The SBC Name Change: Why and Why Not

September 23, 2011

By Dr. Lemke, Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, occupying the McFarland Chair of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and Editor of the
Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.

As was announced in a recent “breaking news” story in SBC Today, Bryant Wright, President of the SBC, announced to the SBC Executive Committee last Monday evening that he has appointed a task force to consider the merits of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention, and make recommendations to him about a possible name change. Response to this announcement was rather passionate. Just in response to this article in SBC Today and on my personal Facebook page, there were over 100 responses about this issue. People do care about the name of the SBC.

What are the reasons given that we should or should not consider a name change for the SBC? I’m going to try to give a balanced presentation of the rationale both sides of the argument (pro and con) give for their position, and then make some suggestions in case the decision is made to change the SBC’s name. The reasons given for a name change are more centered on a single issue, and the reasons given against a name change are more varied — and hence there are more of them, but one should not necessarily assume that because more reasons are given that they are all of equal weight. However, these reasons against a name change should be dealt with adequately for a name change proposal to go forward. Each of us must weigh the strengths and weaknesses of this possible proposal, either for or against a name change. Because any name change proposal would require the majority vote of two consecutive SBC conventions, this decision (up or down) heightens the importance of churches sending messengers to the 2012 SBC Convention in New Orleans and the 2013 SBC Convention in Houston, at which this issue will be decided.

Reasons to Consider a Name Change

  • Overcoming a Regional Identity – Fundamentally, all the reasons for changing the name of the SBC go back to that first word – Southern. We began primarily in the South, and most of our churches and members are still in the South. But we have become a national denomination, the largest Protestant denomination in America. Strictly speaking, the nomenclature “Southern Baptist Convention” is inaccurate. We are at least a national entity, with a global outreach. So “Southern” is simply no longer accurate in describing who we really are.

  • Hindering Our National and International Ministry – I have served in summer ministries in Montana and Alaska, so I am aware of the “pushback” or confusion that our name causes in those sorts of “pioneer” settings (i.e., where Southern Baptists are a small minority).  As someone suggested in a comment to our SBC Today article, what if the “Yankee Baptist Convention” came to a Southern town? We would have reason by virtue of their name to assume that they were just looking for displaced Northerners as members. Likewise, a “Southern” Baptist Church in the Northeast, North, Northwest, or West does not resonate with each of those local identities. A name other than a regional name that excludes them would seem to be more helpful. In the international setting, “Southern” almost loses its meaning altogether. To a person in Bucharest, it is unclear what “Southern” has to do with it. So, particularly in reference to our work in areas of the United States outside the South, it would appear that the regional name “Southern” is a limiting term that excludes others.

  • Negative associations with the word “Southern” – For most of us Southerners, the word “Southern” has profoundly positive connotations. The South is home. “American by birth, Southern by the grace of God,” the bumper stickers say. We are passionate about our football teams, we love our flags, and we have stronger “heart” identities with our states than people in some other states. We also think of “Southern Baptist” as standing for good things – a strong stand on the truthfulness of God’s Word, salvation through Christ alone, a heart for missions and evangelism, and strong family values stands on issues. It is hard for us to hear that there are also sometimes negative connotations that others hear in the word “Southern.” The Southern Baptist Convention gained its identity by splitting from other Baptists largely over the issue of slavery just before the Civil War. And though it has taken great strides in recent years toward racial equality and inclusiveness, some SBC churches and/or individuals have been and are associated with racist views. Those are not associations that we want to have. Also, the stereotype that people from other regions sometimes impose on Southerners (and Southerners self-deprecatingly apply to themselves) is the Redneck stereotype. Southerners are thus depicted as being ignorant, anti-education, prejudiced, and out of touch. Anyone who visits the modern South recognizes that those stereotypes are hardly true of the South as a whole, and yet they persist. So, while the word “Southern” has many good associations, it also has some negative connotations. We can remove those negative connotations with a name change.

Reasons to Reject a Name Change

  • Name Brand Identity – The name “Southern Baptist” means something. It stands for people who take the Bible seriously. It stands for conservative theology. It stands for people committed to reaching the world for Christ in fulfillment of the Great Commission. It stands for people with biblically-based family values. As the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, there is an automatic identity that comes with the name. Many independent churches have joined the SBC in part because of what our brand name represents.

