What follows has been assembled by some folks “in the know,” regarding the events that took place at the EC meeting dated February 20-21, 2023. The attempt here is to share pertinent facts related to procedural issues, primarily.
There is a bit of commentary in this explainer but for the most part, the material here is simply presented to posit factual and procedural elements to help answer a number of questions which have been offered in the intervening time.
I was at the meeting in Nashville, and I find this material particularly helpful and wanted to share it with you. This article is not intended to be an expression for or against any of the actions taken just an explainer of the issues at hand. Two primary issues emerged.
First, the recommendations by the Credentials Committee to disfellowship six churches from friendly cooperation with the SBC. Second, the announcement by the ARITF to hire Guidepost Solutions to manage the Ministry Check website for those who have been credibly accused of sex abuse. We have seen false and/or misguided statements made about both of the issues. To list a few:
- In a local newspaper, a Southern Baptist leader claimed inaccurately that in 2000 a bylaw was established that prohibited women from serving as a pastor,
- In a social media post, a pastor and well-known author on church polity argued based on a false premise that if a church changes its theological position so that it is no longer in alignment with the Baptist Faith and Message they should break fellowship, and
- In a social media post, a well-known pastor opposed the use of Guidepost Solutions based on the fallacious assertion that it will be an “enforcement arm, directly empowered to field and assess accusations against leaders.”
Again, the purpose of this explainer is to highlight the facts related to these issues. We are not seeking to advocate a particular perspective about the matters, but only to inform people of the relevant facts and raise critical issues that need deliberation. This is a long one… but I believe it’s worth it.
Issue #1: Recommendations to disfellowship churches by the Credentials Committee:
1) What did the Credentials Committee recommend to the Executive Committee?
The Credentials Committee recommended that six churches should be disfellowshipped.
- One of those churches was recommended because they did not cooperate in resolving concerns regarding an abuse allegation.
- Four churches were recommended because they have a faith and practice that does not closely identify with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith by having a female serving in the office of pastor as the Senior Pastor.
- One church was recommended because they have a faith and practice that does not closely identify with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith by having a female serving as a teaching pastor functioning in the office of pastor.
2) What is the responsibility of the Credentials Committee?
The Credentials Committee is a standing committee of the Southern Baptist Convention that was established in 2019. The Convention’s by-laws sets forth the responsibilities and procedures that guide the work of the Committee (SBC bylaw 8). Below is an outline of the Committee’s responsibilities.
- The Credentials Committee reviews and assesses questions related to whether a church is in friendly cooperation with the Convention.
- Such questions may be raised at (1) an annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention or (2) between annual meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention.
- Questions that are raised at an annual meeting may be addressed in one of two ways.
- The Credentials Committee must review and assess the matter based on any information available to the Committee. The Committee does not investigate. It conducts an inquiry of the church.
- If a recommendation for disfellowshipping is warranted, they can bring the recommendation to the Executive Committee, or they can bring a recommendation to the Convention.
- If the recommendations are upheld by the respective bodies, the decisions are final. However, the church does have a pathway to appeal in the event the recommendation was upheld by the Executive Committee. (See IV below.)
- Questions that are raised between annual meetings may only be addressed in one way.
- The Credentials Committee must review and assess the matter based on any information available to the Committee. Again, the Committee does not investigate. It conducts an inquiry of the church.
- If a recommendation for disfellowshipping is warranted, they can bring a recommendation to the Executive Committee.
- If the recommendation is upheld by the Executive Committee, the decision is final. The church has a pathway to appeal. (See IV below.)
- Churches seeking to appeal the decisions either by the Executive Committee have to inform the Credentials Committee 30 days prior to the Convention’s next Annual Meeting.
- The registration secretary notifies the Convention of the appeal in the initial registration report to the Convention.
- The appeal will be considered during time established for miscellaneous business (the afternoon of the first day of the Convention).
