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The Controversy:
Is the Southern Baptist Convention Really a Single Religious Body?
The Schism in the Southern Baptist Convention


NOTE: The following commentary ONLY pertains to the status of the Southern Baptist Convention as a RELIGIOUS BODY, in comparison to other religious bodies. This issue may have little, if anything, to do with Southern Baptist theology. An understanding of current trends in Southern Baptist factionalism does not provide a meaningful understanding of Southern Baptist life and religion. Researchers interested in these subject may wish to study material provided by moderate and conservative Southern Baptist organizations.[Assorted SBC links.]

This article originally appeared on the "Largest Religious Bodies" page, with the intent to discuss the degree to which the Southern Baptist Convention remains a single religious body, although it is divided between moderate and fundamentalist factions.

This article has been moved here to a separate page both because of its length and also because the importance of this schism seems to have diminished since the late 1990s. In effect, the massive split in the Southern Baptist Convention that some people predicted would occur was abated by smaller-scale defections by a number of individual state conventions and congregations. In 1998, the largest state constituent convention of the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist General Convention of Texas voted to disassociate itself from the SBC. In June 2004 the Southern Baptist Convention voted to remove itself from the Baptist World Alliance, which it felt had become too liberal. The SBC had been the largest Baptist denomination within the worldwide alliance of Baptists. These organizational realignments helped diminish the pressures within the SBC that had long festered as a result of disagreement between its moderate and more conservative factions.

Also, many congregations that have remained within the Southern Baptist Convention have simply opted to use the high degree of autonomy within the organization to de-emphasize SBC ties while strengthening association with Baptist and Evangelical organizations that better suit their particular preferences. Many congregations no longer identify themselves as "Southern Baptist" or even "Baptist," yet remain under the umbrella of the SBC.

Many observers believe that the fundamentalist/conservative wing's "takeover" of the Southern Baptist Convention has essentially already happened.

As its name implies, the Southern Baptist Convention is more of a religious convention than a religious body in the traditional sense. It promotes congregational polity in matters of practice and belief to a higher degree than most of the organizations on this list. The SBC is currently the second-largest Christian denomination in the United States, and perhaps the sixth largest in the world, but it does not represent a united community. Convention leaders have been fairly candid in explaining that the SBC has long been split between moderate and conservative factions, with irreconcilable doctrinal differences between the two factions over issues such as Biblical inerrancy and literalism, the ordination of women, acceptance of modern science, whether or not a saved Christian can reject grace, etc. Some SBC writers and leaders have said that despite the doctrinal schism, one reason the convention remains formally united as one organization is so that they won't be numerically smaller than competing religious bodies.

Scores of congregations and individual members have officially left the SBC (in fact, its membership has actually decreased recently), but many of their reasons for leaving are completely unrelated to issues dividing the moderate and conservative parties. In fact, such defections are probably not caused directly by the schism. The action that moderate congregations have more frequently taken in response to conservative control of the convention is to form alternative state conventions, such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Baptist Alliance. Other churches have not left the SBC voluntarily, but have been expelled by their state conventions for reasons having to do with the controversy over homosexuality. Despite the ongoing internal schism, analysts believe a complete formal break between the moderates and conservatives into separate religious bodies is unlikely in the near future, although it will happen eventually. (See also: Shimron, "Dissension part of being a Baptist", News-Observer; URL: http://www.news-observer.com/daily/1998/07/24/faith01.html.)

According to Cliff Tharp, coordinator for constituent information for the Southern Baptist Convention, about 5 million of the SBC's "members" are "non-resident." Some of these are people who joined a local Southern Baptist church, moved away, but never had their membership records transferred and now nobody knows where they are. Keith Eitel (Professor of Christian Missions, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) points out that non-resident members also include college students that have moved away from home to attend University but desire to remain members at their home church and only come under the "watchcare" of a host church in or near the University they're attending. Also, missionaries serving with the SBC's IMB have resident membership at a local congregation in the U.S. while serving far from home.

Paul R. House, editor of The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, wrote (in "Baptism, Assurance, and the Decline of Conservative Churches"; URL: http://www.sbts.edu/news/sbjt/spring98/Spr98edit.htm):

...statistics compiled by the North American Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention reveal that as many as half of all the adults baptized in Southern Baptist churches are rebaptisms of persons already baptized by Southern Baptist pastors... Another forty percent of adults baptized are Christians from other denominations that have never been immersed... ten percent, then, of all adults baptized by Southern Baptist churches are "making first-time professions of faith."

Certainly no deception is intended by maintaining such names on the organization's rolls. In any religious body, those counted as adherents, or even as members, represent a continuum of actual participation. The actual number of resident members in 1998 was 10.7 million. (Source: "Any way you count it, fewer Southern Baptists" by Cary McMullen, Palatka Daily News, Florida. See also: "Reasons for SBC Decline", Mainstream Messenger, (Vol. 2, No. 3), July 1999.) The SBC reported a slight membership gain for 1998, but total membership (15,851,756) was still lower than previous levels, and individual congregations continued to the leave the convention, including the 800-member First Baptist Church of Athens, Ga., which had been part of the denomination since its 1845 founding. [Source: Associated Press, "Southern Baptists tallied a membership gain in 1999," in Deseret News, 15 April 2000, URL: http://deseretnews.com/dn/view/0,1249,160007426,00.html?]

