In my first outing as an official representative of Hannibal-LaGrange University, I have spent the past few days at the Greater Columbus (Ohio) Convention Center attending the Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. In the past, controversy stalked each meeting as Southern Baptists both fought internecine battles and made unpopular public proclamations addressing cultural issues. Despite these issues, this meeting reminded me that the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention lies in local congregations. As I attended Midwestern Seminary’s “For the Church” Tuesday luncheon, I heard speakers contend for the primacy and import of the local church. Although some of the speakers could fairly be identified as culture warriors, others could not. All of them, however, were strongly–zealously, you might even say–committed to the Baptist principles of a gathered congregation composed of regenerate church members and the autonomy of the local church. Despite their disagreements in other areas, those commitments in fact were what brought them together. In this, they were a microcosm of the Southern Baptist Convention.
Although the Southern Baptist Convention involves itself in other arenas, on the whole most of the cooperative efforts of the convention flow out of–and back into–the local church. In the messenger system, churches who choose to cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention (i.e. financially participate in its ministries) send “messengers” to the annual meeting to “do the business of the convention.” Only cooperating churches can send messengers, and only properly credentialed messengers can speak, vote, and address business matters. Through a trustee system, business conducted at the annual meeting affects the ministry entities of the convention, directing their efforts, but decisions made at the annual meeting only affect local churches insofar as they participate in those ministry entities. This system, which developed over the course of the twentieth century, protects the autonomy of the local church while allowing Southern Baptists to cooperate together. In this manner, contemporary Southern Baptists embrace the autonomy of the local church that their seventeenth-century English Baptist forbears and Anabaptist cousins held so dear while cooperating together in critical ministries areas such as international missions, church planting, and global disaster relief.
For even more on the Southern Baptist Convention, you can order a copy of the new book by Tommy Kidd and Barry Hankins, Baptists in America: A History.