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FIRST-PERSON: Postscript to the 2007 SBC Baptist Faith & Message discussion

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–In my report entitled “Leading by Example” to the Southern Baptist Convention in San Antonio, I noted that the Executive Committee in February had adopted the following statement about the Baptist Faith and Message:

“The Baptist Faith and Message is not a creed, or a complete statement of our faith, nor final or infallible; nevertheless we further acknowledge that it is the only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs approved by the Southern Baptist Convention and as such is sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices of entities of the Convention.”

It must be noted that the SBC Executive Committee adopted the statement for itself, and perhaps as a model others may choose to follow, but not as a recommendation for other entities or the Southern Baptist Convention. Had it been drafted as a recommendation to the 2007 Southern Baptist Convention it might have been constructed differently. Nevertheless, the messengers of the Convention voted to adopt the statement as a result of a motion that was made from the floor. Although the Executive Committee did not recommend it to the Convention, it is not a confusing statement. I encourage you to tune out all the rhetoric surrounding the issue and read the statement carefully, taking it at face value. It says what it says, nothing more and nothing less.

In the last five to seven years, Southern Baptists sitting in the pews and standing in the pulpits throughout the Convention have been waiting eagerly for Convention leaders to guide them to “renew our passion for the Lord Jesus Christ and the reign of His Kingdom in our hearts, families, and churches from which God can forge a spiritual movement marked by holy living, sacrificial service, and global witness” (quote from the Vision Statement of Empowering Kingdom Growth). As many others, I sense a yearning among Southern Baptists for something greater than ourselves. In its report to the Convention entitled, The Coming of the Kingdom of God, the EKG Task Force examined our Convention’s collective heart and made these observations, “…we are desperate for our lives to have spiritual power and eternal significance. We want to rise above the ordinary and the temporal. We respond instinctively to appeals for a more intimate and immediate relationship with God…”

Our forefathers had the foresight to determine the core beliefs about which they could agree in order that Southern Baptist churches could come together to send missionaries around the world and build seminaries to educate individuals who were to pastor, preach, teach, and minister in our churches. When we insist upon engaging each other in heated debates over doctrinal interpretations beyond the Baptist Faith and Message, our Convention shall sooner, or later divide into even more factions and distract us from fulfilling the Great Commission.

Discussing whether the Baptist Faith and Message is a “minimal” statement or an “exhaustive” statement misses its greatest attribute — that attribute is that it is a “consensus” statement that defines Southern Baptist doctrine as believed by the greater whole of the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention. Upon these doctrinal statements, we agree to agree. In doctrinal statements not included in the Baptist Faith and Message, we must learn to agree to disagree and debate the differences as Spirit-filled Christians who love Christ and one another.

Identifying our core beliefs in the BF&M allows us the latitude to be drawn together for the purpose of faithfully and obediently “lifting up our eyes, and looking on the fields; for they are white already to harvest” (John 4:35). What would it be like if the vast energies and resources of this Convention were given for missions and evangelism and God’s people were marshaled to witness to the ends of the earth by the thousands upon thousands? For the born-again believer, it is the most urgent and rewarding work on earth. The world has yet to see what God would do through His people if our hearts burned with the desire to abandon our all to the Lordship of Christ, making Him preeminent in our lives. The question is, “Shall we most desire what God desires for us or what we humanly want for ourselves?”

Our confession, entitled the Baptist Faith and Message, was intended to be a statement of doctrine around which we could coalesce in order to more effectively and efficiently tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love around the world.

Let me quote a portion of a sentence in the BF&M Preamble.

“…these are doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice.”

In recent years, three doctrinal issues have been much debated. They are (1) Calvinism, (2) Private Prayer Language, and (3) Water Baptism. Have you examined the Baptist Faith and Message to determine if our confessional statement mentions any or all of these issues? Here are my observations.

Section V. God’s Purpose of Grace.
In this section, it states, “Election is the gracious purpose of God, according to which he regenerates, justifies, sanctifies, and glorifies sinners. It is consistent with the free agency of man, and comprehends all the means in connection with the end. It is the glorious display of God’s sovereign goodness, and is infinitely wise, holy, and unchangeable. It excludes boasting and promotes humility.”

“All true believers endure to the end. Those whom God has accepted in Christ, and sanctified by his Spirit, will never fall away from the state of grace, but shall persevere to the end.”

Section IV. Salvation
In this section, it states, “Salvation involves the redemption of the whole man, and is offered freely to all who accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, who by His own blood obtained eternal redemption for the believer. “…there is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord.”

The Bible teaches both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man. The Baptist Faith and Message agrees that both the work of grace and the responsibility of man are necessary elements in the salvation experience. This phenomenon is called an antinomy (an apparent contradiction between two equally valid principles). For instance, how can salvation be totally an act of God, independent of human means, and a human response to a divine initiative? The Baptist Faith and Message identifies and embraces the antinomy of these two seemingly competing truths. Therefore, a healthy tension (an antinomy) exists in the Bible with regard to these two important biblical truths. Men often have proposed and promoted theological theories in an attempt to reconcile biblical antinomies. But where God’s Word seems to run afoul of our sense of things, He must be trusted rather than a man-made theological system. Man’s understanding always will be inferior to God’s knowledge. God doesn’t tell us everything He knows, but what we need to know to be redeemed and live righteously.

