Introducing Southern Baptists©
C. B. Hastings
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There is a quaint account of a meeting of a Baptist congregation in the autobiography of one of the early missionaries of the American Board of Home Missions that reflects much of the way Baptist churches operated in the past. In Jacob Bower's field in Southern Illinois in 1834 the whole area had recently been sown with very strong anti-mission prejudices. Luther Rice and his helpers were struggling mightily against such resistance. Lack of education among the frontier preachers, fear of centralized authority, reports that "missionaries" taxed each person twenty-five cents for every sermon preached, and Calvinistic views that God needed no human means to convert the heathen—all these combined to make many denounce "missionism" as heresy. But let Bower tell the story in his own unique spelling.

On the Saturday following, act. 18th I went to Mt. Giliad church meeting, to the house where they had all along been in the habit of holding her meetings—and to my astonishment, and surprize of the whole congregation too. The good man of the house, publicly forbid me from preaching on that day. But, said I, it is our church meeting day in course, and you voluntarily gave us your house for that purpose, and our rules of decorum requiers the conference to be opened & closed by prayer & praise. You may pray and exhort, said he, but you shall not preach in my house any more. So we opened our meeting as usual—Noticed those offending members who had abruptly broken off in disorder, and formed a new church, and excluded them. (he one of the number) Then exhorted the church to steadfastness in the cause in which she had embarked [as a "missionary" church]. And to carry it tenderly toards our Bring brethren, that they with loving kindness mite be won, and be restored again to the bosom of the church. "Hush and sit down, said he, or go out of my house, for you mite as well preach as to be talking in that way." And this was the last time the church met in his house. But the new church he bid welcome [composed of the excluded antimission people]. But the church in a short time gained more than she had lost, and there was not a Dog left in the church to bark against the cause of Missions.1

There is so much here that shows both the strength and the weakness of Baptist polity. A congregation has to meet for its monthly business in the home of a member. A layman tries to tell the itinerant preacher what he can and cannot preach. The congregation votes to exclude the "offending members" because they had so disturbed the good order of the church that they had formed a new congregation. The preacher's "exhorting"—public urging of the people to some Christian conduct or attitude, usually by the unordained—here "mite as well" be preaching! The rapid growth of the congregation when unity is restored around the Gospel motive of outreach to others, "missionism," is the result of inner discipline. The congregation needs no ecclesial authority beyond itself to determine its members, its discipline, and its policies.


Now affairs in contemporary Baptist churches do not often arrive at such critical states, but the basic principles are still operating today. One way of looking at these principles and forces at work is through the following five pairs:

  1. 1. Competency of the soul plus regenerate church membership equals congregational polity. James Sullivan distinguishes this kind of democratic polity as "theodemocracy"—the rule of God revealed in the democratic process: "By New Testament standards, a church should be a theodemocracy. In a democracy each person may be interested in his own rights and privileges. He may be looking after his own welfare.... A democracy can be filled with much self-centeredness. A theodemocracy uses democratic processes to find the will of God instead of the will of men. Each member's judgment is guided by prayer, Bible Study, and conscience. Each one votes what he thinks the will of God is concerning the church."2 Sullivan points up the advantages of this when the congregation operates while consciously relying upon the guidance of Christ's spirit. It inculcates unselfishness in the individual deferring to the will of the majority, while it gives him freedom of expression of mind and feelings. Since some matters require study and work in committees in preparation, it promotes individual growth. It demands maturity on the part of the majority in protecting the right of the minority.