  • Been There, Done That – The SBC has considered a possible name change for a long time. In 1958, the messengers to the SBC Convention in Houston were given a survey about a possible name change. About a third of the messengers favored a name change at that time. Motions have been made from the floor of the SBC to consider a name change in 1965, 1974, 1983, 1989, 1990, and 1998, and the motion to conduct a “straw poll” about a possible name change was defeated in 1999. The Executive Committee has initiated such studies in 1961, 1965-1967, and 1997-1998. Two other SBC Presidents have proposed studying a possible name change. W. A. Criswell proposed the study of a name change in 1974-1975, which led to the appointment of a “Committee of Seven” to conduct the study, which provided criteria for a name change but did not favor recommending a name change. More recently, Jack Graham proposed studying a possible name change in 2004, but the proposal to create a task force to do so was defeated. At that time, Graham said of the name change, “We need to either put it to bed forever or get on with it.” So let it be. Since in all these instances the name change proposals were rejected by the SBC, why revisit this issue and study it yet again? The Convention has already spoken repeatedly.

  • We Hate Change – Most people don’t like change. We hate it when our banks change names three times in four years. Coca Cola thought it was a great idea a decade or so ago to “change” Coke to the New Coke. What a disaster! They went back to the old Coke. Many people still grumble about the name changes from the Sunday School Board to LifeWay, the Home Mission Board to the NAMB, the Foreign Mission Board to the IMB, and the Annuity Board to GuideStone. It may not be our most attractive quality that we’re resistant to change, but it’s a very human feeling. There is no groundswell from the people in the pew, from Bob and Mary Baptist, to change the name of the convention. This is not a burning issue with them. Most of them don’t desire it, and when it happens most won’t like it. If we voted on a name change by popular vote of church members, I believe it would lose by a landslide. Only by a convention action could this change be accomplished.

  • · Legal Ramifications – One of the least understood reasons to reject a name change is that the SBC would lose important legal protections that we have by virtue of a Georgia charter affirmed by the Georgia legislature in 1845. Since the laws have changed, to refile a charter with a new name would mean that we would lose the legal standing that was “grandfathered in,” and we would be subject to the new laws (the Georgia Nonprofit Corporation Code) which appear to not be as conducive to Baptist polity as were the laws in 1845. In a legal opinion from Guenther, Jordon, and Price, dated January 13, 1999, our SBC attorneys wrote: “Opinion: If the Southern Baptist Convention changes its name the Convention would come under the present Georgia Nonprofit Corporation Code which would require the Convention to substantially alter its instruments and practices, its governance structure, and perhaps its polity.”

What difference does the new charter under new laws have? Under the original charter, we are free from the government intrusion entailed in the Georgia Nonprofit Corporation Code. If we changed the charter, we would come under the Code, and thus, for example, would have to (a) form a Board of Directors, (b) determine who the “members” of the corporation are, (c) 10 percent of the corporation’s “members” could petition the Georgia court to remove the Board of Directors, and (d) Georgia’s Attorney General could petition the removal of the Board of Directors. So, in other words, the Attorney General and courts of Georgia could determine decisions, leadership, or even actions of the SBC, not messengers from our churches. This is not a good thing. (For a more detailed statement of this concern, see

  • The Immense Financial Cost of a Name Change – It is difficult to estimate just how much a name change would cost the SBC, state conventions, associations, and churches. First of all, many legal documents would need to be changed at all these levels. Some Baptist camps, colleges, and churches (such as one I pastored) have deed restrictions tied to being a Southern Baptist church or entity. All state conventions (and their entities) and thousands of churches would have to pay legal fees to refile their charter or articles of incorporation. Thousands of signs, from the SBC building to state conventions to thousands of churches, would need to take down the “SBC” and put in the “???BC” lettering. Hundreds of thousands of brochures, letterheads, business cards, and websites would need to be changed. Most new member training materials and missions promotion materials would have to be rewritten. The hidden costs just go on and on. Are the benefits of the change really worth this financial cost?

  • Timing and Process Questions – President Wright is trying a new approach to dealing with this issue – he named a task force without seeking or receiving prior approval from the SBC or from the SBC Executive Committee. Therefore, the task force has no official standing with the SBC. It is simply an advisory committee to President Wright. Of course, the Executive Committee and SBC will have to approve the recommendation – the SBC will have to approve it in two consecutive conventions. But the time frame for the proposal seems rather rushed. This newly formed committee is charged to report to the SBC in mid-February, which is not so far away, given Fall state convention meetings and the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays. The proposal would then be presented at the SBC in New Orleans in June 2012. Questions have also been raised about if it is a bit premature to be soliciting names from Southern Baptists on a website beginning October 1 before some of the legal and financial issues have been satisfactorily resolved. This does give the appearance of rushing to a June 2012 vote without due diligence, though the committee does have experienced leaders who have information ready at hand.

