Thursday, July 25, 2013

"Is It Time to Join the SBC?": A Rather Friendly Rejoinder (Part 2)

See part 1 for background to this post. What you read below interacts with this article.

1. Research into the history of the Northern Baptist Convention (NBC) provoked Bauder's piece, at least in part. I very much look forward to reading whatever publications emerge from that research. One of the most interesting tidbits he shares is his observation that "Initially, the convention operated purely as a coordinating body, but with the creation of the General Board of Promotion in 1919, it became a controlling body," "engineered by theological liberals" . . . "an opportunity to seize the whole denominational machinery, including the churches."

Just six years later, the SBC Cooperative Program (CP) launched. Now, as to whether the SBC CP was likewise engineered by liberals to seize denominational machinery and churches, I must confess both some ignorance and some skepticism. Bauder seems to imply strong parallels when he says, regarding those who left the NBC and considered the SBC model, "[T]he risks inherent in the system were just too great." So while I'm not familiar enough with the dynamics in the SBC in the 1920s to comment confidently whether it was a liberal strategy, I can say that I've never encountered anyone who's attempted to make that case. I'd be interested to read it. What I can say is that if the CP actually was such a strategy, it failed miserably. Independent separatists might say that liberals succeeded for a few decades in the mid-20th century. I'd argue that they obviously didn't. Though liberals and indifferentists controlled most agencies for a time, the success of the Conservative Resurgence has clearly proven that loopholes in the system prevented denominational machinery from being seized. There's not much we Southern Baptists like more than a pitchfork rebellion, and now we know we can make one happen.

One more historical note before I move on: There were some battles over church property when churches attempted to leave the SBC. For several years, I was a member of a church that existed because people who voted to separate from the SBC lost their property in a courtroom fight. A strong majority had voted to disassociate from the SBC, but the minority sued, and some Southern Baptists testified on behalf of the minority. Unfortunately for that majority, the process of disassociation didn't conform to the governing documents of the church. I suspect the outcome might have been different had the disassociation been handled properly. Regardless, this was not a matter of convention ownership of local church property, as in recent Episcopalian/Anglican disputes, but of which faction of members held control.

All that to say this: The SBC cooperative structure may be a terrible idea for one reason or another, but I'm not at all convinced that it was a liberal idea. I'd suggest that the history of the NBC is far less relevant evidence to the issue than the history of the SBC. That, of course, remains a story in progress, but the present plot line of that story is surely not less encouraging to me than the plot line of the descendants of the separatist refugees from the NBC.

2. I appreciate Bauder's analogy between the CP and the Patriot Act: "In the hands of principled people, it can be both comforting and productive. In the hands of the unprincipled, or, worse yet, the wrongly-principled, it is bound to be devastating." Of course he's right. Unfortunately, I think that's the nature of institutional partnerships. The same could be said of an independent Baptist mission board, a Baptist Bible College, or Central Seminary. If I'm pastoring a church that's considering contributing $5,000 per year to any one of those agencies, I have to ask myself, "Am I comfortable making this investment, 1) realizing that this institution may not use the money precisely as I would, and 2) realizing this institution may change direction in the future as its board determines, but 3) expecting that the investment will bear fruit at least in the near term that justifies the investment, and 4) knowing our church can terminate the investment whenever we choose? Churches that partner with the SBC and/or Central Seminary answer that question, "Yes." We just have to be prepared and committed to walk away from our dollars that turned into bricks and mortar when and if we need to.

3. I am moderately skeptical of the SBC mantra, "We can do more together than we can do separately." Time will tell. (Interestingly enough, I heard GARBC National Representative John Greening embrace that language at their recent annual meeting.) But I do think we want to ask how—whether cooperatively or independently—we're going to get the gospel to places like Central Asia. (I'm assuming we want to.) These are Muslim countries. Highly inaccessible, unstable countries. Given the growing number of my friends and family members who serve as church planters in that part of the world and how they're getting there, I do wonder whether the mantra might prove true.

4. I'm unfamiliar with the mechanism that Bauder's classmate referred to when he told Bauder, "[The SBC] can get me a church if I need one. They have a good retirement program. And their insurance program is really great.” It is true that Guidestone offers retirement savings and insurance products, but to my knowledge the SBC does not subsidize those products. (Though I did make a note to put in a call to find out if I'm missing some windfall.) I do receive $17/month in a retirement savings match, but that's from our state convention, and I doubt that's what Bauder's friend had in mind. By the way, anything I save via Guidestone is my property, whether I eventually separate from the SBC or not. I'm also happy to report that we voted last month to permit Guidestone to expand its ministry assigment in order to provide insurance and investment products to like-minded individuals. So friends, what's ours is about to be yours.

So is it time to join the SBC? I don't know. Your call. Just count the cost.


Scott Aniol said...

For what it's worth, I didn't take Bauder's comments with regard to the Northern Baptist Convention as saying that the CP was created by liberals, but rather to point out that what happened in the NBC could as easily happen in the SBC (i.e., a liberal takeover) because of the inherent structure of the CP. But maybe you're correct and I misunderstood.

Ben said...

What precisely Bauder intended to imply was unclear to me. His summary of the history implied enough continuity that I think it's worthwhile to raise questions whether there might not be substantial discontinuity.

I have no doubt that he's right about the sensibilities of those who left the NBC to form the GARBC. I'm not familiar enough with the structure of the NBC or the SBC CP back then assess what similarities and differences existed. I'd be interested to read an article about that, but I can't imagine many would join me. Maybe you can find an ambitious young scholar up in your neck of the plains.