Baptist historians Ernest C. Reisinger and D. Matthew Allen recently wrote:

Given these appalling facts, is it any wonder that the greatest segment of converts to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints comes from Southern Baptist congregations? And, is it any wonder that most of our Southern Baptist churches have a stagnant or declining membership? The Wall Street Journal reported in 1990 that, of the 14.9 million members of Southern Baptist churches (according to an official count), over 4.4 million are "non-resident members." This means they are members with whom the church has lost touch. Another 3 million hadn1t attended church or donated to a church in the past year. That left about 7.4 million "active" members. However, according to Sunday School consultant Glenn Smith, even this is misleading, because included in this "active" figure are those members who only attended once a year at Easter or Christmas. The only conclusion to be drawn is that our Southern Baptist Convention is a denomination of unregenerate church members

This, then, is the diagnosis: contemporary evangelical churches as a whole, and a large number of Southern Baptist churches as a subset (dare I say the majority?), are devoid of biblical and theological thinking, have abandoned a high view of the sufficiency of Scripture, and have traded in biblical values for modern notions of modernity. In our judgment, evangelicalism is collapsing of its own weight.

[Source: A Quiet Revolution: A Chronicle of Beginnings of Reformation in The Southern Baptist Convention, by Ernest C. Reisinger and D. Matthew Allen; Founders Press: Cape Coral, Florida (2000); URL: http://www.founders.org/library/quiet/quiet2.html]

Some recent events have analysts predicting that a formal breakup of the SBC is more imminent than previously thought. In 1997, a schism occurred in the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the largest state convention affiliated with the SBC. The newly formed "Southern Baptists of Texas" is more conservative than the group they split from. In November of 1999 the Baptist General Convention of Texas implemented a change in their constitution which allows for Baptist churches from outside the state to join them. This is believed to be the first step in establishing a "de facto alternative national convention" for churches unsatisfied with the SBC. In this same meeting the increasingly independent state convention rejected the national SBC's amendment to the 1963 "Baptist Faith and Message" that calls on husbands to lead the family and wives to "submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ."[Source: Article by Berta Delgado, page 35A in the Dallas Morning News, 17 November 1999.]

In February 2000, 30 pastors from conservative Baptist churches in Texas met at Prestonwood Baptist Church to discuss their continued affiliation with the older but more moderate Baptist General Convention of Texas, which had 2.7 million members at the time. They were concerned about the moderate stance of the state convention, and its moves toward becoming a separate denomination from the Southern Baptist Convention, but these pastors decided against leaving the Baptist General Convention of Texas as a group, preferring to leave the decision up to individual churches.

According to an article in the Dallas Morning News:

Dr. Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian and the dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, said that with more fragmentation, the old Southern Baptist system is coming apart.

"As more and more churches are picking and choosing their alignment, the fragmentation is leading to a schism or split," he said. "The Texas Baptist Convention is the eighth- or ninth-largest denomination in America. It's becoming its own self-controlled group, and I don't think you can stop it."

[Source: Berta Delgado. Pastors keep ties to state convention: Conservative Baptist pastors put off decision on leaving state convention, Dallas Morning News, 29 February 2000; URL: http://dallasnews.com/metro/41286_BAPTISTS29.html.]

In July 2000, the Baptist General Convention of Texas announced that it was openly discussing breaking completely from the national Southern Baptist Convention. "Another proposal would allow congregations outside the state to join the Texas convention, in effect creating a rival national denomination." This move came only weeks after the SBC "rewrote its official statement of faith to disallow female pastors." The SBC's Texas contingent makes up 17% of it's total membership. Such a move would may mean that the United Methodist Church would become the second largest Christian denomination in the U.S, and the SBC would be third. [Source: Associated Press]

Rev. Clyde Glazener, president of the Texas convention and pastor at Gambrell Street Baptist Church in Fort Worth, told The Dallas Morning News:

"The truth is that, for some time now, a true Baptist could not support some of the agencies in SBC life. We're not interested in siphoning off a lot of funds from Texas to fund a Jerry Falwell-clone church."

