Editors Note: D. August “Augie” Boto is a licensed attorney who serves as the interim president of the SBC Executive Committee. Before accepting the interim post, Boto was executive vice president for convention policy and general counsel for the SBC Executive Committee in Nashville, TN.
In interview conducted on July 12, 2007, for original publication on the now-defunct SBCOutpost blog, Boto gives a perspective on the Southern Baptist Convention, local church ministry, and the legacy of Baptist theology and history from the vantage of a layman who’s served in churches of all sizes in Southern Baptist life.
1. What are your earliest memories of being a Southern Baptist. When did you claim the name Southern Baptist for yourself and recognize your own confessional identity as consistent with those beliefs and values commonly held by Southern Baptists?
As I think would be the case with many who were reared by Southern Baptist parents, my earliest memories of being in Southern Baptist life were formed at a time when I had little understanding (if any) of the Convention. I was saved in Riverside, California and baptized at Magnolia Avenue Baptist Church in its first sanctuary, having attended earlier when the church was first organized and meeting in a home.
I have many fond memories of participating in R.A.s, playing in the tunnels under California Baptist College across the street, and attending (it seemed) every service, fellowship, potluck supper, and “pounding” held at the church or the college. My folks were extremely active at both places. I remember my mother practicing her Sunday School lesson aloud at the kitchen table, and my dad volunteering for major projects, like being the lead carpenter when the new sanctuary was built. My grandfather served as the church’s pastor for a time, and also as the college’s president. I remember meals in his home after services during which a visiting preacher would recount how God was moving among His people. I imagine none of the adults had an inkling of how those table talks impacted me, the small (and probably unruly) boy at the end of the table.
Even so, I would have to say that my Southern Baptist identity was galvanized much later, in my college years. The era was one in which “challenge everything” was a mantra. Suffice it to say that I did, repeatedly concluding Southern Baptist beliefs to be in line with the clear meaning of scripture, and finding that the Southern Baptist people and their (our) processes to most closely and more frequently match scriptural and God-honoring models of practical and effective Christianity.
2. During the earlier days of the Conservative Resurgence, you were a member of First Baptist Church of Dallas. In many ways, the resurgence was built on the doctrinal influence of Dr. W.A. Criswell and his commitment to inerrancy. Tell us about those days of sitting under Dr. Criswell’s preaching. How did his influence cultivate the way you view the Bible, Baptist history and theology, and the Cooperative Program.
Answering your question completely would be extremely difficult, if not impossible. My family joined the church in 1964. I was thirteen. My first clear memory of Dr. Criswell was him calling “hello” to me from across a downtown street within a few months of our having joined the church, calling me by my nickname. To this day I am not certain how or why he knew my name, but years later I got a clue. My mother visited him in the hospital, and found him sitting up in the hospital bed, slowly surveying a room full of opened “get well” cards which the nurses had propped up around him. When she asked him what he was doing, he said something about not wanting to overlook saying thanks and mentioning the look of the card to anyone who had cared enough to send him one. He obviously valued and appreciated his church members – every one of them.
As you can tell by the somewhat non-responsive nature of the foregoing paragraph, your question caused a flood of memories of Criswell. It gave me an opportunity to thank God again for the innumerable blessings he has given me. I am so grateful to Him for allowing me to know and have known many great Christians – some well-known and some virtually unknown – getting to see regularly several from both camps through my work here. W. A. Criswell ranks extremely high with me. To say I idolized him would be a step too far, but I do miss him and his influence immensely. He was a truly great man.
His influence upon me in the areas you have mentioned was most prominent in the areas of Biblical authority and theology. (My views about Baptist history and the Cooperative Program were shaped more by my family.) Dr. Criswell did more for his church members than tell them what to believe about the Bible, or what to take from the Bible. His sermons were exercises in understanding the words of the original language, learning about context and connections, absorbing history and geography, and (yes) using science (instead of being used by it.) His intent was always the same – to help us understand that Jesus was the focus of all scripture (He referred to it as the Scarlet Thread through the Bible), and if God thought it important enough to keep pointing people to Jesus, we should be doing that too, intentionally, actively, and consistently. He gave laymen the sense that theology is accessible, understandable and conveyable. Note taking in Bibles during worship services was pervasive. His preaching through the Word verse by verse makes me prefer to this day that sort of pulpit instruction and exhortation.
3. As an employee of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee, how do you see the Executive Committee’s role in serving the convention. There are all sorts of views in our convention about how the Executive Committee should or does function. Some suggest that it is the intermediate authority on matters of convention polity in between annual sessions. Others ascribe to the Executive Committee no intermediate authority to act on the convention’s behalf. What, in fact, is the role of the Executive Committee, and how does the EC seek to maintain an accountability to the convention?
