It's anybody's guess what messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) annual June meeting intended when they approved a motion on the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM). This much at least is clear: Messengers meeting in San Antonio recognized the landmark 2000 document as "neither a creed nor a complete statement of our faith nor final or infallible."

That's where the water turns murky, and the main dispute concerns how to deal with issues not addressed in the BFM. Some Southern Baptists now insist that the BFM should be the only criterion for hiring and firing. They focus on a phrase in the motion that describes the BFM as "sufficient in its current form." They have loudly protested moves by Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and the International Mission Board to bar employees over non-BFM issues, namely private prayer languages.

But other convention leaders point out that the motion says the BFM should "guide trustees" in policymaking. They want to reserve the right of convention agencies to hire and fire employees for reasons not covered in the BFM, such as Calvinism and speaking in tongues.

"The motion will remain open for interpretation," SBC president Frank Page said. While he encouraged trustees not to apply standards beyond the BFM, Page said, "It will be an object of discussion for years to come. By and large, the messengers were saying, 'Let's be careful not to become too narrow, too legalistic.'"

Richard Land disagrees. As president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Land said he still plans to hire and fire for reasons outside the BFM, offering divorce and alcoholism as examples. Other interpretations of the motion are merely the false bluster of bloggers, Land said. Commonly credited last year with electing Page as president, prominent SBC bloggers such as Wade Burleson failed this year to elect their candidate for first vice president, David Rogers.

"The bloggers are desperate for a win, because their candidate for first vice president got slam-dunk stomped," Land said. "They are desperate to spin this motion."

The fact that Southern Baptist leaders disagree about interpretation undermines the motion, SBC observers told ct.

"Frankly, the motion does nothing," said former SBC president Jerry Vines. "Things will go on just as they have always been."

Meanwhile, messengers also approved a motion that asks the SBC executive committee to study ways to help churches prevent sexual abuse. According to Page, such measures could include an SBC database of abusive pastors and help with background checks.

Related Elsewhere:

Baptist Press and Associated Baptist Press reported on the debate over the role of The Baptist Faith and Message.

Wade Burleson blogged about the implications of the SBC's vote.

Recent Christianity Today articles about the SBC include:

McKissic Resigns as Southwestern Seminary Trustee | Texas pastor cites conflict over private prayer languages at the Southern Baptist seminary. (June 25, 2007)
The Wall Is the Castle | When Christians combat each other, they fail to protect what's important. (June 11, 2007)
Pastor/Blogger says Hebrew prof's gender cost her tenure at seminary | Southwestern Baptist's board chair calls hiring a "momentary lax of the parameters." (January 23, 2007)
Ghost Growth | Baptist report: Some 'failed' church plants never existed. (December 11, 2006)
Costly Complaints | Southern Baptist pastor claims blog criticism led mission board to recommend his removal. (March 1, 2006)
Tongues Tied | Southern Baptists bar new missions candidates from glossolalia. (February 1, 2006)
A Kinder, Gentler Conservatism | New Southern Baptist leader promises broader involvement. (June 28, 2006)
Young, Restless, Reformed | Calvinism is making a comeback—and shaking up the church. (September 22, 2006)

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