The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)? What is it? What’s going on? Why do we cooperate?

This is the fourth article released by Pastor Rickey in a series entitled, “Tensions: Navigating Current Issues as a Kingdom Citizen.” You can also listen to this podcast here.

America’s largest Protestant denomination has been in the national spotlight the past few weeks. We have seen significant leaders leave the SBC this year, including author and speaker Beth Moore, Dr. Russell Moore, former President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC, and Pastor Charlie Dates, who spoke at our Encourager Conference in 2019. The SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville two weeks ago was the highest attended Annual Meeting since 1995 due, in part, to some of the polarizing and controversial topics being discussed. Needless to say, there are now many Southern Baptists looking at all of this and wondering, “What is going on with the SBC?”

I cannot unpack all of the issues—much less potential root causes underneath those issues—within the SBC in a single Tensions article. I have two goals with this edition of Tensions. First, since we have many within our body who did not grow up Southern Baptist, I want to provide clarity on what the Southern Baptist Convention is and how it differs from other denominations. Second, I want to address what has perhaps been the most discussed issue within the SBC recently, which happens to be the issue I have received the most questions about from church members: Has Critical Race Theory infiltrated the SBC? Let’s begin, however, by addressing the most basic question.

What is the Southern Baptist Convention?

The SBC exists in order for like-minded churches to cooperate for the purpose of missions as well as theological/ministerial training. The “SBC” refers to the national convention comprised of over 48,000 cooperating local churches. Within the national convention of churches, most individual states have at least one state convention. Some states, like Texas, have two state conventions (MacArthur Blvd is a part of the Southern Baptist of Texas Convention). Churches within the SBC give a portion of their financial resources through a mechanism known as the Cooperative Program (CP). About half of the funds we give support the operations and ministry of our state convention. The other half supports the major entities of the national convention. Most significantly, those entities include six SBC seminaries as well as two primary missional agencies, the International Mission Board (IMB) and the North American Mission Board (NAMB). The IMB fully supports over 3,500 international missionaries, and the NAMB fully supports over 3,000 missionaries and church planters domestically.

The word “cooperation” is important when trying to understand what the SBC is and what it is not. The SBC believes in the autonomy of the local church. This simply means that we believe each local church is free (under the rule of Christ) to govern herself. Unlike other denominations, there is no synod, presbytery, board, or any entity outside the local church that has authority over the church. This means that we are free (again, under the rule and leadership of Christ) to call our own Pastors, determine our own doctrinal convictions, set our own budgets, etc. without having to “answer” to an organizational hierarchy.

Even the official confession of faith for the SBC, the Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M), is not an authoritative document over SBC churches. Individual churches are free to set their own doctrinal convictions. The BF&M articulates shared beliefs of Southern Baptists and acts as guardrails for the entities of the SBC. Churches giving to missionary agencies and seminaries rightfully want to know the doctrinal boundaries of those institutions. The BF&M is not an authoritative creed enforced by a denominational authority upon SBC churches.

The concept of the SBC is simply that we, as churches, can do more cooperating together for the mission of God than we could do on our own. So, we voluntarily cooperate with other SBC churches to support the Great Commission. While you might hear of the “Presbyterian Church,” the “Roman Catholic Church,” or the “United Methodist Church,” you will not hear of the “Southern Baptist Church.” There is no “Southern Baptist Church.” There are only Southern Baptist churches that cooperate together. We are not an ecclesial unity in that sense but a cooperative convention of churches.

This is important to keep in mind as you hear of SBC leaders or other SBC churches who believe or practice their faith differently on secondary issues than we do at MacArthur Blvd. We as a church will be held accountable for how we exercise our faith just as other SBC churches will be held accountable for how they exercise theirs. While we do want doctrinal alignment on certain matters within the SBC so that we can give to SBC entities in good faith, the nature of the SBC means that doctrinal uniformity on every issue is not required. Cooperation requires defined doctrinal boundaries, which the BF&M provides, and also flexibility within those boundaries as we work together in the Great Commission. Stiff rigidity and cooperation cannot coexist.

Why do we cooperate with the SBC? We believe we can do more for the Great Commission by cooperating with other like-minded churches than we could do on our own. We believe in the missional efforts of the SBC mission agencies and the SBC seminaries and thus believe cooperation is wise stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to us. 

Critical Race Theory in the SBC

A primary topic causing contention within the SBC currently is Critical Race Theory (CRT). One of the challenges with this discussion is that so few people are able to (or even attempt to) define CRT. CRT is an analytical tool that attempts to explain how race has and continues to function in society. CRT is a subset of the larger discipline of “critical theory,” which is an ideology more popularly known as “cultural Marxism.” As with any secular ideology, CRT does make some true and helpful observations about the world, but it fails to properly diagnose ultimate reasons behind social ills (i.e. racism) as well as fails to offer adequate ultimate solutions to the problems it identifies.

My goal here is not to offer a full explanation or critique of CRT but instead to overview why CRT has dominated conversation within SBC life recently. Some Pastors and leaders within the SBC have claimed there is a liberal drift occurring in the SBC and that CRT specifically has infiltrated our SBC seminaries. Specific concern has been raised over Resolution 9 passed at the 2019 SBC Annual Meeting entitled, On Critical Race Theory and Intersectionality (you can read this resolution with a simple Google search). Newly elected president of the SBC, Pastor Ed Litton, has been accused, by some, of being a part of a moderate segment within the SBC that is drifting to the left theologically.

