Autonomy and Cooperation in the SBC: Two Sides, One Coin

Autonomy and Cooperation in the SBC: Two Sides, One Coin

Autonomy and Cooperation in the SBC: Two Sides, One Coin

What is the SBC? What is the relationship between church autonomy and organized cooperation within our SBC ecosystem? Perhaps you have asked these questions lately. Many thoughtful SBC influencers I know agree that we stand at an existential crossroads today, although we would not all agree on the nature of the cross-sections or the appropriate path forward. Perhaps it would be helpful to at least agree upon the road we’ve walked together that led us to this pivotal moment. I would like to submit that, at a minimum, a proper understanding of our historical identity as a Convention is essential to a proper understanding of our present situation and future potential. An ancient historian once articulated a certain contentment that accompanies “an exact knowledge of the past,” which would become “an aid to understanding the future” (Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, 431 B.C.). His intention is my own.

For 400 years, Baptists have associated with like-minded autonomous churches for fellowship, education, and missions. The associational model was born into the cradle of seventeenth-century English religiopolitical persecution and reared on the back streets of English and American inter-congregational Great Commission cooperation. Reading early Baptist leaders, it doesn’t take long to see that whether Catholic, Anglican, or Presbyterian, Baptists were averse to anything “popish.” On two continents, they gathered autonomous churches, confessed their doctrines, and voluntarily cooperated in their shared mission. Each church was constitutionally independent, but for the sake of the Great Commission, they were voluntarily interdependent.

Local associations are where Baptists, for four centuries, have facilitated doctrinal accountability, contextualized ministry, and ongoing fellowship. Various confessions guided their cooperative efforts and guarded their fellowship. In the early nineteenth century, with a growing awareness of the global need for the gospel, Baptists in America desired a broader, more structured voluntary missional cooperation. The Triennial Convention was born in 1814, the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1821 (other states quickly followed), and then the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845. The biblical model of congregational autonomy was carried throughout the entire ecosystem of Baptist life.

Upon disagreement over appointing slaveholders as missionaries, in 1845 the SBC constituted by adopting the exact same constitution as the 1814 Triennial Convention. For 179 years, God has been gracious to affect such great gospel success from so embarrassing an organizational beginning. The purpose of the SBC would be to organize “a plan for eliciting, combining and directing the energies of the whole denomination in one sacred effort, for the propagation of the Gospel.” They would not be a denomination in the same sense as the Methodists, Presbyterians, and other ecclesiastical hierarchies—foreign to core Baptist doctrine throughout history is the imposition of hierarchical inter-congregational authority. Rather, they chose to acknowledge themselves as a subset of the evangelical whole (a “denomination”) while maintaining “the independence and equal rights of the Churches.”

The SBC first adopted a formal confession of faith in 1925, the same year it further streamlined its missions-funding mechanism, the “Cooperative Program.” Until 1931, messengers came to annual conventions from invested Baptist churches, associations, and mission societies. In 1931, the seating of messengers became limited to those who would come from “missionary Baptist co-operating churches” only. Throughout the years, organizational changes would occur regarding the seating of messengers from invested Baptist churches: “friendly cooperation” was added in 1948, a “Credentials Committee” in 1968, “closely identifies with the Convention’s statement of faith” in 2015, etc. But never has autonomy been endangered. Each church and each Baptist organization stands independent under the authority of Jesus Christ, choosing to (or not to) cooperate with the others. And any action of the Convention cannot force anything on a cooperating church.

In short, Baptist associations were formed for associating (rhythmic doctrinal and regional fellowship), then Baptist conventions were formed for convening (gathering to make decisions for an enlarged missional cooperation). At every level, like two sides of the same coin, local church autonomy and missional inter-congregational cooperation either work together or they do not work at all.

So, what is the SBC? It is an annual gathering of messengers from invested Baptist churches during which big decisions are made regarding general direction, fund allocation, and personnel appointments to facilitate the ongoing work of the shared mission. Within the SBC, voluntarily cooperating Baptist churches influence one another without exercising control over one another. So, are Baptist churches autonomous or cooperative? Flip a coin—either way, the answer is “yes.” Both autonomy and cooperation are historic Baptist doctrines, complimentary and concomitant from the earliest days of Baptist beginnings.

That’s a brief history of how we got to where we are.

As the SBC debates constitutional and mechanistic changes, every word must be carefully deliberated to ensure that neither autonomy nor cooperation are imperiled. We live in a fast-paced world, but the work of deliberation is long and hard. With 179 years of biblically grounded, missionally effective autonomy and cooperation behind us, let’s take the slow, deliberate road ahead rather than one that may seem quick and easy. Let’s listen to one another, stretch one another, exerting influence in such a way that provokes “love and good works,” (Heb 10:24–25). We walked the road behind us together through both trial and triumph. I pray we walk the road ahead with the same commitment to Christ and to one another.

About the Author

Dr. Tony Wolfe
Executive Director-Treasurer, South Carolina Baptist Convention

Dr. Tony Wolfe is the Executive Director-Treasurer of the South Carolina Baptist Convention. He holds degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and Lamar University. He has been married to his wife, Vanessa, since 2001, and they have two sons together. In his spare time Tony is an avid reader, writer, and fisher.

More About Dr. Tony Wolfe

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