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Should the Southern Baptist Convention rename itself?

Should the Southern Baptist Convention rename itself? July 9, 2021

THE QUESTION:

After 176 years, does the Southern Baptist Convention need a new name?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

This question has simmered over the years within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), which is by far America’s largest Protestant body. Discussions heated up a decade ago and are now more pertinent than ever. Some Baptists hope this step toward a fresh new image might help overcome public relations disasters over SBC mishandling of sexual abuse cases, misogyny, racial insensitivity and partisan politicizing of the Gospel — at a time when slow membership decline follows decades of impressive growth.

One reason to keep the old name is that the SBC has had what historian Bill Leonard calls “a powerful denominational self-consciousness” more than other Protestants. Its clear identity has long been associated with biblical conservatism in belief and energetic evangelistic effort at home and abroad. And yet the SBC faces the general move of U.S. Protestants away from loyalty and identity with a particular denomination. Some SBC congregations no longer emphasize their affiliation or even shun “Baptist” in their name.

Then again, is the Southern Baptist Convention even southern any longer? If not, the name is misleading even as it announces a narrowly sectional identity. The answer to this is yes and no.

On the one hand, for a generation domestic missionaries and southern expatriates have extended the SBC’s presence across the North and West to create a truly nationwide denomination. On the other, about four-fifths of members still live in the traditional turf extending southward from the arc of Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and Oklahoma.

Regarding sectionalism and parochialism, consider that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which rejected the SBC’s new hardline conservative leadership in 1991, never seriously considered forming a southern beachhead for the rival “American Baptist” denomination. Meanwhile, those same conservatives in 2004 withdrew from the 241-denomination Baptist World Alliance, which was largely an SBC creation in 1905. Likewise, though the SBC is undoubtedly evangelical it has not joined the National Association of Evangelicals.

The most pressing reason to shed the 176-year-old name, of course, is its very origin and the unsavory history it evokes. The SBC was formed in 1845 by withdrawing from Baptist cooperative bodies because they refused to appoint slave-owners as missionaries. That (and Methodist and Presbyterian splits) anticipated the outbreak of the Civil War 16 years later.

Yes, there were other factors in the 1845 schism, including general regional solidarity and the southerners’ concept of a more centralized organization. But there’s no disputing the assertion in a 150th anniversary history from the SBC’s own book house that “the Southern Baptist Convention walked on the stage of history burdened by its defense of a practice which subsequent history would condemn” — and a practice the SBC itself was to condemn in time.

The provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, Bruce Riley Ashford, favors a name change because Southern “will forever be associated with pro-slavery views.” Removal of that word “is not a wholesale dismissal of Southern culture, but rather a realistic recognition of past sins and an attempt to reposition for the future.”

Ashford joins a number of other prominent denominational figures in advocating the name “Great Commission Baptists.” That designation comes from what’s called Jesus’ Great Commission in Matthew 28:19-20: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”

That is already an informal designation for the denomination but not yet a widely used substitute. The SBC’s annual meeting in 2012 approved the proposal of a task force studying the name issue to be known unofficially as “Great Commission Baptists,” an alternative name to signify the SBC’s traditional focus on evangelism and missions.

Other logical choices like “American Baptist” and “National Baptist” are already taken by other denominations.

U.S. groups that change their names typically do so for reasons of image or marketing. Baptists who broke with the SBC in the 19th Century eventually organized as the “Northern Baptist Convention” but later switched to the less geographically restricted “American Baptist” name. The “Conservative Baptist Association” enacted a 2019 “rebrand” to become the “Venture Church Network”; its president explained that the older name “has become an obstacle” because culture and language are changing.

In 2001 the “Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints” became the “Community of Christ,” presumably to downplay shared roots with the far better-known but quite different Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which itself is trying to shed its longstanding  unofficial “Mormon” nickname in a bid to underscore more of a Christian identity.

A particularly dramatic example was the “Worldwide Church of God,” from which a major segment signified its internal theological revolution in 2009 by becoming “Grace Communion International.” This organization originally followed the eccentric doctrines of its all-powerful leader and radio speaker, Herbert W. Armstrong. After Armstrong’s death his designated successor instituted the  dramatic change (provoking various schisms) in which the group embraced orthodox Protestantism as defined by membership in the National Association of Evangelicals.

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