The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is as divided now as it has been at any point since the conservative resurgence. That resurgence began in the 1970s, long enough ago that we can no longer take for granted that it is understood by the youngest in denominational life. The conservative resurgence began in response to division in the SBC, and that division was over theology.
On one side of the division were the liberals (called moderates) who proved to be the minority in Southern Baptist life but had taken over leadership of various institutions in the SBC. On the other side of the division were the conservatives, a majority of those in the convention, who were unwilling to allow the convention to slide into liberalism and death.
Conservatives knew that if the SBC was going to endure, it must be united. They further knew that if they were to achieve unity, it would have to be around the truth.
This is a biblical idea. God’s Word commands God’s people to contend for God’s truth, “Contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). There is only one deposit of truth that God has given to his people, and that is the work of his people to contend for that truth. The command to contend for the truth assumes the reality of an ever-present threat against the truth. Every generation faces a threat of compromised truth, and so every generation must be prepared to protect that truth.
The division that Southern Baptists are experiencing right now is a division that can only be corrected by a reaffirmation of truth.
Once you admit that it is the job of Christians to contend for the truth, you must ask a very important question: which truth? The Bible is full of thousands of teachings that Christians believe, teach, question, and debate. How are Christians to know which truths we must contend for, and which truths we will not?
Answering this question is tricky.
Obviously, every faithful Christian wants to contend for every truth in the Bible. When you love the truth, you want a maximum of it. But not all truths in the Bible are as central to the faith as all the others. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is obviously of “first importance” and is something for which Christians must always contend (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). The baptism of the dead, however, is a teaching that is up for serious debate (1 Corinthians 15:29). It is unwise to demand unity around one understanding of this mysterious reference in the Bible. And so, even in just one chapter of the Bible, 1 Corinthians 15, Christians must make decisions about which truths they will prioritize.
This is where the importance of confessions of faith comes in. A confession of faith is a document that tells Christians which truths they will contend for out of all the possible truths in the Bible. Confessions of faith describe the hills on which Christians will die. When a group of Christians come together and adopt a confessional document – that document is crucial to their unity because it explains which truths they will come together to cherish, believe, teach, and defend.
That confessional document for Southern Baptists is the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM). First drafted in 1925 and most recently revised in 2000, that document describes the truths which unite Southern Baptists. It lists the truths we have agreed together to defend.
The reason Southern Baptists are having a tough time right now is that we lack unity about which truths are central, and which are not. If we are going to be a united convention, we need to regain clarity about the basis of our unity, and we need to regain it quickly.
It is helpful to think of the BFM as a boundary marker. In the same way, geographical lines form boundaries around nations, confessional lines form boundaries around the truth. When there is a disagreement within the boundaries established by the BFM, Baptists know that it is time to defend the truth.
Let me mention one controversial example. For a very long time, Christians have disagreed about gender roles within the church and family. Controversy abounds on this topic because the Bible’s teachings on women and men sound hopelessly antiquated in a modern age.
What is crucial to understand is that the issue of gender roles is not supposed to be controversial within the SBC. Our convention has already spoken to this issue. One place that mentions this is Article VI, which says, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
The teaching on the exclusivity of male pastoral leadership has become a debate in the SBC in recent years. This is unfortunate. Being a Southern Baptist means you reject that women can be pastors. Of course, that leaves many other positions that women may fill in church leadership, and there is room for disagreement on those matters since they are not explicitly stated. But the pastoral question is settled law. If you believe differently, you should embrace your convictions, adopt a gracious spirit, and do your ministry outside of the bounds of the SBC. You could also change your view and serve happily within the convention. What you should not do is try to be sneaky or rebellious and behave in opposition to our confessional document.
When faithful Southern Baptists encounter others trying to be sneaky or rebellious by behaving and teaching in a way that contradicts the BFM, we are required to defend the truth. A violation of the BFM is a violation of the truth within the boundaries of our confessional document, and it must not go unchecked.
The SBC will never be united until we have an agreement on the issues within the boundaries of the BFM.
Southern Baptists do not need to fight about everything and ultimately cannot fight about everything. That is the other side of the issue of boundary lines created by the BFM. When issues come up outside the boundaries established by the confessional document we can discuss, debate, and even disagree. But we do not have to fight. We do not need to raise those issues to the level of convention-wide conflict.
The part of contending for the faith that I mentioned above has to do with knowing when to fight. What I am talking about now is knowing when to avoid fighting.
Unity takes self-control. To have unity we must discipline ourselves to avoid getting worked up about things outside the boundaries created by our confession. This is hard, and I know it. I have things I care a lot about that the BFM never mentions. I know you do too. But cooperation requires knowing where we must agree to disagree, and where it is impossible to do that.
Wisdom about when to disagree raises the crucial and sensitive issues confronting the convention right now, which I have been addressing in this series. What about the issue of abuse and politics that I raised previously, and the issue of race that I will address later? How do we handle those issues when they come up? I will save the issue of race for my post next week but will talk about the others right now.
Southern Baptists are engaged in an important debate about how to respond to abuse and abuse allegations within our churches. How do we handle this as confessional people committed to fighting for truth within the bounds of the BFM, and agreeing to disagree about areas outside of our confession? Let me answer in two ways.
First, we need to acknowledge that abuse is in the category of ethics and has to do with how we behave. It is crucial that Southern Baptists keep a close watch on our lives so that our personal and corporate ethics reflect the righteousness that is taught in the Bible. If a pastor is a liar or steals from his church, his congregation will not trust him, will not listen to him, and the truths he believes and teaches will become worthless to them. In the same way, we must demand ethical behavior from our leaders, so that our efforts at teaching the truths we believe are not undermined. In this way, Southern Baptists should be determined to expose abuse and its mishandling to preserve our witness for Jesus to victims and those concerned about them. The project to uncover abuse and protect victims would be crucial for us even if the issue was not mentioned in the BFM.
But the issue of abuse is mentioned in the BFM, and that is the second point. In Article XV, the BFM demands that “Christians should oppose . . . all forms of sexual immorality,” and that we should, “Work to provide for . . . the abused.” This means that the current effort to learn from abuse victims and to make any necessary changes is required by our BFM. We would be in violation of our confessional document to overlook this crucial matter.
What about how Southern Baptists should think through the crucial and controversial matter of political disagreements. As I argued in my previous post, I think there is enough complexity in the political world right now for those of us in the SBC to agree that we will not choose one person to speak for all Southern Baptists at this point. If, however, we are going to choose such a person, then I argued that, because of the complexity of the issues and the diversity of opinions, they needed to have a pastor’s heart. I also argued that they needed to be a theological conservative as defined by their allegiance to the BFM and that they should be a political conservative.
My convictional reason for arguing for a political conservative is that I know no political liberal or moderate who could faithfully represent Southern Baptists defending the BFM in the public square. We can go to the BFM for just one example. Article XV demands that Christians oppose homosexuality and further says Baptists must, “Speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.” Until someone finds a political liberal who is opposing the LGBTQ+ agenda and defending human life from the point of conception, I am going to say that a political conservative is required by the BFM.
Regardless of the issues, our unity must be formed around the truth, and for Southern Baptists, that truth is contained and summarized in the BFM.
Southern Baptists must redouble our commitment to contending for the faith and to embracing the BFM. That means we are committed to agreeing with and contending for the BFM, and that we are also committed to agreeing to disagree on matters where it is silent. It is only in this way that we can unite to reach our common goal of taking the gospel to the nations.