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Is It Time to Join the SBC?


Over the past month, I’ve been immersed rather deeply (around ten hours per day) in the history of early Baptist fundamentalism. Working from the documents, I have vicariously relived the attempts to sell The Baptist (the liberal rag that the Northern Baptist Convention sent into the homes of church members by using funds that had been given for missionary work), to investigate the liberal schools, to pull liberal missionaries off the field, to induce the convention to adopt a confession of faith, and to keep unbaptistic churches from sending delegates to the convention.

This study has reminded me of the high cost of separation. When the leaders of the GARBC left the convention in 1932, they took nothing but their churches with them. In some cases, faithful congregations were even deprived of their buildings and grounds. When the Conservative Baptists were thrown out in 1946, they could take nothing except the one mission society that they themselves had founded. Everything—everything—had to be rebuilt from the ground up. Educational institutions, publishing houses, mechanisms for pastoral placement, and missionary agencies all had to be created de novo.

People who fought their way out of the Northern Baptist Convention tended to share one very serious commitment: the work of cooperative ministry must never again be placed under the control of a centralized body. Originally, cooperative work among Baptists in America had been organized through independent service agencies. Even after 1845, Baptists in the North operated a foreign mission society, a home mission society, an education society, a publication society, and so forth. Many saw in this system a cumbersome and unnecessary duplication of effort, with multiple offices requiring multiple facilities and multiple managers. They called for an umbrella organization that would bring all of the agencies together to eliminate the waste.

These calls led to the founding of the Northern Baptist Convention in 1907. Unfortunately, the structure of the convention was engineered by theological liberals (especially Shailer Mathews) who saw consolidation as an opportunity to seize the whole denominational machinery, including the churches. Initially, the convention operated purely as a coordinating body, but with the creation of the General Board of Promotion in 1919, it became a controlling body.

After 1920 liberalism in the convention was palpable. Even worse than the modernism, however, was the centralization. Layers of bureaucracy separated institutions and their leaders from actual accountability to the churches. It became impossible to dislodge modernists from the schools, the mission fields, or the convention structure. The whole convention began to operate according to what was called the inclusive policy. This policy stated that since liberals were helping to finance the work of the convention and its agencies, they had a right to be represented in the work.

Not only did the churches lose control of the convention and its agencies, but these institutions actually became instruments for exerting liberal control over individual congregations. The convention magazine (The Baptist) put liberal theology and denominational propaganda in the home of every ordinary church member, regardless of the views of the pastor. If a pastor bucked the convention, he could be sure that the denominational officials would blackball him when the time came to look for another church. The retirement program—the Ministers and Missionaries’ Benefit Board—deprived pastors of most of their retirement if they left the convention. If a church tried to leave the convention, the officials would stir up some kind of a rump group that would take the majority to court. There, the convention officials would swear under oath that the minority was really the church with full rights to the property and bank account.

Anyone who gave a dollar to the convention could be sure that much of it would go to support the liberal magazine, the liberal schools, the liberals on the mission field, and the same liberal officials who were trying to wreck conservative churches. Of course, one’s dollar could be designated to go to some conservative cause—but that only freed up another dollar that the General Board of Promotion could move elsewhere. The result of designating one’s giving was exactly the same as the result of not designating anything.

The situation really was intolerable. Pastors and churches began to walk away from the convention. Many had to pay a high price.

Not surprisingly, once they had escaped the devouring beast, they declined to begin feeding another. Rather than relying upon any convention-coordinated efforts, they chose to return to the principle of independent service organizations. Schools like Baptist Bible Seminary (Johnson City, New York) and Los Angeles Baptist Seminary (now Master’s College) were founded. Mission agencies like the Mid-Africa Mission (now BMM) and the Association of Baptists for the Evangelism of the Orient (now ABWE) were brought into existence. Missionaries were expected to approach churches for their own support, and each church was expected to hold its own supported missionaries accountable. Individual churches and their members would have to decide which missionaries, which agencies, and which schools they would support.

The resulting system is admittedly cumbersome and inefficient. Some have cast a longing eye toward the Southern Baptist Convention and its Cooperative Program, where everything seems so streamlined. But the SBC and the Cooperative Program were already there as an example and pattern while gospel-centered, Bible-believing churches were fighting their way out of the NBC. Those leaders looked at the SBC model and rejected it, not because they were looking to build their own empires, but because the risks inherent in the system were just too great.

Separatist Baptists see the Cooperative Program much the same way that genuine conservatives see the Patriot Act. In the hands of principled people, it can be both comforting and productive. In the hands of the unprincipled, or, worse yet, the wrongly-principled, it is bound to be devastating. Since one administration follows another, we dare not risk what the next administration might do.

When I was in doctoral studies, I asked one of my classmates why he was so loyal to the SBC. He replied, “They can get me a church if I need one. They have a good retirement program. And their insurance program is really great.” These are significant benefits—and they are also the very weapons that were used against fundamentalists within the Northern Baptist Convention.

I wish nothing but the best for the Southern Baptist Convention. Truthfully, I rejoice that the conservatives turned out to be more astute ecclesiastical politicians than the liberals were. May the SBC remain under increasingly conservative control until Jesus comes—perhaps someday even adopting a doctrinal standard for churches to send messengers or for messengers to be seated. But the dangers inherent in the system are just too great. As a Baptist, I will cheerfully plant my flag with missions like Baptist Mid Missions, Baptist Church Planters, Continental Baptist Missions, or Baptist World Mission, with schools like Faith Baptist Bible College, Maranatha Baptist Bible College, or Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, and with fellowships like the Fundamental Baptist Fellowship, the New Testament Association of Independent Baptist Churches, or the General Association of Regular Baptist Churches.


This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder, Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


When Thy Soldiers Take Their Swords
Frances M. Owen (1842-1883)

When Thy soldiers take their swords,
When they speak the solemn words,
When they kneel before Thee here,
Feeling Thee, their Father, near;
These Thy children, Lord, defend;
To their help Thy Spirit send.

When the world’s sharp strife is nigh,
When they hear the battle cry,
When they rush into the fight,
Knowing not temptation’s might;
These Thy children, Lord, defend;
To their zeal Thy wisdom lend.

When their hearts are lifted high
With success or victory,
When they feel the conqu’ror’s pride;
Lest they grow self satisfied,
These Thy children, Lord, defend;
Teach their souls to Thee to bend.

When the vows that they have made,
When the prayers that they have prayed,
Shall be fading from their hearts;
When their first warm faith departs;
These Thy children, Lord, defend;
Keep them faithful to the end.

Through life’s conflicts guard us all,
Or if wounded some should fall
Ere the victory be won,
For the sake of Christ, Thy Son,
These Thy children, Lord, defend;
And in death Thy comfort bend.

Kevin T. Bauder

About Kevin Bauder

Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.

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