The Baptist Faith and Message: “Our only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs” ??

Messengers to the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention approved a motion June 12 to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message as the SBC’s “…only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs”.  The motion was offered by Rick Garner, pastor of Liberty Heights Church in Liberty Township, Ohio, and is, in part, as follows:

“I move this Convention adopts the statement of the Executive Committee … found in the 2007 Book of Reports … which reads: ‘The Baptist Faith and Message is neither a creed nor a complete statement of our faith nor final or infallible. Nevertheless we further acknowledge that it is the only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs approved by the Southern Baptist Convention and as such is sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices of entities of the Convention.'”

Although this motion passed, 2,137 (57.7 percent) to 1,565 (42.2 percent), I must admit that I am a bit troubled by its wording. Particularly disquieting are the words, “only” and “sufficient”.  My uneasiness is due not only to what the words mean grammatically, but also what they may have been intended ((see comments made by Dwight McKissic and Bob Cleveland)) to mean in light of the context of what I think prompted such a motion; and what some may infer from them both today and in the future.

The genesis for this motion—including its precise language—is that some in our convention want to limit theological restrictions that trustees and other elected leaders can place upon SBC employees, missionaries etc., to only what is contained in the BFM. 

For example one blogger wrote, “If the Convention herself adopts this statement, it will send a strong and irrefutable message to the trustees of Southern Baptist boards and agencies that the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message is the only consensus statement of doctrinal belief approved by the SBC, and to establish doctrinal guidelines or policies that exceed the BFM 2000 is an act contrary to the wishes of the Convention herself.” ((Wade Burleson entitled this blog, “The Most Important Vote at the SBC in 10 Years”.  Consequently, I am not suggesting motivations that have no basis))

This would then allow some of their beliefs, that have been and still are outside normal Baptist life, like, “private prayer language” ((which I do not believe exists, reference my messages on 1 Corinthians 12-14)) “moderate drinking” and “various understandings of baptism” to be accepted among leadership and paid employees of the SBC. In addition, I am quite confident, if successful, other issues will make their way to the forefront in due time. 

It would be nice, even admirable, if they would just stand on the convention floor and call for a vote of support for hiring imbibers or Charismatics so that everyone would be quite clear on what we were really voting on rather than their seeking to furtively normalize anomalies. 

First, let me say that I fully concur with the BFM, and I appreciate it as the Statement of Faith that one should  ascribe to if they are going to be even a fringe Southern Baptist, and one must ascribe to if they are going to be employed by or officially represent Southern Baptists.

While the BFM does not contain everything that I believe, I do believe what it affirms, and therein is the heart of my problem.  Although some of the wording of the motion may be understood to limit the scope of the motion, “nor a complete statement of our faith” other words and phrases seem to potentiate quite the opposite understanding; for example, “the only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs…is sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices of entities of the Convention.”(italics added)

Consequently, I would like to briefly summarize my concerns related to five areas:

The language seems contradictory or at best perplexing:  If the people represented by the word “our” in the phrase “’The Baptist Faith and Message is neither a creed nor a complete statement of our faith” (italics added) refers to the same people later referred to as “Southern Baptist Convention” (and it most assuredly does)  then it seems to me to be a contradiction. 

This can be illustrated in two ways: first, the explicit admission in the motion that the BFM is not “a complete statement of our faith” can only mean that we have other supplemental “consensus” statements of our faith or else we would not know that the BFM was “not a complete statement….” Therefore, the BFM cannot be the “only consensus statement of our faith”;  second, since the outcome of every doctrinal vote of duly recognized messengers of a duly convened meeting of Southern Baptists results in a “consensus statement” of a doctrinal belief, the BFM cannot be the “only consensus statement”.  If in fact the votes do not result in that, then they seem rather meaningless. 