- During the appeal, the question before the messengers will be: “Shall the decision of the Credentials Committee and the Executive Committee that [name of the church in question] is not in cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention be sustained?”
- The question will be considered after a representative of the church making the appeal and a representative of the Credentials Committee or Executive Committee have the opportunity to speak to the question.
- The consideration will be subject to the normal rules of debate
- Both parties will have three minutes to speak.
- When the debate ends, the Convention will vote on whether to uphold the ruling of the Executive Committee.
- The consideration will be subject to the normal rules of debate
3) What is the responsibility of the Executive Committee in determining whether a church is in friendly cooperation?
In the outline provided in the previous answer, it was noted that the Executive Committee has an assigned and yet, limited role in this process. Their involvement is not provided by their ad interim role in Convention business. It is determined by bylaw 8 of the Convention’s governing documents.
If the Credentials Committee brings a recommendation for disfellowshipping a church to the Executive Committee, the Committee must vote to either affirm or decline the recommendation.
4) What is the basis for determining whether a church is in friendly cooperation?
The procedures for the Credentials Committee are located in the Convention’s bylaws. But, in the Convention’s Constitution (Article III) the basis of cooperation with the Convention is set forth. This article has been revised numerous times over the years. See this Baptist Press article for the different iterations of Article III.
In Article III, we find the conditions for determining “friendly cooperation” as well as how the number of messengers allowed for a church in friendly cooperation is set. For the purpose of this document, we will focus only on the standards defining “friendly cooperation.”
- The church has a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.
- The constitution provides an example of what would be determined as not “closely” identified with our faith and practice. The example given is “affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”
- The church declares its intention to cooperate:
- The constitution provides an example of how a church may declare its intentions–”regular filing of the annual report.”
- The church contributed to the CP or made an undesignated contribution through a Convention entity for Convention causes during the fiscal year preceding.
- The church does not act inconsistent with the Convention’s belief regarding sex abuse.
- The church does not affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.
5) What is the nature of cooperation in the Southern Baptist Convention?
In question four, we discussed how the Convention determines whether a church is in friendly cooperation with the Convention, but friendly cooperation does not establish the nature of the cooperation.
The nature of cooperation in the Southern Baptist Convention is expressed in Article II of the Convention’s Constitution. Churches cooperate to promote missions, education, benevolent enterprise, and social services to advance the Kingdom of God.
6) What is the role of a statement of faith in the Southern Baptist Convention?
There are at least three ways to answer this question. First, we can look at the preamble of the Baptist Faith and Message and see the purpose for which the confession was being proposed and adopted. Second, we can look at language use to clarify the purpose for adopting the 2000 revision to the Baptist Faith and Message. Third, we look at the language used in 2014 to clarify the intent for the inclusion of Article III.1.1: “The church has a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.”
Preamble of the Baptist Faith and Message:
In each iteration of the Baptist Faith and Message (1925, 1963, and 2000), the same five points were offered and affirmed by the convention that situates the Baptist Faith and Message within “the historic Baptist conception of the nature and function of confessions of faith in our religious and denominational life.” Below, we have summarized those five points.
- Provide a consensus of opinion for “general instruction and guidance of our own people and others concerning those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us.”
- Do not regard them as complete statements of our faith, having any quality of finality or infallibility. This provides justification for revision of the statement of faith as deemed necessary.
- Baptists are free to establish for themselves a confession of their faith whenever they may think it advisable to do so.
- The only authority for faith and practice among Baptists is the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and confessions do not hold authority over the conscience.
- Confessions are statements of religious convictions, drawn from the Scriptures, and are not to be used to hamper freedom of thought or investigation in other realms of life.
One thing that’s important to observe here is that these statements about the nature and function of the statement of faith do not establish it as the basis for cooperation. Furthermore, in 1992, the president of the Convention appointed a Theological Study Committee. That Committee reported back to the Convention in 1993 (pg. 112-114). In their report, they affirmed the “Priesthood of all believers and the autonomy of local church” as foundational to religious convictions.
