Baptist ‘Resolutions’ Aren’t Usually Newsworthy, but the Struggle to Pass One is

A Southern Baptist “resolution” is in the news, so before we look at the dismal substance of that, let’s have a quick refresher on what Baptist resolutions mean.

The “C” in SBC stands for “convention,” not for “church.” We Baptist types — even in the SBC — aren’t comfortable with the idea of formal “denominations.” In sociology-speak we’re sect, not ecclesia. No hierarchies, magisterium, bishops or bosses. This isn’t a mere quirk, but it’s central to Baptist identity — nobody else can tell us what or how to believe. Hence the name. We get baptized when we choose to do so, and nobody else gets to make that call. Soul freedom and all that.

This is still true even among more authoritarian-friendly Baptist communities, like our cousins in the SBC. They may prefer hierarchical structures in nuclear families and in local congregations, but they’ll still bristle and get their Baptist up if anyone suggests to them that there should be a Southern Baptist “headquarters.” And the word “denomination” still irks them.

Despite our sect-ish disinclination toward formal structures and organizations, we Baptists still do need to work collectively on various things. We still need economies of scale. We have large mission boards and pension boards and educational presses that produce Sunday school curricula, and we have to decide collectively on how we’re going to work together to run those in ways we all can approve of.

We also have lobbyists, sort of. We have people who speak on behalf of our communities with lawmakers and government to ensure that our rights are protected and our interests are considered. A host of different Baptist associations help fund the Baptist Joint Committee, which has defended the core Baptist principle of separation of church and state since 1946. The American (Northern) Baptists have an office of governmental relations in the God Box across from the Capitol. And the Southern Baptists have their thing, which changes its name every decade or so but now goes by Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission.

Given the lack of any other formal national “headquarters,” the head of the ERLC is the closest thing the Southern Baptists have to an “official” spokesperson. But Russell Moore isn’t technically a spokesperson for the Southern Baptist Convention, only for the ERLC — which is only permitted to advocate positions agreed to by the representatives of the convention’s member congregations.

The ambiguity of "pray for such a time as this" neatly glosses over Southern Baptist divisions in the age of Trump.

The ambiguity of “pray for such a time as this” neatly glosses over Southern Baptist divisions in the age of Trump.

This is where those “resolutions” come in. These are, roughly, position papers setting the agenda for the ERLC, instructing it and authorizing it to act and speak on behalf of the larger community. The SBC has a formal “Resolutions Committee” that regularly drafts and crafts their statements, often in coordination with ERLC staff who want to ensure that they’re representing — and are supported by — the concerns of the people they’re meant to represent. But resolutions can also be proposed and introduced by, well, just about anybody on just about any topic, and still work their way toward a vote.

These resolutions and the votes on them tend to get reported as official Southern Baptist pronouncements — as analogous to papal encyclicals or edicts issued by the bishops of formal denominational churches. That’s misleading. These resolutions don’t present official denominational dogma because there is no official denomination. They simply direct the ERLC or some other cooperative Baptist entity, providing guidelines for their work. (That’s why there are also more mundane “resolutions” on topics like the percentage of pension funds to be invested in Treasury bonds. These tend not to make headlines because they’re really, really boring.)

SBC resolutions have to be passed by a vote of delegates at the convention’s annual, um, convention, which brings together representatives of local member churches and associations in a gloriously messy exercise of congregational democracy.

The Southern Baptist’s annual convention is wrapping up this week, in Phoenix, which is why its resolutions are in the news just now. The one that’s getting the most attention didn’t originate with the formal Resolutions Committee, but was instead drafted and proposed by a local pastor — the Rev. William Dwight McKissic Sr. of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas.

McKissic seems to have caught the predominantly white delegates of the predominantly white Southern Baptist Convention by surprise with his proposal, a “Resolution on the Condemnation of the ‘Alt-Right’ Movement and the Roots of White Supremacy.”

Delegates and SBC leaders did not exactly cover themselves in glory in their initial or eventual responses to this proposal. My point here is mainly that, despite all the hubbub around them, Baptist resolutions aren’t usually a big deal. But the struggle to understand them, and the reluctance to consider them — well, that can sometimes be a very big deal indeed.

 

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