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"There should be an 'Abstract of Principles', or careful statement of theological belief, which every professor in such an institution must sign when inaugurated, so as to guard against the rise of erroneous and injurious instruction in such a seat of sacred learning."

James P. Boyce
from "Three Changes in
Theological Institutions"
- summarized by John Broadus, 1856

Cooperative Program

The Original Intent of the Cooperative Program

D. August Boto

Prior to 1925 Southern Baptist churches were attempting to send direct support to Southern Baptist agencies and institutions.  It was not uncommon for churches to be visited by entity leaders appealing for increased giving to that particular agency or institution.  This societal method of giving was becoming less and less productive and the witness of the Southern Baptist Convention was beginning to suffer for the lack of funds necessary to fulfill the gigantic task of spreading the Gospel throughout the world in obedience to the Great Commission.    

During this time of uncertainty in the Convention, God, in His infinite grace, answered the prayers of Convention leaders by giving them an innovative plan of unified giving that was and is compatible with God’s Word.  Since its inception, the plan and its consistency, dependability, and productivity have become objects of admiration among other gospel-spreading denominations.

The plan was named the Cooperative Program, a perfectly suited name to be utilized in a Convention of churches pledging to work together for the cause of world missions, yet with each church and the Convention maintaining a strong commitment to the biblical principle of autonomy of the local church.  Through the years, most Southern Baptist leaders have been careful to note that churches give through, rather than to, the Cooperative Program.  This distinction is important because although Southern Baptists give through the Cooperative Program, they give to world missions.

Beginning with the inception of the Cooperative Program in 1925, a Southern Baptist church, which wishes to, sends a percentage of its undesignated receipts to its state convention.  A state convention approves a percentage of these receipts to be retained in the state and forwards the remaining funds to the Southern Baptist Convention to be distributed to entities of the Convention through its Cooperative Program Allocation Budget. The Cooperative Program, the primary mechanism for the support of missions in the denomination, enables Southern Baptists to work together to spread God’s Word globally on a scale that is impossible for churches to accomplish by working independently of each other.  While urging the churches to give priority to undesignated giving through the Cooperative Program, the Convention recognizes and commends churches that are supporting direct mission causes through their local church budgets in addition to the Cooperative Program.

The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions predated the Cooperative Program and were the only offerings which were officially approved and continued annually by the Southern Baptist Convention upon the adoption of the Cooperative Program as the unified plan of giving among the churches. 

In recent years, the question has been raised as to whether the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions (or any other state, specific purpose, or designated offerings) were originally understood to be a part of the Cooperative Program.  Confusion has arisen due to at least three factors:

  1. no succinct, approved and recorded definition of the Cooperative Program in 1925,
  2. the lapse of time between 1925 and the present, and
  3. a variety of conflicting descriptions of the Cooperative Program made during the several years after its adoption and before it was officially defined. 

The first factor above was dealt with by the Convention in 2007 when it adopted the following statement as the official definition of the Cooperative Program:

The Cooperative Program (CP) is Southern Baptists' unified plan of giving through which cooperating Southern Baptist churches give a percentage of their undesignated receipts in support of their respective state convention and the Southern Baptist Convention missions and ministries.

The second factor above (ie. the passage of time) has resulted in a “collective forgetfulness” among some Southern Baptists at two major points: a) the Cooperative Program sprang from a failed system (the “societal” method) that had threatened the continued existence of the Convention and it missionary work, and is thus a solution of monumental proportion, and b) the Cooperative Program’s success lies in its emphasis on a unified offering and its de-emphasis of designated offerings.

The fact that Southern Baptists no longer perceive the dangers inherent in the societal method is illustrated by occasional suggestions of new “special offerings,” and recurrent expressions of opinion that one or the other approved mission offerings is preferred over, or more productive than, the Cooperative Program.  The fact that the societal method ultimately fails is borne out by even the most casual review of the Convention’s history before 1925 – a history containing multiple examples of near financial failure.

The fact that Southern Baptists, through the Cooperative Program, were trying something new, and thus intending to de-emphasize designated offerings, also has ample support in history.  For instance, it is illustrated by a statement made before the messengers attending the SBC annual meeting in Memphis in 1925 by Convention president George McDaniel, who said, “Here is where I take my stand . . . appeals for special objects I cannot heed, for I am going my limit for the Cooperative Program.” Also, in the 2005 book One Sacred Effort by Chad Brand and David E. Hankins the shift in emphasis is remarked upon as follows (at p. 97) “The commitment to a unified budget was central.  ‘At this point our Unified Program will either break or be saved.  If it should break at this point, by an under-emphasis upon the whole program and an over-emphasis upon the individual object, then we will find ourselves back where we were five years ago, with every object contending for all it can obtain, to the exclusion of other equally worthy commitments’” (stating a 1924 quote from M. E. Dodd).

Nevertheless, it took a while for Southern Baptists to fully absorb the shift in emphasis, thus leading to the third confusing factor stated above – conflicting descriptions.  During the learning curve, statements were sometimes made that were contrary to the original understanding.  For instance, the Woman’s Missionary Union report for 1927 referred to the foreign missions offering as “Cooperative Program funds.”

Also, some years later, in 1958, an editing error in the Cooperative Program article in the first printing of The Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists perpetuated confusion.  The article was attributed to Austin Crouch who eleven years earlier had retired from having served as the SBC Executive Committee’s first executive secretary, and who had died prior to the encyclopedia’s initial publication.  For now undiscoverable reasons, the article (on p. 323) describes the Cooperative Program in a way that led readers to believe it included all designated funds and special offerings.  The article includes references to Convention actions in 1925, 1927, and 1929, none of which, however, explicitly support its erroneous description, though some ambiguity exists in some descriptive statements.

