The new independent Baptist churches

For many congregations, denominational identity lies in their own missions program.

By Mark Wingfield

In the dialogue about “ex-SBC” folks that’s been transpiring on this site in recent weeks, a false assumption seeps in from time to time: That all “ex” Southern Baptists are now affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. As if there were only two choices available.

Not so. Some congregations have affiliated instead with the American Baptist Churches in the USA, with the Alliance of Baptists — or with no group at all. And even among those who connect in name with a denominational body, a number of larger congregations have fallen further into themselves. They are what we might consider a new breed of independent Baptist churches.

Growing up in a thoroughly Southern Baptist culture, I learned from an early age that “independent” Baptists were outsiders, not to be trusted and uncooperative. We Southern Baptists had the “cooperative” program, after all, and excelled in sharing. We worked together for the greater good.

When the fundamentalist takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention began in 1979, one of the chief criticisms of the series of presidents elected at annual meetings was that they did not “cooperate” enough. Often, these were pastors of large churches that only marginally participated in the life of the denomination. They didn’t give enough to the Cooperative Program unified budget, and they didn’t support our denominational seminaries and institutions. Their churches, most of the time, did their own things. They could survive just fine independently of a denomination, thank you very much.

Time has twisted these criticisms into an irony. The churches that once didn’t need the SBC now run the SBC, and many churches that once were flagship churches in the SBC have become the independents.

To illustrate, consider these comments from a friend after my previous ABPnews/Herald commentary on where congregations fit in the “ex-SBC” era. His church offers members four choices for missions giving: SBC, CBF, Texas Baptists or the church’s own internal missions program. Fewer than 10 giving units in this large church direct their money to the SBC. And my friend wants nothing to do with the SBC as his identity either. Up to 30 giving units direct their offerings to CBF, but my friend just can’t connect with CBF outside Texas. As a theologically progressive, politically moderate, card-carrying member of the NRA, he still finds a vast difference between a Texas “moderate” Baptist and an East Coast “moderate” Baptist.

For now, my friend directs his missions giving toward Texas Baptists, joining about 50 other giving units in his church. But that’s not fully satisfying to him and still leaves him in the minority in his own church. That’s because the “vast majority,” he said, “doesn’t know what their choices in denominational labels are and doesn’t care.” The pastor, he added, “does a good job educating us about our choices. They just stare blankly until he finishes and choose to give to the entity that most affects them” — their own church’s missions program.

Variations on this story are repeated in Baptist churches all across the country. Even in my own congregation — which is as thoroughly CBF-affiliated as they come — we recently had a fascinating discussion about this around the tables at deacons’ meeting. Our pastor asked the deacons to discuss what it means to them that our church is affiliated with the CBF and not with the SBC. The most telling comment was spoken by an older man at the table where I sat: “We didn’t choose Wilshire because it is a CBF church,” he said of himself and his wife. “We chose it because of the kind of church it is.”

He paused, then added: “I suppose some part of that identity has been formed by its affiliation with CBF, but we didn’t know that when we joined.”

OPINION: Views expressed in ABPnews/Herald columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.