Who has better table manners? That question once again comes to the forefront in Southern Baptist life following the release of a recent survey on Lord’s Supper practices among SBC churches conducted by Lifeway, an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention. While some found the survey results to be surprising and still others, including Voices’ own Jared Moore (agreeing with the Kentucky Baptist Convention’s Executive Director, Paul Chitwood), passionately circled the wagons around close/closed communion, my own observation is that these results reveal what many believed to have been the practice among a majority of our churches, notwithstanding the Baptist Faith and Message.
When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, does the Baptist Faith and Message mandate that Southern Baptist churches practice close/closed communion? Before you answer my question, you might want to give it some thought. Just to be fair, it is a trick question. You see, Southern Baptists’ confession of faith — unlike a creed — does not mandate any cooperating church to do anything that it does not want to do. The BF&M is not binding on any church. Of course, the Southern Baptist Convention messengers — meeting in annual session — are free to refuse to seat messengers from a particular church which fails to abide by certain doctrinal beliefs. Churches who have affirmed homosexuality or who have called women to serve as senior pastors would fall into that category (although the SBC Constitution’s language only excludes churches “which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior”; it is silent on the issue of membership for churches that have called female pastors).
Apart from these areas, I would be surprised if any church was disfellowshipped from the SBC for failing to follow the “letter of the law” when it comes to partaking of the Lord’s Supper. I’m sure to the consternation of many within the leadership class of the Convention (see Baptist Press’ posting of a previously published article on the Lord’s Supper which failed to include a reflection from anyone arguing for the majority position of modified, open communion), the Lifeway survey in question disclosed that a clear majority (57%) of Southern Baptist churches surveyed practice either open or modified open communion.
According to the survey, the majority of churches open the Lord’s Supper or Communion to ”anyone who has put their faith in Jesus Christ” (52%) or “to anyone who wants to participate (5%).” Only 35% of survey respondents limit participation in the Lord’s Supper to ”anyone who has been baptized as a believer.” However, it was not clear from the BP article whether or not “baptism” was defined in a specifically Baptistic way (i.e., “believer’s baptism by immersion”) or whether “baptism” could also include believers who had been baptized by non-immersion modes (i.e., sprinkling or pouring).
The results would seem to be at odds with the plain language of the Baptist Faith & Message on this point:
VII. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer’s faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer’s death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.
The Lord’s Supper is a symbolic act of obedience whereby members of the church, through partaking of the bread and the fruit of the vine, memorialize the death of the Redeemer and anticipate His second coming.
If one were to abide by a literal reading of the BF&M at this point, there would be little doubt that those churches which allow any believer — regardless of their baptism status — or anyone — regardless of their salvation status — to partake of the Lord’s Supper would be running afoul of Southern Baptists’ adopted confessional statement. For the record, the church I pastor practices a modified, open communion which invites “anyone who is born-again and has placed their faith and trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord” to partake. In fact, we observed the Lord’s Supper this past Sunday at the conclusion of a message in which I shared the results of the Lifeway survey and preached from 1 Corinthians 11:17-34. Did I violate the language of the Baptist Faith and Message with my practice? Perhaps, although I could try to make a lawyerly argument which would try to get around the language. But, I don’t even have to make that argument.
You see, the Baptist Faith & Message is a man-made, fallible document. While it can be used as a guide, it can never replace the infallible Scriptures as our final authority for faith and for putting our faith into practice. In fact, the Preamble to both the 1963 and 2000 versions of the BF&M clearly states this historic Baptist principle:
(4) That the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. Confessions are only guides in interpretation, having no authority over the conscience.
It would appear, at least according to this one Lifeway survey, that a majority of Southern Baptist churches have chosen to ignore the guide provided by the Baptist Faith and Message and have instead chosen to follow the advice of the BF&M Committees (1963 & 2000) by relying upon the sole authority for faith and practice — the Scriptures — in instituting their Lord’s Supper practices. I’m sure there will be those who will try to argue that those churches which practice anything but close/closed communion are in violation of Scripture. That is certainly their prerogative If they so choose to believe that Scripture teaches that the Lord’s Table is only open to baptized believers (of course, the very first Lord’s Supper might be problematic) and want to practice that at their church, then I would defend their right to do so. I often like to come to the aid of those in the minority so that their rights are not trampled on by the majority.
Even though I believe that Article VII of the BF&M states a clear minority position within the SBC, I would not move to amend what it says. I think that we can generally agree on a confession of faith without trying to dictate to autonomous churches how they should practice the Lord’s Supper. It is only when a minority of SBC churches or when leaders of our Cooperative Program-funded entities try to impose their beliefs about the Lord’s Supper on autonomous Southern Baptist churches or accuse the majority of churches of enabling and/or countenancing unrepentant sin that we will experience problems with cooperation. If that were to happen, then at least one prominent church — with an equally prominent pastor — would need to come under censure, for I’m pretty sure the fence around the Lord’s Supper table was quite low when my son and I took communion there this past February.
What does this survey mean for Southern Baptist faith and practice? In the whole scheme of things, not much. (Serving as a trustee or employee of an SBC entity is another issue, not the subject of this post). Of course, there are always those in our midst — identifying as Southern Baptists — who have no real understanding of cherished Baptist principles such as autonomy of the local church. For every issue, some folks would like to use the Baptist Faith and Message as a creed with which to ensure doctrinal conformity instead of as a confession to encourage cooperation and fellowship. To some of those folks, I would say, “Be careful what you ask for.” If you want to use the BF&M in such a way, then we can always look at the churches — perhaps your churches — which have strayed from the clear language of the article immediately preceding the one on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. In case you’re wondering, it’s the one which limits the Scriptural officers to “pastors and deacons.” I’m all for grace, but I still have a little law — and a little fight — left in me!