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Sole Membership
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Does It Matter What Missionaries Believe?
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Carter's rift with SBC not a new development
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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

The Relation of the Southern Baptist Convention to Its Entities
by Dr. David E. Hankins
December 19, 2003

A Response to Charles Kelley’s The Baptist Way
By Dr. David E. Hankins
Past Vice president for Cooperative Program
Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention


Dr. Charles Kelley, President of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, has recently presented a paper on Southern Baptist polity entitled The Baptist Way: A Personal PerspectiveHe indicates the specific purpose is to discuss “the relationship between Southern Baptists and their national entities.” (Kelley, p. 1). His interest in addressing the topic arose from a request for New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to name the Southern Baptist Convention as its “sole member.” (See accompanying article on “The Southern Baptist Convention and Sole Membership”).  Dr. Kelley’s paper argues against such an action contending it would be a threat to Southern Baptist polity. This is a crucial and timely topic, especially in view of recent events regarding Baptists and their institutions (The Missouri Baptist Convention is currently engaged in litigation concerning the control of its institutions). A proper understanding is essential to the effectiveness of Southern Baptist Convention work. Dr. Kelley is to be commended for tackling this provocative subject.  The following is an evaluation of his conclusions. It is hoped dialogue on this subject (marked by scholarship, a sense of Baptist doctrine and history, and genuine goodwill) will continue and will prove fruitful for the Lord’s work among Southern Baptists.

A strength of “The Baptist Way: A Personal Perspective” is the passion the author brings to the subject. He rightly understands the importance of preserving Baptist polity, which has served so well, and of avoiding decisions that harm (even inadvertently) the mission of Southern Baptists. It goes without saying, Dr. Kelley writes from the perspective of one fully committed to the authority of Scripture and sympathetic to the purposes and work of the Southern Baptist Convention, and was an eager participant in Southern Baptists’ Conservative Resurgence of the last quarter century. This writer shares those perspectives.

A weakness of the paper is a lack of documentation. No supporting works of Baptist doctrine or history are noted, even in the most general way, for any of the many assertions that are made. This could be explained by the fact the paper was limited by time and length, or that, as its title hints, the paper is more the personal opinions of the author rather than a research paper.  However, since the paper purports to be championing historic Baptist polity, it would have been helpful if standard works on the subject could have been cited. 


Dr. Kelley begins by positing two major tenets about Southern Baptist Convention polity and the implication of these tenets on the Convention’s relationship to its entities. He then argues “sole membership” violates these tenets and, therefore, should be rejected. The arguments he makes can be summarized as follows:

1.     Southern Baptists have rejected a centralized Convention organization. He asserts that deeply held Baptist doctrines and fears of  “connectionalism” [1] caused the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention to reject an organizational model with a centralized structure. He states, “Southern Baptists have confidence in their leaders, but they have always resisted the centralization of power and the temptations that centralized power brings.” (Kelley, p. 3).  According to this theory, Baptists’ aversion to centralization stems from their theological roots. The doctrine of the priesthood of believers, the doctrine of sin, and the doctrine of the autonomy of the local church all served to cause the Southern Baptist Convention to structure its work along the lines of “organizational autonomy” rather than the alternative structure which he identifies as “connectionalism:” “Throughout their history Southern Baptists rejected connnectionalism and stood instead on the principle of organizational autonomy.” (Kelley, p. 4). 

2.     Southern Baptists have granted “organizational autonomy” to their Convention entities.  According to Dr. Kelley, the autonomy of the Convention, which is patterned on the New Testament doctrine of congregational autonomy, is also the model adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention for its relation to its entities. [2] This is the major contention of his paper. “The approach is derived from and related to the organizational autonomy of local churches and conventions but differs in some ways.” (Kelley, p. 2).

3.     Since “sole membership” leads to centralization (or connectionalism) and impinges on the “organizational autonomy” of the entities, it threatens Baptist polity.  He states, “Sole membership, particularly as it is defined by the state of Louisiana, introduces connectionalism to the denominational structure in the place of the organizational autonomy which we have historically practiced...” (Kelley, p. 8).

This line of reasoning fails in two crucial areas. First, Dr. Kelley’s individual assertions do not bear up under the weight of Baptist history, theology and polity. Second, his conclusion about sole membership is a categorical fallacy. Sole membership is a fundamentally legal solution to a fundamentally legal problem. Sole membership has no prima facie bearing on issues of polity.

This study will examine Southern Baptist Convention actions from three formative historical periods in Convention life in order to evaluate the validity of Dr. Kelley’s understanding of the Southern Baptist Convention’s relationship to its entities.  Those periods are: 1) the founding of the Convention in 1845, 2) the creation of the Executive Committee in the early twentieth century, and 3) the restructuring of the Southern Baptist Convention in the late twentieth century. Convention actions in each of these periods provide specific information about the Southern Baptist Convention’s own view of its polity with regard to its entities. 

Once this historical basis is laid, it will become clear that the Southern Baptist Convention has always affirmed efficient centralization, that it has always intended for its entities to be subject to that centralization as it executes the will of the local churches through the Convention, and that sole membership is in no way a threat to historic Baptist values.


I.               Southern Baptist Polity and the Founding of the Southern Baptist Convention

Baptist theology is formative for Baptist polity. It is in addressing the doctrine of the autonomy of the local church that Dr. Kelley touches upon the doctrine that was uppermost in the thinking of early Baptists as they formulated a structure for the Southern Baptist Convention. [3]    How did a Baptist understanding of congregational authority affect the polity of the Southern Baptist Convention? Did it cause, as Dr. Kelley asserts, Southern Baptists to create a structure whereby its entities enjoy “organizational autonomy?” In order to appreciate how the autonomy of the local church affected denominational polity, a brief review of the history of Baptists in America is in order.