  • Timing/Yet Another Controversy – For a variety of reasons, many of the SBC conventions over the last thirty years have dealt with controversial issues. Along with the Conservative Resurgence vs. the Moderates battle, we have debated controversial issues like the Disney boycott, sole membership, and, most recently, GCR (to name just a few). The implications of GCR (which remains controversial to many Baptists) are just now working themselves out. It would be nice to have a few harmonious SBC conventions in a row to help rebuild our unity. We need time for healing in our fellowship before we deal with another controversial issue.

The name change issue is a mega-controversy – by that, I mean it is an issue larger than the issue itself. Over the summer I ran a four-part series on the fault lines in Southern Baptist life. I identified a number of foundational fault lines that divide us, such the stronger vs. weaker Baptist identity, small church vs. megachurch, centrist or majoritarian Baptist vs. Reformed Baptist, pro-GCR and anti-GCR, etc. I also noted that the shockwaves from some issues set off shockwaves in all the other fault lines. A name change in the SBC is just such an earthquake issue. I’ve already seen these fault lines dividing on the name change issue. The name change has been defended from a strong Baptist identity perspective and dismissed from a weaker Baptist identity perspective. Some small church pastors have suggested that Wright and other megachurch pastors are forcing this on them. Bryant Wright has been described as both an Arminian and a Presbyterian (hard to be at the same time!). Those opposed to GCR see this as just one more step by the GCR crowd, and the pro-GCR people seem to be mostly supportive of it. So, the point is that this is a controversial issue that will set off shockwaves throughout all the fissures of Southern Baptist life. The simple question is, “Is it worth it?”

Where We Go from Here

We’ll see in February what task force report or proposal is. The reasons for the name change are substantial and compelling. However, the reasons against it are significant and must not be lightly dismissed. However, I hope these challenges can be resolved satisfactorily. I’m not a lawyer, of course, but I think there might be a way around the legal issues. It is sometimes possible to continue with the original name and be “operating as” another name. For example, some of us older people remember the Woolworth Company – we associate it with modest sized “five and dime” department stores. Most of the Woolworth stores we remember went out years ago. Many people don’t realize, though, that the Woolworth company continued, operating under another name. In fact, at one point they were one of the largest owners of property in New York City. So, perhaps there is a way around that dilemma. The emotional, financial, and name brand identity cost issues are tougher nuts to crack. I don’t have an answer for those challenges. It will come down to a fundamental question for the task force: Are the obvious advantages of a name change worth the obvious emotional, financial, and name brand costs?

Let’s suppose that the committee and the convention decide that a name change is worth pursuing. What should the new name be?  Let’s start with the middle word – “Baptist.” That, as Bart Barber has pointed out, is non-negotiable. Leave out the word “Baptist” and you’re going to have open war from us Baptist identity people. Of course, I really haven’t heard anyone even suggesting that we would do such a silly thing.

Then, there’s that last word “Convention.” Technically, that is exactly what we are. The SBC does not technically exist 363 days a year. We just exist when the messengers from local churches are in session in the annual convention. However, this is a word that many Baptists and almost no non-Baptists understand. Perhaps another word would be better. I suggest “Fellowship.” Fellowship is a positive, warm word. It actually is quite accurate descriptively as well – we are a loosely-knit fellowship of local churches. Each church chooses voluntarily to enter in to fellowship and cooperative labors for the Lord together. What do we do when we want to kick a church out of an association, state convention, or the SBC? We dis-fellowship them! So Fellowship seems to be a better word to communicate the relationship of our churches to each other and the convention.

I saved the tough word for last – “Southern.” It is the regional associations of that word which provide the primary motivation for the name change in the first place. So, what word could we choose instead of “Southern”? Well, since I’m a strong advocate of the Cooperative Program, we could call it the “Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.” OOPS! That name has already been taken . . . .  Since the concern is about using a geographical term, we could move to a theological term – “Providence Baptist Fellowship,” “Grace Baptist Fellowship,” etc. But then, those names would likely be identified as being one sided with regard to the discussion over Reformed theology in the SBC. So, we could do “National Association of Free Will Baptists.” OOPS! That name has already been taken also. The name “Great Commission” has been suggested, but that probably doesn’t mean anything to lost people, and might produce negative connotations and beget more legal challenges in a day in which sharing your faith is being described by secularist and other religious groups as hate speech, not only in our country but internationally.

So, what word to choose instead of “Southern’? I suggest that we add another very important word to the name, but to do so we’ll need to reorder the words we have now. What we are above being Southerners or Cooperative or Great Commission or Doctrine X or even Baptists is . . . Christian! Nothing in our current name overtly identifies us with Jesus Christ or Christianity. So, my suggestion is that we make “Baptist” what it truly is – a modifier. “Baptist” just describes the kind of Christian we are. So, the name would be Fellowship of Baptist Christians (FBC). I believe that’s a name worth thinking about!

Other recommended articles and posts on this issue: