The Sword Tearing the SBC Asunder: Confessional Statements, The Cooperation Group, and The Future of Our Convention
At this moment, a committee is meeting to decide whether the Southern Baptist Convention as we know it will continue to exist. That committee is called The Cooperation Group, and more is at stake in their work than you may know.
This group was created at the 2023 meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in New Orleans because some of our leaders believe the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) is too high a standard for cooperation and must be lowered to maintain the unity of our Great Commission efforts.
The Cooperation Group is tasked with making recommendations to SBC messengers at our 2024 meeting in Indianapolis about what doctrinal standards should control the boundaries of our convention.
Two Basic Options
I am not a member of this committee, but it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to figure out that two main options exist regarding the kind of recommendations they might make.
The first kind of recommendation would be that Southern Baptists maintain their current confessional standard. This standard, as written in our Constitution, requires that a church “closely identifies” with our statement of faith, the BFM. The current standard does not require that every single church openly state their agreement with every single provision in the BFM. It simply requires that churches not be in clear and convictional disagreement with the BFM. This is a commonsense approach that has served our convention well for decades.
It will be challenging for the Cooperation Group to make this recommendation because the very existence of the committee is grounded in the frustration of a small minority with the BFM as our confessional standard. The committee is most likely to recommend a change.
The second kind of recommendation from the Cooperation Group would be that some elements of the BFM are required for belief and cooperation, but other elements are unnecessary. In this recommendation, the group would ask that Southern Baptists not define their cooperation by the entire BFM but by some portion of it that would create a lesser standard than we currently possess.
Any recommendation made by the Cooperation Group will need to be approved by the messengers in Indianapolis. Because we cannot know what the committee will recommend and because our very convictions are at stake, it is crucial that Southern Baptists be in attendance for this vote.
A New Confession
Southern Baptists need to be clear that the people calling for new standards of cooperation within the BFM are asking us to draft an entirely new confessional document containing less conviction than we currently possess. Of course, the BFM will be the starting point, it would still exist on paper, and it may even be used as the doctrinal standard for entities, trustees, and elected officials. But it will not be the standard for the churches that send the messengers. It will not be the standard for who controls the SBC and who owns the entities. The statement that matters will be the new one with less conviction than the BFM.
This is not the way healthy organizations relate to their confessional documents. Confessions are written during times of clarity and peace to guide and direct during times of confusion and chaos. The last thing a healthy organization wants to do is redraft its confessional document during a time of tumult like the current one in the SBC.
If you love the SBC, you need to know that any effort to reduce what we believe will end badly.
One concern expressed by the good folks who wish to redraft the BFM is that they don’t want “Southern Baptist politburos” aggressively and unreasonably tossing out any church without a fair hearing.
That sounds terribly unpleasant and, in all honesty, is not what is on the table. Committees are elected by the good folks of the SBC who have, for example, demanded accountability and sexual abuse reform in our convention. The SBC doesn’t authorize men and women to go around kicking faithful churches out of the convention.
This is about whether we will be a convention that believes the BFM.
All confessions create boundaries, build walls, and erect fences. Confessions always draw lines and tell us who is in and who is out. Everyone knows that there is no unenforced doctrinal standard, even my friends who are advocating for new standards. The issue today is that some no longer wish to enforce the standards of the BFM but want a lesser standard. The issue here is not whether our convictions are enforced but how much conviction we have.
This is a season of remarkable conflict in our convention, and it is not the time to go back to the drawing board and figure out what we believe and who must believe it. If our convention approves a recommendation from the Cooperation Group to create a tiered system of lesser conviction underneath the BFM, just get ready for years of fighting that will end in disaster.
It is ironic that the good-hearted intention of the people behind this effort is to avoid controversy and division because if they get what they want, division is all we will get. If we adopt a lesser standard, how many churches will leave the convention? Ten percent? Thirty percent? Fifty percent? How many millions of dollars will they take with them? How many missionaries and seminaries will be impacted? The only way to answer these questions is the hard way.
A House Divided
Jesus said a house divided against itself will not stand (Matthew 12:25). He was right. If Southern Baptists create a doctrinal standard underneath the BFM, our theological house will be divided. This division will not last. Sooner or later, one doctrinal standard will give way to another. If it is our desire to have the BFM remain as our standard of doctrine, then let’s save ourselves years of fighting and stick with what we have. Any step toward the creation of a lesser standard is a step toward the erosion of our theological convictions.
The Way Forward
The good folks calling us to believe less need to understand that they are fashioning the sword that will tear us asunder. This is the path to disaster, not progress.
The only way forward is for Southern Baptists to stick with the convictions that rescued a denomination from faithlessness, liberalism, and ruin. We need to stick with the beliefs that restored our entities and returned biblical fidelity to the seminaries that taught us to love the truth. We must uphold the teachings that inflame the hearts of our people every week. Let’s maintain the standards that have led to a resurgence of church planting and that has marshalled the largest army of missionaries in the history of Christianity.
Southern Baptists, these convictions are our past, they are our present, and they are our only hope of a future.
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