One of the long running narratives about our Grand Old Convention is that it doesn’t take much to become a Southern Baptist Church.
That’s a false narrative. Here’s what it takes:
Local SBC associations have extensive and detailed requirements and processes for churches to join. Here is the web page for my local association in Georgia. There are 1,116 SBC associations. I can offer anecdotal reports for the handful of associations in which I have participated. There are committees involved, examinations of doctrine and practices, a waiting period, and a formal vote for acceptance at the association’s annual meeting.
SBC state conventions, and there are currently 41 of these, have essentially the same requirements. Here is the web page for my state convention here in Georgia. The great majority of churches affiliate through the local association but bypassing the association is possible. In those cases, a process is involved that covers the same grounds just not by committee.
The national SBC handles affiliation mostly through state conventions. Very, very few churches have joined the national SBC in the past couple of decades directly, that is, bypassing any state convention. I’m informed that the number is around one per year. Quite rare. Here is the SBC EC’s site.
Here is the EC’s listing of “Church affirmations” required to join:
A few comments on the national SBC’s “affirmations”:
- Contributions are required but not Cooperative Program contributions. A church can send direct to the EC, or the national entities. Naturally, the EC promotes the CP, thus the heading “Cooperative Program.”
- A church does not have to formally affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 but they must demonstrate a faith and practice that is “closely identifie[d]” with the BFM2K. No church I pastored formally affirmed the BFM2K although I wouldn’t object to it.
- The affirmation of the SBC’s mission and method of cooperation is rather vague to me. I suppose I would know it if I saw the lack of the same. The only item mentioned in the SBC constitution is the regular filing of the annual report, an action that a growing number of churches already SBC are foregoing. Churches that fail to maintain these affirmations and actions are a separate problem in the SBC.
- Because of autonomy, there is no routine audit of churches. A wayward congregation has to do something untoward to get noticed, I suppose.
- The church has to obtain a church ID before they are put in the SBCnet database. LifeWay assigns these, I think.
- Again, a church doesn’t have to be a member of a state convention or association to join the SBC, but almost all are. Autonomy. Autonomy. Autonomy.
- I’m told that the fact that the EC now has a web portal for new churches has increased the interest in joining the national SBC and bypassing the state conventions. This may deserve its own discussion.
- At no level is membership, affiliation achieved by merely sending a check.
- For the record, it’s a big deal to affirm doctrinal convictions. What would be greater than that for a church?
My view is that these (association, state, national) are about right – not too hard, not too easy. The churches I pastored were an average of about 150 years old. One was established prior to the SBC’s creation in 1845 or its predecessor, the Triennial Convention (1814).
I never considered joining the SBC because my churches have always been SBC. I kept it that way and once was told that I “saved the church” from leaving the SBC. I don’t know what credit there is for that but I did what I could and was unapologetic about it.
I’ll close this with my appreciation for local, state, and national SBC personnel who try their best to handle membership matters. It is becoming a more difficult job, I think.
The subtitle to this came out of a recent discussion and would be, “Could a sneaky Lutheran church join the national SBC?”
The answer: Only if affirmed what they didn’t really affirm, since we differ on several important doctrines and practices. Same for Methodists, Presbys, and others. Not that I have anything against Lutherans. My old rock and gem club meets in a Lutheran church. I’d go. Sit. Listen. And go home. Sort of like a Baptist church.
A valid criticism of autonomy is that local churches may be lax in their practices, since there are only very loose requirements for affiliation. A church may ordain a ham sandwich. Revocation of ordination credentials is almost unheard of, a scandal in itself I think. But no one can tell a church what to do about a scandalous dude they ordained years ago. There is no such thing as an approved, certified, qualified SBC minister. No seminary degree is required. No doctrinal exam is required.