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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • 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.
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  • · 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 http://peterlumpkins.typepad.com/peter_lumpkins/2010/01/conclusion-whats-in-a-name-changing-the-name-of-the-southern-baptist-convention.html).

  • 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?
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  • 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.
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  • 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:

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Tim G

Excellent post and wonderful conclusion and suggestion. I actually like the name Fellowship of Christian Baptist. Thought provoking indeed.

volfan007

Dr. Lemke,

I agree with Tim G. If we’re gonna change the name, then I like what you’ve suggested…Fellowship of Baptist Christians…FBC. It’s a lot better than what I was advocating…BaCon. Although, everybody does like BaCon! :)

David

Tate Cockrell

As always Dr. Lemke, a very thoughtful and comprehensive article. And, I like putting the name Christian in as well.

Gordon

How about Baptist Christian Fellowship? BCF has a nice ring to it.

Great post. Unfortunately, I just dont think anything will happen. The reason probably won’t be based on any of the great reason’s to consider rejecting a new name. I could probably sum it up best with this very over used joke….

How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?

Change?

This is of course a generalization, meant totally in jest, but with a bit of truth when analyzing the majority.

    Tim Rogers

    Brother Gordon,

    Do we really have to throw in a negative comment to reveal that you do not think the name change will happen? I mean, seriously, if the name change doesn’t happen it certainly isn’t going to come as a result that Baptist don’t like change.

    Blessings,
    Tim

Chris Roberts

Outstanding article and a good, fair evaluation of the pro’s and con’s.

“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.”

A good observation. I lean in favor of changing the name, but I think this observation is worth strong consideration.

Dan Nelson

These are excellent considerations. As a Southern Baptist pastor who has served as a trustee and worked for agencies I want to weigh in on the name change. I have been a pastor in CA for 34 years and prior to that was 4 years in seminary and denominational work on the west coast.

My initial response is why has this taken so long? There are almost 4,000 Southern Baptist churches west of the Rockies we are not in the south. I am in Southern CA but that is not the image this congers up when we are trying to get people to attend a Southern Baptist Church.

My roots are in the south and I came from there but we need a new name to better represent our convention no longer by geographic location but my mission and purpose.
I am a pastor of a church not in South so I should not really be called Southern Baptist. When we say we are a Southern Baptist Church people’s immediate reaction is that is for people from the South or with Southern roots. If you have not served out here you cannot understand this. I only ask for you understanding on this which doesn’t seem to be in huge supply since most of our major functions are back there.

I would have been more involved in the Convention but time, money and my calling here have prohibited me from doing that. Many have given up on this type of involvement. The name change would be a postive step in beginning to erase some of these barriers.

I hope we can make the change regardless of cost or legal difficulties. The name: Fellowship of Baptist Christians is great name. I’d vote for it right now. It represents more than region but purpose and fellowship. I say always keep the name Baptist because we need to hold on to our identity but be understanding of we are serving out here with many obstacles that stand in the way of people attending our churches. The name change would remove one of them.
Dan Nelson, Pastor First Baptist Church of Camarillo, CA

Vicki Hantla

Northern Baptists, American Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Southern Baptists…each holds little differences in their actual beliefs. Having ‘Christian’ in the name is nice…what about those who have not made a committment to Christ at this point? Will they feel uncomfortable attending this church? And if this discussion has been thrown out year after year, why is it being brought up again. Maybe the majority does have a say in what goes on. We changed the name of Womens Missionary Union to Women on Mission to Baptist Women (recently). It is still WMU!!! We moved from Training Union to all the mega classes on Sunday night and now we have to make a decission…worship service or a 12 week class. RA’s, GA’s, Mission Friends, Acteens, Activators…now meet under a good many names or have been eliminated altogether. We seem to be watering everything down to bring in the masses. Are we doing that? I dont want to be known as the ‘feel good’ denomination. The preachers are going to have to start preaching the hard stuff and get back to what God wants His people to hear. The sign on the church where I grew up simply said “We Preach Christ”. We cant ride the middle of the fence or solve everybodys problems or wants or desires but ‘we can preach Christ’. We are so busy being politically correct that we have lost what is really important. Let’s discuss things really important. Vicki

Rev. Ed Harris

I appreciate Dr. Lemke’s Article on the name change. As thought provoking as it is, we must be identified first and foremost as Christians. Secondly, we identify ourselves as Baptist so Dr. Lemke’s suggestion of Fellowship Of Baptist Christians would be a great change. God will surely direct the people to the right name as they seek him for guidance. God Bless All.

