Southern Baptist polity & autonomy gets ‘perplexing’ when it comes to resolutions

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The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis was a tremendous opportunity to celebrate all God is doing through our Cooperative Program-funded mission work and ministries to reach North America and the world for Christ. It was also a fascinating display of Baptist polity.

SBC-MessengersThe autonomy that exists at every level of Southern Baptist life is often misunderstood by the media and by people from other religious traditions. Our denominational autonomy means that instead of Southern Baptists having a hierarchical system of control, our churches, associations, state conventions, and the SBC all operate with their own authority. For example, no denominational body tells a local Southern Baptist church what to do. Nor does any denominational body tell another denominational body what to do. That is to say, the state convention does not control a local Baptist association or vice versa.

As messengers registered and then voted on business items and candidates for SBC offices, their voices could be considered, in a general sense, representative of Southern Baptist churches and associations, but their decisions are not binding on churches, associations, or state conventions. Nowhere is our polity more perplexing than in adopting resolutions.

Resolutions are statements, typically expressed in official and “flowery” language, that communicate positions taken by a convention or association and sometimes even a local church. Resolutions can be an important part of convention annual meetings. That was certainly the case at this year’s SBC. Convention messengers approved 12 resolutions on topics including freedom of the press, biblical sexuality, women and the military draft, the confederate flag, and evangelism.

If you haven’t already, I would encourage you to go online and read through the resolutions adopted in St. Louis. As you do so, here are three helpful observations (not original to me) about resolutions:

  1. A resolution is a powerful expression of conviction but is non-binding. It is a snapshot in time of what messengers approved at one convention meeting but does not bind future convention meetings or, for that matter, any individual Southern Baptist, SBC entity, or SBC church.
  2. A resolution speaks for the messengers who were gathered in a particular place at a particular time. As such, a resolution is not a statement of official Southern Baptist policy, nor could it, in most cases, represent the beliefs of every Southern Baptist. We place great value, however, on what it means for a deliberative body of messengers from cooperating churches to make a public statement concerning key issues facing our churches, country, or culture.
  3. Resolutions are informative rather than directive. A resolution does not have any effect of allocating resources or directing the work of Southern Baptist or state convention entities, and a resolution certainly cannot govern the ministry or policies of any local church.
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