Historically, Baptists in America have practiced three different approaches to cooperation and missions by and between Baptist congregations. The different approaches stem from different understandings of local church autonomy.

A.             Aversion to Extra-church Organizations.

For nearly seventy years after the forming of the first Baptist church in America, Baptists had no organizational structure beyond the local church. This indicates they were true followers of the principle of congregational authority as were their predecessors in England. (Baker, p. 95). 

Then, beginning with the Philadelphia Association in 1707, Baptists began to form associations of churches. While they believed these organizations were permissible and beneficial, they did not consider them necessary to church life. They were always extremely careful to insist authority remained with the local church and did not belong to some ecclesiastical body. The Philadelphia Association noted in 1768 that it “claims no jurisdiction, nor a power to repeal any thing settled by any church.” (Baker, p. 96). 

From the early decades of Baptist life in America, there were always, however, some Baptists who opposed the creation of any organized structures for missions. For some, the opposition stemmed from anti-missions theology (e.g., Daniel Parker who began a predestinarian movement among Baptists, and Alexander Campbell who fomented the Campbellite split from Baptists). For others, it was because they believed the local church was the only legitimate organization permitted by the New Testament (e.g., John Taylor in the early 1800s, J.R. Graves and Landmarkism in the middle 1800s, and T.P. Crawford of the Gospel Missions Movement of the late 1800s). (McBeth. p. 373).  Crawford expressed this sentiment when he wrote:

Centralization and ring-government may suit the policy of other denominations.  They do not suit ours, but are deadly hostile to it.  Yet, strange to say, this dangerous element was first introduced among us with the first session of the Old Triennial Convention in 1814; and, stranger, still, the Northern Baptist Union and the Southern Baptist Convention have continued it down to the present day.  Their Boards are …self-perpetuating, irresponsible central bodies with unlimited permission to grow in power by absorbing the prerogatives and resources of our Churches, as the old Roman hierarchy grew by absorbing those in the early ages of Christianity. (Baker, p. 280).

Even carefully crafted attempts at multi-congregational efforts were seen as jeopardizing congregational autonomy. This point of view would consider the Southern Baptist Convention and its various boards illegitimate expressions of the church. They believed that such a Convention usurps the authority and prerogatives of the New Testament church, which is primarily “local” in its expression.

B.             The Societal Method

By 1800, Baptists in America who affirmed cooperative Christian missions beyond the local church simultaneously employed two different approaches to the missionary work of the church: 1) the societal model, and 2) the associational model. The societal method reflected the views of those who believed cooperation by Baptists beyond the local church was permissible but that it could not be carried out as an extension of the churches.  Therefore, societies for particular benevolences (missions, education, etc.) were organized and directed by interested individuals, not churches. (By one count, before the organization of the Triennial Convention in 1814, Baptists in America organized north of Philadelphia about sixty-five different societies for raising money for foreign and domestic missions). (Barnes, p. 33).  

Francis Wayland, an early Baptist leader who for a while supported the associational model, became an ardent spokesman for the societal method and argued against the associational model: “The more I have reflected on the subject, the more obvious has it seemed to me that preaching Christ to the heathen must be a more simple business than is commonly supposed.  There were no missionary boards, and no central organizations, in the times of the Apostles, and yet they labored with an efficiency that turned the world upside down; and why should we need such organizations now?” (Maring, p. 157). Wayland based his view upon the independence of the churches and insisted that “churches” cannot be represented. (McBeth, p. 358). 

The most prominent example of societal methodology in American Baptist history was the Triennial Convention organized in 1814 of which Baptists in the South were a part until the forming of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845.  Proponents of both the societal model and the associational model had influence in the Triennial Convention. And, even though an associational methodology was utilized for a few years, it was officially rejected in 1826 in favor of the Triennial Convention returning to a society solely for foreign missions. (McBeth, pp. 357-358).

The reason for rejecting the association model was a fear the association would become a centralized ecclesiastical body that would both usurp the authority and exercise the prerogatives of the local churches.  Proponents of the societal model believed, since the society served only a single enterprise and represented only the individuals supporting it, it could accomplish cooperative ministries without violating the doctrine of local church autonomy.  Following the creation of the Southern Baptist Convention, Northern Baptists continued to follow the societal model until 1907 with each object of benevolence being a separate society supported by interested individuals from across Baptist life. (Baker, p. 98). Those advocating the societal model would see the Southern Baptist Convention as a dangerous, if not unbiblical, method of church missions work.

C.       The Associational (Convention) Model

The other approach to corporate missions work by Baptists in America is the association or convention model.  Examples of this approach are as old as the Philadelphia Association founded in 1707. Robert Baker lists five characteristics of the associational model that distinguish it from the societal approach. (Baker, pp. 99-101).  The two most applicable for this present study are:

1)    “…the associational method usually involved a denominational structure fostering many benevolences, while the society became involved with only one benevolence,” and

2)    “…there was an interdependent and connectional relationship in all the benevolent work through the association that was not evident in the independent and voluntary societies.” (Baker, pp. 99-101).

The most remarkable example of the association model is the Southern Baptist Convention, although it was not the first (The South Carolina Baptist Convention was organized on this model in 1821. It is interesting to note the role played by William B. Johnson in the formation of both the South Carolina Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention). In light of the societal practice of the Triennial Convention, the fact the churches in the South purposefully organized themselves under the convention model is remarkable (and instructive for the present study). 

