By Adelle M. Banks
NEW ORLEANS (RNS) Members of the Southern Baptist Convention narrowly accepted the alternate unofficial descriptor of “Great Commission Baptists” as the denomination attempts to make inroads beyond its base in the Bible Belt.
Delegates meeting here heatedly debated whether to affirm a recommendation from church leaders that congregations and other Southern Baptist organizations voluntarily could use the “Great Commission” moniker, which is based on Jesus’ command that his followers spread his message worldwide.
On the second day of their two-day meeting, officials announced Wednesday (June 20) that the unofficial name was approved with 53 percent in favor and 46 percent against.
The debate on Tuesday immediately followed the election of the Rev. Fred Luter as the denomination’s first African-American president.
Supporters of the change said the option might help those who are put off by the word “Southern” in the name because the denomination has moved beyond the South or because of its link to a Civil War-era defense of slavery.
“It would have been terrible if we elect Fred with enthusiasm and then reject one of the biggest needs that African-Americans expressed to us,” said Jimmy Draper, chairman of the task force that studied a possible name change. “It would have been inconsistent.”
Luter, at a press conference following his election, said he was “amazed” there had been so much debate over the name, and pointed to it as an example of how Southern Baptists can get sidetracked by divisions instead of what they have in common.
“I love it,” the New Orleans pastor said of the option of “Great Commission Baptists.” “I think it’s a win-win situation.”
Southern Baptist researchers recently found that more than 70 percent of Southern Baptist pastors think the official name should continue, and more than half had no plans to use “Great Commission Baptists.”
Tom Law, executive director of the Baptist Convention of Iowa, said pastors from his state’s 100 Southern Baptist churches had a mix of views about the alternate name. Some considered the regional nature of “Southern” to be an “inhibitor of conversation.” Others appreciate the traditional name, he said, because “it made us feel like we’re part of a larger body.”
But opponents called the additional descriptor “divisive,” and complained that those who wanted another name were not focusing enough on evangelism at a time when membership has declined five years in a row.
The Rev. Wiley Drake, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Buena Park, Calif., was disappointed in the close vote.
“That’s a tragedy,” he said. “That means that Southern Baptists are split and we’re split over who we are, what we are, and they’re trying to blame everything on the name.”
On Wednesday, Southern Baptists passed a resolution opposing the framing of same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue.
“We deny that the effort to legalize ‘same-sex marriage’ qualifies as a civil rights issue since homosexuality does not qualify as a class meriting special protections, like race and gender,” the resolution reads.
The resolution notes that Baptists oppose gay bashing, but affirm that pastors “should preach the truth of God’s word on human sexuality, marriage, purity, and love with all boldness and without fear of reprisal.”
Baptists also called on President Obama to withdraw his administration’s proposal that would require religious organizations to provide contraceptives to employees. The resolution on “protecting religious liberty” also supported the rights of chaplains after the administration lifted the ban on openly gay military members, and urged the Justice Department to drop its opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act.