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FIRST-PERSON: On confessional clarity and learning from our mistakes

Pastor Jared Cornutt makes a motion to amend Article VI of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 at the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans. BP file photo by Sonya Singh

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (BP) – Amid the many other important decisions made at the SBC annual meeting last week, we did something historic by amending the Baptist Faith and Message from the floor of the convention with little discussion and frankly, it seems, even less awareness that it was even happening.

I made that motion, and I would make it again. I think the change is one that reflects our historical and confessional understanding of the office of pastor/elder/overseer, and it makes clear what our confession is talking about when we say that one of our offices is “limited to men as qualified by Scripture.”

But I’ve observed an unusual phenomenon since the amendment was ratified Wednesday afternoon: near-unanimous agreement with the content of the amendment, and entirely unanimous agreement that we can never amend our confession like that again. You don’t have to be in Baptist life long to realize that unanimous anything is nearly impossible, and the fact that we’re all agreed on this says something important about the role of our confession.

As I stated from the floor, the preamble to the BFM1925 states that “Baptists should hold themselves free to revise their statements of faith as may seem to them wise and expedient at any time [emphasis added].” I believe that’s a necessary principle. But hear me: it should never, ever be as easy as it was last week.

My expectation in making the motion was that it would be referred to the Executive Committee and, if they thought it prudent, we might see it come before the messengers on the floor in 2024. To be frank, I thought even that was a long shot. When the chair of the Committee on Order of Business announced Tuesday afternoon that we would be debating and voting on it Wednesday, I was flabbergasted.

Amending our confession from the floor on a Wednesday afternoon, when our messengers are experiencing “delegate fatigue syndrome” (credit to parliamentarian Al Gage), is like doing surgery on the dining room table with a pocketknife and a flashlight; you might get the bullet out (or in this case, the benign tumor), but you’re taking a lot of risks along the way. And why take those risks when you have a team of experienced surgeons and a sterile operating room next door?

The word “committee” has become somewhat pejorative to some in our convention, but I disagree. In addition to being thoroughly Southern Baptist, the fact remains that taking careful time to study, together, the difficult questions facing our convention is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. It proves that we are a serious people for serious times, willing to do the hard work – to put in the prayer and time and dedication – required when we are seeking consensus and unity. And what could be more serious than amending our confession?

Even in the final moments before we voted on it Wednesday, the friend who helped me craft the language of the amendment and I were trying to get another messenger to a mic who could make a motion committing the matter to a presidentially appointed committee. Before that could happen, the question was called and debate ended. But the principle remains, the best place for the conversation regarding changes to our confession is in the context of a committee that can take the requisite time to weigh the consequences.

If I didn’t believe in the sovereignty of God, I would say we got lucky last week – lucky that we passed a consensus amendment that clarified rather than changed the substance of our confession, and lucky that we learned we have a flaw in our system without causing serious damage. The beauty is, now we know it’s there, and we can fix it. And fix it we will.

It seems that some of the best minds in our convention are already working together on a proposal to raise the threshold for what it takes to amend our confession, whether that be the requirement for two successive votes, a higher percentage of affirmative votes, or such changes being referred to a committee. I’ll be in Indianapolis next year and, assuming someone makes a motion to that effect, I’ll gladly be the first to raise my ballot in support of such a measure.

Jared Cornutt is lead pastor of North Shelby Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala.

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