    It is, of course, true today that large churches with highly complex programs of education, music, and ministries are following the pattern of a modified democracy. Pastoral leadership often requires a staff of professionally trained ministers. Business affairs are carried out by -have their functions well committees and church officers who defined by the church's constitution and by-laws. But all these are ultimately accountable to the congregation in the times of meetings for business.
  2. 2. Local church autonomy plus interdependence of churches equals denominational structure. Authority in polity for Baptists operates at no other level than the local congregation. Mutual support and means of kingdom business depend upon the practical measures and structures of interdependence. Yet each Baptist body is autonomous with respect to every other. The structures for the denomination are not jurisdictions.
  3. 3. Voluntarism plus lay leadership equals internal growth. Even in those large churches with multiple staffs most of the work is done by the laity. The success of Baptists in Bible study for all ages and for personal evangelism lies here. With many small units in education, music, mission organizations and support committees, a large corps of lay volunteers is required. Since there are many reasons for periodic turnover of these people, a continuing program of enlisting and training of new lay workers is required. It is hardly to be claimed that in one hour a week in Sunday School much serious Bible study can be accomplished. But the teachers and those who train them are spending several hours a week in such study. With at least fifty percent of the active members engaged in these programs it does not take many years to develop an intelligent, dedicated laity.
  4. 4. Cooperation plus the leadership principle equals aggressive programs of mission, education, and benevolence. With no hierarchy and no juridical structure Baptist denominations are shut up to using the leadership principle. This means that influence of trusted leaders, gifted with the charisma of speech and psychological skill, can either be a bane or a blessing. Baptists can be taken in by leaders whose hidden aims are power and glory. But the checks and balances developed through many years of struggle and controversy have been built into the association and convention structures to avoid this as far as possible.
  5. 5. Decentralization of agencies plus trusteeship equals a denomination that serves the local churches in their autonomy while providing lines of accountability. Some denominations have chosen to place all of their work of missions, education and benevolence under an executive board. Many of the state conventions of Southern Baptists are so organized. But the founding fathers of the Convention determined not to follow this pattern, for they "feared such a board at this level because this is the only place in the denomination where a hierarchical structure could evolve."8

Instead in 1927 the Convention created an executive committee with responsibility for coordinating the work of the Convention between annual sessions. But they retained separate boards of directors for each of the agencies, institutions and commissions of the Conventions. The Committee has been given the responsibility of receiving monies from the states for the "Cooperative Program" and of disbursing them according to the financial plan reviewed at each annual Convention.


Let us review these lines of polity and add a few other notes. Each local congregation is autonomous. It adopts its own constitution, by-laws, church covenant and confession of faith. It calls and appoints its own pastors and deacons. It determines its own programs and sets its own style of worship and observance of the ordinances. It decides the manner and extent of its cooperation with the agencies of the denomination and with other Christian bodies. It determines its own financial plan and seeks to develop its members in Christian stewardship. Legally the autonomy is pure. In practice, it can be strongly influenced by leaders, both within the congregation and in the various Baptist bodies. It reflects cultural and racial differences, for on a given Sunday in the United States there will be Baptist services in as many as seventy different languages and dialects. It is not immune to all the stresses of the society in which it lives, including being influenced by the business and political world around it.

The association is the first level of cooperation. A number of churches in a given geographical area (in strongly Baptist areas usually a county) send "messengers" to the annual meeting. There reports will be heard on the progress of all the churches, and plans and reports will be discussed about the various missions and support activities sponsored by the association. An executive board may be formed, made up of a pastor and one lay person from each church, to carry on the work of the association between annual meetings. A "director of missions" and possibly other professional staff may be employed to direct the programs of the association. Here also is the prime arena in which the state and Southern Baptist Convention offer programs and services for assisting the churches in training leaders in religious education, missions and social ministries.

The state convention is the next level of cooperation. It elects boards of trustees for the direction of colleges, universities, Bible institutes, benevolent homes, hospitals and other institutions. As with the association the churches send messengers to the annual meeting. These are not called delegates, because in the light of the polity described here an autonomous church cannot delegate authority to another Baptist body. Nor does it authorize its messengers to speak for the congregation, and the actions of the convention are not returned by the messengers with binding force upon the congregation. Resolutions which may be adopted at the convention are expressions of the best mind and will of that particular group of Baptists and carry only influential value for the people back home.

