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FIRST-PERSON: Confession and cooperation

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TIGERVILLE, S.C. (BP) – Southern Baptists have begun a public conversation about the relationship between our confession of faith and our commitment to cooperation. It is an important discussion. My purpose here is not to weigh in on the specific debate in Anaheim that has brought us to this point. Others have already done that, and no doubt many will continue to do so. Rather, as a Baptist historian, I want to step back and reflect on how Southern Baptists have thought about this issue up to this point and where that leaves us now.

For the first 80 years of Southern Baptist history, we had no Convention-wide statement of faith. Many local churches (and often associations) adopted a variety of confessions, most notably either American revisions to the Second London Confession (The Philadelphia Confession, the Charleston Confession) or the New Hampshire Confession. Other churches did not adopt any confession of faith. Nevertheless, for two generations our churches were characterized by an assumed theological consensus, albeit never strict doctrinal uniformity.

The rise of modernism in the late-nineteenth century led some Southern Baptists to question the truthfulness of Scripture and embrace evolution. Though Southern Baptists were less influenced by modernism than their northern counterparts, in 1925 the Convention addressed these trends by adopting the Baptist Faith and Message, a revision of the New Hampshire Confession. The adoption of the BF&M in 1925 was mostly a symbolic gesture, since it was not binding on autonomous churches and had minimal impact in Baptist institutions. But the precedent was established. When theological controversies evidence fault lines in the SBC consensus, we clarify that consensus via confession.

A generation later, debates over many of the same theological issues in new forms led to a revision to the confession. The revision closely followed the earlier edition on most points. However, it allowed latitude for certain neo-orthodox ideas about Scripture. Furthermore, the preamble made clear that Scripture is the final authority for faith and practice, confessions are not infallible, and confessionalism must be balanced with liberty of conscience. Once again, the BF&M 1963 was not binding on autonomous churches and was largely ignored by Convention institutions. But the principle was reaffirmed: theological controversies that challenge the consensus should be addressed via confession.

The pattern was repeated yet again. Following two decades of protracted controversy over biblical inerrancy, women in ministry and social issues such as the sanctity of human life and the family, the BF&M was amended in 1998 and revised substantially in 2000. This time, things were different in two important ways.

First, the revised statement was more consistently evangelical, closing the loop on neo-orthodox views of Scripture and clarifying the Convention’s commitment to gender complementarity. Though the 2000 preamble in many ways echoed the preamble to the 1963 edition by affirming both sola Scriptura and liberty of conscience, it gave greater emphasis to the role of confessions as “instruments of doctrinal accountability.”

Second, denominational institutions embraced a more consistent confessionalism. Prior to 2000, there was no standard approach to how seminaries and mission boards used statements of faith. Since 2000, however, Southern Baptists have expected every seminary professor, missionary, church planter and curriculum writer to affirm the BF&M 2000. Furthermore, we have also expected elected and appointed officers and trustees to affirm the confession. Southern Baptists have clearly defined confessional expectations for our entities and our denominational servants.

But what about the confessional expectations for cooperating churches? The picture is less clear. While thousands of churches have adopted the BF&M 2000 over the past two decades, they have done so voluntarily because of local church autonomy. In fact, many churches have never adopted the BF&M 2000. Some have adopted older, more historic Baptist confessions. Others have written their own confessions of faith. Still others have not adopted any formal confession of faith. Nearly all of these churches are thoroughly conservative. But this diversity when it comes to confessions demonstrates that confessional subscription is not currently a prerequisite for cooperation.

This gets to the heart of the recent debate in Anaheim. The material principle is whether using the term pastor for a woman who is not a church’s senior or solo pastor violates the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. That is a significant issue we need to clarify. But the formal principle is how closely an autonomous church must conform to the confession to be in friendly cooperation. As others have noted, this applies to far more issues than the question of women and pastoral titles. We must make sure that in our rush to reaffirm our consensus on the material principle, that we do not leave the formal principle unresolved.

For a generation, the Convention has required more confessionally of our entities and denominational servants than we have the churches who desire to cooperate with us. Some are satisfied with this arrangement. Others desire a more substantive confessionalism as a basis for cooperation. Ultimately, this is a matter for the Convention to decide. But until we do, we need to make sure we understand what we are debating and why we are debating it. The Convention needs to clarify the relationship between confession and cooperation, between the boundaries of our consensus and the doctrinal expectations of cooperation.

Moving forward, I pray we have this family discussion with soft hearts, calloused knees and open Bibles. I pray we would remain committed to obeying the teachings of Scripture, both when it comes to doctrinal matters being debated and the command that we love our brothers and sisters in Christ who might differ in matters of interpretation. I pray we would embrace a convictional cooperation that honors the Lord, clarifies our doctrinal consensus, and mobilizes us for greater faithfulness to our Great Commission task.

    About the Author

  • Nathan Finn