Brothers fight. That reality is as old as the biblical witness and as new as today’s sunrise.
Cain murdered Abel. Ishmael and Isaac were separated only to become forefathers of endless combatants—Arabs and Jews. Jacob tricked, fled and feared Esau. Joseph and his older brothers tangled, with the former being sold into slavery. The Prodigal Son and his older brother had issues.
Despite their differences, the Southern Baptist Convention and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship are brothers–culturally, spiritually, theologically and educationally.
They are psychological brothers, who sometimes play the pretend game of not paying attention to the other, all the while watching each other intently.
They are also bean-counting brothers, obsessed with numbers. Both tacitly presume numbers are evidence of God’s blessing. Big numbers are touted as a sign of faithfulness, while negative numbers are obscured.
This obsession goes back to the moderate-fundamentalist conflict of the 1980s, when presidential candidates bragged about their numbers. Moderates gave more money to missions. Fundamentalists baptized more.
The latest numerical conflict between these brothers erupted two weeks ago, over how CBF counts church membership.
Baptist Press carried a story accusing CBF of inflating membership numbers and violating local-church autonomy by allowing CBF to define what churches belong to CBF instead of the local church.
“If a church sends us a dollar we count that church and its members as part of our membership,” the CBF public-relations director told EthicsDaily.com.
CBF defended its methodology with a bylaw defining members as “Baptist churches and the members thereof and individual Baptists who contribute annually to the ministries and operations of the Fellowship.”
By that standard and the most recent data, CBF has 1,954 churches, with a combined membership of more than 700,000.
After EthicsDaily.com posted a news story about this spat, Mickey Robertson, pastor of Warsaw Baptist Church in Virginia, responded to defend CBF.
After asking the SBC to remove Warsaw Baptist from its mailing list, Robertson said he was told if the SBC received “any money from any members of our church,” the church is counted as an SBC church.
Robertson’s church did send a check to the SBC, designated by a church member for the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering. And while Warsaw Baptist has officially decided to leave the SBC, it still belongs to the Baptist General Association of Virginia and provides BGAV with its annual church records.
BGAV staff member Glenn Akins told EthicsDaily.com the state convention provides an Annual Church Profile to the SBC for all churches except those that do not respond or refuse to provide information.
He said the BGAV counts churches that affiliate with the breakaway Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, but still send funds to BGAV, as supporting churches.
“We do have churches that have multiple affiliations, and we count all those who partner with us,” he said.
The Baptist General Convention of Texas said 270 churches are dually aligned with the BGCT and Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, a splinter group. Those churches were included in Annual Church Profile provided to LifeWay Christian Resources, said Clay Price of the BGCT research-and-development office.
Price said if a church gave to CBF through the state convention, it would be included in the annual profile provided to LifeWay, “but nothing is included that would indicate to LifeWay that the church is related to or has given to CBF.”
“I believe we have seven churches that are part of the BGCT but not the SBC,” Price said. “The statistics on these churches are not shared with LifeWay.”
EthicsDaily.com also contacted three churches in metropolitan Louisville, Ky., that have formally withdrawn from the SBC.
Chris Caldwell, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church, said his church no longer belongs to the SBC but does belong to the Kentucky Baptist Convention.
“There was no tandem joining of CBF when we split from the SBC,” Caldwell said. “We already felt we were a CBF church prior to leaving the SBC.”
Joe Phelps, pastor of Highland Baptist Church, offered a similar reply. The church left the SBC without officially aligning with CBF. Yet the church retains its membership in KBC and supplies KBC with annual church records.
A Kentucky Baptist Convention official told EthicsDaily.com he knew of four churches that had contacted KBC asking their data not be forwarded to the SBC. One was Highland.
He said KBC does not collect or distribute funds from churches to CBF and he did not know what churches supported CBF.
What may we conclude from the way Baptists count churches?
First, the traditional convention context makes counting confusing. The monolithic mindset of Southern Baptists does not account for the emerging dual-alignment mindset.
Second, SBC claims churches that no longer claim the SBC. The SBC does precisely what it accuses CBF of wrongfully doing.
Third, organizations sometimes double count membership, inflating the real number of Baptists.
Fourth, some Baptist churches respect the wishes of individual members, even if the majority of members have other loyalties. That’s a commendable quality and tangible evidence that the priesthood of all believers still functions in churches.
Fifth, Baptist entities are in a counting bind. How do they respect local church autonomy and at the same time gather information that’s important to decision making related to trends, health, church planting and other matters?
A productive way forward for all Baptists is to respect local church autonomy. Let local churches declare how they want to be identified and respect that decision, even if a few dollars flow one way or another. Neither money nor denominational office is the master. The local church is headquarters in Baptist polity.
Local churches should decide openly and communicate clearly about how they want to be identified–single alignment, dual alignment or multiple alignments.
If a church wants off of a mailing list, then take it off. If a church objects to being identified with a national body, the national body ought to respect that decision.
The SBC and CBF have substantive and genuine disagreements. They deserve more attention that a secondary cat fight over church membership.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics.
Robert M. Parham (1953 – 2017) was the founder and executive director of Baptist Center for Ethics from 1991 to 2017. He served as executive editor of EthicsDaily.com, BCE’s website, from its launch in 2002 until 2017.