“I’m a Southern Baptist.” “You are not!” “I am too!” “Are not!” “Am too!” . . . You get the picture. There are currently some in the Baptist blogosphere and elsewhere who are trying to define (or redefine) what it means to be a Southern Baptist. I’m not talking about who gets to be a messenger to the annual meeting of the SBC. After all, less than 12,000 out of 16 million Southern Baptists even attended the Convention in Orlando. Rather, I’m talking about Southern Baptist identity. What is an “authentic” or “true” Southern Baptist church? Who gets to decide that question?
There are many folks today who we could call nominal Southern Baptists. They may have grown up in a SB church, but they are unchurched and unaffiliated now. However, for someone to identify as a Southern Baptist, he or she should at the very least be a member of a local church that self-identifies as a Southern Baptist congregation and not as an independent Baptist, Cooperative Baptist, or other flavor of Baptist church.
Assuming the above requirement is met, what standards should we use to decide if someone belongs to a “true” Southern Baptist church? Depends on who is deciding. Some will use very narrow standards and others will use very broad standards. Still others will use standards that are not as rigid as “small tent Baptists,” but are not as loose as “big tent Baptists.”
Big tent Baptists, as a general rule, will seek to emphasize the cooperative nature of the SBC in fulfilling the Great Commission. For these Baptist churches, Lottie Moon and Annie Armstrong are more important (and more well-known) than James P. Boyce or E.Y. Mullins. While Baptist doctrine is important to Big tent Baptists, it is not primary. They want to see as many churches cooperate and partner together for missions and ministry and are not overly concerned with how other churches choose to observe the Lord’s Supper.
Small tent Baptists, on the other hand, seek to emphasize the doctrines and beliefs that Southern Baptists hold in common. For these churches, R. Albert Mohler and Paige Patterson are household names among congregation members. While missions is important to these churches, it comes second to doctrinal unity. They want to see all the churches of the SBC affirm a common confession of faith (creed) in order to cooperate and partner together for missions and ministry. These churches appear to be overly concerned with whether or not another church practices open, close, or closed communion and other tertiary doctrinal issues.
Of the 45,000+ churches that make up the Southern Baptist Convention, where do the majority of them fall — Big Tent Camp or Small Tent Camp? Neither. Because advocates of both these positions tend to be passionate and outspoken, there is an appearance that “most” SB churches fall into one or the other camp. However, I believe that the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptist churches, pastors, and laypeople are not tuned into the internal squabbles that take place among certain groups within the Convention.
In the end, we are Great Commission people and Great Commission congregations who identify with the Gospel mission that Jesus gave the church. Even if we don’t always do it with the perfection or passion that some would like and, even if some would like to question our authenticity, Southern Baptists are a missions-minded people. Who is a true Southern Baptist. That was answered long ago when the churches of the Convention set forth the definition in our SBC Constitution:
Article II. Purpose: It is the purpose of the Convention to provide a general organization for Baptists in the United States and its territories for the promotion of Christian missions at home and abroad and any other objects such as Christian education, benevolent enterprises, and social services which it may deem proper and advisable for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God.
Article III. Membership: The Convention shall consist of messengers who are members of missionary Baptist churches cooperating with the Convention as follows:
1. One (1) messenger from each church which: (1) Is in friendly cooperation with the Convention and sympathetic with its purposes and work. Among churches not in cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior. And, (2) Has been a bona fide contributor to the Convention’s work during the fiscal year preceding.
- So, the next time someone questions whether or not you are a Southern Baptist, instead of getting into a childish fight, just reply, “I am, but what are you?”