Why did this change occur?  While not minimizing the monumental issue of the dispute over slavery, threats to polity, especially to the will of the churches expressed through their Convention, fomented the break with the Triennial Convention. The catalyst for the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention was that a board (The Acting Board of the Triennial Convention) had abrogated the actions of the Convention itself (in the matter of appointing slaveholding missionaries). Baptists in the South were furious.  They accused the Acting Board of  “An usurpation of ecclesiastical power quite foreign to our polity.” ( Source Book, p. 119).

Alabama Baptists’ resolution on the subject decried the fact that a board had assumed to itself power that rightly belonged only to the churches who expressed their will in the Convention meetings: "Resolved, That to prevent a gradual departure from the principles of church independence, and the assumption by Societies, Boards or Committees, of the inalienable rights of the churches..." (Source Book, p. 107).

In Virginia, the famous letter of Virginia President J.B. Taylor and Secretary C. Walthall, notes the following:   "'The appointing power for wise and good reasons,' we are told, 'has been confided to the Acting Board.' Very true. But what is the Acting Board? An agent of the Convention. It was organized to carry out the views of the Convention. It derives its whole power from the Convention." In response to the Acting Board of the Triennial Convention's decision to bypass the stated will of the Convention in its meetings, the Virginians cried that, "The decision of the Board is unconstitutional," and "is in our view a flagrant breach of trust," and the Board "has no authority to pass beyond the instructions of the appointing body, either express or implied"  (Source Book, pp. 110-11).

Thus, the driving force behind the foundation of the SBC was that a Baptist board of trustees had unconstitutionally usurped the power of the churches. Early Southern Baptists believed that a Baptist board of trustees that does not submit itself to the will of the churches is a rogue board that deserves the greatest of censure. The split with the North, disputes over slavery notwithstanding, was in reality over a non-Baptistic polity, which denied the rule of the churches in the Convention over its board.

No wonder, at the organizational meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Augusta, Georgia in 1845, William B. Johnson who was elected the first president proposed an entirely new structure. Rather than the societal method with autonomous organizations for each benevolence, he suggested:

“One Convention, embodying the whole Denomination, together with separate and distinct Boards, for each object of benevolent enterprise located at different places, and all amenable (emphasis added) to the Convention. (Baker, p. 165).

It is obvious by his choice of words Johnson intended the entities to be under the direct authority of the Convention. The word “amenable" means: "liable to be brought to account; answerable (citizens amenable to the law); capable of submission…(as to judgment or test); readily brought to yield or submit.” (Webster). 

Johnson went on to say:

In its successful operation, the whole Denomination will be united in one body for the purpose of well-doing, with perfect liberty secured to each contributor of specifying the object or objects, to which his amount shall be applied, as he please, whilst he or his Delegation may share in the deliberations and control of all the objects, promoted by the Convention.” (Baker, p. 165).

Therefore, Southern Baptists, rather than believing centralization threatened local church autonomy, believed it to be more consistent with it.  Robert Baker writes: “Disdaining the possibility of overwhelming the authority of local congregations, Johnson was suggesting a more centralized body that would have control over all the benevolent objects projected by Southern Baptists.” (Baker p. 165).  There were also other influences that made Baptists in the South more disposed to a centralized structure:

W.W. Barnes has suggested that Southern Baptists were generally more centralized in their thinking than were Baptists in the North because of three rather basic factors:  first, the widespread popularity in the South of the Philadelphia Confession of faith with its general, invisible church view; second, the predominance of centralizing English General Baptists among the original settlers in the South; and third, the influence of the Separate Baptist movement which was just one step removed from New England Presbyterian ecclesiological thinking.  Also, the centralizing patterns of the southern culture, as seen in the system of large plantations and in the top-heavy state political structures, provided their influence upon Southern Baptists.

Other factors were involved.  One was the development of state conventions in the South after 1821.  The South Carolina Baptist Convention organized the first state body in America in 1821; it was built on associations, looked toward sponsoring multiple benevolences, and had other centralizing features.  Many southern states had adopted similar state structures in the succeeding years.  The experience of Southern Baptists with these bodies led them to feel that there was little to fear that any of them might ever become oppressive.”  (Baker, pp. 172-3).

D.       The Southern Baptist Model

Baptist history demonstrates that, while aversion to centralization has been present continually in many quarters of American Baptist life, Southern Baptists purposefully chose a polity for their Convention work that incorporated centralization. As anti-convention voices (Campbellites, Landmarkists, Gospel Missioners, etc.) continued to clamor for decentralization, the Southern Baptist Convention consistently acted in favor of the convention model. 

Furthermore, the framers of the Southern Baptist Convention rejected not only the anti-association sentiments in Baptist life but also the “Societal” model of the Triennial Convention and chose for  “each object of benevolent enterprise” (Baker, p.165) (present and future) to be under centralized Convention control, as directed by the messengers from the cooperating churches, and “amenable” to the Southern Baptist Convention. Southern Baptists did not grant to their entities “organizational autonomy.” Had they desired autonomy for the various missions and benevolences, the societal model was available to them and that model would have granted to institutions, boards, and other benevolences “organizational autonomy.” Southern Baptists rejected this approach as inconsistent with local church autonomy. In his work on Baptist polity, James Sullivan concurs:

One will recall that the society system was rejected by our forefathers in 1845 in favor of a convention system that eventually allowed for control of schools and other institutions through the conventions, state or national.  (Sullivan, p. 56).

II.             Southern Baptist Polity and the Development of the Convention’s Relation to Its Entities

At its founding in 1845 the Southern Baptist Convention determined that it would carry out whatever work it deemed important through “separate and distinct boards” under the direction of managers elected by the Convention’s messengers for that purpose.  In the 19th century, the size of the annual Convention meetings and the limited number of boards made it possible for extensive interaction between the messengers and the leadership of the boards so that the Convention in some ways acted as a committee of the whole. (Baker, p. 174).  However, for fifty years, in the hallways of the Convention meeting, there was a running debate as to whether the separate boards ought to be consolidated (especially the two mission boards) into one central board.  The reasons given most often by those favoring consolidation were efficiency and economy. At the 1880 Southern Baptist Convention, a motion was made to consolidate the boards. Although it was defeated, the issue did not go away.