First of all, let’s understand that the Executive Committee is not a bunch of insiders, authoritarians, ivory tower theologians, or bureaucratic legalists. The Executive Committee is composed of 83 everyday Southern Baptist men and women chosen from areas as described in SBC Bylaw 18, which may be read at this link. Its role is described in that same bylaw sufficient to clearly settle the difference of opinion you have alluded to, and relegate my opinion about its role irrelevant.
One aspect of its commission is often overlooked by those not familiar with its operations, however. Its ability to act between annual meetings on matters not listed in its charge is limited to matters “not otherwise provided for.”
Insofar as maintaining accountability to the Convention is concerned, the EC’s standard practice is to review matters carefully and present its recommendations to the Convention for approval, adjustment, or denial. I have seen the Executive Committee intentionally avoid taking interim actions on the Convention’s behalf in the absence of an exigent need to do so, but one example to the contrary was its reapportionment of CP oversubscription to the benefit of the New Orleans seminary which was in urgent need of immediate help due to Katrina.
4. You serve as the legal counsel for the Executive Committee. Many of our readers may not understand the difference between the convention’s attorney, Jim Guenther, and the role that you serve. Parse for us how the convention’s interests and assets are preserved through the work done by both you and Mr. Guenther.
The way you phrased the question nudges me toward a self-assessment, so let me just explain what Jim and I do, leaving the review of “how preserving” our work is for time and others to decide.
The SBC and the EC are two different corporations, the first Georgian and the second Tennessean, the second serving as a fiduciary of the first along lines stated in SBC Bylaw 18, as I said earlier. Jim serves as the SBC’s General Counsel. I serve as the Executive Committee’s. We regularly consult each other. Jim has a partner, Jaime Jordan, who, like Jim, also has long track record of rendering quality service to the SBC, though not as long as Jim’s, which spans half a century. I am beginning my tenth year with the EC, and wear two hats, also serving as its vice president for convention policy.
Examples of our lawyering would include review of legal instruments, defense of lawsuits, drafting precise language when amendment of governing documents is needed or requested, assisting entities in legal matters and situations, etc. I do more work in the policy role than I do as general counsel, and sometimes matters overlap both roles. At the annual meeting, when the Convention’s legal interests are being discussed or inquired about, Jim would be the more appropriate person to speak to the messengers, since he is the Convention’s lawyer. If I were to speak, it might be to explain how the Executive Committee arrived at a legal conclusion it thought best to recommend to the Convention.
With regard to litigation, it is no secret that we are living in an increasingly litigious world. Judgments against other faiths have been remunerative for plaintiffs and their lawyers, and the SBC draws considerable interest as a likely place to go next for a recovery. Though the SBC is named as a party in legal proceedings about twice per year on average, so far, to my knowledge, it has not ever had a judgment rendered against it throughout its entire existence (ie. since 1845). SBC polity is the major reason for its frequent dismissal out of lawsuits on motions for summary judgment.
5. All Southern Baptist agencies and institutions have now amended their corporate charters to recognize the convention as the “sole member” of their respective corporations. What on earth does it mean that the convention is the sole member of these corporate boards? Under what sort of circumstances would sole membership be exercised by the convention?
I am often asked similar questions. Many still misunderstand the issue. Rather than restate an explanation here, allow me to refer you to an SBCLife article posted on Baptist2Baptist. The article is still accurate except for its reference to one SBC entity not yet adopting sole membership. That is no longer true, and sole membership amendments to governing documents have now been formally adopted by all the SBC entities and the SBC’s Executive Committee.
Two issues not covered in the article include the most prevalent misconception which still exists, and the answer to the question in your last sentence, above. The misconception I most often respond to is the belief that the Executive Committee pushed sole membership to attain more control for itself. Actually, the Executive Committee’s role, position and authority were all completely unaltered by sole membership. The rights the sole member (the Convention) retains are exercised by the Convention, not by the Executive Committee. Additionally, even the Executive Committee adopted sole membership amendments for itself. The part played by the Executive Committee in the adoption of sole membership by the entities was that of a facilitator, in that virtually all of the research, drafting, explanation and committee review was undertaken between annual meetings, not during them.
The second issue the article is not explicit about is the example you call for. A circumstance where sole membership would be called into play would be, for example, one where the board of trustees of an SBC entity, at some future date, decided to amend their governing documents to become self-perpetuating, meaning that the board would thereafter select its own replacement trustees rather than the SBC doing so. If that were to happen, the SBC would be able to appeal to a proper court and show the judge that the board’s action was unauthorized because it had not been approved by the sole member (the SBC) and the judge would follow the law and reverse the action the board had taken. The judge would do that not because he had any understanding of Southern Baptist history and practice. He would do that because corporate law clearly recognizes the sole membership concept.
