The Executive Committee

I hope to publish some reflections on this week’s Executive Committee Meeting in Nashville, TN, by tomorrow. Today, however, I thought I would republish for new readers some thoughts I posted in April on the role of the Executive Committee.

Of the many political treatises that have come down to us from antiquity, perhaps the most enduring and influential are the works of the Athenian philosopher, Plato. Ordinarily a student of political theory or philosophy first meets Plato in The Republic, a work that is long on lofty proposals for a model society and short on the nuts-and-bolts implementation of those proposals. That is where Plato’s other monumental work, the Laws, comes in. Written in the 4th century B.C., the Laws consists of a series of dialogues between an Athenian, presumably Plato himself, and one of his interlocutors concerning the nature of a well-formed political system that respects the gods, honors its leaders, and maximizes the social, moral and economic welfare of its citizens. While re-reading the Laws this past week, I became acutely aware that some sage counsel from a pre-modern pagan philosopher might better inform Southern Baptists about the nature of our denomination as, for better or for worse, a political entity. Ranting that Southern Baptists are too political may make for impassioned posturing at a variety of post-denominational venues, but it does little good to change anything. Realists rather than idealists are the men who pull the oars of any organization, thus steering its course toward the ends idealists envision but lack the wherewithal to achieve. In truth, a shot of healthy realism is needed if emerging Southern Baptist leaders are going to have much impact on refocusing our Kingdom work and rebalancing our denominational structure. In this respect, Plato’s Laws is a straight-line drip of realism expedient to assist Southern Baptists in the art of generational self definition. I will examine five sections of Plato’s Laws, paying careful attention to how those sections are immediately germane to Southern Baptist life. I will consider these sections in the ascending order of their pertinence to our current denominational system rather than in the order that they appear in the original text. The order of our examination will be as follows: On the failure of monarchial regimes; on the importance of theology; on abuse; on the executive committee; and on the subjugation of leaders to laws.
Book Three of Plato’s Laws incorporates an extensive analysis of the pre-Athenian political regimes under Darius, Xerxes, Cyrus, and Cambyses. This Persian Empire was weakened for a variety of reasons, Plato observes, chief of which was the intrinsic debility of monarchial regimes. As the reins of power were passed from one man to another, each in turn felt the burden to establish a name for himself by the sweat and toil and upon the backs of his subjects. In time, these subjects learned that the glory of the leader rather than the glory of the gods was the real object of political and military campaigns. Disheartened and disillusioned, they stopped fighting the king’s causes and the empire fell under the weight of its own top-heavy structure. Corruption increased year by year as unchecked and unbridled autocrats threw off the accountability afforded in more democratic societies. The reason Plato assigns for the corruption of such political systems is that “they were too energetic in introducing authoritarian government, so that they destroyed all friendship and community of spirit in the state. And with that gone, the policy of rulers is not framed in the interests of their subjects the people, but to support their own authority.” So long as the people believed they were serving a higher purpose than the personal political whims of their leaders, they would fight to the death to preserve the kingdom and defend the king. If questions arose, however, regarding the king’s political objectives, then common fealty diminished and the king found himself having to “hire mercenaries to ensure his own safety.” Finally, the judgment of the king was ultimately perverted as he became “so stupid that [he] proclaimed by his very actions that as compared with gold and silver everything society regarded as good and valuable in his eyes was so much trash.” The Southern Baptist Convention is not, thank God, even a modified monarchy. A congregational ecclesiology has informed every level of our denominational bureaucracy; and it is the people who hold ultimate authority in the convention rather than the elite few who, for various reasons, have attained influence-wielding positions as entity executives. The danger is ever present, however, that a generation of the people will grow lax in their attentiveness to the affairs of institutional governance. Year by year the authority to govern our denominational agencies could slip from the trustees elected by the convention to a plutocratic few who are far too eager to run things without the meddlesome nuisance of trustee oversight. In order for the seizure of power to occur, such an executive must first turn trusteeship into a perk, complete with immaculately appointed banquets and silly presentations about things unrelated to the primary institutional mission. He must fill the trustee calendar with tea parties and walking tours and sideshows, then shrug off the actual governance of the institution by tapping his watch when it’s time for the trustees to go back home. I’m not suggesting that the trustees of any SBC agency have completely abandoned their authorized prerogative of oversight, though I think a few have come dangerously close. Try to correct the trend, and you’ll soon discover how many mercenaries the king has conscripted. When this happens, the handwriting is already on the king’s wall. His kingdom, like that of the Persians, is weighed, found wanting, and divided before midnight. So fell the Persian Empire, and so can the Southern Baptist Convention falter if we fail in our vigilance to withstand the subtle temptations of autocratic efficiency. The SBC should think twice before acquiescing institutional governance to even the noblest of denominational servants. If men were angels, James Madison argued at our nation’s founding, the only viable political system would be monarchial. Both Scripture and experience, in the recent and distant past of our denominational history, demonstrate the contrary.