The idea of consolidation was likely due to the de facto treatment of the boards as mere committees of the

Convention. Dr. Edwin C. Dargan, a professor of homiletics and ecclesiology at Southern Seminary, and the author of a monumental ecclesiology, stated at about this time, "These Boards, which are really only standing committees  (emphasis added) of the Convention, transact the business in the interim of the meetings of the Convention." The Convention meets annually to hear from the boards and then "directs their work for the following year." (Dargan, p.149).  Dargan would never have countenanced the idea that SBC entity boards were granted “organizational autonomy”; rather, they are "only standing committees of the Convention."

The issue of consolidation came to a head in 1913. Some Baptists believed the growing complexity of the Convention meeting and the expanding work of Southern Baptists needed more coordination and business efficiency. They called for a new organizational approach. A motion was made to appoint seven men to study whether the existing organization of Southern Baptist work was sufficient. When the committee was appointed, a further motion added the four agency heads (Foreign Missions, Home Missions, Sunday School Board, and Southern Seminary) to the committee, which became known as the Efficiency Commission.  The committee was aware of the opposing views of consolidation versus separate and distinct boards. Their recommendations, which were adopted by the Convention over the next two years, struck a compromise and set in place the practice that continues in the Southern Baptist Convention until today. In that initial compromise, the constitutional authority of the Convention over the entities was affirmed but the entities of the Convention were to maintain their separate boards.  Processes were implemented which would insure the entities would maintain a high level of coordination and accountability to the churches through the Convention. The report of the Efficiency Commission set in motion changes in the Southern Baptist Convention that brought increased organization, coordination, efficiency, and accountability. 

These changes, as important as they were in the development of the relationship between the Southern Baptist Convention and its entities, did not resolve the issue.  Those who desired more coordination and efficiency in Convention work spoke again. In 1916, one year after the Efficiency Commission’s recommendations, M. H. Wolfe of Texas, a prominent Southern Baptist laymen who had served as vice president of the Southern Baptist Convention and was elected President of the Baptist General Convention of Texas later that same year, proposed a constitutional amendment that would create “one strong Executive Board which shall direct all the work and enterprises fostered by this Convention.” (McClellan, p. 49 - a helpful discussion of this event is found in McClellan). Wolfe was named chairman of the “Consolidation Committee” which reported to the 1917 Southern Baptist Convention. The report did not recommend Wolfe’s original idea to consolidate all the boards (although a substitute motion to that effect was offered, hotly debated, and, then, defeated). What it did recommend was a compromise between those who believed “consolidation “ was best for the Convention and those who wanted to maintain “separate and distinct boards”:

On the old issue of consolidation, it approved the following:  “In view of the diversity of opinions concerning the best method of conducting our work, and the distressing conditions in our country, resulting from the world war, we recommend that the Boards of the Convention remain separate as at present.”  This met with approval, especially among the friends of the boards…

“Recognizing, however, that there is a strong sentiment in favor of greater unity in the general direction of the Convention’s affairs, and believing that some improvement in the methods of conducting the work would be attained by the creation of a standing committee of the Convention to act for the body between its sessions in ways hereinafter set forth, we recommend that an executive committee (emphasis added) of seven, representing the different parts of the territory of the Convention be elected annually by the Convention as are its standing committees. (Mc Clellan, p. 58).

The result of several years of wrangling, debating, and proposing at the Annual meetings was the creation of the Executive Committee. Southern Baptists had once again struck a balance between centralized authority and board prerogatives. The Executive Committee was proposed in order to bring more coordination and accountability to the ministries of the various boards of the Southern Baptist Convention. The messengers from the churches ratified the concept in spite of the opposition of those who warned of the potential evils of centralization.

The Executive Committee became a unique feature of Southern Baptist life. It alleviated fears of a single board while providing for a neutral body, without authority over the entities, to act for the Convention in matters of efficiency and coordination. As McClellan concludes:

In the strengthening of the Executive Committee, another step was taken in Southern Baptist organizational growth.  Not needed or possible in 1845, the Executive Committee’s time finally arrived in 1917 and 1927, when the complexity and maturity of the Southern Baptist Convention made it necessary.  The founders in 1845 had made room for it with the phrase, “and other important objects connected with the Redeemer’s kingdom.”  It was the final and essential step in the Convention reforming process begun by the Business Efficiency Commission (1913-1915). (McClellan, p. 79).

While questions of the impact of centralization were vigorously debated, there is no evidence the messengers to the Convention believed “consolidation” would overwhelm the autonomy of their local congregations or otherwise violate Baptist polity any more than separate boards might. In fact, those who were suspicious of “denominational” organizations and usurpation of congregational prerogatives may have favored “consolidation” more than separate boards. (McClellan, p. 53).  They believed the churches could more successfully scrutinize one central organization than several distinct boards.

At any rate, Baptist leaders of the day understood the autonomy of the congregations and the democratic polity of the Southern Baptist Convention insured against any abuses stemming from a more centralized organization. The editor of the Tennessee Baptist paper, who raised the issue of the tendency toward centralization, concluded after the creation of the Executive Committee in 1917, “With our Baptist interdependence and freedom we do not believe that this Secretary could become a Pope in the sense of exercising authority over the denomination. If he should forget that he is servant of all and should attempt to become boss he would soon feel the wrath of Southern Baptists.”  George Truett in responding to those who criticized the new Executive Committee on grounds of centralization, wrote, “ As proposed, it is in the strictest and most literal way, in perfect harmony with every Baptist tradition and principle.” (McClellan, p. 85).