6. Southern Baptist polity is difficult for outsiders to understand. In fact, some Southern Baptists may not understand it either. Could you explain for us how you understand the Baptist principle of autonomy, especially as that principle is applied in both the local church and convention work? Is it correct to regard the “autonomous principle” of Baptist ecclesiology as similarly binding upon the way the convention entities are governed?
Differing understandings are a component part of the Baptist identity, so I am glad you asked your first question the way you did. My understanding of the Baptist principle of autonomy is that the local church is not subject to outside, earthly, ecclesiastical authority. It is capable and empowered to make its own decisions as a body in matters of faith and practice.
The reasons I qualified the first statement are these: I said “outside” because each church has some sort of chain of command “inside” itself which the members have approved and should abide by, so persons who have placed themselves under that authority inside each fellowship cannot argue that they should be considered autonomous. I said “earthly” because each church is not autonomous from the leadership of the Holy Spirit. I said “ecclesiastical” because churches are subject in certain ways to civil and criminal governmental authority, and cannot argue autonomy as a defense to breaking the law.
As to your second question, I concur with your characterization of the principle as one of ecclesiology, which means that it is a principle applicable to churches. Subsidiary entities are not churches. If I believed the entities of the Convention fell under the autonomy principle, I would never have gone down the sole membership path, nor would William Bullein Johnson (who crafted the SBCs original governing documents in 1845) have described his notion of the SBC as being “One Convention, embodying the whole Denomination, together with separate and distinct Boards, for each object of benevolent enterprise, located at different places, and all amenable to the Convention…” (emphasis mine). One important way that amenability is addressed via the process of trustee selection by the SBC – a feature over which our entities have no autonomy.
7. Working in the day to day business and administration of the convention, it could become easy to lose a Kingdom focus on the local church. How do you maintain that balance between being a convention employee and a local churchman. Are there any ministries of your local church wherein you use your spiritual gifts to build up that congregation? What do you regard as the most rewarding part of your convention work? Your local church service?
As you noted, I once was a member of FBC, Dallas. After that, I was a member of Forestburg Baptist Church in Forestburg, Texas for about 6 years, and then Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Gainesville, Texas. The Sunday School attendance of those three churches ran about 6,000, 50, and 250, respectively, when I first joined and each enjoyed growth thereafter, so my family has participated in the full spectrum of Southern Baptist church life, including churches in both “established” and “pioneer” states. Of course, different locales later spawned other memberships, but my point is that I don’t think I could imagine a scenario where local church involvement had become a “thing of the past” for me.
You referred to my being a Convention employee. I know what you meant, but technically, the Convention has no employees. I suppose I will someday no longer be a “denominational worker,” and for the first 23 years of my vocational life I was not, but my intention is to always be (and I hope I have always, since my salvation, been) an active member of an active church. So from that perspective, I suppose I do not maintain a balance. The side of my scales most deeply tipped is the church side, though I consider working for the EC a tremendous assignment and blessing.
The church I am in now (Brentwood Baptist Church) is one where a very intentional new member orientation and training takes place, a portion of which has to do with assessing spiritual gifts. My results on the survey used confirmed those I have produced before when using other similar assessments, and showed a spike in the area of teaching. I exercise that gift by teaching Sunday School and leading a weekly Bible Study in the basement of my home. At church I have been teaching adults close to my own age (56). At home I teach a group of younger folk ranging in age between 15 and 24, which group is always mutating – sometimes leaning more toward collegians, and other times more toward high schoolers. They seem to enjoy each other’s company, and being treated as “thinking adults.”
The most rewarding part of my work for the Executive Committee always involves collaboration, teaching and a sense of improvement or production. An example would be the production of the Forged by Faith film series, or speaking to a Baptist group to overcome a difficulty or explain a process as a part of moving toward growth and ministry. The most rewarding part of my church and Bible study work is that same sort of thing – seeing young people or fellow church members get excited and committed in their walk with the Lord, especially when that excitement follows some sort of epiphany that study of a Bible passage may have generated. My home Bible study students express that excitement often by calling me to clue me in that one or more unbelievers will be attending to “check Christianity out.” As I was typing this answer, I got just such a call relative to tonight’s session, and that excites ME.
8. Do you regard your vocational calling to be an attorney as similar to the way a man or woman is called to vocational ministry in the local church? What does it mean to be “called” to serve the Lord as a convention employee?
