Let’s have a define-the-relationship talk. Let’s make 2019 the year that we make it official. Let’s bring the whole Southern Baptist family together in agreement around The Baptist Faith & Message.
We’ve waited long enough. The BF&M has existed in its current revision for nineteen years this coming summer. It is not going away. It enjoys broad support within the SBC. All of the SBC entities at the national level have adopted it years ago. It works just fine.
It will strengthen our unity, not divide us. The recent kerfuffle at Southwest Baptist University in Missouri highlights the way that the lack of a unifying statement of faith among Southern Baptists creates an environment that is ripe for theological controversy. SBU has not affirmed The Baptist Faith & Message since its revision in 2000, to my knowledge. In my opinion, the best move that SBU could take this year to gain the confidence of Missouri Baptists and to put this episode behind them is to affirm the BF&M without caveats and have all of their religion professors agree to teach in accordance with and not contrary to it. Having served at an institution that has followed this approach, I can vouch for its effectiveness. Although I wish well to Dr. Bass, what SBU does with him has ceased to be dispositive. Retaining him will not put away suspicion, and firing him will fuel the controversy more. But affirming the BF&M in a way that makes it the true standard of theological instruction at SBU to which all professors are held? The controversy wouldn’t survive ten minutes beyond the implementation of that decision.
It is not creedalism. Nobody is saying that there is no salvation outside affirmation of the BF&M. Nobody is suggesting that the arm of the state should enforce adherence to it. The BF&M is simply a way that the thousands of churches who partner through the Southern Baptist Convention and related associations and conventions can have a transparent agreement about the theological convictions that will guide our cooperative work. I’m always amazed when people teach that the use of statements of faith constitutes anti-Baptist creedalism while knowing full well that every Baptist history class and publication makes reference to Baptist confessions of faith dating back to our modern inception. Having and using a confession of faith is a very Baptist thing to do.
It does not violate local-church autonomy; it enhances it. Asking entities, associations, and conventions to affirm The Baptist Faith & Message is not the same thing as forcing them to do so. The Southern Baptist Convention cannot fire the preacher, confiscate the offerings, take possession of the buildings, or shut down the website of the smallest SBC-affiliated congregation. Neither, however, can the largest SBC-affiliated congregation force all of the other SBC-affiliated congregations to remain in friendly cooperation with them. Autonomous churches have the right to determine which churches belong and which churches do not belong—which churches are compatible and which churches are not compatible—when they form cooperative bodies. To say that churches cannot do so—that they cannot exclude churches who would work against the theological and missiological consensus of the group—is to violate the autonomy of the majority of churches in deference to the minority. Preserving free association and disassociation preserves the autonomy of all of the churches. The majority are free to determine the bounds of association; the minority are free to accept or reject those terms.
The trajectory of SBC life outside the BF&M is clear. That’s one thing that nineteen years of subsequent history has shown us. There is no ambiguity about where the CBF is headed. Questions remain about the timeline, but the destination is a foregone conclusion. The initial refusal of some of our state conventions, local associations, and related ministries to affirm the BF&M was based entirely upon the fiction—dare I say, with the benefit of hindsight, the fantasy—that non-affirming SBC churches could remain as orthodox as they were in the mid-1970s and that the danger of a slippery slope was overstated. Now that some of those who indulged that fiction are seeing it for what it was and is, they find themselves looking for a way to avoid the direction of the CBF and achieve the direction of the SBC, but without admitting that they were wrong and without making any substantial changes to the environment that produced the direction of the CBF. It’s not so much that the BF&M is some sort of magic talisman that wards off theological drift, it’s more that the refusal to affirm it is a petri dish for the viruses of heterodoxical pandemic. This is true whatever form the refusal takes. When it takes the form of clinging to an older revision, it amounts to a refusal to commit to a robust concept of biblical inerrancy. The full collection of enthusiastic biblical inerrantists who reject the BF&M 2000 in favor of the BF&M 1963 could travel to Birmingham on a Harley. When it takes the form (as it has in too many churches and local associations) of affirming some esoteric set of cooperative theological principles the belong better in a twelve-step program than they do in a gospel church, then it creates—well, you see it preaching on TV often enough to know what it creates. A lot of churches affirm theological statements beyond The Baptist Faith & Message, and I’m fine with that, but all parts of the SBC family ought to be able to affirm the BF&M as it presently stands. Anyone who can’t do that is on the way out already.
And so, if you are a member of a state convention or local association who (a) is a part of the Southern Baptist family, and yet (b) has never affirmed The Baptist Faith & Message in its latest revision, I’d encourage you to consider working in 2019 to change that state of affairs. We can do this, and we should.