Article IV. Authority: While independent and sovereign in its own sphere, the Convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention. (Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention)
I suppose it depends on what your definitions of “never,” “attempt,” “exercise,” and “authority” are. It seems the latest assault on local autonomy comes courtesy of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a wholly owned entity of the Southern Baptist Convention.
According to published reports in Associated Baptist Press (here and here — you will look in vain to find “reporting” on this issue from Baptist Press), the Tarrant Baptist Association received a letter from Southwestern Seminary informing the Association (the association in SWBTS’s backyard) that it
was in violation of its 1997 affiliation agreement, and it directed the association to vacate its property on James Avenue within six months. It also stated title on the property should revert back to the seminary.
Apparently, the original 99-year lease agreement was renegotiated in 1997 and ownership of the property in question was deeded to the Tarrant Baptist Association. As is common with gifts of property to be used for religious purposes, a reversionary clause was inserted into the deed. These clauses stipulate the circumstances whereby the property would “revert” (i.e., be given back) to the original owner (in this case, Southwestern).
A typical circumstance triggering a reversionary clause might be when property donated for use as a church ceases to be used as such. For example, if Church A decided to disband and wanted to sell the property for use as a nightclub, then a reversionary clause would kick in.
In the case of Tarrant Association’s ownership and use of the property in question, it appears (I do not have access to the original letter sent by Southwestern to the Association) that the seminary is invoking the reversionary clause and demanding that TBA vacate the premises within six months.
According to a letter sent by Tarrant’s Moderator-elect Al Meredith to pastors of churches in the Association, the seminary (who exactly? Paige Patterson, attorneys for the seminary or someone else) indicated three areas of concern regarding the TBA’s non-compliance with an “affiliation agreement” that the association has with SWBTS:
1. The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000 has taken a clear stand against homosexual sin. They contend that Tarrant Baptist Association has member church(s) who don’t stand in compliance with this statement. They feel this places them in a contradictory situation.
2. They contend that in past years they have asked for and not received any assistance from the TBA office in helping their professors and students gain access to empty pulpits in the Association.
3. They need the additional space for offices and/or a Welcome Center.
Prior to the December 12, 2010 letter, were these concerns ever expressed to the leadership within the TBA? If not, why not? Did Southwestern give Tarrant the opportunity to rectify these concerns before threatening to invoke the reversionary clause? If not, why not? There are multiple legal issues involved in this case. As I have neither read the deeds of conveyance and other pertinent legal documents nor have I read any of the letters that were sent by the seminary to the Tarrant Baptist Association, I will reserve comment on the legal aspects of this case.
However, let me offer an opinion as to another issue which is at play, one that is not really about law, but about ecclesiology. What has been couched in legal terms appears to be nothing more than an attempt to exercise raw control and authority over an autonomous association of Baptist churches. And this, in direct violation of the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention.
How else to explain the use of the “nuclear option” of reversion? Were there no other alternatives but to invoke the reversionary clause? The reasons given for reversion, particularly 2 and 3 above, are simply ludicrous. For one of our Southern Baptist seminaries to demand that a local association of Baptist churches — many of whom are cooperating Southern Baptist churches — to give back property to the seminary based on the seminary’s “need for additional space” or the supposed lack of assistance in placement are laughable.
Reason #1 — the issue of homosexuality — is a red herring. Southern Baptists who believe in autonomy — the local church, the local association, and the state convention — should not be fooled. Cooperating Southern Baptists, who still believe in autonomy, must not allow any Southern Baptist entity to use any issue to “exercise control over any other Baptist body,” in violation of the SBC’s Constitution.
Before proceeding, let me say that I believe that the SBC has every right to disfellowship churches who endorse or support homosexuality. I have voted in convention meetings to affirm recommendations that churches be barred from seating messengers. I believe that state conventions and local associations likewise have every right to disfellowship churches who endorse or support homosexuality. If that were an issue in my local association or state convention, I would likely vote to disfellowship such churches. However, I do not believe that Tarrant Baptist Association’s inclusion of member churches that endorse or support homosexuality (i.e., Broadway Baptist Church in Ft. Worth) is what is truly driving this issue, despite what has been proffered by the seminary as one of the reasons for reversion.
I believe that homosexuality, in this case, is being used as the pretext for exerting control over the Tarrant Baptist Association (400 Baptist/Southern Baptist churches in the Ft. Worth area. The TBA is larger than the entire Baptist Convention of New Mexico). Here’s how. If Tarrant does not disfellowship churches (at this point, apparently only Broadway, which equals .25% of the churches in the Association) who support homosexuality, then Tarrant is in danger of losing property that had previously been given to the Association.
Understand the ramifications of this. The SBC has already disfellowshipped Broadway Baptist Church over the issue of homosexuality (I voted in favor of the motion to disfellowship). Now, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention does not like the fact that an autonomous association has dared to allow Broadway to remain as a member in good standing.
Because of one church’s actions — out of 400 — the entire Tarrant Baptist Association is now somehow suspect and no longer in “theological harmony” with Southwestern Seminary. That does not make any sense. This is not about “theological harmony.” This is not even about homosexuality. This is about power, control, authority, and an assault on autonomy.
Remember, the slippery slope always starts somewhere. What issue will be next? Will it be churches who have women pastors? Been there, done that. What about divorced deacons? How about views on the end times? What about associations who have member churches who are members of organizations that the SBC does not like? If those churches do not stop their suspect affiliations and if the local association (or state conventions –think BGAV and BGCT) allow them to remain as a member in good standing, will the SBC move to disfellowship entire associations or state conventions?
These are all relevant and timely questions. As it is, many of the elites running the SBC and her entities have little or no regard (much less understanding) for local associations or state conventions. These “leaders” see the SBC as a “top-down” denomination instead of a grassroots convention of autonomous, cooperating churches.
If this power grab is allowed to stand, then we will have moved one step closer to the end of autonomy as we know it. And, the beginning of the end of the SBC as we know it. You might not think that the property rights of the Tarrant Baptist Association are worth defending. But, just remember. It could be your local association tomorrow!