended both Executive Committee meetings in which it received deliberation, including the workgroup and subcommittee meetings at which our EC members hammered out the details. I spoke with people on all sides—and there were many sides—of the deliberations as they proceeded. I myself took an interest in the measure and was among those advocating for one direction or another regarding its eventual disposition.
One reason why I lay out my credentials on this matter is that the text of the proposal does not appear in the BP article, so for the moment you’re going to have to take my word regarding portions of how it reads. There’s a lot more to it than the article gives you. In writing this article I divulge no confidences. Every bit of this was discussed in open meetings which you, too, could have attended this week in Nashville just as I did.
Oh…one last thing: I left the Executive Committee meeting early to visit my mother. Hey—I was attending on my own dime and my own time, and she cooked smothered pork chops for me. She won; the SBC lost. Get over it. So, since I didn’t attend the last plenary session, it is possible that the proposal was altered significantly before final passage at the EC meeting. If I’ve misrepresented the proposal below, then I do most sincerely apologize.
This particular piece of legislation, much like sausage, is a ground up mishmash of various constituent parts. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is bad (I, and a lot of people, LIKE sausage); it just means that searches like William’s for a coherent unifying theme or singular purpose behind the measure are likely to end in failure. Even if a proposal does not have one good reason for its passage in its entirety, that does not mean that it does not have six good reasons for the passage of its respective parts. And, furthermore, even if four reasons are good and two are less commendable, it may still be worthwhile to hold your nose and pass the two you don’t like in order to get the four good ones.
I rarely face such decisions in my blogging or other writing, but I find them all too common in my local pastoral work and my denominational involvement.
And so, permit me to give my thoughts about this proposal piece-by-piece rather than as a whole.
The Part About the Baptist Faith & Message
This is the best thing about this entire proposal: It defines friendly cooperation with the convention to exclude from friendly cooperation those churches who deliberately and publicly demonstrate their opposition to the convention’s statement of faith, The Baptist Faith & Message (which, as our friend Nathan Finn so eloquently reminds us, is and only is the document in its latest revision). I do not recall the precise wording of this portion of the proposal, but the effect is what I have written in the preceding sentence.
This is needed. No, this is DESPERATELY needed. It is needed because churches guilty of rebelling against what God teaches about race ought to be as vulnerable to expulsion from the convention as are churches guilty of rebelling against what God teaches about sexuality. And yet we ought not incessantly to be adding issues one-by-one to the present Article III to make sure that we catch everything. First homosexuality. Then racism. Then pro-abortion. Then churches that hire pedophiles. Then…then who knows what? The best thing to do is to identify the SBC clearly as a confessional fellowship of churches and thereby to simplify the article and clarify the whole situation.
I realize that this part of the measure will likely make some people at least a little bit uncomfortable. I have three such categories of people in mind. The first category consists of those churches who are trying to walk the fence between the SBC and the CBF. In my opinion, the purpose of this proposal is to make it impossible to do that, and (again, in my opinion) that’s one good reason to vote in favor of the proposal.
I say this not because I have any sort of a vendetta against CBF churches, but because (as I hope we can all agree) the CBF and the SBC represent two different and entirely incompatible visions for the future of churches. It is healthy neither for the SBC nor for any church to hesitate between two opinions on the issues that divide the SBC and the CBF.
The second category consists of those churches who practice open communion (or worse) in the SBC. It would be the effect of this measure, they will remind us, to make the practice of open communion a dismissible offense in the Southern Baptist Convention. To that group I would have to concede that their reading of the proposal would be correct, but I would remind you that the wording of Article III would not dismiss a church for practicing open communion; it would only make the practice of open communion one of the grounds by which a church could possibly be dismissed. The convention assembled would still have to vote to boot you. I (who think that open communion is a sign of our present weakness) think it far more likely that the SBC would vote to amend the BF&M on this point than that the convention would actually vote to exclude any church for the practice of open communion. And indeed, should we come to use this document in a way in which we have never used this particular document before, we may find that a very few revisions are expedient. I urge you to look at this matter realistically and to consider not so much the enforcement of the BF&M in its present form as the general idea of having a confessional fellowship in lieu of trying to tack on a running laundry list of dismissible offenses to Article III.
