So far, I have discussed how the political shift in the traditional SBC states, our growing ethnic diversity, and sweeping cultural changes have fed some of the conflicts we are currently facing. Today I will begin to address the roots of the tensions we are experiencing as we moved from being a southern regional convention of churches into a nationwide network. I have to start this discussion by admitting that the closer we are to a situation the less objective we can be in its analysis.
Some basic Baptist History is going to be required, and I will be as concise as possible. At its inception in 1845, Southern Baptist churches were located in fourteen states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. The purpose of the Convention as stated in Article II of the constitution is “to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories for the promotion of Christian missions at home or abroad.” To fulfill that goal, two mission boards were immediately formed: The Foreign Mission Board and The Domestic Mission Board. Our attention will be focused on the latter.
Ten years after its formation The Domestic Mission Board absorbed the work of the American Indian Association and the name was changed to the Domestic and Indian Mission Board. In 1874 its name was changed again to the Home Mission Board and remained so until 1997. With the approval of the Covenant for a New Century the Home Mission Board, Brotherhood Commission, and the Radio and Television Commission were combined to form the North American Mission Board (NAMB). At the 2010 SBC Annual Meeting with the approval of the Great Commission Resurgence Task Force Report, NAMB’s role was significantly redefined. The implementation of this change has generated the issues that many new work conventions are currently having with NAMB. But to understand why we need to put things in historical context.
At its inception, the fledgling convention had two major challenges as it sought to fulfill its stated purpose. The first was related to providing “a general organization for Baptists.” What is hard for us to picture from our perspective of SBC life is the reality that the newly formed convention was starting from absolute zero as it began to design a different way for Baptist churches to organize themselves. All the existing mission societies, both foreign and domestic, were in the north. But what some Southern Baptists envisioned was not just starting new mission societies in the south, but rather their goal was to create a convention model. Instead of multiple independent benevolent societies, one for each area of need, the idea was to organize a convention of churches that would create multiple boards to meet the various mission and ministry needs that would arise. This wasn’t a new idea. It is one based upon churches cooperating and collaborating through a unified funding process. The existing societal method was based upon individuals with specific interests supporting an independent society that is organized to meet those defined needs. Societies are in essence parachurch organizations funded primarily by the contributions of various individuals. A Baptist association or convention is a group of independent churches who choose to work together to identify, organize, and resource a variety of ministry and mission needs.
A “critical section of the new convention’s constitution was Article V, by which the body departed radically from the society principle that each organization should deal with only one benevolence. The new article provided:
The Convention shall elect at each triennial meeting as many Boards of Managers as in its judgment will be necessary for carrying out the benevolent objects it may determine to promote, all which Boards shall continue in office until a new election…To each Board shall be committed, during the recess of the Convention the entire management of all the affairs relating to the object with whose interest it shall be charged.”1
This convention model was not immediately nor universally affirmed. Specifically, the Domestic Mission Board had trouble gaining traction. Among many issues facing the board was leadership tenure. The first president and secretary resigned shortly after the board was formed. The next corresponding secretary served for only five months. “In addition [to them and] to several [others] who declined the office, eight men served as the corresponding secretary”2 by the turn of the 20th Century.
It should not surprise us to know that the board had “a basic organizational problem…They had not yet worked out the relationship of the local church, association, state convention, and Southern Baptist Convention. Many identified home mission work as the task of associations and state conventions. To them, the Mission Board seemed at best unnecessary duplication and at worst a rival to local work.”3 More in-depth analysis of our current reality will follow, but how many of us have had similar conversations related to the question “Who’s responsible for what?” or have made comments like “We don’t need and can’t afford SBC organizational duplication of ministries.” So we can say without contradiction that organizational issues are not new!
The second major challenge related to the new convention’s purpose was that of becoming a national body of churches: to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories. Although the new convention began to work on the organizational component from day one, the geographical expansion did not begin formally for over 150 years. The Civil War and Reconstruction years didn’t make the fledgling convention’s work easy.
Let me pause our journey into the past and ask that you reflect upon your own experience with Baptist life as it relates to the two major issues the convention faced in its early days. “What do you see as the strengths and weaknesses of having a convention rather than a societal/parachurch structure in Baptist life?” Since our official name is still the Southern Baptist Convention, although Great Commission Baptists was an alternative name approved at the 2012 convention, ask yourself, “Have we really embraced being a national network of churches?” You might have noticed that the theme for the 2021 SBC Annual Meeting in Nashville is We Are Great Commission Baptists.
1Page 167 of Robert A. Baker’s book The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People 1607- 1972.
2Page 425 of H. Leon McBeth’s book The Baptist Heritage.
3Page 425 of H. Leon McBeth’s book The Baptist Heritage.
Yours in Christ,
Mark R. Elliott, DoM
Retiring in April 2022, Mark R. Elliott served as a Director of Missions (Associational Mission Strategist) in Western Iowa and Eastern Nebraska for almost three decades. He is a strong advocate for obedience and Biblically based disciple making. As such, he knows that making healthy disciples requires Christian leaders to be constantly pursuing spiritual maturity—be lifelong learners. Because of the time constraints of ministry, most pastors focus their reading list on resources that assist them in teaching and preaching the Word of God. As such, books focusing on church health, leadership development, and church growth tend to find their way to the bottom of the stack. With that reality in mind, Mark has written discussion summaries on several books that have helped him to personally grow in Christ and that tend to find themselves on the bottom of most pastor’s stack. Many pastors have found them helpful as they are able to more quickly process great insights from other pastors and authors.