SBC Executive Committee Proposal Needs More Work comment (0)
May 1, 2014
By Bob Terry
Southern Baptists have long debated the role of theology and doctrine in qualifying a church to participate in the life of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). Over the years my own position has evolved. Now I number myself among those who believe some doctrinal guidance is necessary and appropriate. After all Baptists are Baptists and do have a group of doctrinal positions that distinguish us from other Christian groups.
Saint Augustine’s famous quote, “In essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, in all things charity” is descriptive of where I understand Southern Baptists to be related to what is doctrinally required to participate in SBC life.
The Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M) Statement of Faith reflects that view when it declares, “The sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.”
The statement continues, “Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches.”
Advocacy for some doctrinal guidance and the respect for soul competency in matters of faith results in tensions from time to time. This may be one of those times.
The SBC Executive Committee is considering an amendment of Article III of the SBC constitution. The article deals with how a church qualifies to participate in SBC life. The proposed amendment reads, in part, that “the Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation ... which has not intentionally operated in any manner demonstrating opposition to the doctrine expressed in the Convention’s most recently adopted statement of faith.”
Said another way, if a church openly disagrees with a position outlined in the latest version of the BF&M, that church can be excluded from participating in Southern Baptist life its missions programs, its benevolent programs, its educational programs, etc.
For example, the latest version of the BF&M teaches in Article XVIII, “The Family” that “a wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband” based in part on Ephesians 5:22. If a church chooses to teach mutual submission of husband and wife based on the verse immediately above (v. 21) instead of wifely submission then that church could be excluded from participation in SBC life.
In 2006, Alabama’s Mobile Baptist Association withdrew fellowship from Hillcrest Baptist Church because the church called a female associate pastor. The association considered the move a violation of the 2000 BF&M, which states in Article VI, “The Church” that “the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
The association reported, “Our exegesis confirmed no distinction biblically in the office of pastor between the contemporary titles of pastor, senior pastor and associate pastor.” If this understanding prevailed at an SBC annual meeting then any church with a woman serving as associate pastor, worship pastor, youth pastor or children’s pastor could be excluded from SBC life based on the proposed amendment.
Some correctly point out that the Convention has always had the right to determine its own qualification for participation because messengers to the annual meeting have the inherent right to determine who may participate and who may not.
Still there is a difference when the SBC moves from determining participation primarily from a size of church membership or church contributions basis to requiring compliance with every position of the BF&M before ever considering membership or financial contributions.
If the amendment is adopted as presently worded the result will be a convention of churches willing to walk together in lock-step at every point expressed not only in the current version of the BF&M but in all future versions. The SBC may not be able to force a church to adopt various theological positions but the threat of exclusion from its historic faith family is an immense informal power that can be used.
It is difficult to reconcile the demand for formal doctrinal agreement codified in the SBC constitution as proposed in this amendment with the words of the BF&M itself that “confessions are only guides in interpretation having no authority” and “denying the right of any ... religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches.”
If not a violation according to strict legal interpretation, the amendment violates the spirit of the BF&M as well as Article IV of the SBC constitution which says, “the Convention does not claim and will never attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organization, associations, or convention.”
It is hard to see how the nature of the SBC will not be drastically changed, and I believe for the worse, if this amendment is adopted as presently written. Making agreement with every point of the BF&M a litmus test for participation in SBC life is not a wise step. Certainly it does not demonstrate “in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty and in all things charity.”
Was it the intention of Executive Committee members to move the SBC toward a time when certain powers could control what cooperating churches believe and practice? I do not think so. The Executive Committee was concerned with updating the qualification process from 1845 standards to the present. Discussion focused primarily on contribution levels moving from one messenger for every $250 (the 1845 requirement) to one messenger for every $6,000 contribution (the present day equivalent). For that, the Executive Committee deserves support.
However, I urge the Executive Committee to revisit the section of Article III producing the unfortunate and unintended consequences outlined above before bringing their recommendation to the convention floor.