I have no desire to defend or argue on behalf of CRT. I do believe that, while CRT makes some factually true observations about the world, it presents a holistic view of the world that is not compatible with the Gospel. I do fear, however, that CRT has become a “boogie-man” within the SBC. What do I mean? Well, if the boogie-man were in your house, you would be right to be afraid because the boogie-man is indeed dangerous. And yet, in reality, the boogie-man is not in your house. As I attended the SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville a couple weeks ago, I was able to hear directly from all six of our SBC seminary presidents as well as the other entity heads of the SBC. All of the seminary presidents, without exception, denounced CRT as a worldview and made it clear that our seminaries do not advocate CRT within their classes. To be sure, CRT is a real ideology operative in broader American culture. However, CRT is not in our seminaries.

Newly elected SBC president, Ed Litton, has gone on the record to state on multiple occasions that he does not embrace CRT as a worldview. The messengers of the SBC Annual Meeting overwhelmingly passed a resolution (Resolution 2: On The Sufficiency Of Scripture For Race and Racial Reconciliation) upholding our belief in the sufficiency of Scripture and how every theory or worldview of man must be judged by the authority of God’s word. I have not seen any evidence to suggest that there is a liberal drift in our convention generally, or that CRT specifically has infiltrated the SBC. I have not seen any evidence to suggest that the new SBC President, Ed Litton, should rightfully be labeled “moderate” in his theology.

What I do see is that the SBC continues to become increasingly multiethnic. 23% of SBC churches are predominately non-white. 60% of the churches planted by the SBC in the past decade are predominately non-white. Given the racist origins of the SBC, these encouraging signs are testimonies of God’s power and grace. Further, many SBC churches are doing more to facilitate conversations around racial reconciliation and to speak out against racism. This is not, in my estimation, driven by any secular ideology or an attempt to placate culture, but instead is driven by the Gospel, which speaks first to our vertical reconciliation to God and also to our horizontal reconciliation to one another in Christ. To prioritize racial reconciliation does not make one pro-CRT.

I do fear that our justifiable aversion to CRT or the liberal trajectory of American culture can become an unjustifiable excuse to avoid talking candidly about racism and functional segregation within the church. If we are not careful, we will find ourselves “straining out the gnat” while “swallowing the camel” (Matthew 23:24). We’ll feel justified to ignore the concerns, experiences, or outcries of our brothers and sisters of color (and potentially even harbor racism in our own hearts) because at least we’re not like those sinful, cultural Marxists.

If you have had concerns about CRT within the SBC, I would simply encourage you to rely on primary sources to investigate these claims. Read Resolution 9 from the 2019 Annual Meeting for yourself. Read Resolution 2 from the 2021 Annual Meeting for yourself. Because of the technology age we live in, you can go back and listen to the seminary presidents’ reports from the 2021 Annual meeting. Narrative is a powerful force, and I fear there are many false narratives being developed about the SBC. Christian charity requires us to listen to one another, to extend the benefit of doubt, and to reject gossip and speculation.

Final Thoughts

There was a lot from the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting that encouraged me. I was encouraged by the election of Ed Litton as the new president of the SBC. He appears to be a man of God who is theologically conservative, passionate about the Great Commission, and focused on bringing unity in our convention around the gospel of Jesus Christ.

I was encouraged by the 64 new missionaries that were commissioned to take the gospel overseas. I was encouraged by great sermons by pastors like J.D. Greear, Tony Evans, and Willy Rice, all of which I would recommend to you and can be accessed online. I was encouraged by the overall spirit of unity and love that characterized the discussion and debate at the Annual Meeting. This spirit is not a given in a room of well over 15,000 messengers, all of which have the ability to walk up to one of twelve open mics to offer their perspective. I was encouraged by the times of spontaneous prayer that permeated the SBC Annual Meeting.

I was encouraged by the messengers’ insistence for transparency and accountability, particularly on matters related to how sexual abuse claims have been handled. This included a motion that was overwhelmingly passed to have a task force oversee a third-party investigation of the alleged mishandling of sexual abuse claims by the SBC Executive Committee. The messengers of the SBC made a strong statement that we must continue to strive to do better in how we respond to abuse claims within our denominational entities and churches and in how we care for abuse victims. This was all, by God’s grace, very encouraging to see.

There is a lot of rhetoric about problems in the SBC in the national media and on social media. Much of that rhetoric is exaggerated and misinformed. Our convention is not perfect. We must continue to strive to do better in many areas, but the SBC is not what you see on Twitter, CNN, or Fox News. The SBC is not its entities or even those who lead its entities. The SBC is simply the local churches who cooperate together for the mission of God, and with that in mind, there is much to be encouraged by within the SBC. What’s true of a local church is also true of the SBC as a whole: We are at our best when we stop fighting with each other and start working together for discipleship and to take the gospel to the ends of the earth. May it be so, both here at MacArthur Blvd and within the Southern Baptist Convention.

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