Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Southern Baptist Convention: What Are It?

Last week we were at the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) Annual Meeting in Indianappolis, Indiana. Baptists can be a different lot to understand so I thought I might try to explain what an Annual Meeting is and what it does.

For those of you not familiar with Southern Baptists it is important to remember that we are a "bottom up" organization. In other words we have no "governing authority" as far as a denomination goes. Each local church is a seperate entity and governs itself. Each church calls it's own ministry staff, each minister is ordained by a local church, not the denomination. Each church sets it's own budget and gives to the work of the SBC as it sees fit. The denomination of "Southern Baptists" is made up of those churches who wish to cooperate with each other. Churches can join or remove themselves and the Convention itself can vote to "dis-fellowship" a church.

This "Convention" is merely a gathering together for the purpose of joining in and doing such things as mission work, evangelism and education. To make a long story short when the "Convention" meets it has no authority to force any church to do anything. Most of the meeting is built around three or four main business functions. First, reports from various "Boards" and "Agencies" of the SBC like the International Mission Board, the North American Mission Board and six Seminaries just to name a few. The SBC exercises oversight of these entities by electing the Trustees for each one.

As an example of how this works well consider that the International Mission Board is the sending agency that deploys over 5,000 SBC Missionaries across the world. My church and the one down the street could hardly be able to send one. Together we fund a massive force.

A second portion of the meeting is the election of officers for the SBC. They serve one year terms and have fairly innocuous authority. The one exception is the President who leads in selecting the Committee which nominates Trustees for each entity. These nominations are rarely if ever opposed so the President effectively picks the people who will pick the Trustees.

The third important activity that makes up the meeting is the introduction of motions and resolutions from the floor. Motions are typically referred to one or more of the agencies to which they apply. In reality this means that we hardly ever actually get to vote on anything. One could get up and make a motion that we call day "day" and night "night" and it would be referred to some Board of Trustees. Every single motion this year was either ruled out of order or referred to one of the entities. Even if a motion is referred to the Trustees they are under no legal or constitutional duty to respond to it. Go figure.

Resolutions are different. They are statements of position or attitude that reflect the will of the Messengers at the Annual Meeting of the SBC. For example there is always a Resolution commending the host city for allowing us to meet and bring millions of dollars of revenue to local businesses. Most of the Resolutions, however, deal with matters of greater importance than thanking the city. For example this year we passed a motion condemning the California Supreme Court ruling allowing recognition of same sex marriage. Two years ago a motion was passed to condemn the use of alcohol. These resolutions represent the feeling of the people at the Convention at that time. It is important to understand that they have absolutely no binding authority on any individual church. If the SBC passed a resolution saying that all carpet in church should be blue it would have no authority over our church. We could have yellow carpet or stone tile or bare concrete.

I know it may sound convoluted but it is similar to the old saying about democracy, "It's the worst form of government in the world...except for all the others!"

I guess one way to describe all this is that Southern Baptists practice "freedom of church" and cooperation for missions and ministry. More to follow...