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Southern Baptist Church Essay Sample

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Southern Baptist Church Essay Sample


            When it comes to American religious organization, denominations characterize a congregation. They had served as the embodiment of their own set of notions such as “volunteerism, pragmatism, utilitarianism, individualism, populism, democracy, and even laissez-faire — that define the American character” (Farnsley 1994, p. ix). Changes in the “denominational landscape” translate to changes in religious ideas and organizations (Farnsley 1994). It manifests the internal order of a local church or an entire congregation. It also points out significant cultural themes that affect the secular culture (Farnsley 1994).

            The changes in the structure of denominations in the church also reflect a transfer in power and leadership, specifically with what happened with the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) (Farnsley 1994). Since SBC represent the largest American Protestant denomination, a shift in their configuration is noteworthy. Controversies about the SBC had generated a number of literature regarding religious disputes that had attracted secular publicity (Farnsely 1994). Even the annual meeting of the congregation in 1989 attracted media attention as major wire services as well as local press flocked to publicize the gathering (Farnsley 1994). There were ideological and theological dispute within the organization that claimed to have 15, 000, 000 members that created the media hype (Farnsley 1994).

            It was clear that the split amongst it members currently showed no hopes of making SBC back to the way it was before (Farnsley 1994). The basic plot of the SBC conflict involved the religious conservatives known as the fundamentalists who “wrested control of the denomination’s hierarchy and bureaucracy” and the moderate faction who had been the underdogs for many years (Farsnely 1994, p. x). Such difference in perceptions can be rooted from the influence of American modernity and liberalism. The questions that separted the Southern Baptists from most of the Baptists were:  “Should the denomination employ non-inerrantists? Should the seminaries teach historical-critical method? Should mission funds be spent on education and health as well as on evangelism? Should the opinions of a minority in the denomination be considered when making policy decisions, and to what degree” (Farnsley 1994, p. xi)?

Historical Overview

            The Baptist denomination holds a distinctive belief that regards membership through the ordinance of baptism (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004). Traced back to 1644, it was a denomination that was applied to those who believed that baptism was to be administered to no one but believers and that immersion was the only way to administer baptism according to the New Testament (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004).

            There was a group of English separatists led by John Smyth in Holland, under the Mennonite influence, formed the first English Baptist congregation in 1608 in Amsterdam (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004). Smyth baptized himself first and repeated the same thing with others (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004). It was known as the first church to be General Baptists as they had the Armenian belief that Jesus’ atonement for everyone or general and not for the elect only (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004).

            Decades after in 1633, the Particular Baptists came into the picture under the Calvinistic doctrine that Jesus’ atonement was for certain selected people (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004). In 1644, Particular Baptists required a confession of faith in the form of a baptism. General and Particular Baptists were collectively known as the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Ireland (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004).

            In the United States of America, it was the Particular Baptists that first gained popularity among the Puritans and Calvinists, especially when Roger Williams rejected infant baptism and established in 1639 that the individual profession of faith was required (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004). There were groups of Baptists who settled in Maine to Charleston, S.C. as well as in Sandy Creek, N.C. (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004).

            There were Baptist movements such as the American Baptist Missionary Union that was formed to extend the religion in the continent and everywhere else (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004). The question of slavery created the dividing wall that created the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1845 (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004).

            In the late 20th century, the SBC suffered controversy about the struggle between the fundamentalist and the moderate parties for the control of the convention (Wills 1997). The victory of the fundamentalist was a surprise as most Southern Baptists were Protestant moderates however “fundamentalist exclusivism seemed to cut against the grain of Southern Baptist exclusivism”(Will 1997, p. 3). They ascribe to a conservative theology that believed that the Bible was divinely inspired, the supernatural is real, eternity in hell exists, and spiritual rebirth was necessary and that they had an obligation to the lost (Will 1997).

            Most of them also subscribed to tolerance. Believer priesthood and the liberty of the soul were near the center of the Southern Baptist theology (Will 1997). They believed that each person had the freedom to embrace Christianity in accordance to their individual judgment and that churches should be able to tolerate diverse judgments (Will 1997). The moderate party had this freedom as their banner and counted on the Baptist tradition of individualism to influence people (Will 1997).

            Moderate and conservative sides had the banner of evangelism as their top priority. However, it was during the height of evangelism when the controversy of the conflict of decisions came out (Will 1997). For the Fundamentalists, they claimed that the churches must be committed to the inerrancy and that they were the once who were blessed because of the growth of their numbers of baptisms (Will 1997). For the moderates, the discord brought about by such inerrancy crusaders actually caused more distraction for the churches instead of focusing on evangelism (Will 1997).

            Such a struggle brought about the confusion of the identity of the Southern Baptist denomination (Will 1997). However, it seemed that the fundamentalist position was stronger than the moderate’s expected as the powerful influence of the religious authority of the southern traditions still prevailed (Will 1997). It was the “heritage of exclusivism” the prevailed of the modernity of individualism (Will 1997, p. 4). Orthodox belief was still perceived as the intrinsic concept of Christian identity (Will 1997, p. 5).