Language used to clarify the purpose of the Baptist Faith and Message when the 2000 revision was adopted.
It was reported by Baptist Press that the study committee that proposed the revised Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 clearly said the statement of faith is not binding upon the churches of the SBC.
“In answer to debate coming from the floor, members of the study committee repeatedly defended the preamble, as well as the entire document, as a statement of belief and not as a binding or governing document on Southern Baptist churches and their members.”
The debate in question was whether the Southern Baptist Convention was adopting a Creed with mandatory authority.
Language used to clarify the intent of adding Article III.1.1 in the Convention’s Constitution.
Baptist Press reports after the 2014 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention:
“The recommendation also addressed concerns that earlier proposed Article III revisions could have been interpreted to ‘impose a confession of faith upon a church,’ Easley, pastor of Roswell Street Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., said. That perception ‘was never our intent,’ he added.”
7) When has the SBC disfellowshipped a church in the past?
The Southern Baptist Convention disfellowshipped churches by name for the first time in 1992 (page 80). The Executive Committee recommended two churches for disfellowshipping because they were not in friendly cooperation for approving homosexuality, which would indicate the two churches were not sympathetic to the Convention’s purpose and work.
In 2014, a church was formally disfellowshipped by name on the ground of having a faith and practice that is not closely identified with the statement of faith related to the issue of homosexuality by the Executive Committee in their September meeting ad interim.
In 2018, a church was formally disfellowshipped by name on the grounds of racism by the Executive Committee in their June meeting ad interim.
Since the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, when the Credentials Committee was established, based on the recommendation of this Committee, the Southern Baptist Convention has disfellowshipped churches for approving homosexuality (2021, 2022), acting inconsistent with the Convention’s belief on sex abuse (2020, 2021, 2022, 2023) and race (2022), and having a faith and practice that does not closely identify with the current conventions statement of faith (2023).
For an explanation of the Committee’s original intent, see this.
8) What is the issue related to the office of pastor and disfellowshipping a church?
The general issue is how to apply Article III.1.1 (“Has a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith”) in relation to Article VI in the Baptist Faith and Message in which it affirms: “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”
More specifically, the issue is what instances of the “misuse of the term pastor” or “installed an unqualified person in the office of pastor” may be deemed not having a faith and practice that closely identifies with the Baptist Faith and Message.
- If a church installs a female in the role of Senior Pastor?
- If a church has female Elders?
- If a church has a female serving in an Associate Pastor role (Associate Pastor, Pastor of Children, Pastor for Counseling, etc.)?
- If a church uses the term for pastor to express ministry gifting but not an office (in accordance with an interpretation of Ephesians 4 that affirms 5-fold ministry gifts) and has a distinct and different body that serves the church in the office of Elder that is reserved only for qualified men?
- If a church allows a female or someone else to carry out a function of the office of pastor/elder who is not Elder or is not qualified to be an Elder?
These questions are complicated by evidence that the Committee that proposed the 2000 revisions were aware of churches in cooperation with the SBC who were led by female Senior Pastors and statements by Committee members that “Pastor” in Article VI refers only to Senior Pastor. The intent in 2000 on both how the Baptist Faith and Message should be used in our cooperative body of churches and what the use of the term “Pastor” meant matters.
What was meant and intended does not preclude changing, but if we are going to change we should be transparent about it and ensure we have a process to walk patiently and graciously with churches who may find themselves outside the newly applied expectations.
9) What does the SBC need to clarify as we go forward?
The Southern Baptist Convention needs to clarify what does and/or does not constitute a “faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” As part of clarifying this point, the Convention needs to also clarify the function of the Baptist Faith and Message for our cooperative body. We are currently undergoing an unprecedented application of the statement of faith on cooperating churches, and before we go further, we need to clarify how such language should be applied and the function of the statement of faith within the cooperative body.
