The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) is America's largest Protestant denomination: it has nearly 16 million members and more than 40,000 affiliated congregations. Consequently, the SBC annual meeting often creates waves that splash elsewhere in the evangelical world. The recent annual gathering was just such a meeting. The key issue was the revision of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM), the third major redefining of what it means to be a Southern Baptist.The SBC was organized in 1845, but it was 85 years before a conventionwide confessional statement was adopted, in 1925, during the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, providing one basis for denominational expansion while keeping theological liberalism at bay. In response to growing controversy over the Bible, Southern Baptists adopted a new version of BFM in 1963. Approved by an overwhelming majority of the 11,000 messengers (as Southern Baptists call their delegates), BFM 2000 keeps much of the 1963 language intact but makes several changes in an attempt to close ranks and define the SBC more conservatively.We applaud most of the changes as they will discourage the liberal drift experienced by other large denominations. At the same time, we wonder if the SBC has gone too far, both in seeming to eliminate discussion of some beliefs and in alienating opponents.

Criterion or Focus?

"The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ," the 1963 statement said. The new language declares that the Scriptures are "a testimony to Christ, who is himself the focus of divine revelation." It also declares that Scripture "is God's revelation," not merely "the record of God's revelation." While it does not use the word inerrant, it declares, "all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy."Removing fuzzy neo-orthodox-sounding language about the Bible clearly aligns the SBC with the kind of conservative evangelical view of Scripture set forth in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. This change also makes it more difficult for scholars to pit the Gospels against the epistles, or Jesus against Paul, in wrestling with controversial issues such as homosexuality and the role of women in the church. (For example, say some exegetes, since Jesus said nothing about homosexuality, it must not be a central issue for Christians.)Still, BFM 2000 is poorer without the rich Christocentric language of the earlier statement. Jesus Christ is surely the center of Scripture as well as its Lord. One can affirm this while also welcoming the clear affirmation of the Bible as God's infallible, revealed word.

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Closed to Openness

Another subtle change in BFM 2000 reflects the growing controversy concerning the omniscience of God. Historically, orthodox Christians—Catholics and Protestants, Arminians and Calvinists—have affirmed God's complete knowledge of all future events. More recently, however, some theologians have advocated an openness-of-God theology that claims God's knowledge of the future is limited. The new SBC confession affirms that God's "perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of his free creatures."This was echoed in a similar statement adopted by another Baptist body, the Baptist General Conference, one week later. Yet shutting down the debate by convention fiat runs a serious risk. Though openness theism clearly runs counter to historic Christian theology, it draws on aspects of the biblical witness that not all mainstream theologians have integrated into their teaching. The ongoing debate gives these teachers a chance to make their theology more fully biblical while remaining true to the tradition.

Confessional Departure

The new statement declares that "the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture." Despite the media blitz over this issue, there has been little controversy in Southern Baptist circles. In one sense the vote is merely the confirmation of the status quo. Even moderate Southern Baptists who affirm women in pastoral ministry do not generally call women as pastors of their churches, unlike progressives in other denominations. On another level, this action brings Southern Baptists into alignment with traditional Christians worldwide (including the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches), most of whom limit the role of women in certain pastoral or priestly offices.Still, elevating this matter to the level of confessional status seems to us an unnecessary departure from the historic Baptist tradition: no previous Baptist confession has spoken to this matter directly.This portion of BFM 2000 will have little if any effect on local congregations (since Baptist polity allows each congregation to call whom it will). But those with egalitarian views in denominational agencies and seminaries may well feel the pinch, as the new confession will likely become for some not only a test of fellowship but also a requirement for employment. Clearly some SBC critics fear that the revised statement will become a litmus test. "Instead of building a consensus statement, [Baptist leaders] are using it as a club to drive out people they disagree with," one leader said.