In July 2000, the coordinator of the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) has predicted that changes in the Southern Baptist Convention's statement of faith will prompt as many as 5,000 churches to leave the SBC and join the CBF. Many observers consider CBF beliefs closer to traditional Baptist beliefs, while the SBC has become the primary inheritor of the American fundamentalist movement. (Source: Religion News Service/Los Angeles Times, 8 July 2000)

In September 2000, the Associated Press reported:

The leader of the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship believes there is a "great yearning" in his organization to formally split from the Southern Baptist Convention. Daniel Vestal made his comments Aug. 29 during a panel discussion at Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Kan. "I guess I have bought into the reality that we are living in a post-denominational world," he said. "Yet, in the life of CBF, there is this great yearning out there for a more clearly defined organizational structure that differentiates us from the SBC -- even from [American Baptist Churches, USA] or other Baptist organizations," he said. "And I think CBF is going to have to deal with that this year. I don't think it's something that we can avoid."
(Source: Dallas Morning News; URL: http://195.7.48.75/release/new/dallas/morning/dallasreligion/f-edition.htm?pg=p2.htm&st=p2s6m.htm)

Also in September 2000, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported:

A 15-member Texas Baptist committee voted unanimously Wednesday afternoon to redirect more than $5.3 million from six Southern Baptist seminaries, including one in Fort Worth, to three Texas schools. The Administrative Committee also voted to stop giving $1 million to the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee and its Ethics and Religious Liberty Committee. That money will be channeled to Hispanic work in Texas, human welfare initiatives and the Christian Life Committee for Family Ministry, said Ken Camp, public relations director for the Texas Baptist convention...

The Rev. Miles Seaborn of Fort Worth, a leading conservative Baptist and former president of the Southern Baptists of Texas... predicted that thousands of Baptist churches will eventually withdraw from the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

(Source: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 13 September 2000; URL: http://www.star-telegram.com/news/doc/1047/1:RELIGION44/1:RELIGION440913100.html)

The Associated Press reported that moderate Southern Baptists largely stayed away from the SBC's 2001 National Convention in New Orleans. The SBC expected 16,000 people to attend the 2001 convention. It turned out that only 9,100 church representatives came to the meeting, a far smaller than the record high of 45,519, set in 1985. AP repored that at the New Orleans meeting, Rev. James Merritt, the denomination president, said nobody in the world loves Jesus more than Southern Baptists do.

A related trend nationwide in the SBC has been the dropping of the name "Baptist" or "Southern" from church names, as a way to increase attendance and revenue. This has generally been done by individual churches, but the Associated Press reported that on 16 November 1999, 60 percent of Southern Baptists attending California's annual convention voted to drop "Southern" from their name. "Supporters of the change said it would be simply a way to attract more members. Opponents feared the move would have shown a softening of a conservative movement within the church." This proposal did not pass, however, because it fell just short of the required two-thirds vote. [Related article: Call to worship starts with a new church name.]


From: Timothy George, "Southern Baptist Ghosts" in First Things No. 93 (May 1999): pages 17-24 (http://www.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft9905/george.html; viewed August 1999). [This essay is adapted from a lecture presented to the St. George Tucker Society at Emory University. The author is Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Samford University, and Senior Editor at Christianity Today]:
During the past twenty years America's largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, has undergone a major upheaval and reorientation, a time of turmoil and schism known to many of its participants simply as The Controversy. At the national denominational level, The Controversy is over for all practical purposes. The conservatives have won and the moderates have largely accepted that fact, most with resignation, some with resistance. The resisters have formed in protest new infra-denominational networks, the success of which has been relatively modest thus far. But the roots of The Controversy, how it came about, what was at stake, and how this relates to the theological heritage both sides still claim--all this remains up for grabs.

The partisans on both sides, of course, have simple answers to these questions. The moderates, called "liberals" by their opponents, see the conservative resurgence as an ecclesiastical coup d'etat, a great power grab engineered by ruthless church politicians who neither understood nor cared about the great watchword of the Baptist tradition: freedom. For their part, the conservatives, called "fundamentalists" by their opponents, claim that The Controversy was, to quote the title of a best-selling book of the 1970s, "The Battle for the Bible." The watchword for such conservatives was biblical inerrancy, and this became the dominant theme in their successful effort to transform the theological seminaries and mission agencies of the denomination. What to the moderates seemed an obvious take over, the conservatives saw as a much-needed turnaround.

Both of these popular explanations are too simple. Some historians have traced the roots of The Controversy to the early 1960s, when conflict over historical-critical study of the Bible produced a major crisis in the SBC leading to the dismissal of Ralph Elliott, a professor of Old Testament at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. Others have looked back to the Fundamentalist-Modernist debates of the 1920s and 1930s, which resulted in debilitating splits among Baptists and Presbyterians in the North. Still others have blamed the persistent racism of Southern religion, the cultural captivity of Southern regionalism, the eschatological pessimism of premillennialist ideology, right-wing conspiracy theories, and so forth: There is no shortage of explanations.

The Controversy should be seen, though, in the context of even more remote Baptist battles. We are still feeling the effects of three great populist movements that ripped through Southern Baptist life in the early and middle decades of the nineteenth century: Campbellism, Landmarkism, and hyper-Calvinism. For more than a century, the forces released by these schisms have simmered beneath the surface of Southern Baptist consciousness, and they continue to frame current debates within the denomination dubbed by one historian as "God's last and only hope."


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Please send comments, statistics questions, etc. to webmaster@adherents.com. This webpage was created 27 April 2005, moving this discussion of the status of the Southern Baptist Convention as a single religious body from the "Largest Religious Bodies" page (created 2 June 1999; URL: http://www.adherents.com/adh_rb.html) to a separate page. Last updated 13 July 2005.