Southwestern Seminary’s Assault on Autonomy

Article IV. Authority: While independent and sovereign in its own sphere, the Convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention. (Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention)

I suppose it depends on what your definitions of “never,” “attempt,” “exercise,” and “authority” are.  It seems the latest assault on local autonomy comes courtesy of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, a wholly owned entity of the Southern Baptist Convention.

According to published reports in Associated Baptist Press (here and here — you will look in vain to find “reporting” on this issue from Baptist Press), the Tarrant Baptist Association received a letter from Southwestern Seminary informing the Association (the association in SWBTS’s backyard) that it

was in violation of its 1997 affiliation agreement, and it directed the association to vacate its property on James Avenue within six months. It also stated title on the property should revert back to the seminary.

Apparently, the original 99-year lease agreement was renegotiated in 1997 and ownership of the property in question was deeded to the Tarrant Baptist Association.  As is common with gifts of property to be used for religious purposes, a reversionary clause was inserted into the deed.  These clauses stipulate the circumstances whereby the property would “revert” (i.e., be given back) to the original owner (in this case, Southwestern).

A typical circumstance triggering a reversionary clause might be when property donated for use as a church ceases to be used as such.  For example, if Church A decided to disband and wanted to sell the property for use as a nightclub, then a reversionary clause would kick in.

In the case of Tarrant Association’s ownership and use of the property in question, it appears (I do not have access to the original letter sent by Southwestern to the Association) that the seminary is invoking the reversionary clause and demanding that TBA vacate the premises within six months.

According to a letter sent by Tarrant’s Moderator-elect Al Meredith to pastors of churches in the Association, the seminary (who exactly?  Paige Patterson, attorneys for the seminary or someone else) indicated three areas of concern regarding the TBA’s non-compliance with an “affiliation agreement” that the association has with SWBTS:

1. The Baptist Faith and Message of 2000 has taken a clear stand against homosexual sin. They contend that Tarrant Baptist Association has member church(s) who don’t stand in compliance with this statement. They feel this places them in a contradictory situation.
2. They contend that in past years they have asked for and not received any assistance from the TBA office in helping their professors and students gain access to empty pulpits in the Association.
3. They need the additional space for offices and/or a Welcome Center.

Prior to the December 12, 2010 letter, were these concerns ever expressed to the leadership within the TBA?  If not, why not?  Did Southwestern give Tarrant the opportunity to rectify these concerns before threatening to invoke the reversionary clause?  If not, why not?  There are multiple legal issues involved in this case.  As I have neither read the deeds of conveyance and other pertinent legal documents nor have I read any of the letters that were sent by the seminary to the Tarrant Baptist Association, I will reserve comment on the legal aspects of this case.

However, let me offer an opinion as to another issue which is at play, one that is not really about law, but about ecclesiology.  What has been couched in legal terms appears to be nothing more than an attempt to exercise raw control and authority over an autonomous association of Baptist churches.  And this, in direct violation of the Constitution of the Southern Baptist Convention. 

How else to explain the use of the “nuclear option” of reversion?  Were there no other alternatives but to invoke the reversionary clause?  The reasons given for reversion, particularly 2 and 3 above, are simply ludicrous.  For one of our Southern Baptist seminaries to demand that a local association of Baptist churches — many of whom are cooperating Southern Baptist churches — to give back property to the seminary based on the seminary’s “need for additional space” or the supposed lack of assistance in placement are laughable.

Reason #1 — the issue of homosexuality — is a red herring.  Southern Baptists who believe in autonomy — the local church, the local association, and the state convention — should not be fooled.  Cooperating Southern Baptists, who still believe in autonomy, must not allow any Southern Baptist entity to use any issue to “exercise control over any other Baptist body,” in violation of the SBC’s Constitution.

Before proceeding, let me say that I believe that the SBC has every right to disfellowship churches who endorse or support homosexuality.  I have voted in convention meetings to affirm recommendations that churches be barred from seating messengers.  I believe that state conventions and local associations likewise have every right to disfellowship churches who endorse or support homosexuality.  If that were an issue in my local association or state convention, I would likely vote to disfellowship such churches.    However, I do not believe that Tarrant Baptist Association’s inclusion of member churches that endorse or support homosexuality (i.e., Broadway Baptist Church in Ft. Worth) is what is truly driving this issue, despite what has been proffered by the seminary as one of the reasons for reversion. 

I believe that homosexuality, in this case, is being used as the pretext for exerting control over the Tarrant Baptist Association (400 Baptist/Southern Baptist churches in the Ft. Worth area.  The TBA is larger than the entire Baptist Convention of New Mexico).  Here’s how.  If Tarrant does not disfellowship churches (at this point, apparently only Broadway, which equals .25% of the churches in the Association) who support homosexuality, then Tarrant is in danger of losing property that had previously been given to the Association. 

