The Role of Autonomy in the Future of Associations

Closely associated to the issue of ecclesiology is the Baptist distinctive of local church autonomy. With the creation of the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1821 and the Southern Baptist Convention in 1845, the nature of the association changed. State programs and national agendas obligated the association to two functions: continue relating to their local churches and providing a conduit to the churches from the larger entities (Day, 2009). The intent behind the creation of the larger entities was missional and kingdom-focused. When 55 messengers from 22 churches across Texas gathered in 1848 to form the state convention of Texas, they resolved that “the object shall be missionary and educational, the promotion of harmony of feeling and concert of action in our denomination” (Commander, 1977, p. 17). The new convention promptly started fundraising to support the college that would become Baylor University, chartered in 1845 and founded through the efforts of the first Texas association, now known as the Union Baptist Association located in Houston, Texas (Commander, 1977).

The original framers of the convention never intended to design an institutional hierarchy ranging from churches at the bottom to the Executive Committee of the Southern Baptist Convention at the top. Southern Baptists have publically proclaimed that each entity, beginning with the local church, is autonomous. Words such as collaboration, fellowship, and cooperation are used to describe the relationships between churches and Baptist entities, but the idea of formal connectionalism “is widely understood as a violation of local church autonomy, it must be rejected as an acceptable polity for Southern Baptists” (Chapman, 2009, p. 159). However, the question remains: is autonomy a practical reality or a theoretical hope?

“In theory, we make the assumption that the affirmation of autonomy has successfully warded off the emergence of hierarchical structures in Southern Baptist life. In practice, however, we must acknowledge the presence of a hierarchical system as a reality and predicament of current Baptist life and polity.” (Day, 2009, p. 232). As Day goes on to note, Southern Baptists live with a dual reality: churches are autonomous, but there are other channels in place that are only available to state conventions. Associations wholly funded by their member churches represent the peak of autonomy, while associational executives whose positions are funded by the North American Mission Board (NAMB) often find themselves servants to multiple masters.

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