Tuesday, September 20, 2011
Will the Southern Baptist Convention Change its Name?

Southern Baptist Convention president Bryant Wright has launched an effort to change the name of the Convention, or at least to give the issue serious consideration. He announced this intention as he presented his report to the SBC Executive Committee last night. Instantly, energy filled the room.

The idea of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention is not new. Convention committees and task forces of the past had considered the question, and the Convention voted not to consider the question in 2004, when Dallas pastor Jack Graham, then the Convention’s president, proposed a similar process.

Bryant Wright made his announcement after speaking of the energy and unity within the Convention after the SBC annual meeting this past June in Phoenix. A consideration of the name change, he said, would be “another move forward” for the Convention.

The question of the SBC’s name and possible alternatives emerged soon after World War II, when Southern Baptist leaders recognized that the Convention was no longer satisfied to contain its witness within the historic southern and southwestern states of the United States. Nevertheless, the Convention’s messengers have never faced any formal proposal for an alternative.

Clearly, changing the name of the SBC will not be easy. There is tremendous value in the established name and reputation of the Southern Baptist Convention, especially when the denomination has put itself on the line again and again in defense of biblical truth and theological orthodoxy. The name emerged from a historical context that is central to the denomination’s history and identity. Of course, the Convention’s population distribution is still mightily weighted by concentrations in the South and Southwest.

There may be significant legal and economic factors to consider, especially when the SBC’s founding was almost 170 years ago. The legal name of the Southern Baptist Convention is woven throughout SBC life — not to mention its 40,000 member churches. This would be no simple re-branding effort. Much is at stake.

What international implications might a name change hold? Those must be considered. In a global context, “southern” does not imply the American meaning. So, what does it imply? That question must be asked. How much international recognition might be lost by changing the name?

On the other hand, there are powerful reasons to consider changing the name. The SBC is not driven by a southern agenda nor a southern vision, but by a passionate commitment to the Great Commission. In the context of the United States, “southern” refers to a region. That region gave birth to the Southern Baptist Convention, but it no longer contains it. To many in regions like New England and the Pacific Northwest, the “Southern Baptist Convention” sounds strange, if not foreign. On the other hand, how much does this really mean anymore?

Furthermore, there is a legacy with which we must continue to deal. We were established as an association of churches that would appoint slaveholders as missionaries. There is so much to celebrate in the heritage of our beloved denomination, but there is also a deep stain that is associated with slavery, the nation’s sectional division prior to and during the Civil War, and the legacy of racism. If these issues can be resolved, even to any significant degree, by a name change, a Gospel-minded people would never hesitate to consider such a proposal.

Many church planters and mission strategists have openly called for a name change and have celebrated the call for a study and proposal. Many influential pastors and denominational leaders have joined in support — but at this point the support is for an ordered process of asking the question, and this is healthy and responsible. No Gospel-driven movement of churches would want to retain any preventable barrier to faithful and effective evangelistic and church planting efforts.

Bryant Wright is not alone in believing that now is the time for the SBC to consider this question in a serious and timely manner, driven by a sense of evangelistic and missiological urgency. Those members of the SBC Executive Committee who spoke against the idea on Monday night are not alone in their concern about what might be lost by such a name change, as well as what might be gained.

The discussion on Monday night was not the finest hour for the SBC Executive Committee, nor its worst. It was a sign that this is a highly-charged issue that holds great potential to divide the Convention if not handled well and responsibly. The task force must act in a way that unifies Southern Baptists and helps us all to gain a much-needed understanding of what is and is not at stake.

I have known nothing but the Southern Baptist Convention in terms of my own personal identity for the entirety of my lifetime, now over the half-century mark. For almost twenty years, I have had the privilege of serving as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

To be honest, I am personally traumatized by the very idea of changing the denomination’s name. I feel an almost physical loss at the very prospect. It is a deeply and unavoidably emotional question for any Southern Baptist whose life is intertwined with the Convention, its work, and its churches.

At the same time, our commitment to the Great Commission and the urgency of the Gospel must exceed our emotional attachments and fears. A responsible movement of Gospel churches — of Baptist churches — must be ready to ask this question and face it fearlessly. We can and will do this together.

President Wright appointed a task force to be led by SBC elder statesman Jimmy Draper, a former SBC president, beloved pastor, and former president of LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention. I, along with several others, have agreed to serve on this task force. This is not a task force that is poised to make an irresponsible or precipitous proposal. There is much hard work ahead.

This decision will not be made by any task force. The name of the Convention belongs to the Southern Baptist Convention and will ultimately be settled by its messengers. The Convention has shown great wisdom and strength of character and conviction in its past. We must trust that it will rise to that same wisdom and strength in the present hour.

During the discussion Monday night, President Wright demonstrated a strength of character that served the denomination well. Those who spoke to the issue with such passion and concern sent a clear and honest signal of how difficult the task may be. Family discussions are often difficult, but this is what healthy families do — they work through the challenges rather than run from them.

There are good arguments to be made on both sides of this question — so let’s make them. There are important questions to ask — so let’s ask them. There are emotional issues that pull at our hearts — so let’s talk about them. There are generations of the past to whom we owe so much and a generation of those now living we desperately want to reach — so let’s bridge them. There are legal and financial issues to consider — so let’s consider them. There are so many Southern Baptists from which we need to hear — so let’s listen to them.

Most importantly, there is a world desperately in need of the Gospel of Jesus Christ — so we must not allow this question to divert our energies from the Great Commission task. It will not matter what we call ourselves if we lose sight of the one great cause that has brought us together.


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Wright Announces Task Force to Study Possible SBC Name Change,” Baptist Press, Monday, September 19, 2011.