Of all the denominations, agencies and organizations within Southern Baptist life, only the local church is mentioned in the Bible. The New Testament mentions the church over 90 times - never once as a building or structure, and always as a cooperating body of Christians. An assembly of Christians becomes a church through their individual and cooperative belief in Christ's Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) to go into the world and disciple, baptize, and teach people.
In Baptist life, churches are autonomous from one another and from the denominations that serve them. Each church, pursuing God's unique vision for it, is autonomous to determine how it is organized, how it worships, and how it embraces people. Just as individual Christians assemble and form churches for cooperative work, Baptist churches in South Carolina may choose to assemble with other Baptist churches through area geographic associations, and/or the South Carolina Baptist Convention, and/or the Southern Baptist Convention. The church can affiliate, through an unrestricted financial commitment, with one, two or all three of these denominational entities. Most churches routinely affiliate with all three entities. The cooperative decision is the church's decision.
Associations, state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention employ full- and part-time staff members. The employment of staff ensures coordination among the member churches for Great Commission work, but only to the point of serving the churches - not directing them. Denominational organizations are support organizations for the member churches.
Each year associations, state conventions and the Southern Baptist Convention have separate annual meetings of their members. Churches send members to these meetings to conduct the annual business of the organization. Among the business is the election of organizational executive boards and committees to conduct day-to-day business between annual meetings. The members sent to the annual meetings are called messengers, because these members are allowed to vote their personal conviction on matters. They are not delegates sent from a mother church to vote on behalf of the local church majority. This policy keeps with the Baptist tradition that each member has a unique relationship with God, and each church - or body of members - also has a unique relationship with God.
Occasionally, Baptists, voting at annual meetings, may take positions on moral, social and political issues. These decisions only represent the beliefs of those messengers attending the meeting. These decisions do not reflect opinions of the convention at large. These decisions are not binding on the local churches, which remain autonomous, or members, individually, within the churches.
Because it's easy for bureaucratic attitudes of control and top-down management to creep into all organizations, the South Carolina Baptist Convention, in 1992, took landmark steps to re-establish itself as a service organization for its churches, pledging to serve them rather than dictate to them. This respect for local church autonomy and God's authority over His church has resulted in unprecedented spiritual growth among South Carolina's Baptists.