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Missions Imperative Shapes Convention’s Identity

“Will the BGCT become a denomination?”

That question, or something like it, echoed down the hallway of Baylor University’s Ferrell Center, site of the Baptist General Convention of Texas annual session last week. Its source was a nearly unanimous vote to create a BGCT world missions network. The question merits clarification, explanation and prognostication.

First, clarification: “Denomination” is the wrong word. A denomination is a class of religious belief and practice within Christianity. All kinds of Baptists comprise a denomination, as do Presbyterians, Methodists, Nazarenes and the like. The way to form a new denomination would be to take a particular doctrine and change it and organize churches around it, like Alexander Campbell did with baptism in the 19th century, when the Churches of Christ formed. But then you wouldn’t have a new Baptist denomination; it would have a completely different name.

Some questioners rephrase, “Will the BGCT become a convention?” That’s more specific, but it’s redundant. The BGCT has been a convention–a specifically defined subset of churches and institutions within the Baptist denomination–since 1886. Some Baptist groups, such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, have been loathe to claim convention status, but not the BGCT. It’s been a convention for 116 years.

So, the question is put another way, “Will the BGCT become a national convention?” That’s getting precise, especially when the questioner adds, “… in contrast with the Southern Baptist Convention?” Many Texas Baptists wonder if the BGCT is going to become the kind of convention that will attract and affiliate with churches from all across the country. That’s already possible; churches in other states can choose to participate with the BGCT and, if they do so, send messengers to the BGCT’s annual sessions. However, it’s not a widespread practice; only a very few out-of-state churches have decided to identify with the BGCT, and only a small number of BGCT agency trustees live out of state. All this leads to …

An explanation: The question of denominational/convention identity reflects curiosity about the increasingly tense relationship between the Baptist General Convention of Texas and the Southern Baptist Convention.

The rift began in the 1970s and ’80s, when fundamentalists gained control of the SBC presidency. It continued in the ’90s, when those presidents secured fundamentalist control of SBC agencies and institutions.

Texas Baptists resisted, not because we are any less conservative biblically and theologically than the fundamentalists, but because we are truly conservative regarding Baptist beliefs. We affirm historic Baptist doctrines, such as the priesthood of the believer, local-church autonomy and religious liberty.

During the past decade, both groups took actions that seemed to put distance between them. The SBC fired a beloved seminary president in Texas. The BGCT allowed churches to contribute to the budget without supporting the SBC. The SBC tightened control over seminary professors and convention workers. The BGCT began publishing Bible study literature and increased its emphasis on hands-on involvement in missions and theological education. SBC supporters created a competing state convention in Texas. The SBC drafted a new version of the Baptist Faith & Message, which the BGCT has rejected three times, citing it as creedal and as denying key Baptist beliefs. The SBC began forcing missionaries to affirm the Baptist Faith & Message, and the BGCT created a fund to help relocate and counsel missionaries who are fired or forced to resign because they cannot in good conscience affirm the document.

Now, the BGCT has voted to create a world missions network to help churches and other groups do missions. BGCT leaders have refused to say the state convention will not appoint long-term missionaries through the new network. But the persistence of the question points to a key issue: For many decades, missionaries have been the manifestation of Baptist identity. For many Baptists, the appointment of missionaries would be a sign that the BGCT is a convention wholly apart from–some would say competitive with–the SBC. No one can say if or when that would happen, which leads to …

Prognostication. The resolution of this issue resides in three places–the SBC, global Baptist partners and BGCT-affiliated churches.

To date, SBC actions have driven many BGCT developments. If the SBC continues to narrow its parameters for cooperation and involvement, that will push the BGCT further away. If the SBC continues to exclude faithful, committed missionaries, that will propel the BGCT toward a partnership of compassion and cooperation.

Similarly, if Baptist partners across the world–brothers and sisters from national Baptist conventions–ask the BGCT for help, we will do everything we are able to respond. We share a longtime commitment to partner with Baptists around the world. Many of our churches’ most passionate focus is on missions. Perhaps none will ask us to send missionaries, but if they do, BGCT Baptists are certain to take those requests seriously.

And the BGCT takes its churches seriously. The new missions network will enable them to engage in missions at whatever level they desire. No one knows exactly where that will lead, but we can expect our churches to dream big dreams and exert tremendous spiritual and physical energy to see them fulfilled.

That may or may not mean the BGCT becomes a “national” convention. But in the end, faithfulness to God’s calling, not the form of the convention, is most important.

Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.