Morris Chapman and the Great Commission Resurgence

Morris H. Chapman is president and chief executive officer of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee. Last week he published an article through Baptist Press entitled, “This One Thing I Do (Philippians 3:12-14).” In it he provides a critique of the Great Commission Resurgence (GCR) document and offers reasons for his unwillingness to sign it. I have previously explained why I did sign it and also addressed why I find the call for a GCR particularly urgent at this time. After reading Dr. Chapman’s article I find that not only am I unconvinced by his arguments, my resolve to support Johnny Hunt, Danny Akin and others in calling for a GCR is strengthened. Indeed, Chapman’s article actually highlights the need all the more.

I hope to explain my meaning by interacting with Dr. Chapman’s arguments. Before doing so, however, I want to commend him for his willingness to speak openly and forthrightly about his concerns with the GCR document. This kind of open and honest dialogue about ideas is exactly what the Southern Baptist Convention needs. As Chapman has demonstrated, it can be done without stooping to personal attacks or assuming the worst about those with whom we disagree. I hope to follow his example by being pointed without being personal. I am concerned with his ideas and arguments, not with his motivation, intentions or integrity. I have no reason to doubt that his desire is to see Christ honored among the people known as Southern Baptists.

Dr. Chapman’s main complaint about the GCR document is Article IX, which is entitled, “A Commitment to a More Effective Convention Structure” and states,

We call upon all Southern Baptists, through our valued partnerships of SBC agencies, state conventions/institutions, and Baptist associations to evaluate our Convention structures and priorities so that we can maximize our energy and resources for the health of our local churches and the fulfillment of the Great Commission. This commitment recognizes the great strength of our partnership, which has been enabled by the Cooperative Program and enhanced by a belief that we can do more together than we can separately.

Chapman rightly points out that the explanatory language following this article has been softened as a result of concerns raised. What he finds particularly bothersome is the original language that said,

… our denominational structures have become bloated and bureaucratic at every level, from local associations to state conventions to the SBC itself. We believe our ministry effectiveness is being strangled by overlap and duplication, poor stewardship, and a disproportionate amount of Cooperative Program dollars being kept by the state conventions.

Though this statement no longer appears in the published explanation, Chapman fears that it reflects “an obvious, predetermined bias toward restructuring” of SBC entities. Furthermore, he believes that the Program and Structure Study Committee which completed its work in 1997 and issued the “Covenant for a New Century” (which the convention adopted and whose ministry statements are now part of the Organization Manual of the Southern Baptist Convention) has adequately met the concerns raised by Article IX.

On this point, I simply disagree with Dr. Chapman. Far from seeing the work of that earlier committee as being adequate for our present challenges, I believe that the structures of the SBC need to be carefully reexamined–and soon–to see how Southern Baptists can get more Great Commission bang for our buck. In my estimation, everything ought to be open to scrutiny. No entity or agency should be exempt.

His arguments against even considering possible restructuring almost sound protectionistic, but I am confident that they are not because, as Johnny Hunt mentioned a few weeks ago, Dr. Chapman himself called for a “major overhaul” of the convention in 2004. In an address at the Baptist Identity Conference at Union University, Dr. Chapman said this:

The Southern Baptist Convention needs fine tuning. In fact, the Convention may require an overhaul, not in its polity, but in its programming and processes by which it functions daily. A major overhaul by the national Convention and the state conventions appears to be an absolute necessity, letting the facts speak for themselves lest the conventions discover too late they were blind and deaf to a delivery system that better serves the churches (emphasis added).

This language is much stronger than anything in Article IX of the GCR. Furthermore, this recognition of the need for further structural change beyond the “Covenant for a New Century” was acknowledged again by Dr. Chapman on his blog post from September 25, 2006, when he wrote,

One primary question remains to date, “Should other changes be made within the SBC infrastructure for the purpose of enhancing our Southern Baptist witness in North America and beyond.” A similar question is, “Can the operations of SBC entities become leaner, more focused, and more effective? To both questions, the answer is, “Yes.” (emphasis added)

Article IX is doing nothing other than what Dr. Chapman himself has said ought to be done and in fact called on Southern Baptists to do. His objections to it, therefore, ring hollow.

The reason that he gives for objecting also are unconvincing. He raises the issue of revival (which is not raised in the GCR document) and then criticizes Article IX as an impediment to revival.

Revival and spiritual growth are the greatest needs in our Convention and our nation. This is the challenge around which all Southern Baptists can rally. Reorganization is not. Neither is it a prerequisite to revival.

Don’t get me wrong. Effective and efficient organization is critical to any corporate endeavor and periodic changes are necessary. But revival in our churches and appointing a task force to study Convention structures are not two parts of one whole. They are two separate objectives that, if sought under the same banner, have the potential to cause both to fail.

