J. D. Greear, president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), recently announced that his church, The Summit Church, will from now on describe itself as a “Great Commission Baptist” church rather than a “Southern Baptist” church. He also announced that the theme of next year’s annual Baptist convention will be “We are Great Commission Baptists.” In response, many SBC leaders—including former SBC presidents James Merritt, Ronnie Floyd, and Jimmy Draper—have spoken out in favor of “Great Commission Baptist” nomenclature.
Critics, however, have argued that to remove “Southern” is to capitulate to the Black Lives Matter movement and the “woke” culture of the political left. For them, the move is evidence that the SBC is no longer a vanquisher of liberals, but merely another mainline Protestant denomination.
Observers of the debate should note that the alternative nomenclature does not originate with Greear’s presidency and pre-dates recent political movements such as Black Lives Matter. The descriptor can be traced back to 2012, when the convention proposed to add “Great Commission Baptist” as an official DBA (“doing business as”), which would allow the convention to use a new name without having to create a new legal entity.
The broader public should also note that Baptist polity is different from that of many other denominations in that the convention’s resolutions are not binding on individual churches. The churches of the convention are autonomous. Thus, the 2012 resolution remains a suggestion rather than an imperative.
There is good reason for the convention to consider doing business as “Great Commission Baptists.” Baptists should not consider this alternative nomenclature a repudiation of Southern culture or a capitulation to the religious or political left. Instead, they should consider it a refocusing of the convention’s identity and mission.
The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are not united by a shared Southern heritage. “Southern” does not adequately describe, geographically, who we are or who we aspire to be. Although the majority of our churches are located in the South, we are and will continue to aspire to be a convention of churches that minister in all fifty American states. In fact, many of our newest churches are located outside of the South.
Further, the name “Southern Baptist” is tarnished by the fact that many founders of the SBC were pro-slavery and, in many instances, slave-owners. The convention formed in 1845 because of a split with Northern Baptist churches over the propriety of slave ownership. Thus, the “Southern” in Southern Baptist will forever be associated with pro-slavery views.
The removal of “Southern” from the church’s nomenclature is not a wholesale dismissal of Southern culture, but rather a realistic recognition of past sins and an attempt to reposition for the future. As former SBC president James Merritt wrote, “It is time to tip a hat to the past, some of which we wish was not a part of our past, but now it is time to take coats off to the future. There has never been a more crucial time to be Great Commission Baptist. We aren’t North Baptists, Eastern Baptists, Western Baptists, or Southern Baptists, but Great Commission Baptists.”
Therefore, while “Southern” does not accurately represent the convention in its present state or future aspirations, “Great Commission Baptists” does describe well, theologically and spiritually, who we aspire to be: a convention of churches who make disciples of all people, whether from the South, the North, or anywhere on the globe. In other words, the churches of our convention are united by a shared heritage of preaching the Christian gospel to anybody who will hear.
Along with the convention’s high view of Scripture and its belief in local church autonomy, adherence to Jesus’s Great Commission is a traditional Baptist distinctive. For centuries, Baptists have been known for international missions and evangelistic outreach. For this reason, Greear recently said, “By every metric, ‘Great Commission’ better captures the spirit of our convention than does ‘Southern.’” As former SBC president Jimmy Draper writes, “We should believe in the Great Commission enough to be willing to remove every possible impediment to evangelistic outreach for those for whom it would be helpful.”
Granted, critics are right that the term “Great Commission” will not be a familiar term for many potential church members. Yet for that same reason, it will be a good conversation starter, a way to begin discussing the Christian gospel. Instead of having to answer questions about the meaning of “Southern,” Baptists can answer questions about our Lord’s parting command to his followers.
What is the Great Commission? Although it is articulated in various ways, our Lord’s commission is for his followers to proclaim the same message to the world that he proclaimed: that even while powerful men were conspiring to kill God’s Son, God himself was acting to save the world from itself, once and for all. Even while the world’s authorities were conspiring to perpetrate history’s greatest evil, God was working to bring about history’s greatest good.
Every week, Baptists gather to worship a Savior who sacrificed himself for the whole world rather than merely one geographic portion of the United States. “Great Commission Baptist” is a fine designator, therefore, that describes who we have been historically, who we strive to be in the present, and who we wish to be in the future.
Bruce Riley Ashford is provost of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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