The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is an association comprised of over 16 million members in over 42,000 churches in the United States. Individual church membership is typically a matter of accepting Jesus Christ as personal Savior and submitting to believer’s baptism by immersion. The SBC is considered to be an evangelistic, mission-minded church with a generally conservative doctrine that focuses on the fact that Jesus died for our sin, was buried, and then rose from the grave and ascended to heaven. Unlike some other denominations, the churches in the Southern Baptist Convention generally identify themselves as independent, autonomous congregations that have voluntarily joined together for mutual support.
The Southern Baptist Convention got its start in 1845 during the turmoil that led to the Civil War. As with the war itself, there were many factors that led to the division between North and South, but the headline issue for the church was slavery. Following the great revivals of the early 1800s, many Baptist churches in the northern states took a strong stand for the abolition of slavery. Though the Triennial Convention attempted to mediate the issue by establishing a non-committal policy on slavery, the southern churches felt slighted in the national meeting and formed their own convention at the First Baptist Church of Augusta, Georgia. Though they differed on the issue of slavery, the Southern Baptists and Northern Baptists essentially held the same doctrines following the split. One key distinction in practice was the cooperative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention. Whereas the Northern Baptists maintained their independence, the Southern Baptists formed a cooperative body to support world missions and other causes. These cooperative efforts were directed by the central administration rather than the churches.
In forming the denomination, Southern Baptists wanted to maintain the autonomy of the local churches while creating an alliance of churches working in friendly cooperation. The denomination does not ordain ministers, assign pastoral positions, or mandate contributions, as these decisions rightly belong to the local churches. The primary goal of the denomination is to identify with like-minded churches and pool resources to establish and advance the work of the gospel. The “convention” lasts for 2 days each year, as messengers elected from the various churches gather together to address issues of doctrine and practice that impact the churches. The messengers develop and vote on resolutions that are then delivered back to the churches as recommended practices, but there is no authority to force churches into compliance.
Throughout their history, the Southern Baptists have seen the same kind of struggles with liberalism and modernism that many other churches have. From its founding, the Southern Baptist Convention was more concerned with functional unity than doctrinal unity, and, as a result, there was a wide divergence of beliefs within the churches of the denomination. In the 1950s liberalism began to increase in the seminaries, resulting in many students doubting the truthfulness of the Bible. In the 1963 convention, the Baptist Faith and Message was written to try to keep the peace between liberals and conservatives, but the schism continued to grow. Conservative members sought to uphold the Bible as the inspired, inerrant Word of God, which is authoritative in every area of life (2 Timothy 3:16). More liberal members questioned the historical accuracy of certain sections of Scripture, such as the creation account of Genesis 1 and 2. Convention members who held to conservative doctrinal views saw the danger and prepared a statement in 1979 that emphasized the need for doctrinal unity within functional diversity.
Starting in the 1980s, there has been a conservative “takeover” or resurgence within the leadership of the convention. In 1995 the convention approved a resolution renouncing its racist past and apologizing for its past defense of slavery. In 2000 the Baptist Faith and Message was revised to reflect support for a male-only pastorate and instructing women to exhibit loving submission to their husbands. As a result of these and other conservative decisions, there have been a number of churches and groups that have separated and formed their own associations or joined other associations. In 2004 the SBC removed itself from the Baptist World Alliance, which it said had become too liberal.
Overall, Southern Baptist churches are good, strong, biblically based churches. As with any church denomination or association, though, there can be bad churches and/or bad pastors. Just as you should with any other church, sincerely ask God to lead you to the church of His choosing for you. Carefully examine the teachings and practices of a church before officially joining it.