This clarification is imperative because there are a number of positions articulated in the Baptist Faith and Message in which churches of our Convention have different beliefs and practices. Indeed, there are known differences on at least these seven issues:
- the doctrine of original sin (Article III),
- the relationship between regeneration and faith (Article IV),
- the church includes all the redeemed of all ages (Article VI),
- the practice of communion (open, close, or closed) (Article VII),
- the acceptance of irregular baptism for church membership (Article VII),
- the observance of the Sabbath (Article VIII), and
- the compatibility of Christian nationalism with the Baptist faith (Article XVII).
How will the Convention triage these issues (as well as others not listed but will emerge in time) to determine when a faith and practice of a Church deviates from the Baptist Faith and Message and does not closely identify?
To do that, it means that we will change how our statement of faith functions in our Convention, and that change, make no mistake, will change the cooperative nature of the Convention. Recall that the Baptist Faith and Message is a statement of faith that:
- offers “general instruction and guidance of our own people . . . of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us,”
- is not a complete statement of our faith,
- do not hold authority over the conscience, and
- is “not to be used to hamper freedom of thought.”
Issue #2: Opposition to ARITF’s intention to hire Guidepost Solutions to maintain the Ministry Check database:
1) What is the responsiblity of the ARITF?
The messengers to the 2022 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention empowered the ARITF to create a “Ministry Check” website and create the process for maintaining a database of everyone who had been credibly accused of sexual abuse who were associated with a Southern Baptist Church. The website should be maintained by an independent, third-party firm that the ARTF recommends.
2) For those who oppose Guidepost, what is thier issue with using Guidepost to manage the Ministry Check database?
People oppose the selection of Guidepost because the firm promoted homosexual lifestyle during pride month 2022. The logic used to speak against this decision is if Guidepost celebrates an sexually immoral behavior, they can’t make moral judgments about sex abuse and can’t “police Southern Baptists on issues of sexual abuse.”
3) What are these leaders threatening to do?
Leaders are threatening to withhold their CP contribution over this decision. Prior to 2014, such action could be viewed as grounds for disfellowship based on failing to be “sympathetic with its [the Southern Baptist Convention’s] purposes and work.”
4) Does the logic for their opposition hold up?
No. The logic does not hold up for four reasons.
- The Southern Baptist Convention has already made the moral judgment on sexual abuse.
- Granting the premise (for the moment) that Guidepost is making a moral judgment, it still does not follow. A moral judgment about sexual ethics and sexual abuse are different moral determinations. Of course, impaired moral judgment in one area of one’s life can impact their moral judgment in another area of life, but that impairment is not necessary. For example, a father who has committed adultery against his wife (despite his sexual sin) would be expected to identify the wrongdoing if one of his children was abused by someone. If he is not able to do so, people would rightly be appalled by his inability to recognize what happened to one of his children as abuse.
- Guidepost is not policing Southern Baptists on issues of sexual abuse. We are policing ourselves with the adoption of Article III.1.4. in Convention’s Constitutions and approval of the Ministry Check database.
- Guidepost is being hired to use their investigative expertise to make legal judgments on the basis of current laws and standards for due process by our civil justice system. Thus, the basis of their judgment is not on standards that they established. In fact, the definition for “sexual abuse” used for the Ministry Check website will be determined by the definition of abuse in the jurisdiction that act of abuse occurred.
5) How will names be added to the “Ministry Check” website?
The Ministry Check website is designed to protect churches from people who have been credibly accused of committing sexual abuse. When the name of someone is turned into the Ministry Check website, Faith-Based Solutions will verify that the individual meets the conditions for being added to the database.
They will ensure that (1) the person has been convicted of crime of sexual abuse, (2) that person has had a civil judgment against them for sexual abuse, (3) the person confessed to committing sexual abuse, or (4) the person was determined to be credibly accused by an independent inquiry according to civil court standards.
The ARITF recently published a FAQ on the Ministry Check database where they answer additional questions with more details. See FAQ.