What’s in a Name? Thoughts on the Southern Baptist Convention

For those who might not have heard, there was big news last night out of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee meeting. SBC President Bryant Wright announced the formation of a task force to consider changing the name of the Convention. You can read the Baptist Press news story here, and I highly recommend reading the commentary by Albert Mohler (who will serve on this task force) about the complexity of this decision here.

I haven’t got nearly as much to say about this as Mohler and the many others who have weighed in, but I do have a few observations from a layperson’s perspective that might be helpful for Southern Baptists (and others) who don’t follow the ins & outs of the convention that much.

First of all, while I don’t love everything the SBC does, I do love the idea of the cooperative program, in which like-minded churches partner together to multiply the reach of the corporate body far beyond what individual Christians or congregations could do on their own. All Southern Baptists contribute to church planting and other evangelistic efforts around the world through the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board. Organizations such as Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and the World Hunger Fund meet the physical and spiritual needs of countless numbers of hurting people… and they do it far more efficiently than corresponding government groups!

For these and many other reasons, the convention is a good thing. Thankfully, this discussion is not talking about changing what we do, why we do it, or even how we do it. The task force is simply (though there is nothing “simple” about it) investigating whether or not the name of the organization is itself a hindrance to the Kingdom work that the SBC is doing.

Here in the Southern United States, this doesn’t seem like a big issue, but the SBC has a truly global mission. As Mohler wrote, “that region gave birth to the Southern Baptist Convention, but it no longer contains it.” Missionaries and church planters in other parts of the country and the world have found that the label “Southern” makes it a challenge to share the gospel in a non-Southern context. If the task force finds that it is indeed a barrier to gospel proclamation, then I favor a name change.

At the same time, I realize that names are a big deal. There is a lot of history and sentiment wrapped up in the name of our convention, and I’m glad that no one wants to haphazardly discount those considerations in favor of a quick change. Whatever the eventual outcome of the ongoing conversation, I think the SBC (by whatever name we will know it) will be better for it.

Perhaps it’s only because my wife and I attended the Nashville Shakespeare Festival’s production of Romeo & Juliet on Saturday, but I can’t help but be reminded of Juliet’s words from Act II, Scene ii:

O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

‘Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for that name which is no part of thee
Take all myself.

Conveniently ignoring for the moment the fact that Romeo’s initial response is that he would “be new baptized” (in order to receive a new name), let’s think about this for a moment. What is in a name? Would the Southern Baptist Convention by any other name smell as sweet? Would a different name change who and what we are?

I would like to think the answer is no. But, of course, the message of Romeo & Juliet is that those star-crossed lovers could NOT distance themselves from their names. The names we attach to things are important, and contain within themselves history, meaning, and a message. In many ways, the name “Southern Baptist Convention” contains within itself a particular history, meaning, and message, which, for better or worse, conveys much of the content of our faith. Is that really something we want to give up? Do we have a choice?

These are interesting questions to consider, and I look forward to following along with the debate. For now, I answer with Romeo:

By a name I know not how to tell thee who I am.” But I know whom I have believed, and will happily continue to partner with others to share the good news about Him with people from every tribe and language and people and nation… even those outside of the South!

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