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FIRST-PERSON: Reflections on response to missionaries affirming the Baptist Faith and Message

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–Asking Southern Baptist missionaries who serve with the International Mission Board to affirm that their work and personal convictions are compatible with what their sponsoring denomination believes has been an interesting process. It was not unexpected that many among our Southern Baptist constituency who do not agree with the leadership and conservative direction of the SBC — as well as those who are in disagreement with the faith statement itself — would disagree with this initiative.

However, reflection upon the negative response from individuals and the media over the past year has revealed that an alarming number of Southern Baptists have succumbed to the subtle influence of postmodern thinking and theological compromise. Many are offended that denominational workers would be expected to adhere to any defined commonality of faith. It is evident the precious doctrine of individual priesthood of believers is being distorted to justify whatever arises out of self-centered, independent thought, regardless of explicit biblical teaching to the contrary.

Criticism of the Baptist Faith and Message and accusations of enforced creedalism indicate that many have lost any understanding of what it means to be a confessional people. For more than 400 years, Baptists have been expressing their distinctive stance on social issues and doctrinal positions in drafting confessions of faith — and they will continue to do so.

Theological truth is absolute, so theology does not change, but as long as the world and society change it will be necessary for churches and denominations to express where they stand and what they believe the Scripture teaches on contemporary issues, if they are to maintain their distinctives and be salt and light witnesses in the world.

When many diverse denominations and cultic groups claim to base what they believe and practice on their interpretation of the Bible, it is essential that Southern Baptists express what they believe and where they stand in a commonality of convictions and faith. The London Confession in 1644 was written in response to the Westminster Confession to clarify who Baptists were in contrast to the Reformed tradition, both of which claimed the Bible as their authority for faith and practice. Rising ecumenism and Darwinism in the early 20th century precipitated the drafting of the original 1925 Southern Baptist statement, and the 1963 revision emerged almost 40 years later in reaction to the assaults upon the authority and truthfulness of the Bible.

While dismissing the Baptist Faith and Message as a creed, critics likewise demean it for supposedly attempting to change Southern Baptist beliefs. In reality, the 2000 BF&M has not changed any beliefs at all. Recent revisions have simply spoken to contemporary issues by confessing what the Bible has always taught — and Southern Baptists have always believed and practiced — about the role of pastoral leadership and the spiritual order of the home and to affirm that the entire Bible is the inspired, infallible Word of God, not just that spoken by and with reference to Jesus, all of which have been under attack by postmodern thinking.

The Bible — Sole authority of faith and practice

Being a confessional people doesn’t contradict in any way the Bible as the sole authority of faith and practice nor an individual’s freedom to interpret Scripture as led by the Holy Spirit. Anyone can believe what they choose. No one has to be a Southern Baptist. But those who are Southern Baptists have the collective prerogative of determining, under God’s leadership, what they commonly hold as the teaching of God’s inerrant and infallible Word.

In reaction to the Baptist Faith and Message, many proclaim their conviction that the Bible is their only authority, but then refuse to be accountable for believing and practicing its specific and explicit teachings! A creed is simply a statement of what an individual or group believes. Perhaps the reason creeds are spoken of with such disdain is that so many, typical of postmodern thought, really do not believe anything as absolute truth anymore.

An extremely alarming trend is that many detractors of a statement of faith espouse the priesthood of the believers and autonomy of churches as the hallmarks of Baptist belief, neglecting to acknowledge that the foundational convictions of Baptists, and those upon which these two precious concepts are based, are the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the authority of God’s Word.

One oft-repeated accusation is that the Baptist Faith and Message is being imposed on others. This is a hollow and distorted perception, as it has never been imposed on any church or individual. One believes what one believes — something that simply cannot be imposed by others. However, it is altogether appropriate that Southern Baptist churches expect those who represent them and who are entrusted with matters of faith — such as missionaries, seminary professors and denominational workers — hold personal beliefs and convictions consistent with what the denomination confesses to believe.

The BF&M was formulated by men and women, priests of God, who prayerfully and earnestly sought God’s will and guidance in expressing the consensus of their faith according to the teaching of Scripture. It was formulated under God’s leadership and is an expressed interpretation based on His authoritative, unchanging Word. Southern Baptists, gathered in annual session, prayed and expressed their sense of God’s will in voting to adopt the BF&M. Would critics who champion the case for individual priesthood as justification for dissension and independent thinking deny the very basis on which we practice church and denominational polity?

