The Southern Baptist Convention, which is the nation's largest Protestant denomination, is giving serious thought to changing its name in order to better reach people for Jesus Christ.
But changing a 166-year-old name that 16 million members reportedly identify with is expected to spark some heated debate. Emotions were already high when SBC President Bryant Wright placed the proposal on the table on Monday.
"Vigorous and emotional discussion over potential SBC name change now on floor of SBC Executive Committee," R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, tweeted Monday.
"There is much emotion & memory invested in the SBC name question, as well as hope among others. Hard family talks are the hardest," he added.
A presidential task force has been set up to study a possible name change.
Wright explained that the denomination's name poses some barriers, especially in church planting efforts, noting that it's "so regional," as reported by Baptist Press.
"[A] name change could position us to maximize our effectiveness in reaching North America for Jesus Christ in the 21st century," he stated.
The proposal came during the first day of the SBC Executive Committee's meeting in Nashville. The committee, comprised of 83 representatives, acts on behalf of the SBC between sessions.
Among those in attendance was Mohler, who is one of the more recognized Southern Baptist leaders in the country.
He described Monday night's discussion about the name change as "not the finest hour for the SBC Executive Committee" with the proposal clearly dividing many lifelong Southern Baptists.
"Those who spoke to the issue with such passion and concern sent a clear and honest signal of how difficult the task may be. Family discussions are often difficult, but this is what healthy families do – they work through the challenges rather than run from them," Mohler said in a separate commentary.
The prominent Southern Baptist, who has been appointed to the task force, listed some reasons why the denomination should consider changing its name, with past racism being one of them.
"We were established as an association of churches that would appoint slaveholders as missionaries. There is so much to celebrate in the heritage of our beloved denomination, but there is also a deep stain that is associated with slavery, the nation’s sectional division prior to and during the Civil War, and the legacy of racism," he wrote.
"If these issues can be resolved, even to any significant degree, by a name change, a Gospel-minded people would never hesitate to consider such a proposal."
Mohler also pointed out, "The SBC is not driven by a southern agenda nor a southern vision, but by a passionate commitment to the Great Commission. ... That region gave birth to the Southern Baptist Convention, but it no longer contains it."
On the other hand, Mohler sees "tremendous value" in the established name of the SBC as it has continuously defended biblical truth and theological orthodoxy.
He admitted, "To be honest, I am personally traumatized by the very idea of changing the denomination’s name. I feel an almost physical loss at the very prospect. It is a deeply and unavoidably emotional question for any Southern Baptist whose life is intertwined with the Convention, its work, and its churches.
"At the same time, our commitment to the Great Commission and the urgency of the Gospel must exceed our emotional attachments and fears."
A proposal for a name change has come up several times over the past few decades. According to Mohler, this is the first time Southern Baptists could face a formal proposal.
The task force may issue a final report on changing the SBC name in time for next year's annual meeting in June.
The questions the task force will be addressing are: "Is there value in considering a name change? If so, what would be a good name to suggest? What would be the potential legal ramifications of a name change? What would be the potential financial implications?"
Jimmy Draper, a former SBC president, has been appointed to serve as chairman of the task force.
Wright, meanwhile, is seeking suggestions on a new name for the SBC at pray4sbc.com.