Autonomy in the Southern Baptist Convention

by Ron F. Hale

Southern Baptists cherish the autonomy of the local church in our conservative and cooperative family of congregations.

We are of the “Free Church Tradition” valuing the voluntary principle of cooperation while having no organic ties to a state or national government; nor governed by any higher religious ruling body. The local church is at the top of the denominational pyramid in SBC life. Messengers, money, and mission volunteers spring forth from thousands of local churches in the SBC, thereby spreading God’s resources to the ends of the earth.

Inconceivable to most Southern Baptists, many congregations around the world feel the heavy hand of the state-run church or higher ecclesiastical powers pushing or pulling them to acquiesce to external pressures.

To be autonomous means that each church is self-governing and self-directing as the people of God seek the help of Jesus Christ, the Head of the Church. In essence, no other ecclesiastical power, government entity, bishop or back room boss has the authority to enter a local SBC congregation making demands and issuing commands.

Each local congregation calls their pastors, deacons, and other leaders. Each church sets its own budget, selects their style of worship, and determines their level of support for local, state, national, and international missions. While all Southern Baptist congregations are independent, they have chosen to act interdependently for the cause of missions and associating with thousands of other congregations of like belief, history, goals, and heroes.

Beyond the local church, every other level or layer of SBC life is autonomous. Messengers from local churches are sent to local associations, state conventions, and the SBC to set budgets, elect leaders, set priorities, and report their work. Entities owned by the SBC, the state convention, and association work to fulfill their specific goals through their elected trustees or boards while valuing accountability of entrusted resources.

While some wonder how a Bumble Bee can fly with its super-sized body and pint-size wings, other denominations have studied the Southern Baptist Convention and are amazed at how we accomplish so much without a top-down autocratic structure. Our motivations come from the courage of our convictions learned from those who have gone before us—that together with God, we can “elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner” (BFM 2000, XIV, Cooperation).

Ideally, the principle of autonomy is held in esteem at every level of SBC life. Effective leaders know that we can encourage, exhort, pray, and plead with each other to work together cooperatively—while at all costs avoiding the heavy hand of enforcement between interdenominational agencies and personnel.

Denominational leaders brokering the “golden rule” can decimate years of trust and healthy partnerships as they deem other partners as “beneath” them in their concept of the denominational delivery system. The “golden rule” is a bully tactic that implies—we have the gold (SBC monies allocated to our agency, convention, or institution) therefore we rule! The implication is clear—you meet our demands, or you don’t get our money.

Autonomy requires mutual respect and honor. Alas, it can be very complicated as we voluntarily and formally commit to joint plans, projects and personnel with “money” being involved. Leaders who do not value autonomy will seek to force their agenda for short-termed gain. However, their self-important attitudes and actions lead to long-term losses in relationships, trust, cooperative spirit, giving, and possibly even baptisms. The invisible forces at work in autonomy are as real as the air we breathe.

Everything begins and ends at the door of the local church in SBC life. Those who nurture autonomy’s nature will be happier and more effective in the long run.

Together we know that God has a plan for the ages and it centers in Jesus Christ. His unfolding plan seeks the redemption of all sinners and the church is commissioned and empowered to move toward triumphant victory. The Cooperative Program among Southern Baptists helps us move toward that victory with confidence that our missionaries will receive unending support and the home fires will forever burn until He comes!

We work this way because we are autonomous congregations who freely give, go, and glorify the Lord. Our hearts tell us and our history proves that we can do more together than separately.

© Ron F. Hale–May 11, 20124