As I perused my daily blogs, I came across an interesting article here. Dr. Tony Cartledge, outgoing Editor of our state paper, links to this article. It is an article that Dr. Bill Leonard, Dean of Divnity School at Wake Forest University, appears to have originally authored in 1993 where he reviews Landmarkism in the SBC. In Dr. Leonard’s article he seems to advocate a quasi-societal form of denominational governance. This quasi-societal method would allow everyone to choose whatever fit their fancy. I will not address here the flaws and strengths of such a form. However, I would like to turn my attention to the definitions of a Society and a Convention in order to make a comparison.
The following definitions come from Dr. Leon McBeth’s, book The Baptist Heritage.
The society…requires no extensive denominational machinery or approval for its work, maintains more local control, and has the advantage of a committed membership. Those not interested in the society’s cause simply do not join. To its adherents, it also seems to protect the autonomy of the churches. However, the society plan does not enlist the involvement of churches, seldom builds denominational identity and loyalty, and makes overall denominational planning and correlation difficult.
The convention plan tends to enlist the churches, build denominational identity and loyalty, and allows correlation and balance between the various causes sponsored. Its adherents feel it preserves the autonomy of the churches, though it does call for a degree of centralization. However, at times the convention plan proves cumbersome since the whole body must deliberate and decide on all kinds of work. Problems arise when some voting members have greater interest in one cause, like foreign missions, and lesser commitment to others. This sometimes leads to rivalry as leaders seek to enlist support for the causes they represented. In general, the convention plan calls for more denominational machinery. The convention plan emphasizes the denomination more, and it creates more denomination to emphasize. (p.348)
Dr. McBeth also spoke of the characteristics of each and made a clear point to say that while conventions were made up of churches, usually from a selected geographical region, societies were made up of individuals.
Dr. Bill Leonard, in his above referenced article, held for his premise that the SBC had a center. Those controlling the center were the ones controlling the convention. Dr. Leonard goes on to state that the SBC center had always been tolerant of factions as long as it was not extreme factions. He used for his example the faction caused by Crawford Toy and contrasted it with J Frank Norris. It is interesting to note that while Toy was removed Dr. E.Y Mullins hired Dr. W.O Carver, who according to Dr. Leonard, held views on Scripture similar to that of Toy.
While Dr. Leonard and I will not be together on many theological issues I do commend him on something he apparently could see back in 1993. He wrote;
it appears that the real problem of the American denominational future involves the issue of identity. The denominational mechanisms that shaped identity and enabled traditions to be passed on to succeeding generations are fast breaking apart or addressing only one of the multiple subgroups. Perhaps the most essential questions for Southern Baptists are: When all is said and done, what will remain that is discernibly, historically Baptist?
I agree! If Dr. Leonard’s thesis of a center is correct, and I suspect it is, and if that center is what keeps us from wandering too far left or too far right, then I suspect the major problem within the SBC would be one of Baptist Identity. This identity within the context of the SBC is an identity rooted in Scripture and actualized through a convention form of governance. For an example of a convention form of government moving to a society form, notice the CBF and other splinters that have formed since the Conservative Resurgence. They say they cooperate but they have taken on a form that allows for everyone to pick their pet projects and support that themselves. I do commend the CBF on their cooperation but everyone knows if there is something they do not like they just stop sending money to support it. Also, that is the reason they are able to report the churches as they do. They are looking at this from a societal method instead of a convention form of governance. They report churches as their supporters that clearly are not supporting the CBF. They do this because one member of that church has given funds to them and listed their church. They do not see the church supporting them they see the individual giving the money. Remember a society is made up of individuals not churches. Is this a fair reporting of the numbers? It depends on who you ask.
Notice how the society form has crept into the SBC. Many in the current debate have spoken of forming something that will enable support of missionaries with a PPL. Then the individual pastors may lead their churches to re-direct some of their IMB support to support those Missionaries with a PPL. We have had a statement from the EC adopted that some say is a maximum and others say is a minimum guide for agencies establishing doctrine. Those that advocate it being a maximum insist this vague statement says something it never was intended to say. Thus they find a cause that individuals can rally around. This screams society over convention.
What does all of this mean for the SBC? For me, it reveals where I may differ with others. That disagreement is embeded in the understanding of how the SBC operates. I disagree somewhat with Dr. Leonard about the center of the SBC when he says; “That center was grounded in southern culture, denominational programs and a theology specific enough to be identifiably Baptist but general enough to permit the presence of various sectarian subgroups.” While the southern culture and denominational programs are recognized in the convention, I believe the denominational program did more to projecting the convention forward to what she is today than southern charm. However, I agree with Dr. Leonard that specific theology is something that kept the center glued together. But, I would go further and say it was the main issue that kept the center glued together. This Baptist specific theology is what I believe to be somewhat missing in our SBC center today. We appear to focus more on a general theology that allows for the various sectarian subgroups.
Our center needs the glue of specific Baptist Identity which keeps us moving in a convention form of government. If we continue to loose the specifics of Baptist theology the glue of our center will change from super glue to the glue on the back of sticky notes. Once this happens we then acquiesce to a society form of government–something we came out of when we left the Triennial Convention in 1845.