NOBTS head gives caution on polity issue

“After a long and passionate struggle to fill every SBC board with Trustees they trusted and every entity presidency with known conservatives, the heirs of the Conservative Resurgence exchanged the historic Baptist principle of a trustee-based organizational autonomy for a connectional polity that would tighten direct denominational control over the entities. Having seen God do a miracle once, Conservatives changed the rules lest they have to count on a miracle again.”

The president of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary imagined a future church historian offering that assessment of the present era of Southern Baptist life. Ministering in a town with plenty of fortune tellers, Chuck Kelley offered his prediction of the future out of a concern that the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee is violating the principle of organizational autonomy.

New Orleans Seminary is the last SBC entity to consider a request issued from the staff of the SBC Executive Committee in 1997. Seminary trustees asked Kelley to write a paper to assist in their deliberations this month about the request–which would underscore in explicit legal terms the SBC’s ultimate authority over its entities. Kelley presented the paper in a Sept. 4 chapel address, available in written form on the school’s website at The white paper contains Kelley’s warning that yielding to the Executive Committee’s staff request could lead to “a fundamental change in historic Baptist polity,” compromising the denomination’s practice of organizational autonomy.

“As heirs of the Conservative Resurgence, we must be careful to preserve both our Baptist theology and the way of doing church and ministry that has always characterized Southern Baptists as a people,” he stated. It’s not the size of the step that causes him concern. “My problem is the direction of the step.” Added to that concern is a worry over where “this new path” will stop. “It is quite possible that this new form of control will encourage an individual or group, intentionally or unintentionally to attempt to exercise a higher level of central control over the entities” of the SBC. In the course of his message, Kelley offered a recent example of Executive Committee representatives proposing “closing or dramatically changing Midwestern Seminary” as an example of an unprecedented “stunning suggestion” that “would not have been made prior to the ‘sole member’ strategy.”

Over the past six years, 11 of the 12 SBC entities have approved the request of the Executive Committee to the sole member language. The proposal was described as an effort to prevent renegade actions by any Southern Baptist entity through charter changes such as those of some state Baptist colleges or state convention entities.

Kelley agrees with the objective behind the recommendation, but stated “a profound problem” with the proposed solution. Sole membership, as defined in Louisiana, “places all powers of governance in the only member and gives that member all of the power,” Kelley told the TEXAN, “including the power to dissolve the corporation and dispose of its assets.” At one meeting of the SBC, messengers could vote to close the seminary or fire the president or replace the whole trustee board, he said.

“In other states the SBC can deny itself those rights even though it is the sole member, but not in Louisiana. Whatever may be said in the SBC bylaws, the sole member of a Louisiana corporation always has all power.”

In the paper he said, “Sole membership, particularly as it is defined by the state of Louisiana, introduces connectionalism to the denominational structure in the place of organizational autonomy which we have historically practiced and so beautifully illustrated during the Conservative Resurgence. It starts a movement away from the decisive influence of the SBC and towards direct control by the SBC.” He calls the action a “small step away from duly elected SBC trustees governing the institution in accordance with duly established SBC parameters, and a small step toward increasing the role of the denomination in direct entity governance.”

Several Southern Baptist leaders are lending public support to Kelley’s arguments, while others privately praise his independent spirit. The issue surfaced in a recent meeting of the Great Commission Council at which every SBC entity was represented, during discussions with state convention executive directors at a North American Mission Board dialogue, and in the hallways of the Sept. 21-23 Executive Committee meeting. (See related article on reaction to the Baptist polity paper, page 7.)

Of the three distinctive characteristics he cited as identifying Southern Baptists–doctrinal agreement, cooperative missions and autonomous organization–Kelley focuses on the latter in his paper. With “no controlling external authority over Baptist churches and conventions but Christ and His Word, the Bible,” Kelley wrote that autonomous organization prevents a national or state convention from controlling any church or other convention and vice versa. While churches and conventions can make requests or recommendations of other entities, they cannot require or direct action, he said.

All SBC entities are on a level plane with “no pyramid of leadership,” he wrote.  The SBC maintains “decisive influence” rather than “operational control,” he added, all within the context of SBC-controlled parameters.  Convention-elected trustees operate within the guidelines of ministry assignments, business plans, charters and budgets approved or endorsed by the Convention.  These entities remain accountable to the Convention through annual ministry and financial reports.

“Southern Baptists believe this is a close as we can get to a New Testament model incorporating our doctrinal convictions about the Lordship of Christ and the authority of Scripture into an organizational structure for the Convention and its entities,” Kelley stated.  Unlike many other denominations, a hierarchy of leadership is avoided in order to “affirm with unmistakable clarity the supremacy of Christ and the Bible over all human authority, structures, and organizations.”

Accepting the reality of sin, Kelley said Southern Baptists divided power into many segments through checks and balances.  “There is no one person or board of Trustees in charge of everything for the Convention, lest there be a temptation for one person or board to control the agenda of the Convention.”  Each of the six seminaries has a separate president and board, he noted, preventing any one person or board from controlling theological education in Southern Baptist life.  Furthermore, the location of the 12 SBC entities in nine different states discourages a “headquarters” mentality.  “If any SBC leader has an agenda that is out of step with God’s agenda or the needs of our churches, our polity makes it difficult for that leader to corrupt the agenda of other entities or the state conventions,” he wrote.

