Baptist Polity – As I See It

by James Sullivan

Publisher: Broadman and Holman, 1998, Nashville:

Biographical Sketch
James Lenox Sullivan (1910 – 2004), a graduate of Tylertown (Miss.) High School, Sullivan’s higher education included a bachelor of arts degree from Mississippi College in Clinton; a master of theology degree from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; and a doctor of divinity degrees from Mississippi College and Campbell College in Buies Creek, N.C.
Sullivan served as president of the Sunday School Board from 1953 until his retirement in 1975. Sullivan served one year as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, being elected in 1976. He was widely known as an authority on Southern Baptist polity and had been actively involved in denominational service since his first pastorate in 1932.
He served as pastor of churches in Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Texas; as president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention; and as trustee of numerous Southern Baptist universities, seminaries and hospitals. He also served as vice president of the Baptist World Alliance. (1)

Major Emphasis

Baptist Polity – As I see It, is the recording of a series of lectures that Dr. Sullivan gave at Southern Seminary after his retirement from the Sunday School Board (now LifeWay). His work derives from a lifetime of involvement in the Southern Baptist Convention. It is amazing to consider that Sullivan actually remembered the founding of the Cooperative Program in 1925! Perhaps that is the greatest strength of the book – simply the author’s denominational experience and expertise.
The book begins at the top – with the local church. The author was correct to begin there. To begin his work by explaining that our denomination is a grassroots organization was helpful to anyone who reads this work – whether he is familiar with Southern Baptists or not. Perhaps this was the most significant contribution of the entire book. In fact, Sullivan stressed all throughout the book, that for Baptist, headquarters is not in Nashville, nor is it in the State Convention office; the Baptist headquarter is always the local church.
Another of the book’s strengths was in addressing twelve misunderstandings in Southern Baptist life. Sullivan dispelled the myth that the convention is made up of churches. Instead, he discloses that the convention is actually made up of messengers from churches. Sullivan also explained the difference between a messenger and a delegate, which this student found very helpful. A messenger is free to vote his or her conscience. A delegate leaves a church with instructions on how to vote and what position to take on any given subject. While this student (and former pastor) always knew that I attended the various conventions as a messenger – and not a delegate – I never really knew the difference!
While there can be no debating the fact that the national and state conventions are made up of seated messengers, there was some ambiguity on the part of the author concerning local associations. Yes, the annual associational meetings seat messengers from the local churches, but isn’t the association actually made up of churches? How can new churches be considered for “membership” and how can other churches be “voted out” of the local association when doctrine and practices become unbiblical? Again, the author seemed to say (page 61) that the association is just the same as state and national bodies – strictly made up of messengers and not churches. However, the fact is that the local Baptist Association is made up of churches.
Perhaps the chapter on Baptist theology was also a bit of a weakness. While the author is an undisputed expert on the subject of Baptist polity, this student is not convinced that he is an able spokesman for Baptist theology. Further, the author seemed to suggest that the pastor is just another member of a local church (p.39). No one wants to see autocratic, dictatorial pastors “lording over the flock” but can Baptists not agree that the pastor is the local leader of the church? The New Testament calls him the “shepherd,” not the “under-shepherd” as we often say. While Jesus Christ remains our Great Shepherd, certainly there is some special significance to the God-called and Holy Spirit led position of pastor!
As for the application of this book, every new pastor should be given a copy to help in the understanding of our complex denomination, where cooperation is always voluntary. Laymen would also benefit from this work. Most pew-sitters have no idea what the Cooperative Program is all about, nor do they realize that the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention steer the denomination, and not vice-versa.
Concerning the implication this work has on denominational issues; perhaps it could serve to keep Southern Baptists on the right track. Sullivan underscored the three words from our original charter in 1845: elicit, combine, and direct. These three words, Sullivan pointed out, are the purpose statement for the Southern Baptist Convention.
“Eliciting” does away with the soliciting that became a nuisance under the old society system. Today, our denomination makes needs known, sets goals, and seeks to passionately and properly motivate cooperating churches to meet those needs by giving a percentage of their undesignated funds through the Cooperative Program. Giving is always voluntary through this system.
“Combining” reminds Southern Baptists that together we can do more than any one could alone. The Convention takes those funds and applies them to our worthy causes with “adequacy, consistency, and equity” (p.117). Unlike the old societal system, dollars are not collected for individual causes.
“Directing” addresses how the convention disperses those funds. For the Cooperative Program to work at maximum efficiency, all the funds go into a common account and the denomination votes on how the money is to be divided. These three words remind us why we partner together.
Sullivan’s book reminds Baptists how difficult it would be to attempt to carry out the great commission without some type of global structure. The genius of the Southern Baptist Convention is found in the Cooperative Program which permits even the smallest churches to send missionaries to their Jerusalem (through the local association), Samaria (through the North American Mission Board), and to the uttermost parts of the world (through the International Mission Board). Through our voluntary partnerships we continually see this work carried out.
(1) Baptist Press. Posted on Dec 28, 2004 | by Staff

Marcus Merritt
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