What Does Autonomy Mean for the SBC?

In the past months, writers and commenters here at Voices have used the word autonomy often. The word basically means “self-ruled.” For example, some nations have regions that are semi-autonomous, meaning the region has a measure of independence. What does this word mean in the context of the Southern Baptist Convention and its churches? To answer this question, I consulted the Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists. I assumed it would include an article on church autonomy, but to my surprise, it did not. I did find an article entitled “Authority of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Here is an excerpt from that article by Duke McCall (a former president of SBTS):

This legal authority of the Convention is limited by its constitution, Article IV, Authority: ‘While independent and sovereign in its own sphere, the Convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise authority over any other Baptist body, whether a church, auxiliary organization, or convention.’ This limitation is prompted by the theological proposition that each church is independent and autonomous. No other body may usurp the authority of any church. Churches may voluntarily associate themselves in larger bodies to accomplish specific objectives and may delegate to such bodies certain functions, but the primary responsibility for these functions continues to rest with the churches. The delegation of these functions by any church may be rescinded by that church, and the church may withdraw from its voluntary cooperation from the body, e.g., the Southern Baptist Convention. The authority, therefore, of the Convention is derived from the churches whose messengers make up the corporate body in its annual sessions. This authority flows in only one direction—from the churches to the Convention. It may not be used by the Convention to control any church or even to bind a church to the decision its messengers expressed in a vote on the Convention floor. (99)

In regard to a local Southern Baptist church, autonomy means that each church “is invested by Jesus Christ, its head, with the authority of making its own decisions in whatever pertains to its life and action as a church.” (Norman Cox, We Southern Baptists, Convention Press, 60) The SBC Statement of Faith and Message affirms this in article VI. The Church: “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers….”

For Southern Baptists autonomy means that “no other church or group of churches has any rightful control over another except as determined by that church independently. When churches work together, it is by common consent for mutually agreed-upon purposes.” (Harold Graves, The Nature and Functions of a Church, Convention Press, 10)

The SBC is a body comprised of autonomous churches that voluntarily associate and cooperate with one another to engage in missions, evangelism, Christian education, and other worthy endeavors. The Convention has no control over the churches that make up the SBC. Many years ago, I tried to explain our system to a Baptist attorney in the Philippines. He was flabbergasted and declared, “That system can’t work; you’ve got to have central control.” Yet, our system does work, not always efficiently, but it does work. Our wonderful mission boards and outstanding seminaries are proof that it does.

Another important point about autonomy is that the principle applies to all levels of SBC life. Churches, associations, state conventions, and the national convention all operate autonomously. For example, the SBC Executive Committee cannot order a local association to do anything. Similarly, an association cannot require a state convention to do anything. Having stated this fact, it is true that mission boards and state conventions can influence what churches, associations, and state conventions do by proffering or withholding money.

My professor at SWBTS, Dr. Leon McBeth, often said that every paper and sermon should answer the “so what” question. So, what does the information above mean for us today in the SBC? It means the SBC and state conventions and associations cannot require churches to develop and implement policies to prevent child abuse, racism, or false doctrine. The SBC, state conventions, and associations can educate, exhort, encourage, plead, and implore churches to do the right thing; however, those entities cannot force or coerce the churches. The only punishment available to those entities is to disfellowship (expel) the church. For example, a church in Texas has a convicted child abuser serving as its pastor. The church members are aware of his background, but they refuse to fire him. The only recourse for the local association, state convention, and SBC is to disfellowship that church. Of course, this is what played out last year in regard to a racist church in Georgia. The church was disfellowshipped.

Because our SB entities have little leverage in dealing with local churches, it seems to me that the best way to encourage churches to prevent child abuse is to offer an incentive to the churches—a carrot rather than stick approach, if you will. Offering churches the opportunity to achieve certification as a “safe church” would be a step in the right direction. Some will respond by saying that is not nearly enough, and I agree; however, it would be a positive step. We need lots of those.

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