The process for fellowshipping with the GARBC is fairly simple. A church must affirm the GARBC Constitution and Articles of Faith, must make application in writing, must officially vote to seek fellowship with the GARBC, and must have a recognition council where Regular Baptist pastors and church messengers examine the church’s constitution and bylaws. The recognition council should determine if the church is “a properly constituted and functioning Baptist church.” (Read the full text at www.GARBC.org.)
But note what the GARBC constitution does not say: it has never specified exactly how a Baptist church should be named. While this fact of history may shock some, the GARBC Constitution has never required the use of Baptist in church names. Our official documents emphasize the church’s function as defined in its Articles of Faith and bylaws, and as evaluated by a church recognition council where these documents are examined by other fellowshipping churches.
Now the Baptist name has become a topic of national interest, with other Baptist groups studying potential name changes. And the question still comes up from time to time within the GARBC, as some churches consider changes or as the Council of Eighteen evaluates applications from new churches.
Part of the problem may be in the way we have framed the question, which is actually more complex than asking, “Should we abandon the name Baptist?” Perhaps a kindly observation could be offered: some churches ceased functioning as Baptist churches a long time ago, even though Baptist is still painted on their church signs! This is why the GARBC Constitution has always emphasized the function of the church, not just the label. Throughout the 1950s and ’60s, the GARBC Council of Fourteen placed increasing importance on the recognition council as the best way to understand how a church was functioning.
Long before the discussion about the word Baptist, the GARBC discussed the importance of the word church. Some churches were applying for fellowship while using Fellowship, Tabernacle, or Chapel in their formal names. Since church is not required as a title in the GARBC Constitution, the GARBC Council of Fourteen (later, Eighteen) consistently invited such churches to join the fellowship—as long as they functioned as a properly organized Baptist church.
By the 1990s, discussion had shifted from the importance of church to the importance of Baptist. The issue became complicated because the GARBC was requiring its approved agencies to have Baptist in their name or subtitle—even though it did not require the same of local churches. GARBC leaders of the 1990s were comfortable in giving this additional requirement to agencies, partly because there was no way for a parachurch organization to be recognized as “a properly constituted and functioning Baptist church.” By requiring the agencies to use the Baptist name, the GARBC emphasized Baptist identity for organizations that could not meet the obvious functional requirement. But in retrospect, our churches never reached a consensus on the issue. (Today the question is moot; the GARBC discontinued its agency approval system in 2004.)
In 1993 a messenger to the GARBC Conference in Des Moines made a motion from the floor, offering a resolution that explicitly required all GARBC churches to carry Baptist in their name. The ensuing discussion revealed two lines of thinking: Some messengers thought the requirement was unnecessary. And those who supported the concept suggested that a conference resolution was not strong enough action—an amendment to the GARBC constitution would be necessary. (Technically, conference resolutions express the mind of the assembled messengers. The resolutions are not considered binding on individual churches.) After an interesting discussion, the 1993 resolution was not approved.
During the fall of 1993 a GARBC pastor conducted an informal church poll, asking churches to express their opinion about a possible constitutional amendment. When the results were discussed at the December council meeting, there was no clear consensus asking for a constitutional revision. Most churches continued to use and value the Baptist name, and the Council members went on record as strongly encouraging its use. But a formal decision was avoided until 2000, when the Council of Eighteen approved a policy stating that a GARBC church “must have ‘Baptist’ in both its corporate and published name.” Admittedly, this policy left some wiggle room. A few churches responded by dropping Baptist from their websites and signage, but retaining it in more formal usages.
Much has happened since 2000. Notably, the consistency question (regarding agency names) is no longer an issue. At their November 2011 meeting, the Council of Eighteen approved a new policy stating that a GARBC church “must publicly identify itself as a Baptist church in its corporate documents and in its practice.” In essence, the new policy allows churches to remain in fellowship with the GARBC even if Baptist is not in their published name. The policy retains our historic emphasis on the way a church functions. These churches will continue to be identified parenthetically as “a Baptist church” in our GARBC directory.
When nine new GARBC churches were presented to messengers at the 2011 GARBC Conference, the list included one church that called itself a Baptist Tabernacle and another church that did not use Baptist in its name. But all of the new churches had one thing in common: they function as Baptist churches, affirming our bylaws and Articles of Faith. At the conference the messengers responded by unanimously approving (without discussion) the list of new churches.
Bernie Augsburger (ThM, Denver Baptist Bible Seminary) is chairman of the GARBC’s Council of Eighteen and state representative for the Illinois-Missouri Association of Regular Baptist Churches.