The Southern Baptist Convention is the national level of cooperation representing churches in all fifty states which are presently affiliated in thirty-three state conventions and 1,191 associations (1978). It supports seven commissions: Brotherhood, Christian Life, Education, Historical, Radio and Television, Stewardship, and the American Baptist Theological Seminary (jointly with the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A.) for black ministers, at Nashville. There are six seminaries: Louisville, Fort Worth, New Orleans, Wake Forest, North Carolina, Golden Gate, California, and Kansas City, Missouri. In 1977 the Foreign Mission Board reported 2,776 missionaries working in ninety countries. These are involved as consultants to national Baptist conventions, as evangelists, seminary teachers, doctors and nurses, agricultural consultants, publishers, musicians and several others.

The Home Mission Board with a mission force of 2,830 (1978) operates fourteen kinds of mission programs in the fifty states, Puerto Rico and American Samoa. Among these programs are evangelism, church planting, church loans, social ministries, language missions, associational services, black church relations, rural and urban ministries. interfaith witness and the different kinds of chaplaincies.

The Baptist World Alliance is a fellowship of Baptists from one hundred and fifteen countries of the world representing more than twenty-nine million Baptists. It sponsors a World Congress every five years to promote religious liberty, world relief and Bible distribution. It provides a forum for the exchange of Baptist views and trends from its many diverse affiliating Baptist groups. The North American Baptist Fellowship is a department of the Alliance which provides some interchange among eight separate Baptist bodies. Most of these also cooperate in the support of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs in Washington, D.C., which serves as an information gathering agency to keep Baptists in the United States informed of congressional actions which may affect the churches and denomination. It is especially concerned about any legislation which might en. danger the separation of Church and State.


The checkered history of Baptist relations with other Christian bodies, especially in the ecumenical movements of the present century, is too complex for adequate treatment here. We can only sketch the main outline.

As far back as 1890, even before other denominations were showing concern for Christian unity, the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, passed a resolution calling for a kind of Faith and Order conference. The resolution read in part:

Resolved, By the Southern Baptist Convention representing 1,200,000 communicants, that we recognize the gravity of the problem of bringing different denominations to see alike on important subjects concerning which they now differ, and that we recognize in the teaching of Scripture the only basis on which such agreement is either possible or desirable.

Resolved, That we respectfully propose to the general bodies of our brethren of other denominations to select representative scholars, who shall consider and seek to determine just what is the teaching of the Bible on the leading points of doctrine and polity between the denominations, in the hope that they can, at least, help to a better understanding of the issues involved....4

Nothing much came of the proposal. Southern Baptists rejected the report of the Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910, which is generally accepted as the beginning of the modern ecumenical movement, on the ground that the Conference avoided any recognition of evangelical missions in "papal lands." However, the Foreign Mission Board was active in the Foreign Mission Conference of North America from 1893-1919 and 1938-1950, when the latter was incorporated into the National Council of Churches. The Sunday School Board has had continuous representation on the International Sunday School Lesson Committee. There have been many examples of working representation by local churches and certain associations and conventions on various kinds of ad hoc missions and service programs. Local and some state councils, usually those concerned with civic righteousness, have also attracted Baptist participation. Large evangelistic crusades involving a wide spectrum of denominations, such as the Billy Graham Crusades and Key '73, have the enthusiastic cooperation of most Baptists.

The high-water mark of the Convention's interest in Christian unity was expressed in the report of the Committee of Christian Unity to the 1916 meeting. Southern Baptists were encouraged to continue participation in the fledgling movements for three reasons: (1) Baptists need to help others see that real Christian union can only come on the basis of complete separation of Church and State; (2) Baptists can give a witness to a unity of faith and order based on the freedom of Baptist polity rather than on a "vast Ecclesiasticism"; (3) unity as distinguished from uniformity can be seen in the way Baptists embrace "all classes and conditions of men."5

The major turning point came with the address of the president of the Convention in 1919. J. B. Gambrell denounced the unionists for getting control of "camp pastors" (non-military preachers from many denominations) who had been allowed freedom to hold services on military bases. Due to the efforts of John R. Mott, the YMCA was granted exclusive control of the Protestant ministers, while continuing freedom was granted to Jewish rabbis and Catholic priests. The War Department had refused the overture of a joint committee of Northern and Southern Baptists to redress their grievances. On the basis of this affront Gamble called upon Baptists to withdraw from all unionizing movements lest the freedom of Baptists to preach the Gospel and make converts be subverted.