Second, the importance of theology for a solvent political system is non-negotiable in Plato’s Laws. Theology, the Athenian argues in Book Seven, is “surely one of the finest fields of knowledge . . . [and] supremely important to appreciate.” Political viability is dependent upon the diligence of a nation’s leaders to “master every theological proof there is.” The common man in the streets may be forgiven if he “simply follows the letter of the law,” but rulers must not be granted the same lenience. It is incumbent upon democratic societies, therefore, to carefully scrutinize the theological commitments of its leaders and to hold them to the highest standards of biblical comprehension; a man who is not “preternaturally gifted or has not worked hard at theology” must not be awarded the distinctions of leadership.

Theology, above all things, must be important for Southern Baptists too. We expect that those who lead our institutional agencies – especially our seminaries – show respect for the subtleties of biblical theology and appreciate the history of the church as it informs our contemporary ecclesial milieu. Men who, for instance, cannot understand the many tensions in Scripture – like that between human responsibility and divine sovereignty, for instance – must never be elevated to the highest offices of denominational service. Because a man is a great speaker, or a great innovator, or even a great contributor to the Cooperative Program, is not sufficient reason for his name to be placed in nomination for convention president or the executive offices of our many agencies and institutions. Skill with the sacred text of Scripture, the ability to rightly divide the Word of Truth, and the balanced exegetical dexterity necessary to recognize the rich complexity of God’s inerrant Word must be foremost in our considerations when it comes time to elect our leaders. Passion should never be mistaken for prudence in these matters, and the man who yells the loudest and sweats the most in the pulpit is not always the man for the hour. Wisdom is the chief thing, and in all our getting as Southern Baptists we should get leaders who possess healthy doses of it.

Third, the Laws devotes a considerable amount of time discussing the dangers that abusive behavior and speech present to society. There are, in any given political system, “men with a natural irritability, made worse by poor discipline, who in any trivial quarrel will shout their heads off in mutual abuse.” “Such a thing,” the Athenian insists, “is highly improper in a well-run state . . . [and] a single law should apply to all cases of defamation: no one is to defame anybody.” In every argument, “one should listen to his opponent’s case, and put his own to him and the audience, without making defamatory remarks at all. When men take to damning and cursing each other and to calling one another rude names in shrill tones . . . these empty words, even though they are empty, soon lead to real hatreds and quarrels of the most serious kind.” A man who cannot master his speech in debate is a man devoid of any guiding principle. For this reason, Plato suggests, “no one must ever breathe a word of ridicule in a temple or at a public sacrifice or at the games or in the marketplace or in court of any public gathering.” When such offenses do occur, “the relevant official must punish them.”

In three recent online columns, the president of the SBC Executive Committee, Morris Chapman, has outlined the nature and dynamic of spiritually abusive systems. Not only are Chapman’s words salient, but they are timely. As the rhetoric heats up in our denomination, we all need a reminder that defamatory comments and ungracious speech are unbecoming of Kingdom servants. Already the name-calling has commenced. One state executive director has referred to those who disagree with the IMB policies on tongues and baptism as “neo-orthodox” and “existential” without much appreciation for the actual meaning of those inflammatory epithets. An associational director from the same state has referred to the “self serving ingrates” who are preparing to address their concerns at the coming convention in Greensboro. The degree to which these men and those who share their perspective will prevail upon the convention to further ostracize Southern Baptists who voice principled dissent is uncertain. The Lord knows that I’m not afraid of tough talk and intense, pointed debate. But the name-calling and misrepresentation of others’ ideas, opinions, and concerns had better get under control on all sides by the time we converge on Greensboro if we are not to make fools of ourselves before the watching world.

Fourth, Plato discusses the practical need for an Executive Committee in Book Seven, almost foreseeing the very body to which Southern Baptists commit our convention oversight in between annual sessions. “The state is just like a ship at sea, which always needs someone to keep watch night and day as it is steered through the waves of international affairs. It lives in constant peril of being captured by all sorts of conspiracies, hence the need of an unbroken chain of authority right through the day and into the night and then on into the next day.” A large body, like the Southern Baptist Convention, “will never be able to act quickly enough,” and therefore it is essential to have an Executive Committee overseeing the political society on a day to day basis. Such a committee must “be available promptly, whenever anyone from abroad or from within the state itself approaches them wishing to give information or inquire about those topics on which a state must arrange to answer the questions of other states and receive replies to its own. They must be particularly concerned with the constant revolutions that are apt to occur in a state; if possible, they must prevent them, but failing that they must see that the state gets to know as soon as possible, so that the outbreak can be cured.”