For instance, there are some statements in the 1927 report of the CP Commission which might appear to support the view that designated gifts were intended to be included as a part of, rather than distinct from, the Cooperative Program.  But they seem to be rebutted sufficiently at the end of that same report in the Commission’s sixth recommendation, found on page 46 of the 1927 SBC Annual, where the clarifying statement is made “The special thank-offerings for State and Home Missions, and the Christmas offering for Foreign Missions ingathered during the Week of Prayer of the Woman’s Missionary Union for these respective causes shall be recognized as gifts in addition to the regular contribution to the Cooperative Program” (emphasis mine).

And even before then, at the very outset of the Cooperative Program in 1925, a fairly clear statement showing designations to be outside the original intent is made on pages 35 and 36 of that year’s SBC Annual by the Future Program Commission which proposed it.  The commission said,

“While we recognize the right of individuals and churches to designate their gifts, we urge most insistently that contributions be made to the whole program and that pastors and denominational representatives and all others of our workers present the whole program and impress upon the people the importance of unity in its support.  Gifts made to special objects should be over and above a liberal support of the Co-Operative Program; . . .”

A large part of the ambiguity resides in the repeated use, during those few early years, of the phrase “designated and undesignated” included in sentences also referring to the Cooperative Program.  Some argument can be made for understanding this phrase as intending to include the gifts of individuals who might give directly (or “designate”) their gifts to the Cooperative Program.  Such references are found in the 1925 SBC Annual at pages 30 and 31, at the top of page 38 in the 1927 SBC Annual (where Sunday School members were asked to give a dollar apiece to the Cooperative Program), on page 41 in the 1928 SBC Annual (where the Executive Committee recommends the “personal solicitation of large gifts from individuals of large means be made for the Cooperative Program”), and at point 5 on page 76 of the 1929 SBC Annual (where individuals are urged “to make a generous cash offering to the Co-operative Program”).

Whatever the reasons for the early minor confusion on the point, the encyclopedia paragraph containing the misstatement was only included in the encyclopedia’s first and second printing.  Beginning with the third printing, the paragraph was corrected, and all successive printings uniformly described the Cooperative Program as NOT including designated funds or the special missions offerings.  Both renditions (the incorrect and the correct) are attributed to Crouch.  In 1971, when a supplement for the encyclopedia was produced, Albert McClellan wrote a monograph in that supplement (at p. 1666) explicitly noting the error, stating:

“The Cooperative Program includes only undesignated gifts. (The article in Volume I of the Encyclopedia erroneously states that it includes special offerings.  In one state this interpretation has been given at times, but in the SBC, and in all other states, the Cooperative Program includes only undesignated offerings.)”

Unfortunately, Robert A. Baker, in his 1974 history entitled The Southern Baptist Convention and Its People, 1607 – 1972, quoted the earlier, erroneous, encyclopedia description of the Cooperative Program.  In 1983, the Cooperative Program Study Committee was apparently also misled by the erroneous description (See the 1983 SBC Annual at page 43, point (5)).  Cecil Ray, in his 1985 history of the Cooperative Program entitled COOPERATION: The Baptist Way to a Lost World, also quoted the erroneous rendition contained in the first two printings of the encyclopedia.  The committee and both authors apparently overlooked the McClellan monograph in the encyclopedia’s 1971 supplement, but Ray then went on in his book to embrace the subsequent (corrected) encyclopedic descriptions of the Cooperative Program in writing about how the program was being perceived by Baptists in 1985. The SBC Historical Library and Archives’ copy of Volume 1 of the encyclopedia is the fifth printing, containing the accurate description of the Cooperative Program which is now (and was then) widely held.

But the Ray book did corroborate that there existed a continuing variance in viewpoints about the Cooperative Program by commenting, “Was the Cooperative Program meant to be one among Baptists’ several systems of support, or an umbrella covering all systems?  Gradually, Baptists have come to understand the Cooperative Program as the main line of support for most Baptist work, with the special mission offerings and other sources of support as supplements to it.”  (ibid., p. 60)  Even this attempt at description differed slightly from the understanding of the Cooperative Program that Convention messengers recognized in adopting an application policy relating to it 6 years earlier (in 1979), which said:

“It is understood that ‘The Cooperative Program is a financial channel of cooperation between the state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention which makes it possible for all persons making undesignated gifts through their church to support the missionary, education, and benevolent work in their own state convention and also the work of the Southern Baptist Convention.’”  (1979 SBC Annual, p.30)

In spite of that early descriptive confusion, the Southern Baptist Convention has now long reported Cooperative Program giving based upon the plan’s original intent in 1925.  As stated, The Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions and the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions have origins pre-dating the adoption of the Cooperative Program and were allowed to continue after the approval of the Cooperative Program.  They are reported separately, and they have both proven to be dependable and effective channels of missions giving for Southern Baptists, peacefully coexisting with and augmenting the Cooperative Program. 

With the arguable exception of the 1979 action of the Convention referred to above, which actually did not specifically address a definitional need but rather established a subordinate policy of attribution and application for special circumstances, the Southern Baptist Convention did not specifically and formally approve a succinct definition of the Cooperative Program until much later.  When it did, in 2007, the Convention took care to make sure its definition, as stated above, was completely in keeping with the intent of the original framers by clearly showing designated offerings not to be a part of the Cooperative Program, any former casual misstatements and the “mystery” of the erroneous encyclopedia description notwithstanding.



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