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FIRST-PERSON: Convictional cooperation and confessional commitments

Adam W. Greenway, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, speaks during the joint seminary report June 15 at the 2022 Southern Baptist Convention Annual Meeting. (Baptist Press/Adam Covington)

Is emphasizing our cooperative work tantamount to downplaying our doctrinal commitments as Southern Baptists? Such a question poses an unappealing choice to be sure. These twin objectives are not mutually exclusive, of course, as is well attested by our own history and heritage.

In the Baptist tradition in general, and the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in particular, confessions of faith historically have been promulgated for the purpose of articulating the essentials of biblical orthodoxy and denominational distinctives, but with the intention to bring as many as possible together under the tent of cooperation and mission, rather than the goal to exclude as many as possible. At our best, we are marked by a steadfastness to uphold our confessional nature as well as a spirit that desires to include as many brothers and sisters as possible in our cooperative mission to reach the world with the life-changing Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Unfortunately, recent events may appear to call into question this longstanding approach. Southern Baptists face a critical choice at this juncture in our history: do we want to spend endless energy finding new ways to divide ourselves by seeking to disfellowship every local congregation that does not march in lockstep with every jot and tittle of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM), or will we channel our best efforts into bringing together every church whose faith and practice closely identifies with the BFM for the purpose of reaching our world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

During the 2022 SBC annual meeting, the Credentials Committee recommended the creation of a presidential task force for the purpose of reporting back “a recommendation providing clarity regarding the ‘office of pastor’” language in Article VI of the BFM. The committee proposal came in response to a motion referral calling into question Saddleback Church’s status as a cooperating SBC church around issues regarding female ministry staff members who had been given the title of “pastor.”

Some messengers appeared scandalized by the very notion of a task force to help clarify our doctrinal commitments, as if the mere recommendation spelled disaster for Southern Baptists. But recent precedent indicates otherwise. The 1994 SBC Annual contains the report of the Presidential Theological Study Committee, appointed by SBC President H. Edwin Young in 1992, and commended at the time by a cross-section of Southern Baptists. This group reported that it had sought “to clarify our historic Baptist commitment to Holy Scripture, the doctrine of God, the person and work of Jesus Christ, the nature and mission of the church, and biblical teaching on last things.” The committee’s report reaffirmed the 1963 BFM statement rather than recommending any revision or a new confession.

This June in Anaheim, however, arguments were made against the Credentials Committee task force recommendation by those of the opinion that the BFM language is clear enough: “pastor” (as used in the BFM) means “pastor” (as used by any local church), period. While I affirm the value of originalism and authorial intent when it comes to matters of interpretation regarding the meaning of particular words and phrases contained in our denominational doctrinal statement, a brief look back in time, courtesy of the Baptist Press (BP) archives, illustrates why some might have questions when applying that principle to our present dilemma.

In a May 23, 2000, BP article, various members of the BFM Study Committee that authored the revisions referred to the proposed change to Article VI as relating only to the office of senior pastor. Interestingly, even the headline of this article explicitly references “senior pastor roles.” A subsequent June 14, 2000, BP article reported on a news conference held following the adoption of the revised BFM where “committee members cautioned the press against misunderstanding Baptist polity, noting that the convention’s vote is not binding upon local churches.” This article quoted the late Adrian P. Rogers, chair of the committee, who stated that the BFM “is not a creed” but “is a statement of what most of us believe,” including regarding what the BP article identified as “the new BFM’s stance against women serving as senior pastors.”

In fairness, the number of SBC congregations who in the year 2000 used the title of “pastor” for ministry staff members besides the primary leader of the church pales in comparison to that statistic today. For most of the 20th century, the typical Southern Baptist church had an ordained pastor who preached—who was “the pastor”—and any other staff were titled something other than “pastor”: e.g., “minister of education,” “song leader,” “children’s director.” Today, those same staff positions are more frequently titled “discipleship pastor,” “worship and arts pastor,” “next generation pastor”—sometimes without regard either to gender or ordination status.

Related, the expansion of plural elder leadership models in SBC church life, where some, but not necessarily all, of the “elders” are “pastors,” is a further complicating element. Most Southern Baptists have believed that pastor/elder/overseer are three scriptural functions, but only one biblical office. Dividing church leadership into categories of unpaid “lay elders” and paid “staff pastors” raises additional questions. In short, when it comes to church practice across the SBC landscape, the word “pastor” does not necessarily mean today what it meant in the year 2000. Just because a local church uses “pastor” in its vocabulary does not necessarily mean said church is using the BFM for its dictionary.