While the BFM has a unique and/or primary place among those “consensus statements” it is undeniably not the only one.  I suppose that is the reason that the preamble to the 1925, 1963 and 2000 BFM says “a consensus” rather than “only consensus”.  (( if they would have used the word “a” or even “primary” this problem could have been avoided.  The preamble to the 1925, 1963 and 2000 BFM preamble says concerning the BFM, ‘”[a] statement of the historic Baptist conception of the nature and function of confessions of faith in our religious and denominational life….they constitute a consensus of opinion….”‘ (italics added) ))

The difference between members and representatives:  Southern Baptists are indeed a motley host, and that is something worth rejoicing about; however, it is that very characteristic that necessitates requiring those whom we pay salaries, send to the mission field, or elect to officially represent us to be doctrinally conservative rather than espousing doctrines contrary to the general theological beliefs of Southern Baptists.  We not only do not want professors teaching outside the framework of orthodoxy, but we want professors that are Baptist; further, we don’t want professors involved in promoting their healing ministry, teaching how to speak in tongues, smoking Cuban cigars or cross dressing even though none of those are addressed in the BFM. 

While it may be acceptable for a local church to send one of her members who speaks in tongues or imbibes with the pastor at the local pub to the mission field, it is not OK to ask a diverse group like Southern Baptists to support that particular missionary if that is not their desire.  Missionaries simply need to be considered supportable by those from whom they seek support, and in this case that means Southern Baptists. To limit what can be theologically required of Southern Baptist employees to only what is addressed in the BFM essentially transforms what has been a minimal ((I am using minimal to mean what one must at least affirm and maximal to mean that the BFM is the maximum that one can be asked to affirm))  document into a maximal document.

I dare say that every church has different requirements for leaders than for basic membership, whether they are written or not,  and rightly so; and this beyond their common doctrines.  A church might ask all members to affirm the BFM, but it may very well ask for additional affirmations of those in leadership or in a paid position.  For one, I would suggest that your church may have some lazy members, and there is no explicit statement on laziness in your statement of faith; however, hiring lazy staff is far more problematic indeed for it may result in your pastoral demise if you hired them.  Further, laziness is a biblical issue, so should it be addressed in our statements of faith before diligence can be required of employees.

The Changing Cultural Realities:  Only a few short years ago, social drinking or tongues would not merit even being considered debatable issues at the Convention or among SBC leadership. This was not based on whether it was in the BFM, but because it was understood that those who practice such would be better off being a part of an Episcopalian or Pentecostal group.  Simply put, being Southern Baptist means more than what is contained in the BFM. 

A good example of this was the departure of evangelist James Robinson several years ago after he embraced the “full gospel”. This does not mean that no Southern Baptist believed in tongues, but rather one who practiced such would not have been considered for leadership or receiving pay from the SBC.  The same could be said for drinking, even though the BFM addressed neither of these issues.  Leaders were, and should still be, required to model basic particulars of Southern Baptist beliefs.

Until recently, the BFM did not explicitly address certain issues (racism, adultery, homosexuality, pornography, helping the abused, speaking on behalf of the unborn, sanctity of all human life) that it does now.  The 1925 BFM did not have a statement on the family, nor did the 1963 BFM until it was amended in 1998. ((XV. The Christian and the Social Order says in part, “Christians should oppose racism…all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography. We should work to provide for …the abused….We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.”  These are all additions to the BFM 2000 that were not in the BFM 1963; the 1925 BFM did not have a section on the family.  The Family VIII was added in 1998 to the 1963 BFM, which is now included in the BFM 2000.))

However,  the lack of specific mention in the BFM was not because Southern Baptists believed homosexuality, child abuse, racism, adultery…was acceptable. ((that some Southern Baptists were racist…is not the point nor weakens the point)) Actually, it was quite the contrary. Homosexuality…did not need mentioned in the BFM, not because it was not important that all leaders, missionaries…be heterosexual…but rather because everyone, at least in Southern Baptist life, agreed that it was sin, a given.  To mention it would have been insultingly superfluous.   

If someone would have tried to send out an adulterous or homosexual missionary, or if a professor took the pro-abortion position, or in some way condoned homosexuality, he would have been dealt with and in fact was—The Conservative Resurgence.  This all happened even though homosexuality, etc., was not explicitly mentioned in the BFM.  To transform the BFM into a maximal document is a dreadful miscalculation with catastrophic consequences.