            The Southern Baptist convention was formed from English Puritanism (Will1997). It was during the time of the Great Awakening that Baptist churches multiplied starting from 60 congregations they reached thousands in 1790 since 1740 (Will 1997). The first actual identifiable Baptist church in the southern area was in Charleston, South Carolina when Particular Baptist migrated from Maine in the year 1696 (Will 1997). The Philadelphia Baptist Association also went to the South with evangelists Morgan Edwards and John Gano (Will 1997).

            By 1790, there were 67,000 members under the Baptist congregation in the United States while the South was represented with 41, 000 members that translated to 61 per cent of the Baptists in the country (Will 1997). Most of them were in Virginia and Georgia. By 1906, there was one in every four Georgian who was Baptist that showed Georgia to be the most Baptist state (Will 1997). They reached 596, 310 white and black Georgia Baptists (Will 1997).

            Georgia Baptist church placed discipline as the important factor in church life with their attendance in monthly conference meetings with disciplinary matters and the presence of a “bench of judges” in the church. The exercise of discipline and their disciplined democracies were even more important than preaching the gospel (Will 1997). They believed that disciple would enable them to reach the nation because they believed that “God rewarded faithful pruning by raining down revival” (Will 1997, p.8).

            Even if Southern Baptists’ conservative overpowered the moderates, these churches still showed signs of progressive and modern agendas for the church. In 1920s, church discipline disappeared for Southern Baptists (Will 1997). It was the start wherein democratic religion took a new and more concrete shape (Will 1997).

Southern Baptist Convention


            The Southern Baptist Convention has over 16 million members under its belt. However, there seemed to be no single source of authority that existed for the Southern Baptist congregation because there were a number of Southern Baptist churches and no Southern Baptist Church (Hadaway 1989). Membership then was implied that the congregation adapted theology and practice that was accepted by other Southern Baptist churches (Hadaway 1989). The minimum level of acceptability was something that was very difficult to determine.

             “Disfellowship” took place for the church that employed women pastorship, ordination of women deacons, condoning “speaking in tongues,” holding healing services, teaching heresy and other crimes and misdemeanors (Hadaway 1989, p. 150).

            Saying one person is Southern Baptist represent a cultural statement (Jones 2002). It was difficult to break ties to such a declaration. In local churches, they have their own programs and denominations are not as important as before (Jones 2002).

Organization Description

            There had been cases wherein the church voted can be voted out for a year and return the next because they fix the cause of their expulsion or when the association actually changed their own sentiments (Hadaway 1989).

            Baptist churches are considered to be congregational in terms of governance (The Columbia Encyclopedia 2004). General association then cannot have control over the local individual churches. The autonomy of the local church meant the churches can operate and decide what they want to do and the denominational leader can only suggest, appeal or plead with the local pastors (Hadaway 1989).

            A church is free to join any association or convention as it pleases (Hadaway 1989). It is also possible for the local church to switch associations. Proximity usually decides the association or convention (Hadaway 1989). However, conflicts with the association can push churches to change associations (Hadaway 1989).

Status of Religion in US

            The SBC turned into fragments of different groups as moderate Baptists and conservative ones still struggled to resolve their conflicts (Jones 2002). Difficulties were encountered as they strived to consolidate forces to form a full-fledged national denomination and provided compelling alternatives to what the conservatism of the convention (Jones 2002). In a general assembly of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, moderates gathered to discuss such a consolidation. The moderates have broken association with the Southern Baptist Convention for more than a decade after the Baptist “holy war” in the 1980s by conservatives who were determined to enforce that the Bible was historically, scientifically and theologically inerrant (Jones 2002).

            However, some local church leaders did not want a denomination for the moderates who split from the Southern Baptist Convention. Most still feel that SBC was in their DNA and were not going to cut all ties with it even as disagreements occurred (Jones 2002). They were different in their views concerning the role of women in the ministry and rejected the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message Statement that prohibited women from being senior pastors and that the wives must submit to the servant leadership of their husbands (Jones 2002). Even as the remaining SBC members criticized them, they would just say that it was who they were and that was what they believed in (Jones 2002).

            There were also regional bias that existed especially from the people from Mississippi, Texas and Oklahoma that made the division more real (Jones 2002). Consolidation was still far-fetched because of the mentality that they had a tradition of solving their own problems (Jones 2002). The Baptist conflict was divided into three periods: the struggle for national control in 1979-1990, the fight over state conventions in 1990-2000 and now the bitter battles between local churches from 2000 to present (Jones 2002). They recognized that it had to take decades more for the split to be gestated however there was progress towards that (Jones 2002).

Beliefs and Worldviews

            General Baptists had rejected the Calvinist doctrine of the existence of a limited atonement wherein Christ died only for the elect and favored unconditional election (Wills 1997). In 1640s, the Particular Baptists rejected any hint that Christ died for all the people rather that he had died for an elect who had been chosen from all eternity (Wills 1997). Most Baptist discipline adhered to the evangelical exclusivist temperament that insisted that the church was separated from the world and established purity (Wills 1997).  Ecclesiastical authority ensured such pure beliefs. When someone would promote erroneous beliefs they would be excluded from the church as they linked church discipline to sound belief (Wills 1997).