Since the Baptist Faith and Message embraces both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man, it is reasonable for Southern Baptists to expect professors to teach both elements as necessary for the salvation experience. If we are swept up in a Convention-wide debate between those who believe in five-point Calvinism and those who don’t, especially so soon on the heels of the Conservative Resurgence, we will do irreparable harm to the Kingdom of God and our Convention.

For the sake of reaching the world for Christ, can we not agree that both the sovereignty of God and the responsibility of man are ingredients in our salvation? What have we proven if we become angry and argumentative with one another trying to prove a premise when God through His Word offers only what we need to know, not what we think we want to know. This Convention can ill afford continuous acrimonious debate, especially about a doctrinal issue which will never be resolved even by the most brilliant theologians.

Parenthetically, the matter of elders leading the church as officers is often discussed in association with Calvinism. The Baptist Faith and Message in Section VI. The Church, states, “Its scriptural officers are pastors and deacons.” Are they or are they not? If there is more than one interpretation concerning officers in the church, should not Southern Baptists make the decision on biblical grounds? They did so with the vote to adopt the original Baptist Faith and Message in 1925, and they did so the few times the BF&M has been revised. Why should the Convention’s churches and entities not see that statement as sufficient on the matter?

Section II (C). God the Holy Spirit
The Baptist Faith and Message states that the Holy Spirit…bestows the spiritual gifts by which they (believers) serve God through His church. There is no other reference to spiritual gifts. According to one interpretation of spiritual gifts, it reasonably could be argued that the gifts to which the BF&M refer are “service” gifts, thereby eliminating the continualist view of the gifts of healing and tongues speaking. However, for all practical purposes, one cannot make a strong case for or against tongues speaking using the Baptist Faith and Message as the sole interpretative source. Nevertheless, it is common knowledge that the vast majority of Southern Baptists believe the Scriptures do not teach that speaking in ecstatic utterances in a public worship service continued past the days of the apostles. Thus Southern Baptists, by and large, do not preach, teach, or publicly practice speaking in tongues. This is an instance where the consensus of Southern Baptists is well known although it is not “codified” in the BF&M. Why would it not be included? Perhaps because our forefathers were determined to state the essential doctrines we believe rather than dwelling upon what we do not believe.

On the other hand, if a private prayer language is indeed kept private, why has it erupted into a major public debate among Southern Baptists? Does the descriptive word “private” have any meaning? If we are talking about a private prayer language, should not the person praying keep the prayer language private? If the person keeps the prayer language private, should not the person who has the inclination to judge keep his/her opinions private? Why should private prayer language become a dispute among members of the same family of believers?

Section VI. The Church
In this section, the BF&M states, “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers, associated by covenant in the faith and fellowship of the gospel; observing the two ordinances of Christ…”

Section VII. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper
In addition to the meaning of baptism as an act of obedience, the BF&M states, “Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord’s Supper.

We will do well to remember that the present discussion about baptism among Southern Baptists is a question that has been raised over the past couple of years with regard to SBC entities and not the local church. When executives, professors, and missionaries of SBC entities sign the Baptist Faith and Message, to what extent are they pledging to teach and preach the consensus doctrinal beliefs stated in the BF&M? Is the BF&M sufficient? Are other confessions needed?

Now that the Southern Baptist Convention has settled the matter of the inerrancy of God’s Word, and we have in common the tenets of our faith regarding the preexistence of Christ, His virgin birth, sinless life, atoning death, bodily resurrection, and literal ascension into heaven, and other essential doctrines, why do we find it so difficult to coexist in harmonious fellowship? Will Southern Baptists move beyond the distractions caused by constantly badgering each other and instigating heated debates concerning interpretations of doctrines not addressed in the BF&M about which we may never agree? Can we not agree to keep our focus upon obeying Christ’s command to tell the world that “Jesus saves?” Our inability to concentrate upon reaching souls for Christ and sending thousands of missionaries throughout the world will be the cost of not finding good in each other.

I am reminded that God uses broken things. He will not do great things through us in this generation unless and until we have humbled ourselves before Him with a brokenness that causes us to abandon our own desires, our own will, and to give all of self to Christ.

If every, and I emphasize, every Southern Baptist were to pray earnestly and urgently, “God, forgive me of my arrogance, self-centered ambition, envy, greed, and worldliness,” we could begin to live with the expectancy that God’s Spirit will move mightily among us. I may be wrong, but I sense that we are doing too much under our own strength, and regardless of the energy we are expending, we are running in place.

May we, one by one, pray, “Lord, bring us to our knees that, in turn, we may all be drawn to the foot of the Cross in humble submission to Your will and Your will alone. Father, bring us together under the love and Lordship of Christ and in obedience to Your Word that while we ‘contend for the faith which was once delivered to the saints’ (Jude 3), we shall find the way to do so with a strong word of encouragement to each other. Lord, we are one family and we do not wish to waste time being dysfunctional. Help us in those instances when we find ourselves incapable of knowing how to pray. In the matchless Name above every Name, Jesus. Amen.”
Morris H. Chapman is president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee.

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  • Morris H. Chapman