Greg Tomlin

I’ve been thinking about this Southern Baptist Convention name change business for a long time.

You know, in many longstanding organizations, they just shift from a name to a well-recognized letter combination; take, for instance, IBM or GM. And about 10 years ago, Texas Christian University went exclusively to TCU … until the, um, recent drug bust. Then, they were Texas “Christian” University again.

But we could do the same for the Southern Baptist Convention … just go to SBC on everything, since the Southwestern Bell Corporation no longer exists.

Oh, but wait, SBC could mean Supralapsarian Baptist Convention. That would make the non-Calvinists very angry. What about IBC for “International Baptist Convention?”

No, no, that won’t do. In addition to the famed Root Beer by that name, it would make the Supralapsarians unhappy because it could be interpreted as the Infralapsarian Baptist Convention. You know, those Reformed folks of traditional and non-traditional stripes sometimes fight, too.

ABC? Admit. Believe. Confess. Nope, that’s already taken by the American Baptists and the Amyraldians and Arminians might seek ownership in the name … and heaven forbid if there are still any Arians around.

The WBC (Worldwide Baptist Convention) couldn’t be it, unless we plan on handing out championship belts to the next SBC officers. Admittedly, the SBC is often like a boxing match, but I digress.

Since the “BC” part is a given, that leaves B … nope, dang it! There’s already a BBC. Pip, pip. Moving on.

C? No. Our neighbors to the north in the CBC might get upset about that. We don’t want them calling us “hosers” for stealing their initials. And we can’t use U either because the carpenters’ union might refuse to build any more homes for retired SBC executives.

All in all, I think once you rule out all of the existing three letter organizations, we’ll be left with a bunch of consonants that just won’t work. They won’t capture the essence of the SBC unless, of course, we discover life on other planets … in which case GBC or Galactic Baptist Convention would work. I sort of like that … has an imperial feel to it. We have repeatedly said, after all, that the convention is a “force” for good.

Okay, enough of that. You can “package” the SBC anyway you want to on the outside.

But I have news for the SBC. It doesn’t matter if you “rebrand” and have nice packaging if the product on the inside stinks. And right now it does, primarily because we’ve forgotten to keep the main thing the main thing.

The SBC grew because it would go anywhere and try anything to get the gospel across.

Now, we don’t do that. We refuse to realize that people have changed and communication has changed. If you can get the gospel on YouTube in every language known to man, why are you NOT doing it? This is a simple and abundantly cost effective way of spreading the message of Christ. In fact, it is free.

I’ve pitched this idea to multiple seminaries with large international student populations and no one cares. No one is interested, which proves my point. They are afraid … yes, afraid … to be innovative. This also makes me think they don’t care half as much as they say they do about the lostness in the world.

No, they’ll keep turning out ministers and orators for churches that will not grow, save biologically, because no one new is coming in. They’ll fail to realize that communication of the gospel isn’t just about delivery. It is about reception, too. The “receivers” are different know. Put it in a five minute video presentation or interactive app and people will see it. Use that as a tool to inform them about the gospel.

We also refuse to see that the ethnic distribution of the world has changed. There are entire cities in New York and Michigan that are Arab. Why then is our emphasis on going to Arab countries to set up churches? Go to these places and set up churches in a land that is free and where they can worship. They will carry the message then to their own people and to their own land (I am not advocated withdrawing from the foreign field in any way, but added this strategy).

So I guess I’m saying, “You can change your name to whatever you want. Until you change your methods, your market share, for lack of a better term, will contract.”

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