            Southern Baptists held on to an orthodox dogma (Wills 1997).  They believed that the church’s duty was to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ to gain supernatural regeneration, salvation of lost souls and to require doctrinal purity (Wills 1997). Orthodoxy for Baptists provided for them the foundation of morality that qualifies them to be called the “church of Christ” (Wills 1997).

            They saw that they needed to be patient with their members but not when it came to error as they led to immorality and damnation (Wills 1997). They saw the importance of correct theology as it was the key to salvation (Wills 1997). Difference in doctrine actually caused schisms.

            There was a time wherein members were disgruntled for being charged with heresy because they believed Andrew Fuller’s general provision approach to the doctrine of believing (Wills 1997). Baptist laypeople were actually willing to break fellowship over doctrine or whether doctrines should be considered heretical (Wills 1997).

            They defended exclusiveness as a doctrine even if was unpopular. The Baptists believed that the hand of the apostles held Christianity in an intense exclusivity (Wills 1997). They were more inclined towards calling more focus to the exclusivity of Christianity because they felt that everyone should hold to it as a doctrine. They insist on unanimity because it was as a major factor for fellowship (Wills 1997). According to them, the Old Testament has stated how whey two cannot walk together when they did not agree (Wills 1997).

            Generally, the Southern Baptist Convention has a boycott of Disney, they published prayer guides that targeted Jews, Muslims, and Hindus for conversion on their holy days and adopted the faith statement that women should not be pastors and that wives should submit to their husbands (Jones 2002).

American Culture and the Southern Baptist Convention


            The transformation of the SBC adopted individualist trends that created new forms of individualism in local churches as influenced by the American culture (Wills 1997). The nature of individualism was seen as changing and it played a huge role in the transformation the American evangelism (Wills 1997).

             There was a time wherein the evangelicalism of American Protestantism was in a pursuit of a pure and primitive church (Wills 1997). The 21st century American evangelicalism was for the promotion of individual spirituality that resulted to loosely-connected institutional churches (Wills 1997). Evangelicals let go of the belief of the divine mandate to establish pure churches. The kingdom was within and individual piety called for no mediation of the ecclesiastical institutions (Wills 1997).

            The heritage of democratic authority of the Southern Baptist Convention was considered part of the larger story of transformation in the Western culture. Modernity from the secular culture placed importance in the individuality of the social and intellectual aspect of the people (Wills 1997). Most Southern Baptists resisted this change.

            However, it did not mean that they did not embrace individualism as people had inalienable human rights and had the power to exercise their faith individually (Wills 1997). Southern Baptists were latecomers when it came to certain aspects of modernity; they felt that human reason was prone to error therefore truth and morality must be entrusted to the congregation rather than the individual (Wills 1997).

            Democracy, bureaucracy, charisma as well as individual autonomy were characteristics necessary for an American denomination (Farnsley 1994). The church adapted certain models that were actually borrowed from the secular political environment that created a unique American Baptist denomination (Farnsley 1994). American religion was expected to be “individualistic” and “popular,” sometimes it can even are “political (Farnsely 1994). It was styled as a religion that is democratic and republican (Farnsely 1994).

            The conflict that SBC experienced involved theological dispute, division between socioeconomic classes, clashes of cultures and a reaction to modern ideas that pushed for change and progress (Farnsely 1994). The bottom line of was really pluralism because it dealt with plurality of theological beliefs, social classes and cultural assumptions (Farnsely 1994).

Development Factor

            America was held as in a “post-denominational” era wherein looser network structure or the lack of a consolidating denomination was more attractive for local churches (Jones 2002).  It did not see the need to come under one controlling denomination. This greatly affected any chance they were looking for towards a Baptist denomination, as a Baptist moderate denomination or as unified Baptist denomination.

            The SBC had decidedly American values of liberal ideas, individualism, pragmatism and democracy that were founded in the congregation’s polity even when it was birthed as a conservative church (Farnsely 1994). Competing interests appeared as a dominant mode of conflict in America as seen with SBC, there were linked to ideology, region, culture, the nature of the organization that needed models for decision-making that were popular, liberal, and democratic (Farnsley 1994).

             It followed a certain procedure that reflects that “the spirit of politics infused into every corner of American Life” (Farnsely 1994, p. 143). This was reflected in the operations of SBC as well. There was a need to recognize the importance of politics in the controversies and conflict that occurred for the Southern Baptist Church however they failed to appreciate the importance of conflicting opinions for the path towards finding the best policy that should be adopted in their congregation (Farnsley 1994).


Baptists. (2004). The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition. New York: Columbia University Press, 4159

Farnsley, A. (1994). Southern Baptist politics: Authority and power in the restructuring of an American denomination. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Hadaway, K. (1989). Will the real Southern Baptist please stand up: Methodological problems in surveying Southern Baptist congregations and members. Review of Religious Research (31)2, 149+.

Jones, J. (14 August 2002). Moderates unite? The future of southern Baptist dissidents. The Christian Century (119)17, 30+.

Wills, G. (1997). Democratic religion: Freedom, authority, and church discipline in the Baptist South, 1785-1900. New York: Oxford University Press.

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