What impact did the creation of the Executive Committee have on the relationship of the Southern Baptist Convention and its entities? The Convention affirmed its desire to maintain constitutional control of its entities and, at the same time, manage those entities through separate boards of trustees. Dr. Kelley seems to worry in his paper (Kelley, p. 11) about the Executive Committee exercising the Southern Baptist Convention’s authority.  It is very important to make a distinction between the authority of the Executive Committee and the authority of the Southern Baptist Convention.  Southern Baptists have made clear what the “checks and balances” are in this regard. The Executive Committee does not have centralized authority; the Southern Baptist Convention does. The Executive Committee has not been assigned to supervise or control the entities of the Convention; the Southern Baptist Convention does have direct control over the entities. While, as Kelley correctly asserts, “the Southern Baptist Convention put all of its entities on a level plane with no entity, from the Executive Committee to the Annuity Board, above or below any other entity” (Kelley, p. 2), the Southern Baptist Convention, comprised of the messengers from the churches, is in charge of the whole, and is above all entities as the central authority.

It is important to note the Convention’s expectation of its Executive Committee. In 1958, The Total Program Study Committee (The Branch Committee), the first major study of convention structure in SBC history, reaffirmed the very necessary role of the Executive Committee. It wrote:

The Convention must have extensive, detailed knowledge of the entities’ ministries. The Convention cannot do its work properly without the Executive Committee. The Convention meeting once a year does not have ample time or information necessary to carry out detailed operation of its many ministries.  The Executive Committee is established to assist the Convention in carrying out its program without assuming either the Convention’s responsibilities or those of the agencies. (McClellan pp. 202-203).

The current SBC Bylaw 18 details the duties of the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention, including its relationship to the entities of the Convention. It carefully outlines the checks and balances it intends between the Executive Committee, the entities, and the Southern Baptist Convention:

To maintain open channels of communication between the Executive Committee and the trustees of the entities of the Convention, to study and make recommendations to entities concerning adjustments required by ministry statements or by established Convention policies and practices, and, whenever deemed advisable, to make recommendations to the Convention.  The Executive Committee shall not have authority to control or direct the several boards, entities, and institutions of the Convention.  This is the responsibility of trustees elected by the Convention and accountable directly to the Convention. (2003  SBC Annual, p. 15).

In summary, the motivation for the development of the Executive Committee was the Convention’s desire for accountability, coordination, and efficiency in relationship to its entities. There is no record of undue fear of centralization or creeping connectionalism or any other threat to Baptist polity.  In fact, it could be argued, except for the resistance of the entity leaders, the “consolidation” view of the early 1900s may have prevailed.  As it turned out, it was concern for harmony and the crisis of World War I (not potential polity violations) that swayed the Convention to continue the separate boards for the time.  That and the assurance the new Executive Committee would assist the Convention in matters concerning the boards. Again, as they did in their founding, Southern Baptists concluded they could have both centralization and appropriate local church/Convention polity.

III.           Southern Baptist Polity and the Restructuring of the Convention

One further Convention action is instructive for understanding the relationship of the Southern Baptist Convention to its entities. In 1993, the Southern Baptist Convention received a motion by Bill Hogue of California that:

The president of the Southern Baptist Convention appoint a study committee composed of seven (7) members:  three (3) from the SBC Executive Committee; three (3) from the Convention at large; and a chairman from either the Executive Committee or the Convention at large.  The purpose is to study the program statements of the SBC agencies and institutions, and evaluate existing structures which are required to effectively implement such programs, with the committee’s finding to be reported to the 1994 Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando.” (1993 SBC Annual, p. 36)

The matter was referred to the Executive Committee, which adopted a motion authorizing the appointment of the Program and Structure Study Committee (PSSC).  This committee made their report to the Executive Committee in February 1995 entitled “The Covenant for a New Century.” Adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention in 1995, the PSSC report resulted in the dissolution or merger of eight of the nineteen existing corporations of the SBC.  The actions of the Program and Structure Study Committee reveal the Convention’s understanding of its relationship to its entities. This relationship has a long history. At the foundation of the SBC, it was made clear that the Convention could and was indeed expected to change its boards and their structures and policies at will. Article V of the first SBC constitution stated,

"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, all which management shall be in strict accordance with the constitutional provisions adopted by this Convention, and such other instructions as may be given from time to time." (Source Book, pp.114-117). 

The framers of the SBC Constitution understood authority flowed from the churches to the Convention and, then, to its entities. The entities were kept on a tight chain of accountability and were in effect expected to be ready to respond to the measured decisions of the churches meeting annually in Convention. The restructuring of the Convention in 1995 reaffirmed a number of these historic Convention principles. The first is the repeated phrase in all the entities’ new ministry statements that the entity “…exists to assist the churches.”  Local congregation autonomy and primacy was again reaffirmed by the Convention. Secondly, the Convention’s freedom to reorganize itself through consolidation, dissolution, or other means was reaffirmed. Thirdly, the process utilized by the PSSC underscored the Convention’s constitutional authority over its entities.

As an ad hoc committee of the Executive Committee, the PSSC reported its findings directly to the Executive Committee. Because of the sensitive nature of its work, the committee operated with a high degree of confidentiality, only apprising entity trustees and leaders of the forthcoming recommendations weeks before their presentation to the Executive Committee in February 1995. In June 1995, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted the report including instructions for the Executive Committee to carry out its implementation.  It subsequently amended its own documents to affect the changes and it was expected that trustees of the entities affected, regardless of the personal opinions of their boards and employees, would take the appropriate board actions to insure the decisions of the Southern Baptist Convention, as the authoritative body, were enacted.  In each case, the respective boards acted to accomplish the Convention’s wishes.