This is a straw man argument. No one has ever claimed that studying the structures of the SBC will promote revival. To suggest otherwise only confuses the issue. As does this:

Perhaps some have the mistaken notion that if we get our stuff organized first, then God will pour out His blessings. Does history bear this out? Are there biblical examples from which to draw that would lead us to expect this? Reorganization does not change hearts.

Again, against whom is Dr. Chapman arguing? Certainly not the framers of the document that he is criticizing.

A paragraph that begins with this statement, “My overriding concern is that if Article IX remains in the Declaration, all attention will remain riveted on this one article,” goes on to mention Article IX eight more times, thus supplying an example of a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I fear that some who read Dr. Chapman’s article may be misled by the following paragraph:

The work of the Program and Structure Study Committee was completed in 1997 under the Covenant for a New Century. At that time, the Southern Baptist Convention was restructured so that 95% of al
l Cooperative Program funds received by the Convention were, and still are, directed to the very three priorities identified by the framers of this Declaration — our two mission boards and our six seminaries.

One of the biggest concerns that I hear from pastors today is not so much what happens to CP dollars after the funds are “received by the Convention” but rather, what happens to them once they leave the churches. According to this BP report, in 2007-2008 only 1.13% of undesignated offerings given by Southern Baptists made it to the International Missions Board. This is the kind of statistic that is causing alarm bells to go off inside the missionary hearts of Southern Baptists. Doesn’t this at least raise a question about our structures and how funds are allocated and shouldn’t this question at least be honestly asked and studied? That is all that Article IX is asking for.

Dr. Chapman’s attempt to distinguish between his call for an “overhaul” of the convention in 2004 from the call in Article IX is unconvincing. He writes,

I did not recommend that a task force be appointed. I also did not recommend that the national Convention appoint a committee to judge other Baptist bodies. I could never do so, for the SBC has pledged never to even attempt to do so (SBC Constitution, Article IV).

This strikes me as odd given his expressed appreciation for the work of the committee that recommended the “Covenant for a New Century” to the SBC. Did that committee “judge other Baptist bodies?” Did it violate the SBC Constitution Article IV, which states, “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.” No on both counts. Neither would blue ribbon committee violate the SBC constitution, despite to Dr. Chapman’s contention to the contrary.

One further point and I will close. Chapman cites a concern for unity in the SBC as a reason that he cannot sign the GCR document.

I cannot sign the Declaration as long as Article IX is included because it is likely to be divisive.

I love unity among God’s people and I hate division, so my heart goes out to this concern. But as one who worked for a Conservative Resurgence (CR) in the SBC from 1979 onward, this sounds eerily familiar. Those who opposed the CR at that time sounded this warning repeatedly for over a decade. If we allow fear of division to trump all other concerns, then we will soon be headed right back down the slope toward liberalism that we once trod.

How can taking an honest look at who we are and what we are doing be offensive to truth-loving, kingdom-advancing people? If there are better ways for us to do what we are trying to do in our cooperative efforts, why wouldn’t we want to know? If needed changes are discovered that will benefit the kingdom of God and spread of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, why wouldn’t we seek to make them?

I have great respect for Dr. Chapman, but on this issue, I believe that he is wrong. I much prefer his earlier call for a “major overhaul” of the SBC to this latter warning of division and quenching of revival. Weighing his arguments has caused me to appreciate the need for honest evaluation and appraisal even more than previously. If we don’t then I fear we might miss an opportunity to strengthen our cooperative efforts in ways that will benefit kingdom work for years to come.

Tom Ascol has served as a Pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Cape Coral, FL since 1986. Prior to moving to Florida he served as pastor and associate pastor of churches in Texas. He has a BS degree in sociology from Texas A&M University (1979) and has also earned the MDiv and PhD degrees from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Ft. Worth, Texas. He has served as an adjunct professor of theology for various colleges and seminaries, including Reformed Theological Seminary, the Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, African Christian University, Copperbelt Ministerial College, and Reformed Baptist Seminary. He has also served as Visiting Professor at the Nicole Institute for Baptist Studies at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida. Tom serves as the President of Founders Ministries and The Institute of Public Theology. He has edited the Founders Journal, a quarterly theological publication of Founders Ministries, and has written hundreds of articles for various journals and magazines. He has been a regular contributor to TableTalk, the monthly magazine of Ligonier Ministries. He has also edited and contributed to several books, including Dear Timothy: Letters on Pastoral Ministry, The Truth and Grace Memory Books for children and  Recovering the Gospel and Reformation of Churches. He is also the author of From the Protestant Reformation to the Southern Baptist ConventionTraditional Theology and the SBC and Strong and Courageous. Tom regularly preaches and lectures at various conferences throughout the United States and other countries. In addition he regularly contributes articles to the Founders website and hosts a weekly podcast called The Sword & The Trowel. He and his wife Donna have six children along with four sons-in-law and a daughter-in-law. They have sixteen grandchildren.
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