Southern Baptists gather every year in June to adopt a budget that funds ministries across North America and the world. They celebrate the 69 new churches started every week across the country, cheer on the more than 15,000 students taking classes in Southern Baptist seminaries and shake hands with several of the 10,548 international and North American missionaries that Southern Baptists support.
Ask a messenger to an annual meeting what it means to be a Southern Baptist and you might hear about the Cooperative Program, the voluntary funding mechanism through which local churches contribute to the worldwide missions enterprise. Another person might point to distinctive convictions about believer’s baptism and a regenerate church membership.
While the Baptist Faith and Message confessional statement revised seven years ago serves as the guideline by which Southern Baptist entities operate, individual churches vary as to what they emphasize and insist are crucial beliefs.
The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention is unique among the 41 state conventions and fellowships, having formed as a confessional body of affiliating churches that affirm a minimal set of doctrinal beliefs, hold biblical inerrancy as the foundational element and work together in mutual accountability.
Anyone sitting through the two-day Southern Baptist Convention marvels that over 43,000 local churches cooperate to fund $200 million in ministry efforts worldwide despite varying degrees of financial support and theological agreement. As elected boards of trustees govern the various Southern Baptist entities between annual meetings where they offer their reports to messengers of local churches, some of their decisions have prompted critics to question whether cooperation is being tested beyond the boundaries of doctrinal agreement.
Among the headline-grabbing actions of the past year were:
>Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary trustees announced Oct. 17 that the school would not knowingly endorse contemporary charismatic practices such as a private prayer language, nor hire professors who advocate the practice.
>An ad hoc committee of International Mission Board trustees spent most of a year reviewing controversial personnel standards implemented late in 2005 regarding a missionary candidate’s baptism testimony and neo-Pentecostal practices. In May the board voted to clarify the guideline on baptism to refer to the authority of the local church and reclassify the policy on tongues and private prayer language to a more flexible “guideline.”
>In January, Southwestern Seminary acknowledged an earlier decision to deny tenure to a Hebrew language instructor who did not meet Southwestern’s criterion of appointing only “pastor-qualified” professors to teach biblical studies and theology students–citing as their reason the BF&M confession of faith which limits the role of pastor to men. A survey by the TEXAN of the five other SBC seminaries revealed slight differences in that policy. However, none has women teaching theology or pastoral ministries courses.
As criticism of these actions occurred among various Southern Baptists, calls were made for trustees to focus on primary points of doctrinal agreement, leaving greater latitude for interpretation of what are sometimes deemed secondary or tertiary issues. Deciding which issues are given less priority depends on who is making the interpretation.
Several years ago, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler offered the analogy of triage–a process that allows trained emergency medical personnel to make a quick evaluation of relative medical urgency.
“A discipline of theological triage would require Christians to determine a scale of theological urgency that would correspond to the medical world’s framework for medical priority,” Mohler said.
In his 2004 commentary available at www.albertmohler.com, he presents “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” describing first-level theological issues as those doctrines most central and essential to the Christian faith such as the Trinity, the full deity and humanity of Jesus Christ, justification by faith, and the authority of Scripture.
“Southern Baptists have historically confessed with all true Christians everywhere belief in the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the full deity and perfect humanity of Jesus Christ, his Virgin Birth, his sinless life, his substitutionary atonement for sins, his resurrection from the dead, his exaltation to the right hand of God, and his triumphal return,” according to a 1994 resolution SBC messengers unanimously adopted.
Union University President David Dockery helped write that resolution. He told the TEXAN that in affirming the truthfulness of Scripture, the doctrine of God and the person and work of Jesus Christ, Southern Baptists stood with orthodox Christians in continuity with the consensus of the early church. Denial of such fundamental truths of the Christian faith represents nothing less than an eventual denial of Christianity itself, Mohler wrote.