There were additional efforts at the time to establish "comity agreements" whereby certain territories both at home and on foreign fields would be assigned to a given denomination, all others being excluded. Also Baptists have always shied away from any kind of "super Church" or world-wide hierarchical structure. Finally, the trend of early leaders of the Federal Council of Churches toward the "social Gospel movement" among liberal Christian denominations effectively closed the door to any significant Southern Baptist participation in the ecumenical movement.

There is some evidence of a new spirit of openness among Southern Baptists. Some have seen that other Baptist bodies cooperate in the National Council and World Council of Churches without loss of freedom or distinctiveness (e.g., the three Black Baptist Conventions and the American Baptist Churches). The 1966 Convention expressed what is probably the majority view of Southern Baptists: "While the majority of our people are not ecumenically minded in a structural and organizational sense, nevertheless, we rejoice with others in the present-day signs of a growing spirit of respect and good will among many religious bodies. We believe that it is the will of Christ that all who believe on him should be of one accord in spirit."

While Southern Baptists voted not to send an official observer to the Second Vatican Council, there were some unofficial observers present for several of the sessions. Scholars and laity alike have followed the progress of the Roman Catholic Church in its spirit of change and renewal with considerable interest. For the past ten years there have been continuing dialogues between scholars and denominational leaders, both regionally and state-wide, of Southern Baptists and Roman Catholics. The Department of Interfaith Witness of the Home Mission Board in its effort to develop bridges of understanding with peoples of all world religions has also conducted dialogue events together with leaders of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, the American Lutheran Council, Buddhist leaders in Hawaii, leaders of the Reorganized Church of Latter-Day Saints, Independence, Missouri, and a few of the Islamic leaders in the United States.

Finally, much real cooperation and mutual support between Baptists and other Christian groups take place on the mission fields of many countries of the world. Confronted with the challenges of non-Christian world religions, communistic societies, and growing anti-American nationalisms, missionaries can ill afford the isolationism that often is a given in predominantly Christian countries.


It is necessary to approach this question from the principles of Baptist polity which have been set forth above. For the individual Baptist, dissent and discipline are solely within the body of covenanted members of the autonomous congregation. Past generations, especially those living on the wide-open and often lawless frontiers, took very seriously their responsibility to discipline the moral conduct and the doctrinal views of their members. Historians agree that often this discipline served as the only curb against immorality and even criminal conduct in society. It is interesting to peruse the records of business meetings of some of the Kentucky Baptist churches in the early nineteenth century. The following indicates some of the disciplinary concerns:

Br. Baker Ewing is Excluded from this Church for Intoxication, for misusing his Wife, & disobeying the call of the Church.

Agreeable to Citement Bro. Pullum came before the Church and Acknowledged his fault; the Church agree'd to bear with him.

A motion made & seconded that this Church fall upon some measure respecting Members of this Church who have mov'd out of the bounds of the Church without applying for letters of Dismission.

A Motion was brought in and Debated on the new system of Principles called Herrisy & at length the following Question was taken, is the Son of God Equal & Eternal with the Father? It was Answer'd by a great Majority in favour of the Son being equal with the Father, then the Minority was call'd upon to give their reason for Voting as they did. Several of them Answer'd they were not moved from their old faith.

Sister Hicklin & Sister Stephens profess'd to the Church their reconciliation to each other.

A Charge was brought against Bro. Isaac Miles for saying that Bro. John Bohanan did cover the truth with lies of Hypocrisy, and he was Excluded for the same.6

The standard of judgment in all these matters was taken from the congregation's understanding of the teachings of the New Testament, the Church Covenant and Confession of Faith adopted by that church, and from its constitution and by-laws. If a member felt that he was being unjustly judged, he could appeal to the church to call for a council of brethren representing ether churches nearby. After hearing both sides the council would retired, debate their judgment, and report back to the congregation in session. As often as not the church might reverse its stand in the light of the advice of the council, but in any case their vote was the determining one.