I believe the vast majority of Southern Baptists, myself included, did not in 2000 and do not in 2022 affirm a woman serving as “the pastor”—that is, in the primary office that leads the local church. Indeed, I would not be a member of a church that had a female in such a position of leadership. I am a committed complementarian who holds that God has uniquely gifted men and women for service in his Kingdom but that certain roles of local church leadership are reserved for scripturally qualified men. I am a member of a church that positively affirms our Convention’s adopted statement of faith, and I am privileged to lead the first SBC seminary ever to adopt the BFM as its confession of faith (in 1926) and that requires every member of the faculty and instructional staff to sign the BFM without hesitation or mental reservation.

The BFM established the doctrinal boundaries by which Southern Baptists should expect their entities to operate. I am confident I speak for all my fellow SBC entity heads in affirming this vital function of the BFM. But what Convention entities require with respect to positive affirmation of and strict subscription to the BFM is not and has never been required of local churches to be deemed to be in friendly cooperation with the SBC. This distinction in the nature and function of our polity must not be lost.

While significant, the discussion stemming from Saddleback’s decision regarding women serving as non-senior pastors vis-à-vis the BFM reveals a more fundamental question that must be addressed: what does it mean for the SBC to deem a local church to be “in friendly cooperation”?

Since we have in the BFM a Convention-adopted statement of faith, some have described the SBC as a confessional convention. While Southern Baptists are indeed a confessional people, the term “confessional convention” can be subject to misunderstanding and misappropriation. Many Southern Baptists would be surprised to learn that a local church is not required to affirm explicitly the BFM statement to be deemed a cooperating church. Article III of the SBC Constitution, which defines what it means to be a cooperating church, simply states that the church must have “a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” The linchpin of cooperation in the SBC may well be three words: “closely identifies with.”

As I proposed in my amendment offered during debate on the Credentials Committee’s recommendation, I believe the question of how closely identified a local church’s faith and practice must be with the BFM is the real underlying matter that deserves careful consideration. Serious discussions are needed about what it means to be Southern Baptist, and how close our communion needs to be when it comes to our adopted statement of faith and the unity/diversity of local church faith and practice. The pressing issue regarding women and the “office of pastor” language is not the only area of concern. Upon closer examination, the BFM is potentially being contradicted by a significant number of cooperating SBC churches.

By way of example, every iteration of the BFM (1925, 1963, 2000) has defined scriptural baptism as the immersion of a believer in water and that as a church ordinance it is prerequisite to church membership and the Lord’s Supper (see Article VII). Yet, there appears to be an ever-growing number of cooperating churches that allow all self-identified believers admittance to the Lord’s Table irrespective of baptismal condition or church membership, a practice often labeled “open communion” (in contrast to the BFM position of “close” or “closed communion”). The words of the BFM are unambiguously clear, however, and mean that any church that practices “open communion” does so in contradiction to the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.

“Open communion” is hardly the only doctrinal deviation from the BFM present in SBC life today. The list expands rapidly when considering churches who admit into membership those who have not been scripturally baptized (e.g., “open baptism” and “alien immersion”), multi-site churches, corporate-board-governed churches, churches which embrace certain forms of dispensationalism, others who hold to original guilt and condemnation in Adam, not to mention “free grace” theology, strict Sabbatarianism, and other points of debatable faith and practice across the SBC church landscape.

If the description of the SBC as a “confessional convention” means that the SBC should require strict conformity to the words of the BFM to deem a church “in friendly cooperation,” then the task before the Credentials Committee is exponentially greater than just Saddleback Church. Countless churches would need to be disfellowshipped from our Convention.

Undoubtedly, there are and will always be some SBC churches that I would not join as a member because I believe they are in error when it comes to certain matters of doctrine and polity. But as a Baptist by conviction, I also believe that just because I consider another SBC church to be wrong does not automatically mean I think they should be out. Moreover, the enumerated examples of disqualifying church acts in Article III of the SBC Constitution (homosexual behavior, sexual abuse, and ethnic discrimination) are matters Southern Baptists have agreed are clearly sinful, not merely wrong. Such a distinction might be a helpful blueprint for the Credentials Committee moving forward.

The 1994 Presidential Theological Study Committee report included these words worth repeating today, “We affirm the wisdom of convictional cooperation in carrying out our witness to the world and decry all efforts to weaken our denomination and its cooperative ministries.” In this era of cultural chaos and moral confusion, may we Southern Baptists defend vigorously our theological and ecclesiological commitments, but reject attempts to narrow further the confessional parameters that define our cooperation.

    About the Author

  • Adam W. Greenway

    Adam W. Greenway is president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Texas Baptist College in Fort Worth, Texas.

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