Don't change the Southern Baptist Convention's formal, legal name, but adopt the informal "descriptor" phrase "Great Commission Baptists."
That is what the task force appointed by SBC President Bryant Wright to advise him on a potential Convention name change presented to him February 20 during the spring Executive Committee meeting in Nashville, Tennessee. Wright, who serves as an ex officio member of the EC, then moved that the EC approve his request to forward the recommendation to messengers at the SBC annual meeting in June. The following morning, February 21, the EC voted to forward the recommendation in a show-of-hands vote, with approximately five or six negative votes out of sixty-eight members present.
"We believe that the equity that we have in the name Southern Baptist Convention is valuable," task force chairman Jimmy Draper told the EC. "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."
He added that changing the legal name "would require a great cost in dollars and in energy, and would present huge challenges legally that create a multitude of issues. The value of a name change does not justify the risks involved."
Still, Draper said the task force recognized "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."
If the new descriptor is adopted, churches, state conventions, and SBC entities would have the option of describing themselves as "Great Commission Baptists" in addition to or instead of "Southern Baptists." No one would be compelled to use the new label or expected to abandon the terms "SBC" or "Southern Baptists."
D. August Boto, EC executive vice president and general counsel, said a majority vote of messengers at one SBC annual meeting is the only requirement for adopting the new descriptor phrase. In contrast, a two-thirds vote at two consecutive annual meetings would be required to change the Convention's legal name.
Boto noted that the EC did not adopt the new descriptor on the Convention's behalf, but forwarded the matter to the SBC for its consideration.
"It's like any other recommendation of the Executive Committee," he said. "The Executive Committee is in the business of laying matters before the messengers for their decision . . . The [recommendation adopted by the EC] was to allow the messengers to make the determination."
The recommendation will be presented to the Convention June 19 during the EC report at the SBC annual meeting.
Adopting the descriptor "Great Commission Baptists" could help Southern Baptists in evangelism, according to Draper.
"If you tell someone that you're a Great Commission Baptist, if they don't know
anything about it, they're going to say, 'What is that?' And now you've got a readymade invitation to witness to them," he said.
When asked whether the task force favors the use of the acronym "GCB," task force member R. Albert Mohler Jr. noted that acronyms are "susceptible to multiple meanings" and that the recommendation "has more to do with a descriptive phrase than it does with a non-descriptive acronym."
"I believe I may speak for the whole task force by saying that we would ask our fellow Baptists to consider using the phrase, if it helps their work, rather than the acronym," Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said. "The whole point is to say it all."
A new name would not, in itself, draw anyone to Christ, Draper noted. But since the word "Southern" sometimes is associated with racism and slavery, it is a distraction to the lost in certain regions of America, he said, adding that not having to mention it would help some churches.
"One guy said, 'How would a Yankee Baptist church go over in Birmingham?'" Draper said.
Additionally, Draper said he hopes having "Great Commission" in the SBC's identifying label will stimulate a new emphasis on witnessing.
Ken Fentress, a member of the task force and pastor of Montrose Baptist Church in Rockville, Maryland, said the new descriptor would help signal that Southern Baptists have turned away from the racial prejudice of their past.
"Nothing demonstrates the progress of the Gospel more than the dissolving of racial barriers," Fentress, an African American, told the EC. "This kind of progress of the Gospel speaks a very powerful message to our critics who would say, 'They're trying to change their name, but they're still the same old Convention.' If they are referring to our theology, yes, we are the same. But if they are referring to how we apply our theology to the issue of race, we had better not be the same if we want to honor God."
Draper noted that some black Southern Baptists have long been criticized by fellow African American believers for working cooperatively with the Convention. Adopting a new label would say to Southern Baptist African American churches and church members, "We understand your struggle, and we are sensitive to your concerns. And we are doing this as a way to let you know we value you and we want you to be a part of what we're doing. If this will help you, we ask you to consider using it," he said.
According to one state convention executive director, the task force's efforts to reach the lost and advance racial reconciliation are commendable.
"Will an alternative name help us accomplish the needful task of reaching the lost among the African American and ethnic communities?" Kentucky Baptist Convention Executive Director Paul Chitwood wrote on his blog.
"Will it help us build bridges to existing African American and ethnic churches that are baptistic in theology and practice and are looking for partners for mission work? Will it somehow result in more African American and ethnic Southern Baptists being welcomed into leadership roles in our convention? I don't know the answer to these questions with certainty, but if the answer to any one of them is yes, then so is my vote."
Several times in the past, Southern Baptists have voted against changing their name, Draper said (see article on page 3). But he believes those votes were based on emotion more than knowledge.
He hopes that this year, Southern Baptists will educate themselves about the task force's reasons for not recommending a name change, as well as its reasons for proposing a new descriptor. To that end, he asked the EC to make the ninety-one page name change study it compiled in 1999 as widely available as possible (to read the study, see www.sbc.net/99namechange.pdf). Informed messengers will help make the vote in June a success, regardless of the outcome, according to Draper.
"The reasons we gave for not changing the name are very important," he said. "We want Southern Baptists to understand that it's more than an emotional decision. There are some rational business and theological reasons why we didn't want to change the name."
David Roach is pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Shelbyville, Kentucky, and is a regular contributor to SBC LIFE.