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Closing Down the Flea Markets

Despite some theological concerns, we believe the wider evangelical community can learn something from our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters about the importance of maintaining a clear confessional identity in a culture suffering from relativism and doctrinal apathy. Many mainline Christians have too often adopted cultural trends as church policy. Instead of making critical distinctions, they embrace the wide spectrum. Theological pluralism, as Leonard Sweet aptly says, "became the fairy godmother of modern Protestantism," resulting in "a veritable flea market of faiths."Though critics have dismissed the previous three decades of Southern Baptist life as "the Baptist holy war"—a clash of church politics and strong personalities—in fact theological issues were also at stake, and BFM 2000 has brought some of these into clearer light. Without some kind of conservative renewal, the SBC would most likely have continued to drift toward the kind of accommodation to the culture seen in many mainline denominations. For example, shortly after Roe v. Wade the SBC went on record supporting abortion rights. Some moderate-supported groups now argue for the moral legitimacy of gay sex. BFM 2000 speaks a clear biblical word against such issues.

Preserving a Fragile Unity

Confessions of faith inevitably raise the question of unity and diversity. While each community of faith should be free to define its own distinctive beliefs and expect its leaders to abide by the consensual wisdom of the community, confessions serve better when they focus more strongly on the central affirmations of the Christian faith, "the faith once delivered to the saints."Confessions of faith can err either by being too tightly drawn or too loosely constructed. Finding the right balance is always difficult, but we should never forget that we are called by Christ to preserve the peace and unity of the church as well as its purity. What Kentucky Baptist leader S.M. Noel said of confessions in 1826 is still true: "It should be large enough to meet the exigencies of the church by preserving her while in the wilderness, exposed to trials, in peace, purity and loyalty. And it should be small enough to find a lodgement in the heart of the weakest lamb, sound in the faith."Both the 1925 and 1963 versions of BFM served as rallying points for Southern Baptist unity, but it is not at all clear that BFM 2000 will have the same effect. Already the large Texas Baptist Convention has indicated it will not adopt the new confession, and some other Baptist bodies may follow suit. Though other dissenting Baptist groups are emerging, none of them is likely to become a "counter-SBC." Thus far, critics have been much better at saying what they are against than what they are for.It is clear that most Southern Baptists support the conservative direction of the SBC, even if many of them are unhappy with the triumphalist language some Southern Baptist leaders repeatedly used. Outgoing President Paige Patterson, for example, said of feminist critics: "The problem is they have to argue with God, not with us.""I wish they wouldn't do some of that stuff," said Jim Queen, director of the Chicago Metropolitan Baptist Association. "I think it gets misunderstood and misinterpreted." It also tends to alienate the opposition.Several years ago former President Jimmy Carter, a Southern Baptist Sunday-school teacher, assembled a group of Baptist leaders from both sides to talk about the possibility of Baptist reconciliation. They agreed to pray for one another and to find ways of working together on common goals. Unfortunately, little progress has come from this Christlike gesture.When the dust from this conflict settles, and the realignments are a bit clearer, it will still be important for Bible-believing Baptists on all sides to reach out to one another in Christian love, to model the kind of charitable orthodoxy symbolized by the outstretched arms of Jesus.R. Albert Mohler, president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, has sometimes been less than irenic in the heat of denominational battle. Seven years ago, however, he wrote, "The future shape of the Convention must avoid the twin dangers of obscurantist, angry, and separatist fundamentalism on the right and revisionist compromise on the left. In between lies the evangelical option—an irenic, bold, and convictional posture which combines concern for orthodox doctrine with a spirit of engagement with the larger world and a missionary mandate."Southern Baptist leaders on all sides might note that such words are even more pertinent now.

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Related Elsewhere

Read the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 for yourself, or peruse the 1963 version . For a synopsis of what was added and what was taken out, click here .The Southern Baptist Convention 's site has links to every board, organization, and ministry in the convention.Previous Christianity Today coverage of the Baptist Faith and Message includes:Culture Clash | Asserting the Bible's authority, Southern Baptists say pastors must be male. (June 30, 2000) Weblog: Baptists OK New Statement, which Opposes Female Pastors (June 15, 2000) Submission Rejected | State convention counters SBC marriage statement. (Dec. 27, 1999) Texas Baptists Counter Official Southern Baptist Stance on Marriage | Baptist General Conference of Texas goes back to 1963 statement, rejecting 1998 vote. (Nov. 11, 1999) Seminary Faculty must sign pledge | Professors must agree to teach Baptist Faith and Message statement. (Dec. 7, 1998)

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