The third category consists of those churches who are simply opposed to this use of a statement of faith by the convention. Although this category will significantly overlap with the first category, it will not perfectly overlap with it. Some among them will claim that this is a new creedalism that runs contrary to Baptist principles. I would ask them to look, among other places, to the beginnings of Baptist associationalism in the USA. The Philadelphia Baptist Association required member churches to promise upon pain of dismissal not even to hire pastors who did not agree with the Philadelphia Baptist Confession. Baptist churches are free and autonomous. One element of this autonomy is the right of churches to choose freely with which other churches they will affiliate. To state that a church or a group of churches has not the right to consider doctrine when choosing inter-congregational affiliations is to undermine church autonomy, not to protect it. Southern Baptist churches have the right to say that their cooperative affiliation with one another will be based upon some lowest common denominator of doctrinal agreement.
There is, of course, a fourth category, which is more populous than you might think: The category of churches who thought it was already the case that churches who were at odds with the convention’s statement of faith could not be members of the convention.
So, who is behind this part of the proposal and what problem does it solve? Supporters of the Conservative Resurgence are behind it, and it solves the problem of churches who have long ago left the SBC for the CBF but who, through neglect on their part or oversight on our part, remain listed as Southern Baptist churches. It gives a basis for the Southern Baptist Convention to act upon what has been utterly clear for a long time within the SBC: The questions of biblical inerrancy, gender complementarianism, conjugal marriage, racial equality, et al are all stare decisis within the Southern Baptist Convention, and our path forward as a convention is as a fellowship of churches who are unified on those questions. Let’s not be coy: Among others, I am someone who supports this part of the proposal.
The Part about Affiliation as a Result of Church Action
Part of the proposal requires that requests for affiliation be the result of an official action on the part of the church to affiliate with the SBC. This is a good change. Occasionally some non-SBC church having a staff member or two who attends an SBC seminary will ask whether a $10 contribution will affiliate them with the SBC so that the staff member can receive a 50% tuition discount. Sometimes these phone calls come from the church staff without having been before the church at all—they have no intention of affiliating; they just want to join a seminary discount club. This measure would require that affiliating churches be actual affiliating churches. That’s a good thing, and it costs us nothing. I did not come up with this idea, but I support it.
If an entire church wants to affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention just to receive discounted tuition from an SBC seminary, and if they are in agreement with our confession of faith, then I say we roll out the red carpet and welcome them in. I think that the church who becomes Southern Baptist may well discover the joy and blessedness of being among our number and may decide to stay once the seminary student graduates. But that’s never going to happen in a stealth affiliation in which the church never even knows that they affiliated with us.
The Part about Messenger Allocation
Let me just say this up-front: I don’t think that this new formula is going to affect even our smallest churches adversely. Frankly, in my experience, smaller churches are more likely to give 10% through the Cooperative Program than are large churches. One Executive Committee member from a rural association went through his association’s roster of churches one-by-one and was unable to find a single church that would have a reduced messenger count because of this formula revision.
By the way, in case you didn’t read the original article, here’s a summation of the new formula: Churches get 2 messengers for giving anything at all, then they get as many as ten additional messengers allotted either one for each percentage of their undesignated receipts that they give to convention causes or one for each $6,000 that they give to convention causes. The two methods cannot be mixed or combined, and whichever approach gives the church the most messengers is the one that the convention will use.
For example, my grandfather-in-law attends the Cedar Bluff Baptist Church of Falcon, MO. This church’s average Sunday worship attendance was 24 for the 2013 reporting year. Their annual undesignated receipts are near the hypothetical $50,000 figure that some of us discussed among ourselves at this week’s Executive Committee meeting. At present this church qualifies for messengers as follows:
|Qualifying Action||Messengers Awarded|
|Entry-level “bona fide contribution”||1|
|Gifts to “Convention Causes” (CP, LMCO, AAEO) of $8,883||9|
Under the new rules, if adopted, the convention would award messengers to this church as follows:
|Qualifying Action||Messengers Awarded|
|Entry-level “bona fide contribution”||2|
|Gifts to “Convention Causes” (CP, LMCO, AAEO) of $8,883 (20% of undesignated receipts)||10|
So, when you consider that all of a church’s Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong gifts, as well as any other gifts made to convention causes, get added onto Cooperative Program giving, and then ALL of that giving (including that which came out of designated funds) gets expressed as a percentage of undesignated giving alone, you start to see that most of the Southern Baptist Churches who are participating very much at all as good-faith partners in convention work are going to earn more messenger slots than they are presently using.