It is not hard to see the immediate applicability of Plato’s Executive Committee to that of our own denomination. When questions arise about the stewardship of denominational institutions and the use or misuse of Cooperative Program dollars, or when disharmony occurs within the convention whereby one entity head is meddling in the affairs of another entity’s administration, then it falls to the Executive Committee to act on behalf of the Convention proper and resolve the matter. There is much talk in the Baptist grapevine that questions such as these will be asked at the coming convention, and if they are, our convention should see the wisdom in charging our Executive Committee with the responsibility of assessing the validity of any allegations, working to coordinate the resolution of inter-agency conflict, and reporting back to the convention the following year about the progress that has been made. If our convention bylaws are not sufficient to prevent conflicts of interest on trustee boards, or nepotism within convention agencies, or to keep the balance of convention authority between agencies, then the Executive Committee is responsible to propose bylaw amendments to blockade the avenues of undue influence and bureaucratic impropriety from those who have chosen such paths of political manipulation.

Finally, Plato envisioned a political society in which rulers would be subject to the laws rather than capricious makers of the law. “When offices are filled competitively, the winners take over the affairs of state so completely that they deny the losers and the losers’ descendants any share of power. Each side passes its time in a narrow scrutiny of the other, apprehensive lest someone with memories of past injustices should gain some office and lead a revolution.” Such an arrangement, the Athenian argued, “is very far from being a genuine political system.” The laws of society, therefore, are not to change from administration to administration, bending and twisting at the whim of temporary lords. Furthermore, the laws are to be universally enacted and enforced. Laws without general applicability – when one is given the harshest penalty while others are rewarded for similar offenses – are “bogus laws, and when they favour particular sections of the community, their authors are not citizens but party men.” The highest offices of political influence are to be held by men who have mastered themselves under the authority of the law rather than by those who would be appointed because of their “wealth or some other claim like that, say strength or stature or birth.” Rulers who bend the laws for their allies and with the same laws whip their enemies are illegitimate leaders. Such men should be afforded no further opportunities of service in any office anywhere. If a political society is to remain solvent, and if its leaders are to maintain the trust of the people and the authorization to continue in their offices, then laws must govern all men impartially rather than a few men governing others, all of whom are prone to fits of partiality and legislative bias.

Likewise, the Southern Baptist Convention must be led by men who respect the bylaws governing our denomination, in addition to our confessional statement. It is quite useless for a man to require the allegiance of his employees to a statement of faith, which has no governing authority in the denomination, and himself disregard the actual governing documents of the Southern Baptist Convention. A man who is elected to serve as an entity head, for instance, must restrain himself from dabbling in the affairs of his sister agencies because our convention is legally bound to respect the rule of trustee governance. We have different agencies and different boards overseeing those agencies, and this system of governance is explicitly codified in our convention bylaws. Agency heads must further refrain from interfering in the trustee selection process. Our convention authorizes the convention president – and only the convention president – to appoint the Committee on Committees. That committee, in turn, appoints the committee on nominations, thus establishing a check and balance on any one man, or any one committee for that matter, from controlling the appointment of denominational trustees. Even the nominations committee is carefully comprised of representatives from a broad cross-section of Southern Baptist life. There has developed, however, a trend among seminary boards in recent years to fill their own interim vacancies, anticipating that the convention will confirm the interim appointment at the next annual meeting. But even this is problematic, given the well-defined and time-tested processes outlined in our convention bylaws.

On another count, institutional executives are duty-bound to respect the Cooperative Program, the convention-authorized means of supporting the work of our many ministries and agencies. They must, therefore, refrain from using their influence to solicit funds for their own pet projects when denominational funds are inadequate to underwrite their grand visions for capital improvement. The laws that govern our institutions are intended to govern our institutional leaders as well, and any man who feels like the rules for the gander are irrelevant to the desires of the goose is unfit for continued service. Our convention bylaws are modest and precise. They must be scrupulously observed even when they frustrate the administrative objectives of institutional executives. When those bylaws are not observed, trustees are duty-bound to intervene posthaste. As difficult as this intervention is – as in the recent accountability measures adopted by the North American Mission Board – it is both necessary and honorable. The process of accountability may be painful, but the rewards are worth the effort. As Plato ended his discussion on this matter, “if law is the master of the government and the government is its slave, then the situation is full of promise and men enjoy all the blessings that the gods shower on a state.”

What hath Athens to do with Nashville, you ask? Enough, I suggest, to warrant a more careful scrutiny of the political system working in the Southern Baptist Convention lest we suffer the distresses of history faced by others who failed to resist the threats of autocracy, spiritual abuse, diminished theological awareness, and antinomian impulses. If my thoughts help in some small way to build a bulwark against these threats, then so be it.

One thought on “The Executive Committee

  1. Ben-
    I thought I remembered 2 African American members on the very far side from where you sat, but I could be wrong. Either way between 0 and 2 is not overly good.

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