The Southern Baptist Convention meeting last week in Baltimore was, in itself, a lesson in Baptist polity. The organizational structure of the Convention is directly drawn from Baptist principles, and those principles have been adapted to meet the new challenges faced by every generation.
In the last generation, the Convention responded courageously to the challenge of theological compromise, asserting both the right and the responsibility of the Convention to require confessional fidelity and theological integrity of its seminaries, mission boards, and other entities. That process culminated in the Convention’s revision of its confession of faith, The Baptist Faith & Message, in 2000. That revision included a clear statement of biblical inerrancy and a host of other truths that the Convention urgently affirmed.
In this generation, moral issues also require clear action by the Convention. Most urgently, the issue of homosexuality and same-sex relationships demand attention. In this case, the Convention’s confession of faith is very clear — it affirms marriage as the union of a man and a woman and it affirms the sinfulness of same-sex behaviors.
Now, in this generation, the challenge faced by all denominations and fellowships of churches will be what to do with churches that deviate from that clear teaching and take any action to deny or to minimize those convictions.
A church that is recognized by the Convention as a participating church is a congregation that contributes to the causes of the Convention and is in “friendly cooperation” with it. The SBC Constitution states: “Among churches not in friendly cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.” Thus, a church that takes any such action effectively removes itself from being “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC.
But this does not mean that the Convention does not have a responsibility to act on its own authority. In 1992 the SBC voted to withdraw fellowship from Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, North Carolina and Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in neighboring Chapel Hill. Both churches had taken actions that endorsed homosexuality. In 2009, the Convention acted again to remove fellowship from Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, on the same grounds.
As the 2014 meeting of the Convention approached, a fourth congregation, New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, California, took a similar action. In this case, the congregation voted to retain its pastor after he announced that he had changed his understanding of same-sex relationships and behaviors. Pastor Danny Cortez acknowledged that his affirmation of homosexuality was a “radical shift” from the congregation’s stated position and the denomination’s confession of faith. He led the congregation to adopt a self-identification as a “Third Way” fellowship, allowing for multiple understandings of same-sex behaviors and relationships. That led to a schism within the congregation, with more conservative members leaving.
All this came to the Convention’s attention just days before the meeting in Baltimore. On June 2, I published an article alerting Southern Baptists to the development and making clear that the Convention now faces a duty to protect the integrity of its own confession of faith and integrity of fellowship. Further, I argued that there is no “Third Way” on the issue. Eventually, every church and denomination will have to decide if it will recognize or conduct same-sex unions. That moment of decision will come sooner, rather than later.
In Baltimore, the SBC did not act on the question, and for an understandable reason. The issues erupted just days before the Convention met, and there was no time for the Convention to come to a clear understanding of New Heart Community Church’s actual relationship, if any, to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Like many Southern Baptists, I was frustrated that the SBC could not and did not act during the meeting in Baltimore, though I fully understand why. I have no doubt that the Convention will act decisively and rightly at its earliest opportunity.
As the Convention gathered in Baltimore, there was a very real question about the nature and status of New Heart Community Church. An official with the California Southern Baptist Convention said that the congregation is actually a mission of a parent church that does not affirm the mission’s revolt on this issue. If so, that issue needs to be clarified immediately and the “mother” church must act decisively to discipline the mission, assert its own leadership, and demand confessional integrity. If the mission continues in its revolt, that parent church must either repudiate the mission and sever fellowship, or it will violate its own confessional integrity and effectively remove itself from “friendly cooperation” with the SBC.
At this point, an urgent lesson in Baptist polity is in order. Baptists prize the autonomy of the local church — so much so that every local church is understood and affirmed to be complete in its ministry and free to determine its own membership, convictions, and principles. Most Baptists know at least that much about Baptist polity.
But historic Baptist polity also affirms that every “general Baptist body,” meaning any association of Baptist churches at any level, is equally autonomous, and thus free to determine its own membership, convictions, and principles.
In other words, every local Baptist association, state convention, and national fellowship is free and responsible to determine the standards for its own membership and the principles of its cooperation. In 1992, with the challenge of the North Carolina churches in view, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted Resolution “On the Autonomy of Baptist Churches and General Baptist Bodies.” In that resolution, the Convention asserted that each Baptist church and general Baptist body is “sovereign in its own sphere,” citing historic Baptist language. Further, the Convention resolved to “affirm the autonomy of local Baptist churches and general Baptist bodies; and … confess our respective responsibility to maintain the integrity and scriptural discipline of every Baptist body in terms of faith, practice, membership, and programs, thus protecting the witness and purity of the church and denomination; and … urge a comprehensive preservation of historic Baptist polity, understanding the proper autonomy of local Baptist churches and general Baptist bodies under the mutual accountability all Christian bodies share under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.”
I had the honor of serving as chairman of the Committee on Resolutions for that 1992 Convention, and I was pleased that the SBC was ready to state clearly the principles upon which it was prepared to act with respect to the North Carolina churches.
Those principles deserve close attention now. The Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association, the California Southern Baptist Convention, and the Southern Baptist Convention now face a clear and unavoidable responsibility. None of these general Baptist bodies can act for any other. Each has the duty to determine its own membership and protect its integrity of confession and fellowship. Each must act as soon as it is able, once the situation is clearly understood.
The Baptist polity that stands behind this was well described by legal scholars Edward McGlynn Gaffney, Jr. and Philip C. Sorensen in these terms, using the Baptist General Convention of Texas as an example:
“The constitution of the Baptist General Convention of Texas is typical in stating that the state convention ‘has not, to any degree, and shall never have any ecclesiastical authority. It shall not have and shall never attempt to exercise a single attribute of power or authority over any church or over the messengers of the churches in such wise to limit the sovereignty of the churches, but shall recognize the sovereignty of the churches under one sovereign, Jesus Christ, our Lord.’ The state convention insists on its own autonomy as vigorously as the state convention defends the autonomy of the local church. The convention chooses its own membership and is sovereign within the bounds set by its own constitution. Therefore, just as it controls no church, no church or group of churches controls the state convention. The concept of messenger control of general Baptist bodies is firmly planted in Southern Baptist history and practice. Autonomy is so important that Southern Baptists guard against even the appearance of its compromise.”
Autonomy implies responsibility, and every general Baptist body related to New Heart Community Church now faces the responsibility to act. I am confident that the Southern Baptist Convention will act rightly. I am hopeful that the Los Angeles Southern Baptist Association and the California Southern Baptist Convention will act with equal clarity and resolution.
There is always sadness when fellowship must be withdrawn, but if New Heart Community Church does not repent and return to agreement with our convictions and confession of faith, the failure to withdraw that fellowship will be nothing less than a tragic abdication of responsibility and a violation of theological integrity. The moment of decision will not be long delayed.
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Publication date: June 19, 2014