Dockery called the focus on the nature and truthfulness of Scripture “a good and right thing to do” as Southern Baptists sought to bring renewal and recover an orthodox confession over the past 30 years.
He added that “other pressing issues have come to light,” citing the nature of God and open theism.
Supporting the need for “a full-orbed renewal to orthodoxy for the 21st century,” Dockery said Southern Baptists have countered “certain contemporary feminist models” used when addressing God with an insistence on biblical language. Their belief in Jesus as the sole and sufficient Savior counters universalism and soteriological pluralism, he added.
When believing Christians disagree on “second-order” issues they often draw their boundaries by organizing into congregations and denominational forms. While Baptists and Presbyterians stand together on “first-order” doctrines, Mohler wrote that disagreement over the meaning and mode of baptism prevents their fellowship within the same congregation or denomination.
But Mohler views debate over the nuances of end-times doctrine, for example, as a “third-order” issue over which Christians may disagree and remain in close fellowship, even within local congregations.
“A structure of theological triage does not imply that Christians may take any biblical truth with less than full seriousness. We are charged to embrace and to teach the comprehensive truthfulness of the Christian faith as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. There are no insignificant doctrines revealed in the Bible, but there is an essential foundation of truth that undergirds the entire system of biblical truth,” he added.
In his book “The Doctrines That Divide,” Erwin W. Lutzer, senior pastor of the historic Moody Church in Chicago, explains why important doctrinal controversies that exist within the broad spectrum of Christendom should not be set aside for the sake of unity, believing many of them lie at the core of the gospel message.
“In days gone by, many believers were tortured, eaten by wild beasts, or burned at the stake because of their doctrinal convictions,” Lutzer wrote. “To speak of unity and to minimize doctrinal differences is to sacrifice truth on the altar of wishful thinking,” Lutzer warned. “Unity, unless it is based on agreement regarding the content of the gospel, would not be worth the price.”
Writing in “One Gospel: Toward a Southern Baptist Consensus,” Dockery said it is unlikely, apart from God’s intervention, that Southern Baptists are going to come to unanimity on some positions that he described as secondary matters.
In contrast to the “cultural and programmatic identity” he round as a Southern Baptist growing up in the 1950s, Dockery characterized today’s denomination as a gathering of loosely connected groups, including fundamentalist, evangelicals, revivalists, purpose-driven churches, quasi-charismatics, culture warriors and Calvinists.
Speaking Feb. 16 at Union’s Baptist Identity Conference, Dockery warned that such balkanization, often fueled by differences over secondary theological issues, could re-ignite a battle in which those engaged are “prone to concentrate on the frustrations or disappointments, while never thinking of the ultimate issues or implications for which the battle is being fought.”
Dockery told the TEXAN: “We cannot move forward with our shared Baptist work without confessional convictions and confessional boundaries. This, however, does not mean that we should expect, or demand uniformity of belief or conviction.”
Southern Baptist should claim the best of their Baptist confessional heritage, he said, as well as drawing from numerous confessions, citing the Standard Confession of 1660, the London Confessions, the Orthodox Creed of 1678, the Philadelphia Confession of 1742, the New Hampshire Confession of 1833, the Abstract of Principles of 1858 and the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963 and 2000).
Not only will such historic confessions provide guidance in “seeking to balance right beliefs and right living,” Dockery said they help Southern Baptists know “how to relate to one another in love without convention, pointing out for us the important differences between primary and secondary issues in Christian doctrine and practice.”
“It is possible to hold hands with brothers and sisters who disagree on secondary and tertiary matters of theology and work together toward a common good to advance the kingdom of God. Gut we need to be of like mind on first-order issues,” Dockery insisted in his booklet.
Union’s School of Christian Studies Dean Greg Thornbury told the same audience that Southern Baptists ought to emphasize the basics of what it means to be a Baptist. By doing so, a host of secondary issues will be addressed for a segment of Southern Baptists he tagged “the angry young men.”