The question was raised during the implementation phase of Covenant for a New Century as to how the Convention would handle a situation where a board refused to approve necessary actions to implement the Southern Baptist Convention’s desires. To preclude such actions, the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention exercised their right (although subsequent compliance by all the boards made it moot) to remove the trustees from the affected boards as the following shows:

Recommendation 3.  Implementation of Covenant for a New Century:  Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Foundation

The Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention recommends to the Southern Baptist Convention the adoption of the following action to be effective June 19, 1997:

In affirmation and fulfillment of the Convention mandated Covenant for a New Century, the Southern Baptist Convention

  1. Approves the amended and restated charter of Historical Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention (Exhibit A), to cause this corporation to be dissolved as an entity of the Convention, and removes (emphasis added) the Convention-elected trustees to allow the presidents of the Convention’s six seminaries to assume management of this corporation utilizing the name of Council of Seminary Presidents.

  2. Approves the amended and restated charter of Southern Baptist Foundation (Exhibit B), to cause this corporation to be dissolved as an entity of the Convention, and removes (emphasis added) the Convention-elected trustees to allow the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention to select the trustees of this corporation.  (1996 SBC Annual, p. 143). 

The Southern Baptist Convention did not ignore or abrogate board responsibilities and powers that had been delegated to the several boards by charters, SBC actions, or other legal instruments. However, the Southern Baptist Convention comprised of messengers sent by the churches was the central authority and expected compliance.  The Convention recognized the rights of trustees to carry out assignments delegated to them by the Southern Baptist Convention, but it also recognized its right to elect and remove those trustees as it deemed advisable. [4]

What application does the work of the PSSC have for this present study? It demonstrates the Southern Baptist Convention, on behalf of the churches, is the centralized authority for all Convention work including the entities. It demonstrates the Convention may, from time to time at its own discretion, reorganize its work through consolidation, merger, dissolution, or reassignment. It demonstrates the Convention believes it has the prerogative to unilaterally recommend the alteration or even the abolition of its entities. It demonstrates the Southern Baptist Convention does not believe any of the above actions violates congregational autonomy or any other aspect of Baptist polity, nor violates entity prerogatives. 


What is learned from these actions of the Southern Baptist Convention throughout its history?

  1. The Southern Baptist Convention, rather than fearing centralization, organized itself with a centralized structure.  Southern Baptist polity is purposefully distinct from anti-Convention and societal models of other Baptists.
  2. The centralized authority of the Southern Baptist Convention is derived from the messengers of the churches and, rather than threatening the autonomy of the local church, it protects it.
  3. This centralization is not a step toward “connectionalism” nor a violation of Southern Baptist polity.
  4. The Southern Baptist Convention understands its entities are under its control rather than having autonomy, and that the trustees it elects represent the Southern Baptist Convention (not the entity) and are subject to Convention authority.
  5. The trustee system of management was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention for reasons of effectiveness more so than fear of polity violations.
  6. The Southern Baptist Convention is satisfied with separate and distinct boards as an efficient and effective method of “eliciting, combining, and directing” the energies of Baptists although it reserves the right to exercise its constitutional authority over its entities, to change its organizational structure, or to take any other actions it deems appropriate.
  7. The messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention expect the Executive Committee to evaluate, coordinate, report, and recommend on any matter concerning the effectiveness of its overall work or the work of any one entity, but not to act in a supervisory role over any entity.


While “The Baptist Way” purports to argue for the preservation of historic Southern Baptist polity regarding the Southern Baptist Convention and its entities, history shows Dr. Kelley actually argues against historic Southern Baptist polity and promotes ideas that were rejected by the founders as well as succeeding generations of the Southern Baptist Convention. The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention, rather than avoiding “centralization” in its polity, chose on purpose to have a centralized system where one Convention directed the work of all its endeavors. The Convention believes this model protects the autonomy of the local churches and provides the most effective structure for accomplishing the churches’ goals. Furthermore, the Convention did not derive the structure for its relationship with its entities from the model of the Convention’s relationship to local congregations. While it has chosen to manage its work through separate and distinct boards, those boards are not autonomous.

A difficulty of Dr. Kelley’s explanation of Baptist polity is his use of what appear to be “coined” terms. Designations such as “organizational autonomy,” “decisive influence,” and “operational control” (Kelley, p. 2) are used to describe what Baptists have decided to do about the relationship between the Southern Baptist Convention and its entities. While the creation of explanatory terms is certainly permissible, the burden is upon the paper (1) to define the terms with precision and (2) to demonstrate the terms accurately reflect what Southern Baptists indeed have decided. It is the conclusion of this evaluation that neither burden has been met. The terms are imprecise and subject to misunderstanding. Using language actually contained in Southern Baptist Convention documents and actions would have strengthened the paper.

“Organizational autonomy” is not an accurate description of the relationship of the Southern Baptist Convention to its entities. Even though Dr. Kelley modifies it as  “a high degree of organizational autonomy for the entities, but within the context of SBC-controlled parameters,” (Kelley, p. 2) he suggests the autonomous status of the local church is very close to what the Convention meant for its entities.  While he recognizes the entities do not have the same degree of autonomy as either local churches or Baptists conventions, he believes the “organizational autonomy” supposedly enjoyed by Southern Baptist Convention entities is derived from the same concept as church autonomy and is of the same kind.

Convention actions do not support his theory. The operational prerogatives of the entities of the SBC were not derived from the concept of local church autonomy. They are not merely different in degree. They are different in kind. Southern Baptist Convention polity, as outlined above, has historically, consistently, repeatedly accommodated the advantages of a centralized method with regard to its entities without leading to “connectionalism” and thus violating the autonomy and prerogatives of the churches.

