Confessionalism and the SBC

I am surprised at the lack of discussion regarding a significant change being proposed to the Southern Baptist Convention’s constitution. Convention messengers in Baltimore this month will be asked to consider amending Article III to say that churches will not be considered “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC if they have “intentionally operated in any manner demonstrating opposition to the doctrine expressed in the Convention’s most recently adopted statement of faith.” A similar purpose is accomplished in our own SBTC constitution in Article IV, Section 2, paragraph A which requires an affiliated church to affirm “the doctrinal position of the SBTC.” Presently, that doctrinal expression is most thoroughly articulated in the Baptist Faith & Message. For the Southern Baptist Convention to become an overtly confessional fellowship is a big deal, and a positive move.

Whether you trace the beginning of denominationalism—churches cooperating together—to Acts 11 or some later point, doctrinal accountability was always a significant reason for the cooperation and not merely a foundational assumption. When Baptists in New England began to send church planters south or when East Coast Baptists sent missionaries to Texas, they were sending those workers into places that already had churches of some sort. The shortage was in “Baptist” churches. That could only have mattered for doctrinal reasons. Otherwise, Catholic or Congregational churches would have sufficed.

In our day, most expressions of Baptist denominational fellowship tend to take doctrinal agreement for granted to their detriment. Our associations and state conventions find themselves scrambling when an unavoidable theological matter arises. The SBC found itself in that situation in 1992 when a couple of our churches decided to license or “marry” homosexual members. We had to amend our constitution to affirm a biblical morality that was already part of the Baptist DNA. It was messy and would not have been necessary if we already had a statement of faith. As it is now, our institutions have a statement of faith but the SBC itself, the fellowship of churches, really doesn’t. It’s time to reclaim the doctrinal basis for our fellowship. Doctrine may not be the reason for our cooperation but it must surely be its foundation.

I helped plant a church once that was located in an a-theological association. When the time came for us to apply for membership we were held off for over a year because the leadership feared we might upset the fellowship with our conservatism. There was no doctrinal agreement within the fellowship but there was an unyielding value placed on being tolerant. The prime directive was to protect harmony with the liberal CBF churches in the area. We were eventually accepted and caused no disruption but by that time we’d come to understand that “fellowship” in that context was a pretty cheap concept. And it is a concept with little value in any organization that defines itself by feelings rather than beliefs or even conduct. Ironically, such organizations can find themselves in more frequent squabbles because they live within such a vague and arbitrary description of themselves.

Perhaps our own state convention can be a positive role model here. We basically don’t fight over theology because we begin by agreeing on what’s important. Sure we talk about eschatology, worship style, soteriology and a variety of knotty matters, but we do so as those who agree that the Bible is true and the Jesus revealed therein is Lord of all truth. It’s a wonderfully clear place to be and a great boon to actual fellowship.

If the SBC approves this constitutional change there will be more work for the convention’s Credentials Committee and perhaps even the Executive Committee. I believe that work will be simpler since we will have defined the issues. Previously unsuccessful challenges to churches could now find standing under this amendment. I think the rubber will hit the road most quickly on the matter of lady pastors. There are a handful of churches still affiliated with the SBC who have female pastors and these will come under scrutiny. Even a clear-cut disagreement as this would be is still regrettable but that shouldn’t make us timid. Let’s be honest: when was the last time you disagreed with someone over only one foundational matter? Find me that inerrantist, pro-life, traditional marriage-supporting, evangelistic lady pastor in a Southern Baptist church. I’d still believe she was not called of God to pastor but I’d sure love to hear her talk about theology and hermeneutics. My point is that she’s most rare and so is a Southern Baptist church only offended by the Baptist Faith & Message on one major point. If you disagree with us on Article I (Scripture), that disagreement will rear its head at least by the time we’re talking about the doctrine of salvation or the family. If we don’t agree on Article I we just don’t agree on what “Baptist” means. Neither do we have any common basis upon which to cooperate for the sake of worldwide missions.

Our churches will still completely retain their autonomy if this amendment passes. No one is forcing a creed or confession on your church or mine. In fact, we’ve discovered that the churches within the SBTC fellowship have a lot of convictions beyond what’s spelled out in the Baptist Faith & Message. Within those bounds we disagree on a variety of doctrines and practices. Affirming the confession is not the same as adopting it as a complete expression of your own doctrine. It is instead a basic, minimal foundation for our relationships and common work. I think it will work in the life of the SBC, and the 2,485 churches of the SBTC have provided a laboratory to show the rest the convention the benefits of confessional fellowship.

Gary Ledbetter
Southern Baptist Texan
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