Among the frustrations he has noted across denominational life are the lack of respect for men in positions of authority, a lamenting of the demise of revivalism and the rise of Calvinism, and Calvinists who are tired of being misrepresented as anti-evangelistic.
A rediscovery of holiness and ancient forms of discipleship, a renewed awe and wonder of the Bible and a return to the prophetic voice of the church will allow Baptists to focus on what’s important and not waste time debating over disputable issues, Thornbury said.
“There should not be people in our membership rolls who never come to church, show no discernible evidence of conversion or holiness and who are not currently now participating in a local body of believers,” he added.
LifeWay Christian Resources President Thom Rainer later reflected on those in attendance at the Union gathering that an outsider might have described as likeminded.
“I knew better,” Rainer wrote in a column for Baptist Press. “Present were five-point Calvinists and others who would not affirm all five points. Also in attendance were cessationists and non-cessationists, people with differing views of women in ministry, bloggers and print-media writers. There were some who thought leaving ‘Baptist’ out of a church’s name was wrong; and there were others who had already taken the denominational label out of their church’s name. The views on eschatology held by the attendees were many.”
Rainer wrote that he rejects the need to choose sides, preferring instead to build bridges lest God’s hand of blessing move beyond Southern Baptists.
“Though I may disagree with some on secondary and tertiary issues, I will not let those points of disagreement tear down bridges of relationship with brothers and sisters in Christ,” he added, preferring to join with those who will work together on common causes of missions, evangelism and the health of the local church.
In an interview with the TEXAN, Rainer deferred to Mohler’s assessment of primary, secondary and tertiary issues.
“The doctrinal statements that became the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 clearly identify those issues that we as Southern Baptists hold to be foundational to our denomination’s beliefs,” he stated.
In each of the highlighted examples from the past year, various Southern Baptists have argued that those actions went beyond the BF&M to address matters best left to the individual’s conscience to interpret.
Following the vote of Southwestern trustees to forbid advocacy of private prayer language, Texas pastor Dwight McKissic of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Arlington told the TEXASN that the school had shifted from an era of openness he found during former president Kenneth Hemphill’s administration.
“Southwestern Seminary does not believe in the legitimacy of private prayer language,” he stated. That “philosophical shift” caused him to question the school’s belief about biblical inerrancy, noting the apostle Paul’s instruction that the exercise of the spiritual gift on tongues should not be forbidden.
Having called on SBC President Frank Page and the Executive Committee to consider revisiting the BF&M to clarify the view toward private prayer language, McKissic said he was praying that “continualists, semi-cessationists and cessationists can coexist in SBC life and through all our agencies.
As the IMB board reviewed their 2005 personnel stipulations related to baptism and private prayer language, one missionary leader on the field voiced those concerns to the ad hoc trustee committee.
“We lost some good personnel that could not turn around from short term to long term,” explained former Texas Rodney Hammer, regional leader for Eastern and Central Europe. Referring to Southern Baptist missionaries who were “bumped out” by either of the new restrictions, Hammer told the TEXAN: “They were proven, effective FR&M 2000-signed biblical inerrantists, missionary experienced. Others entered the process and found they wouldn’t be able to make it,” he contends.
He takes the recent statement by the SBC Executive Committee urging entities to regard the BR&M as a guideline for setting policy as a warning to be cautious.
“If there is an SBC consensus document on important doctrines of the faith, these [guidelines on baptism and private prayer language] go beyond that. Eternal security of the believer and the administrator of the baptism are not in the BR&M statement on baptism,” he stated.
Committed to remaining under the authority of the trustee board as he carries out the policies they set, Hammer remains hopeful Southern Baptist will continue to look at these issues.
“I trust the Lord and his sovereignty,” he said, making it clear he has no desire to resign. “I don’t have to agree with this step, but I’d like to think we have room to dialogue.”