The Southern Baptist Convention affirms autonomy and rejects “connectionalism” in relationships between churches and conventions but not in relationships between the Convention and its entities. Whereas the Convention claims no authority over any church or any other convention, it does claim authority over its separate and distinct boards.  It cannot control or own the churches or other conventions. It necessarily controls and owns its entities. It has no expectation the churches or other conventions are bound to comply with its wishes. It has every expectation the entities are bound to comply with its wishes.  Should certain local churches or other conventions choose to unilaterally disassociate themselves from the SBC, the SBC would consider that action within the prerogatives of that body. Should an SBC entity choose to unilaterally disassociate itself from the SBC, the SBC would not consider that action within the entity’s prerogative. The preceding litany is an attempt to demonstrate the fundamental difference between the Southern Baptist Convention ‘s relationship to churches/conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention’s relationship to its entities.

In summary, Dr. Kelley’s assertions that Southern Baptists have rejected a centralized Convention organization and have granted “organizational autonomy” to their Convention entities are simply incorrect.  The documented actions of the Southern Baptist Convention unequivocally demonstrate the Convention, as the centralized body made up of messengers from the churches, maintains authority over the several entities.

If, as this study contends, Dr. Kelley’s theory of “organizational autonomy,” “decisive influence,” and “operational control” is not a correct description of the relation of the Southern Baptist Convention to its entities, what is the correct understanding?  The most suitable answer is found in the Southern Baptist Convention’s controlling documents. Documents such as the SBC Constitution, Bylaws, Business and Financial Plan, Organizational Manual, and the various entity charters provide the clearest understanding of what the Southern Baptist Convention means for its relation to its entities to be. These documents describe a system of governance whereby the Southern Baptist Convention retains direct control of certain actions with regard to the entities (e.g., electing trustees, amending charters, approving disposal of all or virtually all of the entities assets) and delegates certain other actions to those trustees it elects (e.g., controlling the entity bylaws, securing and managing entity personnel, developing and managing entity

budgets, complying with Convention and governmental guidelines).  There is no doubt the Southern Baptist Convention’s authority is primary and constant. Any authority the entity has is derived from the Convention by the Convention’s own autonomous actions.


While the primary thrust of this evaluation is to examine Southern Baptist Convention polity, the context of the writing of the “The Baptist Way” is a current debate about a legal corporation organizational model that has come to be referred to as “sole membership.” Although the legal considerations of sole membership will be left to the lawyers, Dr. Kelley, as has been stated above, recommends against sole membership on Baptist polity grounds. Whatever the legal merits of sole membership (and those will be asserted elsewhere), it is the conclusion of this study that the “sole member” concept is not inconsistent with Southern Baptist polity. Dr. Kelley’s view that  “sole membership” leads to centralization (or connectionalism) and impinges on the “organizational autonomy” of the entities is invalid.  Without any specialized legal training, certain conclusions about sole membership can be reached:

  1. Since “sole membership” concerns relationships between conventions and their entities, and “connectionalism” concerns relationships between local churches and other Baptist bodies, “sole membership” cannot lead to “connectionalism,” as Dr. Kelley declares. (Kelley, p. 8).  Said another way, connectionalism is not germane to sole membership.
  2. Sole membership does not create a centralized, authoritative relationship between the Southern Baptist Convention and its entities that did not previously exist. The Southern Baptist Convention has always been the centralized, authoritative body. Sole membership changes nothing in the relationship.
  3. Sole membership cannot limit the “organizational autonomy” of the entities because the entities do not possess organizational autonomy. 


The current debate is not merely a disagreement over semantics. Dr. Kelley asks Southern Baptists to choose between two different risks: 1) the risk of compromising Baptist polity, and 2) the risk of losing control of an entity. He believes the risk of losing an entity is less likely to occur than compromising Baptist polity and diminishing the voice of local churches in Convention matters. (Kelley, p. 11).  This seems strange in light of the number of Baptist entities in the last twenty years (including current situations in Missouri) that have unilaterally disassociated themselves from their parent convention. In these cases, the Convention-elected trustees, charter constraints not withstanding, believed they possessed a degree of organizational autonomy and the right to appeal to “an individual sense of divine direction” (Kelley, p. 4). Therefore, they proceeded to defeat the rights of the Convention that elected them. The voice of the churches in directing the affairs of these entities through their conventions has been completely defeated. Without evidence of corresponding contemporary examples of Baptist polity violations (e.g., local church autonomy being usurped by others or one convention taking control of another), it seems apparent the greater risk exists in unwarranted claims of autonomy by Convention entities rather than alleged compromises of Baptist polity.

In fairness to Dr. Kelley, it needs to be stated that he doesn’t believe the trustees who disassociated their entities from the conventions had the legal right to do so. (Kelley, p. 7). Furthermore, neither he nor the trustees of New Orleans Baptist Seminary claim the right to disassociate that entity from the Southern Baptist Convention, nor do they desire to do so. However, coined phrases like “organizational autonomy” inject ambiguity into the understanding of the relationship. Additionally, resorting to other remedies to protect the Convention’s interests (like vigilant trustee selection and generous funding from the Convention to the entity) misses the point. (Kelley, pp. 5-6). Vigilance is commendable. It ought to be practiced. Trustees ought to be chosen with care and with a view to their loyalty to the Southern Baptist Convention. They ought to be oriented on their responsibilities and duties. This will certainly help in a crisis where there are some who would question the Southern Baptist Convention’s ownership of its entities. However, vigilance doesn’t solve the problem. The Convention’s rights versus the entities’ authority is a legal question. In the same way, maintaining strong financial ties from the Southern Baptist Convention to the entity will be helpful in a crisis. We ought to work hard to keep these in place. But it doesn’t solve the legal problem.

