This week the Madison Baptist Association in Huntsville has made the news because of the action they took on Tuesday to remove Weatherly Heights Baptist Church from fellowship in the association. This action stemmed from the support of and participation in gay weddings by some ministers from the church. As I watched & read the media reports of this story, I was reminded again that the news media struggles to understand Southern Baptist polity – that is how our denomination is governed. In addition, over the years I have found that many Southern Baptists do not understand our polity. On a number of occasions, I have had church members who had heard about actions taken by another Southern Baptist church and came to my office saying, “Our denomination is going liberal. Someone should have stopped that church from ordaining that person or calling that pastor.” So, please keep reading for a brief but much needed lesson on Baptist polity. One point before I go further: I am writing here about my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches. There are other “varieties” of Baptists that I am not addressing in this post.
(1) Every Southern Baptist church is fully independent & autonomous. Each of 45,000+ Southern Baptist churches owns its own property, calls it own pastors, and makes its own decisions. The national Southern Baptist Convention and the Alabama Baptist State Convention have no authority to tell a local church to do (or not do) anything. This is much different than how other denominations are governed. For instance, in the United Methodist Church, the denominational leadership appoints the pastors of the local churches, and it is my understanding that the denomination owns the property of each local congregation.
(2) Southern Baptists have organized to cooperate for missions & ministry on three levels. Local Baptist associations are groups of churches that cooperate together for ministry in a local geographic area. In the South, local associations are often organized by county since there tend to be a large number of SBC churches in each county, while associations in other parts of the country might comprise several counties. State Conventions were also formed to provide avenues for ministry & missions on a statewide level. Many state conventions have entities that no church or local association could support by themselves, such as colleges, children’s homes, conference centers, etc. Finally, the national Southern Baptist Convention is where the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, and our six SBC seminaries are governed. As a result, the church I serve is a cooperating member of the Birmingham Baptist Association, the Alabama Baptist State Convention, and the national Southern Baptist Convention.
(3) Participation in & contribution to these three levels is determined by each local church. Since every church is autonomous and makes its own decisions, each church decides its level of missions giving. Cooperation is voluntary – never forced. If a church reduces or stops giving its money, they are not sent a “bill” or otherwise pressured to restore the funding. This is why I have heard the Southern Baptist Convention described as “a rope of sand” because there is no top down authority for funding and participation.
(4) Baptist cooperation goes both ways. Like the situation up in Huntsville shows, Baptist polity also means that local associations, state conventions, and the national SBC have the right to determine who they are cooperating with. That local association decided that Weatherly Heights Baptist Church no longer was in agreement with the beliefs & practices of the association, so they voted to withdraw fellowship from them. This action does not violate principle # 1 above because no one is questioning that local church’s right to believe and practice their faith as they see fit. The autonomy of the local church is still very much alive and well. No one is saying that Weatherly Heights must remove the word “Baptist” from its name, etc. Weatherly Heights still owns its own buildings, calls its own pastors, and makes its own decisions, but so does the Madison Baptist Association. Cooperation goes both ways. If the Madison Baptist Association had chosen to do nothing or to endorse the church’s position, then every other church would have autonomously decided if they wished to continue participating in the association.
Finally, there is no perfect model for church or denominational government. There are “pros & cons” to each of the different models. It is not the intent of this post to discuss those, but rather to help us understand in a more clear way how the denomination I am part of operates. The Southern Baptist Convention is not perfect, but it is my home and the home of the church I serve.