The 1963 SBC Annual meeting in Kansas City was highly anticipated. At the previous year’s meeting the SBC Executive Committee recommended that a committee be appointed to examine the Baptist Faith and Message. The committee was to be led by the current SBC President Dr. Herschel Hobbs, and made up of state convention presidents, among others. The motion from the EC instructed the committee to
“…present to the Convention in Kansas City some similar statement which shall serve as information to the churches, and which may serve as a guideline to the various agencies of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
In February of 1963 the proposed statement, which would become the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message, was presented in state newspapers and disseminated around the convention. As the Annual Meeting drew near, there was plenty of buzz about the new statement. Despite the buzz, the new Baptist Faith and Message passed without a single amendment, although there was deep controversy. Afterwards Baptist Press reported that “At the height of the discussion, one messenger accused last year’s Executive Committee of heresy for proposing that the committee be named to prepare a statement of faith. He was ruled out of order.”
In later years Hobbs talked often about the work of the committee, and remained proud of what they did. As a firm proponent of religious liberty, Hobbs made sure to note that the statement was not binding on churches. In a 1980 address at Oklahoma Baptist University Hobbs stated that
“We must ever keep in mind that the Baptist Faith and Message is not a creedal statement. However, it’s general acceptance by Baptists demonstrates that it embodies those things generally believed by them. No one should lose sight of the fact that the preamble of the statement, protecting the individual conscience, is a vital part of the overall statement of the Baptist Faith and Message. If we ignore it and seek to enforce any one of the seventeen articles, then the statement becomes a creed. And Baptists are not creedal people.”
(The Fibers of Our Faith, 1995 p 73)
As the 2021 Annual meeting approaches, we will no doubt be discussing again just what it is that makes someone a Baptist, in particular a Southern Baptist. In our current culture it seems more important than ever that we clarify what we believe. Like almost all Christians, we live in the tension of the past and the future. Who we are and what we believe today is shaped by what has happened in the past. It’s probable that the outcome of this meeting will define and give shape to what the Convention looks like in the future. It’s possible that after this meeting people leave the convention in droves, or decide to stay and keep working together. It seems more than likely that this year’s meeting will be a watershed moment in the life of the Convention. In a few years time, this meeting will be “the past” and will define the current state of the SBC.
Just as a church has the right to do as they see fit, so the Convention as a whole also has the right to exclude those who don’t believe the same thing. Hobbs warned us against “enforcing” the statements of the BF&M, but that’s becoming a harder and harder line to walk. Some wish to exclude those who don’t interpret each statement the same way they do. They see the BF&M as a hard line not to cross. Others are willing to look past differences and see the words of the BF&M as open for interpretation. But no matter what side you are one, it seems that everyone wants to enforce their own understanding of the statements. So who gets to decide? Ultimately, the decisions are made by those who show up at the annual meetings. Baptists of all stripes must decide who we are willing to work with and what types of churches we are willing to partner with in order to continue spreading the gospel. As we do so, I think Hobbs would encourage us to not just read parts of the Baptist Faith and Message that make our point, but to read all of it.
I would challenge each Southern Baptist, attending the meeting or otherwise, to spend time reading through the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message. Even if you have done it before, find the time to do it again before the Annual Meeting. Like Hobbs said, it is not a creed, but it has served as a catalyst for Southern Baptist’s choosing to work together for almost 100 years now. Let’s make sure that we don’t treat the Baptist Faith and Message as any more, or any less, than it actually is. Like Hobbs encouraged us, let’s work together as Southern Baptists for the good of our people, our churches, and ultimately for the spread of God’s kingdom.