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First Thoughts

The Baptist Faith and Message and The Future of The Southern Baptist Convention

Conviction has always been the foundation of our convention.

The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has declared those convictions in The Baptist Faith and Message (BFM), which we worked so hard to create and take so seriously.

It’s been a long time since Southern Baptists have had a debate about the BFM, but we’re having a big one now. When this debate is over, we will either be a stronger convention or a weaker one. I’m encouraged that the SBC is going to get in the right spot on this issue, but we have to work to make that true.

The debate started a year ago when the credentials committee recommended further study into the word pastor before removing churches who employed female pastors. As the convention debated that recommendation, the suggestion came that it was unfair to remove churches for employing female pastors because Article 3 of the SBC constitution only requires cooperating churches to have a “Faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” Southern Baptists, it was argued, don’t know what that means and whether it is intended to include belief about the disqualification of women from pastoral ministry.

Messengers rejected the recommendation to study the word pastor, but the constitutional argument about what constitutes “closely identifies” has continued and is heating up.

I see four options available to Southern Baptists as we confront this problem.

1. Do Nothing

Messengers could refuse to take any action. The logic of this option is found in the fact that the current crisis is an invented one. Southern Baptists do not have the kind of confusion we’re told we have. Until the current season of unrest, we understood that the action of removing a church from our convention is a massive issue and have never demonstrated a quick reflex to do this on small or contestable matters.

Southern Baptists always give committees the kind of responsibility the credentials committee has. We entrust committees with wide discretion since it is impossible for a massive convention to dictate every detail of their work. When their job is done, they report to the convention, and messengers hold them accountable.

This balance of discretion and accountability has worked before and is working now. Last year’s credentials committee used their discretion to make a recommendation that messengers did not like. Messengers held them accountable and rejected the recommendation. This year’s committee has used its discretion to recommend a course of action to the Executive Committee that I believe messengers will affirm. The process may be slow, but it is working. It is certainly not broken.

These facts form good reasons not to move too quickly. But there is a strong mood to amend our constitution in the convention right now.

That gets to the second option.

2. Amend the Constitution, Removing the Possibility of Female Pastors

This is an option that has been gaining steam. The proposed amendment would require that a cooperating church “Does not affirm, appoint, or employ a woman pastor of any kind.”

I have already said that I do not believe this amendment is necessary. I think our documents are clear, our process is working, and Southern Baptists are not confused about whether the office of pastor is open to women.

Having said that, the amendment is not harmful. This amendment would allow us to say what we have always said in a more clear and robust way. SBC messengers are wise to vote in favor of clarity and robustness whenever they have the chance.

The objection to this option has come from those who say the amendment doesn’t sufficiently address the problem. If we add the issue of women pastors to the list of what is required to cooperate with the SBC, we do not answer questions about the many other issues in the BFM and whether they are required for cooperation.

That is why some are proposing a third option.

3. Amend the Constitution with a List of Required Doctrines from the BFM

The great folks at Baptist21 have suggested an amendment that would clarify the SBC constitution, “With positive statements about what ‘closely identifies’ means such as: inerrancy, justification by faith, believers baptism by immersion, regenerate church, and qualified male only pastors/elders/overseers.” They argue that this would be the more comprehensive way forward.

This approach is certainly more comprehensive. It also creates many problems.

For starters, it will effectively create a new doctrinal standard for the SBC. If Southern Baptists agree to reevaluate the BFM, deriving from it a required list of doctrines, it will split the document in two. It will create doctrines that are enforced and ones that are not. It will list doctrines that are crucial and ones that are mere suggestions.

If you think Southern Baptists are fighting now, just wait until a committee has to say which new doctrines are the really important ones. If the credentials committee can’t do this work, what makes us think a committee with a different name can? Such a committee will be the most miserable assignment in Southern Baptist life. And when that committee makes their recommendations, it will create a denominational blood bath on the convention floor when thousands of messengers disagree with any list that is created.

Christians express their convictions and practices in guiding documents in order to have clear standards when things get murky. It is always a bad idea to redefine your convictions and practices in periods of unrest. This season of challenge and confusion is not the right time to reevaluate the core convictions that define our cooperation.

I’m grateful for the faithful work of Baptist21, for the friends I have there, and for the many lunches I’ve eaten at their SBC events over the years. But this isn’t going to end well. If we proceed, we need to prepare ourselves for years of painful conflict and ugly disagreement. I fear the other side of that pain will be more division and a convention that believes less than we do right now.

4. Amend the Constitution Requiring that Churches Not Contradict the BFM

If the convention is in a mood to amend, if they want more clarity about which churches are in friendly cooperation, and if they want to avoid the bloodbath that will come from creating a standard within the standard of the BFM, then an easier way to do it would be to amend the constitution to require churches to have a faith and practice that “Does not contradict the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.”

This change would solve the problem of what it means to closely identify with the BFM. It would add the clarity that folks are concerned is presently needed. It would avoid the risk of taking our doctrinal standards down to the studs during a murky time of denominational unrest. More than that, anyone who wanted could approve this amendment while also endorsing the amendment to add a prohibition against women pastors.

We are in a crucial period in the life of our denomination, and there are several paths forward. These paths are not all created equal. Neither are they all mutually exclusive.

Whatever we do, we need to remember that conviction has always been the foundation of our convention.

This is a truth that Southern Baptists must take to heart. If we are going to insist on changes, we need to be sure we leave New Orleans with a plan to strengthen our convictions and never to weaken them.

This is part 4 of a series of blog posts on the Future of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Dr. Heath Lambert is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, FL. He is the author of several books, including The Great Love of God: Encountering God’s Heart for a Hostile World. 

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