The Baptists Formerly Known as Southern

By Jeffrey Weiss

So now some Southern Baptists want to be known as "Great Commission" Baptists?

Christians, do you have any idea how confusing you are to those of us on the far side of an altar call?

For those of you who missed the news: Some Southern Baptists have long been uncomfortable with the name of the denomination, tied as it is to a region and a racist past. A few days ago, the Southern Baptist Commission's executive committee voted to retain the old name but offer an informal alternative.

The Great Commission is what many Christians call the admonition from the resurrected Jesus in the New Testament: "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you."

This passage is, of course, in every New Testament. Not just the ones that belong to Southern Baptists. Hence my confusion.

In my youth, before I learned a bit about other religions, I used to look at church names and wonder. Here was a "Church of Christ." There was a "Bible Church." Over there was a "Church of Jesus Christ."

I used to think to myself, "Aren't they all bible churches of Jesus Christ? Isn't that was Christianity is about?" And what in the world was a Methodist or a Presbyterian?

My faith tradition, Judaism, has its own fissures. But they fall along relatively clear lines: Orthodox, Conservative, Reform. (We shall ignore the Reconstructionist and Secular. They represent few people and, frankly, most Jews couldn't explain them.)

The divisions form a clear spectrum based on how literally their leaders take the Torah and Talmud.

Orthodox doctrine says that God truly disapproves of a Jew eating a cheeseburger or riding in a car on the Sabbath.

Reform theology says that God intends humans to make their own specific decisions based on their best reading of the sacred texts. And that cheeseburgers or Sabbath driving aren't dealbreakers to the Almighty.

Conservatives are in the middle. Likely to take some more literal interpretations than Reform, but to approve more flexibility than the Orthodox.

(And yes, of course there is more to it than that. But even to outsiders, these are clear markers of who is who.)

Generally, in spite of some pretty sharp disagreements, most Jews agree that most others who claim to be Jews are entitled to the claim -- even if they belong to another branch. Jewish tradition says, in fact, that anybody whose mother is Jewish and does not profess the tenets of another faith (like, say, Jesus was the Jewish messiah) are Jews. No matter what else they believe about God and Judaism. (Reform Jews accept so-called patrilineal lineage that children of a Jewish father are Jewish, which represents one of the biggest fractures in Jewish history and sits clearly to the far left in the broad spectrum of Jewish thought.)

And when a synagogue calls itself Beth Torah or Beth David -- literally "House of the Torah" and "House of David," there's no implication of an ownership of the franchise, so to speak.

Contrast that to Christianity. There's no obvious spectrum that I can use to figure out who goes where. Take it back to the first major split in Christianity. What exactly does "filioque" say about how one understands God's will and how humans should respond to it? (And yes, I know there are long books and treatises trying to explain exactly that. Which are clear as mud from the outside.)

As I learned more about Christianity, at least some of the denominational names started to make sense. Presbyterians, for instance, have an organization that consists of presbyteries led by elders (presbýteros in the Greek). Methodism is the "Yankee Doodle" of denominational names, taking what was originally intended as a diss of the British founders' method of worship and turning it into a point of pride. And so on.

But then there's the Catholic Church. When I eventually learned that "Catholic" means "universal," that was a head-scratcher. Even from my seat in the theological bleachers, I could see that there was nothing universal about Christian acceptance of Catholic doctrine and dogma.

It seemed to me that the Catholic Church -- and the various churches of "Bible" and "Jesus" and so on -- were using their very names to make exclusivist claims about their theology that implied that others weren't correct.

Which brings us to the Southern Baptists. That was a name that actually made some sense to me. Baptists obviously place a high importance on the ritual dunk -- and by extension, the process of seeking converts to dunk. And Southern is a clear nod to where the vast majority of Southern Baptists reside.

The denomination splintered from the American Baptist tradition in 1845, led by Baptists who wanted to defend slavery. Took the SBC about a century to publicly repent of that particular bit of theological pretzel-twisting.

Nowadays, Southern Baptists want to extend their brand outside the south. And some members say the old name is a marketing problem. Some leaders have been trying to find a new name for a decade or more. While many, many Southern Baptists feel a powerful emotional connection to the old brand.

The decision by the denomination's executive council is an attempt to have it both ways. Retain the legal name, but offer an informal alternative to churches.

But that alternative "Great Commission," strikes me as something like "Catholic." At least an implication that other churches aren't. After all, there may be considerable disagreement about the importance of, say, baptism as a ritual. But there are no churches that don't include Matthew 28:19-20 in their bibles. Are those other churches not "Great Commission" congregations?

And then there's the reason for the new name. It's all about the sales pitch. As one SBC leader put it: "We are concerned about the negative perception that the word 'Southern' may carry in certain geographic areas of North America."

But the new name includes no compromise on theology. Whatever you call them, the denomination's leaders are implacably opposed, for instance, to gay marriage, the right to an abortion and the placing of women in certain leadership roles.

For many Americans, their objection to that kind of church has nothing to do with the packaging.

Jeffrey Weiss is a RealClearReligion columnist from Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @JeffreyWeissRCR.

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