“The center of Southern Baptist life is the local church, not the denomination,” Kelley said.  Thus, “the Convention and its entities were created to facilitate, not replace, the ministry of local churches.”  Through this rejection of connectionalism, Southern Baptists stood instead on the principle of organizational autonomy, he wrote.  They preferred that entities operate out of “an individual sense of divine direction,” rather than “an agenda handed to them by a denominational hierarchy.”

Kelley turns to the recent conservative resurgence for an illustration of organizational autonomy at work.  “Entity Trustees were elected in their normal rotation, which is the traditional way for the SBC to exercise its decisive influence, and those Trustees exercised their operational control to change the direction of the entities,” Kelley wrote, rather than gaining control at one annual session by one dominant action.

“It took more than 10 years, but the process worked.  Conservatives did it the Baptist way.  The most profound and significant course correction in the history of American Christianity was not a hard and fast power play, but rather a long, slow application of Baptist polity by Baptist people working to address a Baptist problem in a Baptist way,” he wrote.  “It happened because of the passionate commitment of Southern Baptists to both their doctrinal convictions and their polity.”

Kelley recalled that the attitude of trustee candidates toward historic Baptist doctrine was rarely questioned prior to the conservative resurgence and their commitment to uphold the significance and validity of SBC influence was assumed.   As a result, “some entities began to drift from their moorings” as trustees failed to exercise responsibility for institutional oversight on behalf of Southern Baptists.  The other major factor connecting Southern Baptists with their entities involves provision of adequate resources through the Cooperative Program (CP) and two national mission offerings.

A smooth and harmonious relationship exists between the SBC and its entities when institutional oversight and provision of adequate resources are addressed, Kelley wrote.  In spite of most of the convention leaders trying to derail the grassroots movement that corrected theological drift, no attempt was made to the decisive influence of the SBC because it was impossible, Kelley said.  “None of the entities could have survived without CP, the mission offerings, and the goodwill of SBC churches.”  He credits the Cooperative Program with holding “the system together while the reformation of Trustee replacement unfolded and took root.”  Trustee oversight and CP resources provide the check and balance system for effective organizational autonomy, he concludes.

Conversely, when state Baptist colleges played a stronger role in selecting their own trustees and CP contributions played a lesser role in their operating budgets, little more than tradition and ethical responsibility compelled the entities to abide by their charter language, Kelley argued.  “Both oversight and provision, the two requirements for organizational autonomy, were weak, and significant problems resulted.”  He goes on to cite the experiences of the SBC and some state conventions for further illustration of the importance of these elements.  “Some state convention entities have ignored their ethical responsibilities to follow the established guidelines of their charters and attempted to eliminate the decisive influence of Southern Baptists in their state conventions.” 

“In an effort to prevent any national entities from ever taking such action,” Kelley said the staff of the SBC Executive Committee “asked each entity to name the southern Baptist Convention as the sole member of the corporation,” giving the SBC direct legal control of every entity.  Executive Committee staff described the only purpose of that move as being “to make the rights of the Southern Baptist Convention to control Trustee election and charter changes indisputable,” he recalled.  “In all other ways, the EC staff has said, entity Trustees would continue to exercise operational control of entity affairs under the decisive influence of SBC guidelines.”

Kelley said his biggest problem with sole membership is disappointment.  “Knowing that the primary theological issues behind our emphasis on organizational autonomy are a radical commitment to the supreme authority of Christ and His Word, the reality of human sin, and the centrality of the local church, it saddens me that biblical conservatives would be the group of record taking the first step toward connectionalism at the national level of SBC life.” 

Rather than fearing the risks associated with organizational autonomy, Kelley places the emphasis on teaching the next generation to be faithful to vigilance in trustee selection and adequate provision for the needs of SBC entities.  He also suggests alternatives to sole membership such as asking duly elected trustees to sign a covenant with the SBC to uphold all SBC guidelines, as well as adding to entity charters financial penalties such as loss of funding for unauthorized charter changes.  He favors creating an environment in which a change in the relationship between the SBC and its entities is unthinkable.

Kelley regards the effectiveness of Southern Baptist polity to be legendary.  “Without an identified human leader of the whole denomination, we grew to a size none would have predicted at our founding.  Without one constant human voice casting again and again the vision for us all, we have all kept the Great Commission at the center of our denominational life.  Without the power of wide, extensive control in any convention, body, entity, or person, we have been bound together by the glue of a common perspective on doctrine and a shared passion to take Christ to the world.”

Instead, Kelley concluded that the work of local churches has set the agenda for the SBC and voices of pastors and people provided the vision for the denomination’s future.  “We knew instinctively the danger of letting any person, denominational body, or entity gain a louder voice than the voice of our churches, for it is through the churches that Jesus has spoken to His people most clearly, and through the churches that Jesus has done the most significant work of our beloved Convention.”

An Executive Committee empowered to act as the sole member of every entity could overwhelm the voice of Southern Baptist churches, Kelley stated.  “It is conceivable that sole membership could one day give a person or persons who gained control of the denominational structure a voice louder that the voices of our churches.  Should that happen, we might have eliminated any possibility of losing an SBC entity, but at what price?”


Most Read

More state conventions join NAMB in Send Network partnerships

ALPHARETTA, Ga. – The North American Mission Board (NAMB) has, in recent years, developed Send Network agreements with state conventions across North America to enhance partnership and church planting within the SBC. So far, 23 state …

Stay informed on the news that matters most.

Stay connected to quality news affecting the lives of southern baptists in Texas and worldwide. Get Texan news delivered straight to your home and digital device.