The Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) sent letters out to 24 churches informing them that they may be excluded from membership because of their affiliation with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF). The MBC recently made changes to their membership requirements which in effect dictates to local churches whom they may choose as ministry partners. The MBC has determined that its members “cannot include another convention or denomination in their budget, financially support another such body’s work, or vote to send messengers to another denomination or convention’s meetings” (Missouri Baptist paper, Word & Way). In short, churches must support exclusively the work of the Missouri Baptist Convention and Southern Baptist Convention.

Apparently, the MBC went to the CBF-MO website and took down a list of these heretical churches to warn them that they were in trouble. Many of these churches are “dually aligned” meaning they offer financial support to both the SBC and CBF. This arrangement is an effort to maintain civility among members who want the freedom to choose where their money goes. Oftentimes the SBC/CBF issue can be a test of fellowship and create difficulties, yet some churches sort out the differences and move on in a spirit of togetherness. This kind of understanding doesn’t work for the state convention folks, however, who will be voting on the status of these 24 churches in their annual meeting later this month.

I’ve been thinking about this development for a while, and have come to a few conclusions. First, and surprisingly, the state convention has a right to determine its own membership requirements. You hear a lot about “local church autonomy” and how associations and conventions violate that autonomy by kicking out churches. A benchmark distinctive among Baptists is local church autonomy, meaning “nobody can tell us what to do” when it comes to deciding the affairs of a local congregation. Even SBC resolutions are non-binding on local congregations. They can’t be enforced on the local church level (yet).

On the other hand, the association and convention have autonomous existences as well. They are free to determine who and who can’t be in the group. So, the MBC is within its Baptist framework by firing warning shots across the bow of these wandering CBF congregations. If these churches don’t change their ways and rescind their CBF ties, they will be kicked out of the state convention. Only those churches who are directly and exclusively tied to the state convention and SBC are included in the fellowship. Those who go their own way will be showed the door.

Second, the MBC did these churches a favor. What some of these pastors were unable to do for various reasons, the state convention did in a single blow. Keep in mind that it wasn’t these local churches withdrawing fellowship from the state convention. The convention told these 24 congregations that they needed to change their ways and be faithful to the convention. Nevermind that these churches had been faithful in their financial support (at some level) of the ministries of the MBC. These churches had been members of the MBC longer than the CBF, and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars toward its ministries. Now, their presence is no longer desired. So, these churches are pretty much required to decide whether membership in the MBC is more important than their autonomy as a local church. The MBC will lose money over this decision, and churches will be liberated from their emotional ties to support other mission causes that more closely reflect their personality and distinctives.

Third, state conventions are losing their relevance and importance. I’m beginning to wonder whether they are going the way of the dinosaur. Conventions don’t have a grip on churches as in years past, and can’t intimidate them. The MBC is pushing these churches into the arms of other ministry partners. The CBF is the target here, nothing is said about Habitat for Humanity, Greenpeace, Willow Creek Association, or any other parachurch organization that could sipher money away from the convention. There is no way a church ought to allow a convention to tell it who it can and cannot support. It is beyond my comprehension why folks on the state level would try to tell a church how they can spend their money and what conventions their members can attend. This is absurd, and another example of paranoid fundamentalists trying to condemn what they cannot control. Baptists have resisted hierarchical approaches to leadership, remembering that the local church tells the associations and conventions what to do and not vice versa. I will be curious to see how these 24 churches respond. I hope they all move on with work, without the MBC. The churches didn’t do anything wrong and will be better off without a convention that doesn’t want to fellowship with them anyway.

Incidentally, all this focus on the CBF threat makes wonder if the SBC really fears the movement. After all, the Fellowship doesn’t have the financial resources, possess the buildings, or own the seminaries the SBC does. This action by the MBC would be like hitting a gnat with a sledgehammer. I’m interpreting this action on a larger scale, and admit there may be some state issues I don’t know about. Even so, it is affirming of the Fellowship’s future.

Finally, it’s time to move on to building the Kingdom (of God, that is). It’s not the CBF churches who are picking a fight. Even if other state conventions follow Missouri’s example, dually aligned churches need not panic. They aren’t the ones losing anything, it’s the convention. It’s about time churches stopped supporting financially what they don’t support philosophically and theologically. The local church is the outpost for the Lord’s work. God’s people have the freedom to decide who to work with to get it done. There is enough of the Lord’s work to go around for all of us. God is still at work in the world, and time is running out for Christians to make a difference. Remaining aligned with the state convention may be important for some churches, but it’s not nearly as important as being aligned with Jesus Christ.