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An Expert on Baptist Polity?

As the Missouri Baptist Convention’s lawsuits against five ministries continue in pre-trial stages after more than five years, the state convention recently announced individuals it considers to be experts in Baptist polity. The two individuals are expected to be deposed in the upcoming months.

They are David Tolliver, the interim executive director of the MBC, and Louisiana Baptist Convention Executive Director David Hankins. The witnesses were named in response to Windermere Baptist Conference Center naming as its expert witness Don Wideman, a former MBC executive director, who has also served as executive director of the William E. Partee Center for Baptist Historical Studies.

Hankins, who previously worked as vice president of convention policy and vice president for Cooperative Program for the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, has been at the center of three major conflicts between Baptist conventions and institutions. However, some of his opinions expressed during those controversies raise questions about his understanding of historic Baptist polity.

In 2002, SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman sent a letter to Southern Baptist churches in Texas that attacked the BGCT and urged churches to give through a channel other than the BGCT’s Cooperative Program. Chapman wrote that SBC leaders “pray” the churches give differently than the breakdown in the BGCT’s budget and even suggested that churches might want to consider bypassing the BGCT completely.

Baptist Standard Editor Marv Knox criticized Chapman for misrepresenting the facts, overplaying the role of the national convention, and for taking sides by supporting the other Texas state convention. He argued that Chapman “oversteps his bounds” in the letter.

Hankins wrote a column in response to defend Chapman’s letter. Although he claims that Knox misrepresented Chapman’s letter on several points, Hankins actually justified Chapman’s choosing of one state convention over another. He defended the fact that the mailout clearly gave the contact information for the SBTC but not the BGCT because “the BGCT is acting as an unfaithful partner.”

“Does Knox expect Chapman to encourage the churches to contact the BGCT so they can be lobbied not to give to SBC ministries?” Hankins wrote. “The BGCT has voted to cut SBC support severely. The SBTC has voted to forward 51 percent to the SBC. Some might think there is a reason to take sides.”

Despite the support that Chapman and Hankins gave to the idea that churches could send money directly to the SBC, Chapman claimed during the 2007 SBC annual meeting that Cooperative Program giving has historically been through a state convention.

The problem with Hankins’ defense of Chapman’s letter is that state conventions are autonomous organizations that are not required to submit to the desires of the SBC. To try and establish a hierarchy is to misunderstand that the relationship is to be one of cooperation and not coercion or control. Such an action suggests that he does not understand historic Baptist polity.

In October of 2003, trustees of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary rejected a proposal to make the SBC as its sole member. Seminary President Chuck Kelley argued that the change “could start a fundamental change in historic Baptist polity and compromise our practice of organizational autonomy, one of the three major characteristics of our Baptist identity.”

Hankins and other SBC leaders urged the seminary to reconsider the proposal, which eventually was adopted by messengers at the 2005 SBC annual meeting. Hankins responded to Kelley’s arguments in a December 2003 column, in which he invoked the MBC’s lawsuit as why the issue was “a crucial and timely topic.”

Hankins argued that the SBC “has always affirmed efficient centralization” and “has always intended for its entities to be subject to that centralization.” He argued that organizations must submit to the centralized authority of the convention.

Kelley and other conservative Baptist scholars rejected Hankins’ interpretation. Two NOBTS professors argued that Hankins’ piece misrepresented Kelley’s position and went against the understanding of Baptist polity as “held in general by the Baptist community at large.”

“The problem with this argument is that it seems to confuse cooperation with centralization,” wrote theology professor Ken Keathley and church history professor Lloyd Harsch. “While Southern Baptists have continually explored avenues of greater efficiency through broader cooperation, they have intentionally avoided centralization.”

The professors quoted numerous historians and Baptist leaders to undermine Hankins’s claims. They concluded that his understanding of polity is “foreign to Southern Baptist theology, history, and practice.”

The authors also noted that although some Baptists have called for more centralization, those “views did not carry the day” and “their positions were soundly defeated.”

Ergun Caner, professor of theology and church history at Liberty University, also argued that Hankins misrepresented Baptist history and polity. Like Keathley and Harsch, Caner critiqued the claim by Hankins that Baptist history includes “no record of undue fear of centralization or creeping connectionalism or any other threat to Baptist polity.”

“Is this correct?” Caner wrote in response. “Even during the pre-1845 formation of the Southern Baptist Convention, some leaders were decidedly wary of any form of governance that would exert its voice over the individual churches.”

Caner offered examples and writings of those that would contradict Hankins’s claim. He concluded that “Baptist history is clearly on the side of the Seminary and the position of its president.”

Hankins supported the move to centralize power and convince an institution to submit to the control of the SBC’s Executive Committee. As pointed out by conservative theologians and historians, Hankins’ arguments did not match historic Baptist polity. To try and establish a hierarchy misunderstands that the relationship is to be one of cooperation and not coercion or control. Such an action suggests that he does not understand historic Baptist polity.

Shortly after becoming executive director of the Louisiana Baptist Convention in 2005, Hankins proposed that the independent newspaper of Louisiana Baptists, the Baptist Message, become part of the convention and come under the control of the executive director. The change would have dissolved the newspaper’s independent trustee board, which had operated the newspaper since 1963.

When pressed about what would occur if Baptist Message trustees did not agree to the proposal, Hankins suggested that Cooperative Program funds might not continue for the newspaper. He also argued that true freedom of the press was not essential for a Baptist press.

The newspaper’s board originally rejected the proposal, but later reversed that decision in August of 2005. Hankins predicted that the move, which required two-thirds approval from messengers at the LBC annual meeting, would be enthusiastically supported by Louisiana Baptists. However, messengers defeated the proposal and amended the budget to return funds to the Baptist Message.

During the debate at the annual meeting, one messenger compared the coverage of Hankins’ proposal in the Baptist Message with that of the convention’s publication LBC Live. The messenger noted that while the Baptist Message printed editorials on both sides, LBC Live only offered support for the proposed change.

Hankins’ desire for convention control during the newspaper debate suggests that he does not understand the concerns of having a free press or the desires of the people. To try and establish a hierarchy is to misunderstand that the relationship is to be one of cooperation and not coercion or control. Such an action suggests that he does not understand historic Baptist polity.

In three different controversies, Hankins went against historic Baptist polity as he pushed for greater centralization and control and less autonomy and cooperation. The MBC’s designation of Hankins as an expert on Baptist polity suggests that the claims in their lawsuits likewise do not match historic Baptist polity.

Brian Kaylor is communications specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Missouri.