Understand the ramifications of this.  The SBC has already disfellowshipped Broadway Baptist Church over the issue of homosexuality (I voted in favor of the motion to disfellowship).  Now, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention does not like the fact that an autonomous association has dared to allow Broadway to remain as a member in good standing.

Because of one church’s actions — out of 400 — the entire Tarrant Baptist Association is now somehow suspect and no longer in “theological harmony” with Southwestern Seminary.  That does not make any sense.  This is not about “theological harmony.”  This is not even about homosexuality.  This is about power, control, authority, and an assault on autonomy.

Remember, the slippery slope always starts somewhere.  What issue will be next?  Will it be churches who have women pastors?  Been there, done that.  What about divorced deacons?  How about views on the end times?  What about associations who have member churches who are members of organizations that the SBC does not like?  If those churches do not stop their suspect affiliations and if the local association (or state conventions –think BGAV and BGCT) allow them to remain as a member in good standing, will the SBC move to disfellowship entire associations or state conventions?

These are all relevant and timely questions.  As it is, many of the elites running the SBC and her entities have little or no regard (much less understanding) for local associations or state conventions.  These “leaders” see the SBC as a “top-down” denomination instead of a grassroots convention of autonomous, cooperating churches.

If this power grab is allowed to stand, then we will have moved one step closer to the end of autonomy as we know it.  And, the beginning of the end of the SBC as we know it.  You might not think that the property rights of the Tarrant Baptist Association are worth defending.  But, just remember.  It could be your local association tomorrow!

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About Howell Scott

I have been a Southern Baptist pastor for the last fourteen years. Before entering the ministry, I was a practicing attorney in my homestate of Florida. I have been married to my wife, Brenda, for 18 years and we have three sons, Stephen, Jacob, and Andrew.
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10 Responses to Southwestern Seminary’s Assault on Autonomy

  1. Pingback: Southwestern Seminary's Assault on Autonomy | From Law to Grace | Church Ministry News

  2. tiquatue says:

    I keep seeing these signs that the SBC is becoming as bad as the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist brigades, and this is another one: secondary separation. Not only do you separate from an errant brother, you separate from those who aren’t separated from the errant brother.

    • Howell Scott says:

      Tikatu,

      I completely agree with your comment. That is why I titled my post the way that I did. Some have disagreed with my labeling what Southwestern did as an assault on autonomy, but I’m not sure what else to call it. I think that this is where some of the powers-that-be in the SBC would like to take the convention as a whole, but at this point, they do not have control of the state conventions (at least all of them). If SWBTS was so concerned about Tarrant’s relationship with Broadway, then they had ample opportunity to express that before trying to take back the property that they had given to the association. If SWBTS wants to be consistent, then they need to break all ties with the TBA, including not taking any funds from member churches or individual members of those churches or to allow any SWBTS students, faculty or staff to be involved at all in any of these churches. Somehow, I don’t see Southwestern making this move. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. God bless,

      Howell

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  7. Derek Carter says:

    Howell,
    I appreciate your thoughts on this whole mess. I know that everyone I know involved with TBA, despite their theological persuasion, wants to see the situation resolved respectfully, preserve the longstanding relationship between the two entities and, more importantly, uphold whatever positive witness we still have as baptists in Tarrant County. One missing detail from your analysis, however, that you would certainly not have heard on the floor of the 2009 SBC, is that Broadway BC has never actually affirmed, supported, approved of, endorsed (or whatever else) homosexuality as Biblically permissible. Their mortal sin, as it were, was not to make a strong, condemnatory, public statement regarding homosexuality when the SBC elites demanded it (which they have no right to demand). It was for this reason that TBA refused action akin to the SBC’s regarding Broadway. We felt this was a matter of autonomy, and stood to protect their freedom to deal with controversy within the family. For what it’s worth, I believe that Broadway BC actually did assure the SBC that they were in compliance with the SBC on this issue, which of course, did not matter. Were they to ever to publicly affirm homosexuality, my impression is that the TBA would also take measures to either encourage them to reconsider their position or disfellowship.
    Derek

    • Howell Scott says:

      Derek,

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts and information regarding the SWBTS and TBA situation. I’ve been out of pocket for a few days, so sorry for the delay in responding. As I have studied the politics of the SBC in the last 1 1/2, I have come to the conclusion that not everything that is stated publicly is always as it seems. Therefore, your contention that Broadway actually assured the SBC that they were in compliance with the SBC on the homosexuality issue and that it “did not matter” does not surprise me in the least. When you have an organization that calls for transparency, but then practices the opposite of transparency, all manner of things can happen. I appreciate you clarifying the situation. I have not heard any update on the mediation/litigation. I would love to do a follow-up story regarding the outcome of what you rightly describe as a “mess.” Thanks again for reading and commenting. God bless,

      Howell

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