Denying that God had anything to do with leading Southern Baptists to boldly affirm what God’s Word teaches regarding church order, the marriage relationship and the inspired authority of all Scripture reveals a contradiction of values. Unfortunately and sadly, the result has been many Baptist churches and individuals mimicking society, choosing humanistic thinking, cultural accommodation and theological compromise at the expense of abiding and eternal truth to guide faith and practice.

A short view of Baptist history

Those who claim Southern Baptists have abandoned what it means to be Baptist seem to have a short view of history. Their heritage goes back no further than the last generation, when leadership and seminaries were embracing higher criticism, an erosion of biblical authority that was moving the denomination toward the precipice of liberalism over which mainline denominations had fallen. As we hold missionaries accountable today, they forget that the Foreign Mission Board denied appointment to Southern Seminary professor Crawford Toy and withdrew the appointment of John Stout and T.P. Bell in 1881 because they did not hold to the verbal, plenary inspiration of Scripture as other Southern Baptists did. They forget that the chairman of the original Baptist Faith and Message committee in 1925, E.Y. Mullins, made it clear that this definitive confession of faith was to be an instrument of doctrinal accountability for preachers, professors and those representing the denomination.

One has succumbed to the relativism of postmodern thought when one says missionaries deserve our support regardless of what they believe or teach. Exaltation of independent, self-centered thinking has supplanted submission to the Word of God when individuals sent out and supported by the denomination are unwilling to affirm they will carry out their work in accord with what the churches they represent believe.

The few missionaries who rejected my request to affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message made it clear that they will be accountable to Southern Baptists only the way they themselves choose to be accountable. Others say, “I want you to support me, but I am accountable only to the Lord!” How would a local church respond to a pastor who said, “I no longer believe or will preach and teach what you as a church have said you believe, but I want you to continue to support me as your pastor since I have served so well in the past”? Such independent attitudes and thinking certainly have nothing to do with the priesthood of the believer and one’s relationship with God, as some claim. God leads believers within the body to live and work in mutual submission to one another and with respect for those God has called to servant leadership within His Kingdom.

Missionaries are called of God and are accountable to their Lord. They don’t have to serve with Southern Baptists, but those who are sent and supported by the Southern Baptist Convention have a stewardship and trust to teach, preach and represent what Southern Baptists believe with integrity and personal conviction. Asking for that affirmation is not a politically coerced initiative; it is the simple bottom line of accountability to those we represent.

The issue is not about individuals being terminated; it is about the credibility of the International Mission Board being doctrinally accountable to our denomination. It is about holding to the fundamentals of our faith that will enable us collectively to fulfill the Great Commission and reach a lost world for Jesus Christ.

Few Southern Baptists would admit to postmodern views. It is both sad and frightening that so many are unconsciously succumbing to these kinds of societal influences and that they would be challenging the truths and convictions that have distinguished us as Southern Baptists.

But when one denies absolute truth and embraces a theological relativism that says what one chooses to believe and practice is only a matter of personal choice, when one advocates soul competency but without any adherence to the authority of God’s revealed Word, and when one insists that self-centered, independent personal opinions supercede any sense of doctrinal accountability, one is, indeed, moving from the foundations of our historic faith to the nebulous, humanistic standards that characterize our postmodern society.

The inevitable result should be apparent — a diluted, ineffectual witness for the Lord Jesus Christ and diminished influence on a pluralistic and valueless society that would be disastrous in our churches and erode any potential for fulfilling our Great Commission task.
Jerry Rankin is president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board.
— Following the resignation of 54 missionaries and termination of 13 others who refused to affirm the BF&M, the International Mission Board reached its highest total of missionaries under active appointment in its 158-year history, a total of 5,607.
— During the past two years, since adoption of the revised BF&M, more former missionaries were reappointed and returned to service with the IMB than any comparable time frame in the past.
— More than 3,000 missionary candidates for long-term service continue to express interest and availability for overseas assignments, fully cognizant of the doctrinal accountability expected of Southern Baptists.
— Since the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message was adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention, more than 6,000 current and former IMB missionary personnel have affirmed that they will work in accord with and not contrary to the current BF&M.

    About the Author

  • Jerry Rankin