What’s in a Name? Thoughts and Reflections on the SBC Name Change Discussion

What is in a name? A great deal I would argue. Parents spend a great deal of time selecting just the right name for the newborn. A name that would be a blessing and sense of encouragement rather than a burden later in life. Businesses go to great lengths to make sure the name of a company reflect their purpose and passion. Auto makers assign names to their companies and brands to ensure they are interesting and appealing. As a society, we assign names to buildings, roads, bridges, ball fields, and wings of hospitals to communicate and celebrate the accomplishments, successes, and heroism of those who have made meaningful contributions in life. Names are important. Names matter.

I pastor a Southern Baptist church. This means our church has made a choice to affiliate and cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention. Although we are first an Evangelical Christian church, our choice to affiliate with the Southern Baptist Convention is found in the values, commitment to cooperation, and theological stance that the SBC is known for. In September of 2011, Dr. Bryant Wright, president of the Southern Baptist Convention appointed a presidential task force to study the prospect of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. A name which has been in place for 166 years. A final report, along with any recommendations would be made to messengers at the 2012 SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans. Two reasons form his rationale.

“First, the convention’s name is so regional,”  “With our focus on church planting, it is challenging in many parts of the country to lead churches to want to be part of a convention with such a regional name. Second, a name change could position us to maximize our effectiveness in reaching North America for Jesus Christ in the 21st century.”

Much speculation, discussion, and debate surrounded this upcoming announcement. Feelings were strong on both sides. In February of 2012, the task made its interim report to the SBC Executive Committee. A February 21st Baptist Press article says in part,

“The task force appointed to study a possible name change of the Southern Baptist Convention is recommending the convention maintain its legal name but adopt an informal, non-legal name for those who want to use it: “Great Commission Baptists. The recommendation would mean that the legal name of the convention would remain “Southern Baptist Convention” and could be used by any church which wishes to use it. But other SBC churches could call themselves “Great Commission Baptists” if they wish. Draper said the new term would be a “descriptor.” Dr. Jimmy Draper, Chairman of the presidential task force said, ‘We believe that the equity that we have in the name Southern Baptist Convention is valuable.’ ‘It is a strong name that identifies who we are in theology, morality and ethics, compassion, ministry and mission in the world. It is a name that is recognized globally in these areas. We also recognize the need that some may have to use a name that is not associated with a national region as indicated by the word ‘Southern.’ We want to do everything we can to encourage those who do feel a name change would be beneficial without recommending a legal name change for the convention. We believe we have found a way to do that.’  The goal from the beginning, Draper said, ‘was to consider the removal of any barrier to the effective proclamation of the Gospel and reaching people for Christ.’”

This issue of name change has come before us in years past. Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention heard similar motions entertaining the possibility of a name change in 1965, 1974, 1983, 1989, 1990, 1998, and 2004. Each time messengers decided to leave the name of the Southern Baptist Convention as is. I want to share my thoughts here on this issue. I am not in favor of changing the name of the Southern Baptist Convention. I believe it has served us well all these years and that it will continue to identify us as champions of biblical conservatism in the decades to come. At present, the Southern Baptist Convention has something that is very valuable: name recognition. When you hear the name “Southern Baptist Convention”, you know what you are getting. The same is true when you hear the names Harley Davidson®, Apple ®, Coke®, and Starbucks ®. I want to share with you the three reasons why I believe the name “Southern Baptist Convention” is worth retaining.

1. The Southern Baptist Convention has led the way in caring for the physical needs of those introduced to disaster, both here and abroad. When it comes to ministering to those who have been affected by tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and tsunamis, no one does it like Southern Baptists. Often the first on the scene with feeding units, showers, and chaplains, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, and Baptist Global Response (the disaster relief arm of the International Mission Board) are on site to meet the physical needs of people with the desire to meet the spiritual needs. Relief and compassion are synonymous with Southern Baptists. This kind of “equity” if you will, can’t afford to be lost through a name change.

2. The Southern Baptist Convention has led the way in the defense of biblical truth and religious liberty. Whether or not everyone agrees with the stance the Southern Baptists takes on doctrinal matters, at least they know where we stand and that we will remain consistent. In the late 70’s and early 80’s, Southern Baptists took a stand against the liberalism that was infiltrating our seminaries. Southern Baptists took a stand for the inerrancy of sufficiency of the scriptures. We are still reaping the benefits today. We owe a tremendous debt, one we can’t repay, to Southern Baptist statesmen such as W.A. Criswell, Jerry Vines, Adrian Rogers, Paige Patterson, Al Mohler, Ed Young, Tom Elliff, George Truett, R.G. Lee, and many others. Southern Baptists have been a consistent voice “crying in the wilderness” of mainstream media against the laws and practices that seek to curtail the freedoms to practice our religion. We owe a debt as well to the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission. I am fearful that a name change would call into question the integrity of all that has been accomplished in our 166 years.

3. The Southern Baptist Convention has led the way in pushing back the darkness through intentional missions efforts. Again, synonymous with Southern Baptists is missions and well-trained, well-prepared, and well-equipped missionaries. Some of our North American missionaries have expressed concern that the name “Southern Baptist” is a hindrance to the church-planting efforts in certain parts of North America. That concern is the genesis for the Dr Wright’s decision to study the name change again. Although there may be some merit to this concern, overall I believe the integrity and track-record of the Southern Baptist Convention will serve us well in future church-planting movements.

What is in a name? A great deal. We have in the Southern Baptist Convention a name that has served us well, is trusted, and respected. Although the committee studying the name change does not recommend a formal change, they do offer an alternative. Dr. Draper writes, “other SBC churches could call themselves ‘Great Commission Baptists’  if they wish. This new term would be, in Dr. Draper’s words a ‘descriptor’. From where I stand, this ‘descriptor’ will be more confusing. I understand the desire to draw attention to our efforts in fulfilling the Great Commission. In light of the past Great Commission Resurgence Task Force recommendations, this has become more of a focus than ever before. But, it is possible for Independent Baptists to be committed to the Great Commission. It is possible for American Baptists to be committed to the Great Commission. For one, I will stick with the Southern Baptist Convention. It is that name that identifies us as a people of doctrine, a people of conviction, and a people of missions. I agree wholeheartedly with the with the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee Report of 1999 where they gave their rationale for not changing the name of the Convention. They wrote,

“The name Southern Baptist Convention” and term “SBC” have become brand names meaning more than just the sum of their parts. The Southern Baptist Convention no longer denotes a region as much as it does a position. It has come to mean missionary zeal, staunch Bible defense, moral rectitude, adherence to faith, and dependence upon the Lord.”

One thought on “What’s in a Name? Thoughts and Reflections on the SBC Name Change Discussion

  1. I agree with Pastor Ruff on these points, and as usual he has expressed them eloquently. But I have a quarrel with the change for another reason as well.
    The Greek word mathēteuō which is at the heart of the Great Commission is translated most properly as “teach.” In my opinion, and it’s based on a lifetime in the church and an education in Comparative Theology, the Baptist church does a very poor job of teaching anything. Although there are some excellent teaching pastors and a a few churches who understand the need for real Christian education, I believe that most Baptists view the Great Commission as primarily a preaching exercise, followed by “church planting.” Preaching is necessary, of course, but when preaching is not accompanied by sound doctrinal teaching it leaves in its wake a field littered with false security, ineffective churches and shallow faith.
    Until the SBC learns to do a much better job at mathēteuō, it has no business describing itself as a Great Commission church.

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