This question is difficult for me because I cannot compare how I am led to the way others are led. Being led by the Lord is a very personal thing. My call is the “Come follow me” and “Go ye therefore” sort of call. Before I was an attorney I was a printer. I wound down my corporate law practice in Dallas to trade U.S. Treasury bonds on the Chicago Board of Trade. After that I became an elected official. After that I was a lobbyist and administrative counsel in Austin. As varied as my vocational sojourn has been (and I have given you the short version) I have always had the sense that God was involved and leading at every step of the way. I do not claim to have always followed His lead, but even when my walk was more mine than His, He was using circumstances and people to bring me back to Him. Therefore, my sense of “call” is more of a “transitional” thing than a “destinational” thing. He “calls” me every day. My job is to listen to Him, which I do sometimes better than others. All that being said, I believe I am where I am supposed to be for now. But I do not think my call is any different qualitatively than that He makes on any other believer.
9. Okay, we’ve got to ask. Tell us your best lawyer joke?
Choice #1 – How is primordial ooze similar to an attorney? (Answer: Both are slimy, and neither has any chance of ever evolving into a real human being.)
Choice #2 – A lawyer attempting to redo a guest bathroom in his home fails miserably and finds himself staring at a set of new faucet handles that are unrelentingly spraying all over new wallpaper. It’s 8 p.m. and he calls an emergency plumbing service. The plumber arrives, looks over the situation, reassembles a few parts correctly, and in 30 minutes solves the problem. He hands a bill to the lawyer for $430.
“$430 !!” the lawyer exclaims. “That is over $800 an hour !! I am a lawyer and I don’t even make that much!”
“Yeah, I know,” the plumber says. “I didn’t make that much back when I practiced law either.”
10. Some Southern Baptists say that the “Conservative Resurgence” is over, and that we need to move on from endless talk about the “fight.” Others suggest that the convention will stray from conservative theology if we do not keep the resurgence ever on our minds and preach about it from our convention pulpits. What challenges do you see in the future for the Southern Baptist Convention? How can the convention move forward from difficult days of self-definition to prospective ministry and witness without losing the momentum for biblical authority and inerrancy or losing our passion for missions and evangelism.
Even those in the second category you described above refer to the resurgence in the past tense. There is no question that the CR is over, but I would concur that there is a benefit to “remembering the Alamo” so to speak. This taps into the “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it” sort of thing. But too much “remembering” has a tendency to make relating to the present culture difficult. One can imagine what might result if Protestants were still constantly preaching on Luther’s 95 theses at this late date.
I believe the goal in 1980 was to correct what had gone off track and then get back to the main assignments of winning the lost and making disciples. For a time, the first part (course correction) is accomplished, so we need to concentrate on the second (evangelism). With regard to any continuing vestige of the CR, I’d say that maintenance, wariness and/or vigilance are more appropriate than anything stronger. Nehemiah might say, “We can keep the weapons close, but we ought to be laying bricks.”
As to present and future challenges, I have concerns about the following:
• An obviously growing disinterest in personally winning the lost through intentional evangelism.
• An apparent preference for retaining control over an offering in the name of “good stewardship.” (Baptists once preferred the undesignated gift to the designated, believing that sacrificial giving sacrificed not only the money but the control, as an act of complete dependence upon and trust in the Lord. Direct giving spawns competitiveness among recipient entities – a condition which almost killed the Convention before the Cooperative Program came into being in 1925. Certainly designated giving has its place. Giving it prominence is dangerous to both church and Convention viability.)
• Emphasis on speed rather than on stamina (“Quick solution” books rather than day-in, day-out, hard work).
• Interest in the “new” to the exclusion of the “old,” or vice-versa (Institutional memory and experience, and innovation and energy, have to coexist, educate each other, and collaborate. Some old processes are old because they WORK.)
• The lack of inculcation of church members. Relative to that, ignorance of Scripture, our polity and beliefs.
• Use of reversionary clauses which vest determination of a church’s ownership, quality, affiliations or future in the hands of non-church members (though there are proper uses of reversionary clauses in certain situations)
In answering your last question, I am not sure whether inerrancy has or creates momentum any more than a house’s foundation does. It would be unusual for a contractor to point to a subdivision of concrete slabs and say “see what I have built.” Biblical authority has been (re)declared by our Convention. It is the foundation. Now let’s finish the building. We have to value all that God values rather than just the subparts we are “good at.” In truth, we are getting “less good” at soul-winning.
You referred to unity. Unity in doing something requires many, in fact the majority, to be doing that something. Unity in evangelism starts with each individual Southern Baptist determining to be a soul-winner. The more individuals who do that, the sooner we get to a majority, when the unity will become obvious.