The concept of sole membership is a legal solution.  It removes the risk of losing an entity and without creating any risk of violating polity. It settles the issue of the Southern Baptist Convention’s authority, protects the Convention from litigation against its entities from other parties, and maintains exactly the management structure practiced by the SBC toward its several entities. Why settle for secondary preventives that have been proven to be ineffective when a sound effective legal remedy is available? Perhaps an illustration would be useful. Suppose an airline tells its passengers its plane is likely to malfunction in flight. As a precaution, they issue parachutes. While it can be argued parachutes are helpful in a midair crisis, are they the real solution? Why not repair the plane?  Until sole membership is enacted so that the ambiguity currently present in the secular courts’ minds is removed, the rights and protections of the Southern Baptist Convention could be in jeopardy.

Dr. Kelley’s concern about Baptist polity being damaged by sole membership is misplaced. The concern ought to be for a proper understanding of the polity of the Southern Baptist Convention.

As Dr. Kelley warns, there exists in these times a danger of violating this polity. To conclude the Southern Baptist Convention’s entities possess organizational autonomy rather than being under the direct authority and control of the Convention is such a violation. It is hoped Southern Baptist people and leaders will kindly, but firmly, reject this theory in favor of historic Southern Baptist polity.


[1]  It should be noted that “connectionalism” did not have a negative connotation for the founders of the Southern Baptist Convention. William B. Johnson employed the term positively. He was interested, from his time with Richard Furman, in finding "a bond of union, a centre of intelligence, and a means of vigorous united exertion in the cause of God, for the promotion of righteousness" (Constitution of the first Baptist state convention, South Carolina, 1821) (Source Book, p. 75). In this light, connectionalism can be understood as merely an affiliation among churches for cooperative ventures without exercising authority or control. Two notes for this study: 1) Dr. Kelley uses the term negatively, understanding connectionalism to imply control or authority of one ecclesiastical group over another. For the purposes of this paper, Dr. Kelley’s negative usage will be the understanding. Connectionalism will mean a relationship of authority or control between separate ecclesiastical bodies. 2) Dr. Kelley also construes the term to apply to a relationship of control by the Southern Baptist Convention over its entities. As will be seen, this argument cannot be sustained.

[2] The doctrine of the autonomy of local churches (and, by extension, Baptist conventions) is the crucial component in Dr. Kelley’s theory of “organizational autonomy.” 

Autonomous organization means that there is no controlling external authority over Baptist churches and conventions but Christ and His Word, the Bible.  No national or state convention controls any church or any other convention.  No church controls any other church or any convention.  No person controls any church or convention.  Direct control resides in each individual body under the supreme authority of Christ and the Bible.  Thus each local church and convention is alone responsible, legally and morally, for its actions and decisions.  Churches and conventions can make requests or recommendations to other churches or conventions, but they cannot require or direct action. This is the meaning of organizational autonomy for churches and conventions. (Kelley, p. 1).

[3] Dr. Kelley asserts the idea that the doctrine of the priesthood of believers and the doctrine of sin helped shape Southern Baptist Convention polity. He provides no supporting documentation. That early Southern Baptists believed these doctrines is certain. What is not certain is how or if these doctrines shaped the Convention’s relationship to its entities. This writer found no evidence to support that theory.

[4] It is interesting to note that Dr. Kelley insists the Convention could not take such “trustee removal” actions or that the actions would violate Baptist polity. He writes:

The recent Conservative Resurgence was a movement among SBC churches to pull their entities back from a drift to the left and anchor them firmly in historic Baptist theology.  It provides perhaps the clearest “real life” illustration of organizational autonomy at work.  Here is what happened.  When the grassroots of SBC churches grew concerned about the theological direction of Convention entities, a specific strategy to implement a course correction was undertaken. That strategy was not to gain control of one or more SBC annual sessions and so be able to instruct the entities to change.  The strategy was to elect Trustees committed to historic Baptist doctrine to entity boards year-by-year and let those Trustees change the entities from the inside.  Even when Conservatives began winning all the floor votes at the annual Conventions, the strategy did not change.  Entity Trustees were elected in their normal rotation, which is the traditional way for the SBC to exercise its decisive influence, and those Trustees exercised their operational control to change the direction of the entities.

It took more than ten years, but the process worked.  Conservatives did it the Baptist way.  The most profound and significant course correction in the history of American Christianity was not a hard and fast power play, but rather a long, slow application of Baptist polity by Baptist people working to address a Baptist problem in a Baptist way.  It happened because of the passionate commitment of Southern Baptists to both their doctrinal convictions and their polity.  (Kelley, p. 4).

During all the years of conflict, however, there never was an attempt by those who opposed the Conservative Resurgence, to end the decisive influence of the SBC on any of the entities.  It was never mentioned because it was impossible. (Kelley, p. 6).

The implication of Dr. Kelley’s illustration is that it would have been impermissible as well as a violation of Southern Baptist polity for the Convention to have acted more quickly by a trustee removal action.  Dr. Kelley argues “trustee removal” is a right the Convention did not have prior to the entities naming the Southern Baptist Convention as “sole member.” (Kelley, p. 12). This is not the case. It is a right of the body that elects to also remove. The Southern Baptist Convention has always had the legal authority to remove the trustees it has elected. That it has rarely used that right does not mean it does not have that right. It certainly may have been imprudent or impolitic to have attempted such a strategy in the Conservative Resurgence, but it was not, as demonstrated in the implementation of Covenant for a New Century, legally impermissible or a violation of polity.


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