I do not think that this measure will be harmful to smaller churches in the SBC.
However, I must tell you that I don’t much like this part of the proposal. I’d rather that we simply award a flat number of messengers to each church. After all, that’s going to be the effect no matter what we do. Prestonwood is going to get 12 messengers. FBC Farmersville (where I serve) is going to get 12 messengers. Cedar Bluff Baptist Church is going to get 12 messengers. Any church that gives a rip about having messengers is going to get 12 messengers. Why not just give every church 12 messengers? Really, how many churches are there going to be who agree with our statement of faith (see the first part of the post) but who can’t find CP giving and designated gifts to convention causes that add up to a high enough percentage of their undesignated receipts or a high enough dollar figure for them to send to the Annual Meeting every last blessed messenger that they want to send?
But I lost that argument. Nevertheless, even having lost it, I still think that the good outweighs the bad in the overall proposal.
Who wants this part of the proposal? What problem does it solve? There are those who want to send a message of encouragement to those churches who sacrificially support convention causes and a message of friendly and fraternal challenge to those churches who do not. The CP Boosters wanted this one. Wait…no…actually I AM a CP Booster, but I didn’t want it. Let’s just say that some CP Boosters with particular theories about how to be a good CP Booster wanted this one.
I couldn’t find anybody who seriously thought that this action would raise the level of CP giving. I couldn’t find anybody who seriously thought that this action would reduce the number of churches who give pittances just to retain SBC affiliation and secure a discount. As far as I can tell, the only reason for having a formula like this is that people wanted the wording of Article III to reflect an opinion about how much the convention appreciates the financial contributions of churches. Let me put it plainly: I think that some people are terrified to send, even inadvertently, any sort of implied message that a church’s giving level does not matter. It seems unjust to them. It seems risky to them. The risk in view, I suspect, is more that the convention might offend those churches who do give 10% through the Cooperative Program by slighting them than that freeloading churches would choose to give even less than they do now because of changes to this article.
For my part, I don’t think there are a handful of churches in the whole convention who choose their strategies for financial support of SBC ministries based upon the wording of Article III, nor that many who look there to discover the convention’s institutional attitude toward donor churches.
By the way, the $6000 figure came from a simply rough adjustment of the old $250 figure for inflation since the 1880s.
The “Katrina Clause”
The proposal includes a final provision that would allow churches undergoing any sort of catastrophic event to notify the convention of such and to freeze their messenger allotments at a fixed level for up to three years. To tell you the truth, I really don’t know who wanted this or why. I did hear somebody say that this would send a compassionate message to suffering churches from the convention.
I’m not quite sure that’s why we have Article III, but OK.
Since a church can’t get any more messengers through the Katrina clause than they had earned the year before calamity befell them, I think the opportunities here for mischief are probably few and minimal. This provision does not bother me much.
So there you go. Who wants this? Lots of different people want different little parts of it. Most people involved in the process got something that they wanted. Most people involved in the process gave up something they wanted. What problem does it solve? Some here, some there. Maybe it creates some problems, too, along the way. Are the problems created smaller than the problems solved? Is it a net gain or a net loss? We will have to decide. Southern Baptists will have an opportunity to consider it all, weigh it in the balance, send feedback, and affect the eventual shape of this proposal to suit their collective liking. That’s the way our process works. Nothing will happen without your consent (or neglect). In the end, Article III will read not as John Mark Yeats or Bart Barber or the Executive Committee wants it to read; it will read as the messengers of the convention vote for it to read.
After all, this system really does work better than any alternative that I can imagine. Sometimes it is complicated and unwieldy, but that’s only because sometimes WE are complicated and unwieldy. I know of no means of simplification that doesn’t consolidate power in the convention far away from you and into the hands of others. In which case the wording of Article III would not matter nearly so much as it really does now.