Among the thousands of Baptist General Conventional of Texas churches in our state, many of their pastors connect to the BGCT simply because their churches are associated with it—not because they necessarily have a convictional reason for associating with the BGCT. Other pastors, myself included, associate with the BGCT as a matter of conviction.
- History: A long history of associating with the BGCT through all the ups-and-downs of the previous decades has created deep friendships and nostalgia, which shapes our association with the BGCT.
- Theology: The BGCT has sought to maintain a conservative, “non-fundamentalist” approach to the Christian faith. For many, the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message is a sufficient consensus document for Baptists, and other issues can be addressed through the convention process. For example, while the 1963 BF&M does not have a statement about marriage in it, the BGCT has affirmed through the convention process, and made a requirement for harmonious cooperation, the biblical view that marriage is a sacred union between a man and woman.
- Political: Many have associated with the BGCT in response to the battles in the Southern Baptist Convention in the late 1970s through 1990s. Many believed some people in the SBC used unnecessarily harsh political tactics to win the convention presidency and shape Southern Baptist institutions. The BGCT, opposed to such tactics, became a home for pastors who also opposed them.
- Loyalty: Some pastors connect to the BGCT out of appreciation for support received, whether financial assistance to attend a BGCT college or seminary, the way they were served by a BGCT institution, or the ministry and mission partnerships they have developed with or through the BGCT.
- Diversity: Many have connected with the BGCT because of the greater racial and gender diversity found in the BGCT as compared to other Baptist groups.
The challenge for pastors of state and national connections
Pastors associating with the BGCT for convictional reasons face a challenge. Many BGCT pastors do not feel at home in either the SBC or the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the two national Baptist bodies connected to BGCT churches.
Concerning the CBF, the disconnect comes from concern that the CBF continues to move in a more progressive, or “liberalizing,” direction perceived by some to follow a similar pattern as mainline denominations. Many BGCT pastors never did feel at home in CBF, while others no longer feel at home there.
Concerning the SBC, many BGCT pastors do not feel at home there for the reasons articulated above. In addition to those five convictions, many BGCT pastors feel caricatured as liberal and a threat to the SBC. Many do not have relationships and networks within the SBC, which is especially true if a pastor did not attend an SBC seminary.
As a result of being disconnected from the CBF and SBC, many BGCT pastors have disengaged from serving within and connecting to national Baptist life. For BGCT pastors serving churches that generously support the SBC through cooperative giving and missions offerings and that think of themselves as “Southern Baptist,” the disconnect seems particularly acute.
Four ways for pastors to overcome the challenge of being disconnected
To overcome the national disconnect, I want to propose four ways BGCT pastors, working together, may seek to reconnect with national Baptist life.
Reconciliation: This approach primarily is directed to reconciling the relationship between the BGCT and SBC. In this approach, there would be an attempt to find symbolic and real ways to reconcile or, at least, make space for each other. Attempts at reconciliation might include something like the following:
- SBC and Southern Baptists of Texas leaders make a vow to stop caricaturing the BGCT and BGCT pastors as “liberal.” BGCT leaders and pastors commit to stop calling SBC and SBTC leaders and pastors “fundamentalists.” This may also include a commission to address hurts from all sides and to provide means for reconciliation.
- The BGCT sponsors a conference in partnership with Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, encouraging strong attendance by BGCT pastors.
- The BGCT and SBTC, in partnership with the North American Mission Board, develop a goal to support a certain number of church plants, each plant receiving financial support from the BGCT, SBTC and NAMB.
- BGCT colleges and seminaries agree to hire at least a few professors who have been recently educated by an SBC seminary and/or who are supportive of the current direction of the SBC, thereby exposing students in BGCT colleges and seminaries to at least a few voices supportive of and connected to the current SBC.
- Initiate the development of a new doctrinal statement allowing people to move beyond some of the baggage associated with the Baptist Faith and Messages of 1963 and 2000.
Reform: In this approach, BGCT pastors will recognize they are a minority voice and will probably not win elections or be placed in important positions. Nevertheless, in this approach, BGCT pastors will provide a reforming voice. For example, in the CBF, BGCT pastors would call the CBF to stop their current theological trajectory and return to evangelical roots. In the SBC, BGCT pastors may function as a moderating voice on certain topics or issues.
Regional: In this approach, the focus is on building up the local church, strengthening the local Baptist association, and supporting the BGCT. Here, the BGCT pastor rightly believes the heartbeat of Baptist life is the local church and works to strengthen the connections closest to home. This approach is probably the one most pastors who support the BGCT for convictional reasons, myself included, have taken.
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Rise:The final approach moves beyond the other three approaches and focuses on ways to raise something new in terms of national Baptist life. This is about moving beyond dichotomies to explore new ways for Baptist pastors, churches and groups to serve together for the cause of the gospel. In this approach, Baptists from different parts of the country, different groups, and different racial and ethnic backgrounds would gather together to find ways to partner for the advancement of the gospel around the world. Like Baptists have done in the past, sometimes the best choice is to begin something new.
Each approach presents seemingly insurmountable challenges. Nevertheless, I hope to provide here an opportunity for reflection, debate and discussion focused on the future rather than rehashing the past.
Ross Shelton is senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Brenham.