Regarding Southwestern’s policy of appointing only “pastor-qualified” professors to teach biblical studies and theology students, Texas pastor Benjamin Cole of Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington charged Southern Baptist leaders with extrapolating narrow principles for church ministry.
“The suggestion that the New Testament precludes a woman from teaching in a seminary classroom rests upon a foolishly anachronistic interpretation,” Cole wrote in a Fort Worth Star-Telegram column.
Cole said he is increasingly frustrated by what he called “narrowing trends” in the denomination.
When it comes to deciding how each SBC entity applies the convictions stated in the BF&M to its own ministry assignment, that decision is left to the trustee boards elected by messengers in annual session. Issues that surface at one of the mission boards might arise at one of the seminaries, but are likely to be different than those faced by GuideStone, LifeWay or the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.
“There are lots of issues that are not explicitly settled in the Baptist Faith and Message and that we haven’t had resolutions on yet,” said ERLC President Richard Land in an interview with the TEXAN.
When those issues arise, the ERLC needs the freedom to address them, he said.
Any effort to prohibit SBC entities from adopting doctrinal policies that speak more specifically than the language of the FR&M would hamstring the ERLC, Land added.
“It seems to me that it’s a violation of the trustee process. We elect trustees to provide that kind of oversight,” he said.
Both mission boards have developed guidelines that apply BF&M convictions to the task of starting churches. The International Mission Board trustees defined levels of cooperation with other Great Commission Christians, some of whom differ with Southern Baptists in theology and church practice.
Those lines have to be drawn on the mission field, said Ron Rogers, an IMB missionary who teaches and trains church planters in Brazil.
“When it comes to planting a church, we will not cooperate with people who do not believe in baptism by immersion,” he cited as an example during a discussion with three other Southern Baptist professors.
“We trust the trustees of each SBC entity to govern for us in our behalf,” added Stan Norman, vice president for university development at Southwest Baptist University. “We empower them to do this for us and if they deem that there is something that requires greater specificity than what is required by the BR&M, we trust them within certain parameters to make that call.”
Instead of an undue narrowing in the SBC, Southern Seminary theology dean Russell Moore is concerned at “a wide and growing latitudinarianism in the SBC, especially at the level of our churches.”
Explaining his perspective in the discussion with other Southern Baptist leaders for the TEXAN interview, Moore said, “Some read the confessions of faith to say that as long as something is not explicitly mentioned in the confession, we have latitude to go in a completely opposite direction.”
“We may actually—and must—enlarge the essential doctrines category when we think and act in the Baptist context,” Rogers added. Thus, within Southern Baptist life, Rogers said, “I would probably be more apt to dismiss or limit the ranking of doctrine.”
In his column for this issue of the TEXAN, Texas pastor Bart Barber of First Baptist Church of Farmersville draws a similar conclusion. Citing views on religious authority, baptism, ecclesiology, spiritual gifts and gender roles, Barber said: “Evangelical ecumenism requires the demotion of these items to facilitate expansive joint ventures with evangelical groups. In contrast, Southern Baptists have historically considered many of these items as non-negotiable biblical precepts that we cannot sacrifice and remain obedient to God.”
Criswell College New Testament professor Denny Burk added, “I get so concerned about these doctrines that people put in this secondary category as not important, not essential.” Referring to critical matters like baptism and regenerate church membership, Burk insisted, “They are essential for our discipleship.”
When seeking to identify primary doctrines for Southern Baptists, Dockery said those truths on which the clear teaching of Scripture and the consensus of the Baptist tradition speak with a clear voice are to be considered essentials.
“We need to recognize that some things which are secondary matters for the greater Christian tradition, such as believer’s baptism by immersion, are nevertheless primary and distinguishing doctrine for Baptists.”
It is when “biblical Christians equally anxious to interpret and follow Scripture reach different conclusions” that these matters are to be considered secondary or tertiary, Dockery said.
“We must not divide over secondary and tertiary matters in the name of truth and we must not compromise primary biblical doctrines in the name of love.”