Consequently, these who seek to limit trustees and leaders to only what the BFM says, are out of touch with history and the reality of dealing with a rapidly changing culture that transforms today’s givens into tomorrow’s giveaways.   The BFM is incapable of being changed often enough to deal with these, not to mention the nuanced needs of particular entities.  Therefore, this motion potentiates radically changing the meaning of what “trustee” means, the nature of the BFM, and untold harm to the overall mission of the SBC. Frankly, if I wanted to support a charismatic, social drinking church on the mission field, I would join a likeminded group.

Varying Institutional needs and entrustments may be hampered or compromised:
Our entities have to address different issues and needs than does a local church; furthermore, each entity has different responsibilities and therefore different requirements, i.e. policies, than do other entities.  For example, seminaries doctrinal challenges are far different than GuideStone. Further, while it is appropriate to require SBC entities to operate in concert with the BFM, it is unfeasible to say or imply that they must operate with the BFM as their “only…sufficient guide…” unless the words are to be minimally understood. ((the danger is that they are taken maximally, which can be construed to be the intent by the words, “sufficient…to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices….”)) 

If these words are to be taken minimally, as they have been in the past, I may guardedly concur; but if the intent is to transform the BFM into a maximal document, which is contra-historical, glaringly impractical and alarmingly naïve, I must strongly demur.  Trustees will no longer be trustees—those whom we have entrusted the fiduciary responsibility of making decisions that are in concert with the BFM, and best for our entities and the kingdom, for they will necessarily be transformed into mere amanuenses.

Common, unwritten understandings and beliefs are indispensable: Although documents are essential for enabling an organization to summarize and express certain non-negotiables, they are simultaneously, in and of themselves, insufficient for sustaining an organization. Simply put, living organizations cannot be reduced to merely being operated or explained documentarily.  There are in every organization, whether family, church, or convention…some unwritten, commonly held, and indispensable accepted truths. 

For example, people get married with one document, a marriage license, but everyone knows that marriage can neither be built nor sustained by what is written on that document.  What is true of that simple illustration is true of even the most complex organizations.  If a person has ever attempted to documentarily manage an organization, he is also painfully familiar with defeat and depression.

Someone may be in agreement with a local church’s statement of faith, and yet be so dissimilar in areas like philosophy of ministry, the way responsibilities are exercised, work ethics, values, application of Scriptures and even music styles that the kingdom is better served by joining another church, which demonstrates the significance of things not necessarily contained in a statement of faith. 

In particular, the BFM does not explicitly address having a healing ministry, speaking in tongues, private prayer languages, being involved in gambling, using alcohol and tobacco…. As a matter of fact, while the BFM is a great document when considered in light of what it says, if viewed as the one sufficient document and thereby viewed with regard to what it could say but doesn’t, it is less than sufficient.

All things considered, I suppose the real question is, “does tongues, gambling etc., have to be explicated in the BFM in order for Southern Baptists to reject sending out tongues-speaking Christians who claim to have a healing ministry modeled after Benny Hinn, and are partial toward spending their leisure time imbibing and smoking Cuban cigars at their favorite casino.”  My answer, even if I stand alone—which I surely do not—is categorically NO! 

That may sound extreme, but it is no more so than believing that prior to the 2000 BFM Southern Baptists could not exclude racist missionaries and leaders since racism was not referenced in the BFM.  I do not doubt for a moment that someone like that does not need to be sent by Southern Baptists to the mission field or be teaching in one of our Seminaries, etc.  However, like it or not, that is what we are ultimately being asked to accept since, according to some, any theological concept, which is not explicated in the BFM, is deemed unenforceable.

Consequently, if there are not common understandings as there have been in the past, and are in every viable organization, then this convention will self-destruct; maybe not as quickly as the tape on Mission Impossible, but just as certainly.

Fortunately, the word “guide” seems to allow for softening what is otherwise stubbornly restrictive.  Only time will tell.  I hope that more people come to see that this was not just a motion of support for the BFM, but rather a subtle way for some to get their beliefs mainstreamed with little concern for the inevitable and deleterious finale.