Southern Baptists are not your typical denomination. We are actually a convention of churches. The principle of local church autonomy is a part of our identity and means that churches are not subject to outside influence. They are self-governing. But that’s not all it means.
It means that there is no uniform standard of involvement in the denominational process. That puts churches and pastors in the position of deciding just how much – or how little – they will be involved at the various levels of partnership.
Hierarchy is not a word that describes the Southern Baptist Convention but cooperation is. We join together voluntarily because we believe that we can do more together than we can do apart. But that means more than just the bare minimum, or partnering in name only while we go about our individual interests.
This isn’t a “pay-for-play” system, where we each cast our lot in so that we can reap the benefits to pursue our own self-interests.
When we join hands, we do so for something greater than ourselves. We have a common set of values in the Baptist Faith and Message, a common goal in the Great Commission and a common hope in the gospel of Jesus Christ. When we share our resources for the kingdom, we are investing in the future of our churches and the advancement of God’s mission in the world.
We have the responsibility to participate in our joint future. We have local associations that are reaching the communities around them, state conventions that are planting churches and serving people, and a nationwide convention of churches that is standing together to reach the ends of the earth. At every level we can share our gifts and talents, as well as a willingness to work together on mission.
What does this look like? Yes, it means we give financial resources. It also means we give our time. We give our time to know each other better.
We give our time to know the needs around us more. We give our time to sit in meetings that may not seem exciting to the world, but we value them because they are necessary to make decisions that set our priorities and the course of our future.
We sit in those meetings, we speak when we can, we vote when called upon and we prayerfully consider the possibility of serving in leadership for a season. If we give up the responsibility to participate in the process, we lose the right to criticize the outcomes.
The beauty of our system is that churches don’t serve associations and conventions, but rather associations and conventions serve churches to help them do what they cannot do alone. The danger is that we will be all too happy to receive but lack the motivation to give.
At that point, the word “cooperation” no longer applies. Southern Baptists at all levels cannot afford to stop actively linking arms as we obey the marching orders of King Jesus.
We have all been commissioned and commanded to go and evangelize the whole world. If we truly believe that doing so in collaboration is the best way – and I certainly do – then we won’t sit this one out. We will seize every moment for the Great Commission, and we will do it together.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Danny Akin is president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.)