We are in a real situation here folks. We’ve had three articles in recent days discussing the issue of the messenger eligibility proposals being floated at the Executive Committee. All of a sudden it feels like we are back in 2006 debating Baptist Identity and IMB policies and such. I don’t know about any of the rest of you who were around in 2006, but I have no desire to go back to those days and that style of Baptist blog debate. But this is no small issue that we have here. Let me state the facts, as I see them. There is a significant problem with the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) and the way we follow it.
1) As Bart has rightly pointed out, we have a document which defines our parameters of fellowship as a denomination. The BF&M is not a perfect document, but it is our duly approved statement of faith. It is our standard for doctrinal accountability.
2) As Alan has rightly pointed out, we have a problem because more than half of churches in the SBC are operating in violation of Baptist Faith & Message. A study demonstrated that around 55% (?) of Baptist churches do not observe either closed or close communion. Closed communion is when only church members observe the supper. Close communion refers to opening the table to Baptists (or Southern Baptists, or anyone who has experienced believer’s baptism – practices vary). This is the position spelled out in the BF&M. So, over half of our churches exist in violation of our confession of faith.
That’s a problem folks. I consider myself a loyal Southern Baptist. I think I could give you a Baptist pedigree that would rival most anyone else’s. But I pastor a church that does not practice close communion. When we do the Lord’s Supper, I usually say something like this. “This is the Lord’s Table, not ours. If you belong to him you are welcome to share this holy time with us.” If there are BCI churches practicing close communion, I am not aware of it. Years ago I read some pretty well-stated arguments for close communion made by Dr. Nathan Finn – I am not saying it is a viewpoint without biblical merit. But it is not the position that I hold to. I agree more with David Rogers’ “modified open communion” position. I can tell you this, Southern Hills Baptist Church does not take the Supper lightly. We may not close communion to non-Baptists, but we take its celebration very seriously. But all that is to admit that we are a loyal Southern Baptist church which exists regularly in violation of the BF&M. What needs to happen?
I am content with leaving the practice of communion up to the autonomous choice of each local church. If your church is convinced of close communion, fence the table! If you believe in close communion, keep the fence but lower it a little. If you are like me, you keep a very minimal fence (believers only, who participate in a worthy manner).
But we have a real problem within the convention. The EC is moving to make some changes in messenger eligibility procedures. I think they are good as a whole. I even support the provision about assent to the BF&M. Someone can be a good Christian and not agree with tenets of the BF&M, but they are not really Southern Baptist. I agree with that idea, but enforcing it becomes a nightmare. A lot of us who are not in compliance with the close communion provision are nervous about adopting something that could be used to exclude us in the future. Bart has repeatedly said that no such exclusion is intended and I believe him. I do not think there is a single person at the EC who wants to kick out those who practice any form of open communion. That would be denominational hara kiri. It’s more than half of us, folks!
But I am uncomfortable being in compliance limbo. I hate the fact that I am leading my church to exist outside the boundaries of our own denominational confession. I have a couple of other quarrels with the BF&M, but they are minor (I think we are baptized IN the Holy Spirit by Jesus, not BY the Holy Spirit – no big deal). I can live with that. But I am in the odd position of being a loyal rebel. I am loyal to the denomination but we exist outside the parameters of fellowship set in our confession of faith.
1) The first option is to just turn a blind eye to the BF&M and pretend it doesn’t actually prescribe close communion.
That’s not a good option. A confessional body that gets in the habit of ignoring its confession is setting itself up for trouble. We ignored our confession for far too long and the painful events of my early ministry were the consequence. If we are going to have a confession, we ought to confess it!
2) We can change the Baptist Faith & Message.
That is the only option, the only solution.
Here is the BF&M statement (VI. 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.
The only real issue is five words in the first paragraph, “and to the Lord’s Supper.” I think we all agree about every other word in this statement. But that phrase makes it clear that only baptized believers should participate at the Table.
There are three options here.
A) The democratic option – Encode open communion as the SBC norm.
If the research is right, then we the majority position in the SBC is open communion. But this would be a horrible mistake. I am in the uncomfortable position of being outside the BF&M. I don’t want to put someone who believes in close communion in the place I am right now. Scratch option A.
B) Strike the words, “and to the Lord’s Supper.”
This is a good solution as far as I am concerned. This still makes baptism a prerequisite to membership and each church can decide for itself whether to fence the Table. I do not think it significantly weakens the document to do so. Hooray for autonomy!
C) Add a statement concerning open communion.
As a part of this statement on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we could add the following:
Many faithful Southern Baptist churches do not consider baptism a prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. (Perhaps the following could also be added) The decision as to who is permitted to receive the Lord’s Supper is a local church matter.
That wording is not well thought out, but is just a proposal. It gets at the heart of what I am saying.
I would never recommend we simply ignore our confession and pretend it did not proscribe something that a majority of us practice in our churches. But if we are not practicing close communion universally, is it really a parameter for fellowship? Have we not already made my proposal the reality? Ought we not simply write down what is common practice?
That seems to me to be the only solution.