As the twentieth century saw the rapid growth of members in the churches and the beginning of expansion out of the original eighteen states, Southern Baptists began to shift the focus of discipline to preventive education and reliance upon the mores of the Christian group.

Baptists have long been known for their vigorous stand against alcoholic beverages. The more conservative among them were also against popular dancing and card playing. These were all "sins of the flesh" which not only were sins in themselves but led to greater sins. Baptists were leaders in the movement for Prohibition and lobbied actively at every level against the "evils of drink." There is still strong preaching against drinking and for active involvement at state and local levels with those councils which have been organized for total abstinence. But one today rarely hears of a church excluding a member for drunkenness, although action might be taken against one who operates a liquor business.

Dissent takes a somewhat different approach. With the polity Baptists espouse they are obliged to give a fair hearing to any dissenter, whether in the local church or in the convention. Often when the congregation considers his dissent valid such a person showing the spirit of Christ will be able to change the direction of the church's thinking and action. But if he proves recalcitrant and his dissent threatens the peace of the church, he may in extreme cases be excluded. More often than not he will simply withdraw from the fellowship, pull as many followers as he can with him and form a new congregation. This regrettable course can cause much pain and loss, but in the Baptist system this need not affect the whole of the Baptist fellowship of the area and renewal of the church is always a good prospect.

Again the dissent of a church against an association or convention is another matter. Sometimes as in the case of the "withdrawing of fellowship" by associations in Dallas and Cincinnati recently over a few churches who entered "the tongues movement," the association presses charges against the local church. If a church becomes disaffected with the doctrinal or policy stands of the association and/or convention, it may withdraw its affiliation and "go independent," that is. to go it alone without affiliating with any Baptist body.

Dissent in the Southern Baptist Convention is an ever-present reality. Although annual meetings today have reached as many as 20,000 registrants (Atlanta, 1978), the Convention is still operated on the style of a town meeting where any qualified messenger has the right to make a motion or present a resolution. After many tedious experiences over critical matters, great and small, the Convention has adopted a plan to channel issues. Resolutions must be offered in writing and referred to a resolutions committee for study and report to another session of that meeting. Any motion or resolution with regard to the inner working of one of the boards or agencies of the Convention must be submitted without debate to the proper board of directors for study. These must report to the next annual meeting what disposition they made of the matter. Under the trustee system this keeps the Convention in session from trying to run the internal affairs of its agencies from the floor, while at the same time requiring responsible hearing of any issue raised.

C. Burtt Potter, Jr., in his book, Baptists: The Passionate People, finds the motivation for much of the debates and sometimes divisions among Baptists in eight "passionate concerns": for the authority of the Bible, personal redemption, the Church, doctrinal principles, God's Spirit, Southern culture, Christian ethics, and for an exemplary witness. His book is an excellent source of understanding of the critical issues that have been a part of the life of Southern Baptists in the twentieth century.7


1. William Warren Sweet, Religion on the American Frontier The Baptists, 1783-1830 (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1931), p. 218.

2. James L. Sullivan, Rope of Sand with Strength of Steel (Nashville: Convention Press, 1974), p. 40.

3. Ibid, p. 50.

4. Raymond O. Ryland, A Study in Ecumenical Isolation: The Southern Baptist Convention (unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Marquette University, 1969), pp. 67~8.

5. Ibid., pp. 10~105.

6. Sweet, op. cit., "The Records of the Forks of Elkhorn Baptist Church, Kentucky, 180~1820," pp. 29~308.

7. C. Burtt Potter, Jr., Baptists: The Passionate People (Nashville: Broadman Press), 1973.

Last updated Tuesday, December 29, 1998

©Copyright 1998 All rights Reserved. C.B Hastings
Text was scanned and OCRed from Introducing Southern Baptist ©Paulist, Press 1981.
ISBN: 0-8091-2364-9
Library of Congress Number: 81-80052
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