The Southern Baptists Convention may be very vocal and public, but they do not represent the only face of Baptism in America - indeed, the history of Baptism is much more liberal and tolerant than you might imagine. Key to understanding that is understanding how the Southern Baptist Convention first developed.
Baptist churches are characterized in part by the independence of local churches and the first national Baptist organization wasnt created until 1814. Already in 1845, though, the group was split - over slavery. The Southern Baptist Convention was established in Augusta, Georgia, in order to preserve a religious foundation for human slavery.
Today the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest organization of Baptist churches in the world and the largest Protestant denomination in America. Even though it originated in the South, today its reach has grown to include all 50 states and beyond in part, some have argued, because of the regular movement of military families out of the South and through the rest of the country.
The reason why it is called a Convention is that it is not a religious body in the traditional sense; instead, it is more of a congregational body when it comes to both practice and belief. It is not so much a united community with a hierarchical leadership as it is a loose affiliation of Baptist churches that share common attitudes, beliefs, and interests. At least, thats the way it is supposed to be.
Southern Baptist churches are characterized by a very conservative evangelical theology, an emphasis on missionary work (both abroad and at home), family values, and staunch support for conservative political agendas.
Churches can join or leave the Southern Baptist Convention voluntarily they arent beholden to the Convention for funds, although they are expected to contribute a share of funding for the national organization. Technically the Southern Baptist Convention is not supposed to exert any doctrinal authority over individual churches, but that has been changing in recent years.
As a matter of fact, this shift in attitude may represent one of the most serious and dramatic changes in Baptist theology in history. Paul D. Simmons, a clinical professor of medical ethics and an ordained Baptist minister, describes the difference between traditional Baptist views and the fundamentalist Southern Baptist Convention thus:
- Moderate Baptists see authority in terms of the roles of persuasion and leadership, not dictatorship. Fundamentalists want a Pope in every pulpit and then a Pope among the lesser Popes which also pertains to your question pertaining to their emphasis on dogma instead of individual interpretation. Women in ministry appeals to the notion of personal calling which in turn is based on the notion of direct relation to God as spirit and lord of the conscience.
- The Fundamentalists insist now on an authoritative set of beliefs that are to be held by all the faithful and accountability is to be made to those in positions of authority, namely, seminary Presidents like Mohler and the convention President and other elected and appointed officials. That strategy is totally non-Baptist but is consistent with the Evangelical/Fundamentalist tradition that now dominates the SBC.
The Southern Baptist Convention has in fact been afflicted with deep division between moderates and conservatives. The issues which divide them include questions about the role of women in marriage, whether women can be ordained, biblical inerrancy, and creationism. Technically the Southern Baptist leadership is not supposed to be able to dictate matters of belief or practice to individual churches but in recent years they seem to be trying to do just that, a situation which moderates are finding increasingly intolerable.
A great many churches have formally left the Southern Baptist Convention, becoming completely independent or joining other Baptist organizations. There are also several million non-resident members of the Convention. These are Southern Baptists who joined a Southern Baptist church and then moved away, never to be heard from again. Had they joined a new Southern Baptist church, their whereabouts would be recorded. Finally, there are also many churches that have been expelled from the Convention because they have failed to uphold standards on matters such as homosexuality.
Southern Baptists in Texas has been especially rebellious. In July 2000, the Baptist General Convention of Texas stated that it would discuss the possibility of breaking completely from the Southern Baptist Convention. In September 2000, a Texas Baptist committee voted unanimously to redirect more than $5.3 million away from six Southern Baptist seminaries and to three Texas schools.