The Southern Baptist Name Game

The more Baptist Standard editor Toby Druin thought about all the new titles he kept typing, the more ironic they became.

In June, the Southern Baptist Convention officially begins operating under a “Covenant for a New Century,” a corporate reorganization plan that collapses its 19 agencies into 12. The name of almost every bureaucracy will be affected – except for the one at the top of the chart. This inspired a semi-serious Druin editorial in the weekly newspaper for Texas Baptists.

“I have always opposed the thought of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he wrote. “But doesn’t it sound a bit strange to say ‘missionaries of the INTERNATIONAL Mission Board of the SOUTHERN Baptist Convention’ or ‘missionaries of the NORTH AMERICAN Mission Board of the SOUTHERN Baptist Convention’?”

America’s largest non-Catholic flock has certainly outgrown its Civil War-era name. In this case, it also might be a good marketing move to change the franchise name on thousands of signs from coast to coast and around the world. The Southern Baptist name hasn’t exactly been baptized in good publicity during the past two decades, as “fundamentalists” and “moderates” fought a bitter war of words over the authority, or “inerrancy” of the Bible.

Druin knows it would be almost impossible to pass a motion to change the SBC’s name. That’s why he could get away with the heresy of joking about it.

“I think they ought to change the name to the International Baptist Convention,” he said. “Then at some point – when we get ready to start mission work on other planets – we could switch to the Interstellar Baptist Convention. … That way, the initials would stay the same and we wouldn’t even have to change the logo.”

This is serious business. Nationwide, denominational loyalty is at an all-time low. Forget “Southern” — legions of churches are taking “Baptist” off their signs. Meanwhile, the doctrinal land mines of the late 20th Century are causing new splits in once major bodies. For example, the Episcopal Church is not the same as the Charismatic Episcopal Church, the Reformed Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Episcopal Church or the Anglican Catholic Church in America.

To make matters worse for Southern Baptists, most of the other obvious adjectives have already been claimed. The Yankees already own the rights to “American” — even though there are many more Southern Baptist churches north of the Mason-Dixon Line than there are American Baptist churches in the South. Another appropriate name would be “conservative” – except that evangelicals who long ago fled the American Baptist fold have already claimed it.

“National” Baptists? Taken. “North American” Baptists? Taken. “Primitive” Baptists? Taken. “Free-Will” Baptists? Taken. “Cooperative” Baptists? Taken. “Independent” Baptists? Obviously, that’s been taken.

One of the SBC’s old lions, the Rev. W.A. Criswell of Dallas, once jokingly suggested jumping in the opposite direction and using “Cosmic Baptist Convention,” noted conservative historian Timothy George of Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School.

“Seriously, it’s easy to focus on the issue of names and all of the fragmentation that’s taking place,” said George. “Or you can look at it the other way and say that the most important thing that’s happening, today, is the way so many churches — conservative churches as well — are realigning and working together, no matter what the name is on the front of their building.”

Another major Baptist trend has been an emphasis on the power of pastors and people at the grassroots, said moderate historian Bill Leonard of Wake Forest University’s new divinity school. Thus, an appropriate name might be the Populist Baptist Convention. Meanwhile, SBC leaders know that they have rolled the dice by daring to change as many names as they have.

“When you talk about the Foreign Mission Board and the Brotherhood Commission and the Christian Life Commission, you’re talking about names that are deeply rooted in the identities and the psyches of your people out there at the grassroots,” he said. “It’s tough to make those kinds of changes, especially in an era when denominational loyalties are so shaky anyway. … Believe me, Southern Baptists are not folks who welcome changes, anyway.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.