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6 words: ‘defining moment’ between conservative & moderate Baptists

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–“… the Bible is just a book.”

As those words resonated through the Orlando, Fla., convention center June 14, thousands of shocked Baptists responded with audible gasps. For conservatives, it was a moment of truth. The 20-year battle for the spiritual heart of the Southern Baptist Convention had just been exposed in six words.

“I think it was a defining moment,” said Jerry Sutton, pastor of Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn., and author of “The Baptist Reformation: The Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention.”

“That statement exposed where the moderate crowd is standing,” said Sutton, whose history of the conservative resurgence was released earlier this year by the Broadman & Holman division of the SBC’s LifeWay Christian Resources.

Sutton said he was surprised by the statement. “I didn’t think they would be so blunt. In the past the moderates have been secretive in their theological presuppositions.”

At issue, was the statement on the Scriptures in the proposed 2000 revision of the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message: “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy. It reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.”

The moment of truth for dissident moderates and their denomination-like Cooperative Baptist Fellowship came when Anthony Sizemore, pastor of First Baptist Church, Floydada, Texas, offered an amendment to the proposed Baptist Faith and Message when it came up for discussion during the SBC annual meeting in Orlando’s Orange County Convention Center.

Sizemore, whose church supports the SBC’s Cooperative Program but also sends designated money to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, wanted to reinstate a near-exact version of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message preamble. In defending his motion, he said that while the Bible is “true and trustworthy … the Bible is still just a book.”

Sizemore’s remarks drew a sharp response from the thousands of local church messengers and guests in the convention hall, and R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of the BF&M study committee, responded from the platform.

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is what it all comes down to,” Mohler said. “The issue is whether or not the Bible is the Word of God or whether it is merely a record of God’s Word.”

“Sizemore was very outspoken,” Sutton said. “In all honesty, it helped to set the context. There really is a strong divergence of opinion, and the truth is that he [Sizemore] is in the minority. Most of us think he’s wrong.”

Sutton continued, “One pastor who asked me not to use his name said we couldn’t have paid someone to better set the issue in its context. This guy said exactly what he thought.”

Ultimately, Sutton said, “The moderates really do believe the Bible just another book.”

Sutton said he believes that God used the statement to expose the moderates. “God brings truth out of confusion,” he said. “God allowed the moderate crowd, some of whom were confused, to expose what they really believed. Out of the confusion of their emotions, he brought out the truth.”

In a telephone interview with Baptist Press, Sizemore said he didn’t mean to draw so much attention, but he stands by his motion.”

“I don’t care what Al Mohler said, the Bible is not the full revelation of God. Jesus Christ is God’s revelation,” the Texas pastor said.

“As I shared, I believe the Bible is a book that God has given us for guidance. It’s a book that points us to the truth,” Sizemore added. “We’re not supposed to have a relationship with a book.”

While Sizemore told Baptist Press he believes the Bible is inerrant and infallible on matters of faith and practice, he wasn’t too sure about matters of history, geography and literature. He declined to speculate on how parts of the Bible can be infallible and other parts fallible.

Sutton said that’s a question all conservatives have been asking and one that the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship should ask, too. “The CBF should ask themselves why are they here, what is their purpose, what are they hoping to accomplish,” he said, noting that from a biblical standpoint, “Their foundation is shaky.”

The handful of people who voiced opposition to the proposed BF&M during the SBC discussion either contribute to or strongly support the CBF.

“Every amendment that was made to the Baptist Faith and Message was an issue of presuppositions,” Sutton said. “And every one of them failed. These moderates were attempting to displace what I call the conservative presupposition of the inerrant, authoritative Scripture.”

Among those who spoke against the BF&M revision were Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas and a former member of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Coordinating Council; Bruce Prescott, a former leader in the CBF and president of the CBF-affiliated Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists; David Currie, a member of the CBF Coordinating Council and leader of the anti-SBC group Texas Baptist Committed; and Wayne Ward, a former professor at Southern Seminary under Roy Honeycutt’s presidency.

Ward characterized the BF&M study committee as hand-picked and “trying to impose its will on rank and file Southern Baptists.”

Ward’s comments drew a sharp rebuke from Sutton. “When he criticized a group of outstanding theologians, leading pastors and laypeople, I think in a big way it betrayed his bias,” Sutton told Baptist Press. “The 1963 committee was in many ways naive and they permitted neo-orthodox language to be inserted unbeknownst to most of them.”

The SBC’s statement on the Bible is historic also among mainline denominations, which generally hold to the perception that the Bible is just a book, Sutton said.

The former leadership of the SBC was on that same road, he noted. “I’m talking about heads of agencies and many of our professors,” he said. “If that were not the case, then Ralph Elliott would never have been able to publish and the Broadman Commentary would never have been published,” in reference to two works from the 1960s dismissing a traditional view of biblical authority.

With an overwhelming majority, messengers gave their approval to the 2000 BF&M.

Sizemore, meanwhile, said the revision does not reflect the views of traditional Baptists.

When asked why thousands of Baptists voted for the revision, Sizemore replied, “When you put more control and power in the leadership, people can be duped. I’m going to have to say they [messengers] placed too much stock in the leadership’s opinion.”

Sizemore said he nevertheless will remain a staunch supporter of the SBC. Currently, his church gives 13 percent of its undesignated receipts to the Cooperative Program through the BGCT, in the giving plan which devotes 33 percent to SBC causes. He said that he does not plan to join the CBF. “My very first pastorate was a church that was 100 percent CBF,” he said. “But I was able to counsel them and encourage them to rejoin the SBC and they did.”

As for the future of the SBC, Sutton issued a warning. “There is a major movement to entrench moderates and liberals in the religion departments of state Baptist schools,” he said. “If they can’t subvert seminary students, they will go a step backwards and subvert college students.

“In time,” Sutton added, “conservatives in each state, by necessity, will have to organize and challenge those moves for the sake of the next generation.”

    About the Author

  • Todd Starnes