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FIRST-PERSON: Southern Baptist churches, confessional statements and cooperation

When the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) was formed in 1845, the new body did not adopt a confession of faith. This is not because founding President William Bullein Johnson represented the majority opinion when he referenced a “Baptist aversion for all creeds but the Bible” in his address to the public. Rather, there are likely two reasons for this decision.  

First, the Convention was not intended to be a denomination with perpetual membership. The SBC, following the model of the earliest state conventions in the Southeast, was conceived originally as an annual meeting for the purpose of promoting domestic and foreign missions. Churches chose voluntarily to send delegates (and later messengers) to the SBC, which only existed legally for the duration of the annual meeting.

Second, a confession was unnecessary because missionary Baptist churches in the South and Southwest enjoyed significant doctrinal consensus. All 293 delegates to the Augusta Convention represented local churches or associations that had adopted confessions of faith. For the remainder of the 19th century, most Baptist churches and associations in the South adopted the Philadelphia Confession of Faith (1742), an abstract based on that confession, or the New Hampshire Confession of Faith (1833). The doctrinal consensus could be described as convictionally Baptist in polity, committed to cooperative mission among churches, and decidedly non-Arminian (though not always consistently Calvinistic).

The Southern Baptist Convention did not affirm a confession of faith until 1859, when the Abstract of Principles was approved as the confessional standard for The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. However, the Abstract was not adopted as the Convention’s standard, nor did that confession ever play a role in determining messenger qualifications. The same was true of subsequent confessions approved for other Convention entities in the early 20th century.

While the Southern Baptist Convention itself was not a confessional body for 80 years, by the early twentieth century the Convention was moving in a more confessional direction in response to modernist theology and Darwinism. When Southern Baptists gathered in Memphis in 1925, they adopted the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M), based largely on the New Hampshire Confession. While the BF&M (1925) summarized the Southern Baptist theological consensus at the time, the statement was not binding on either Convention entities or cooperating churches.

In the century since 1925, the BF&M has been amended twice. A statement on the family was added in 1998 that affirmed a complementarian understanding of marital roles and rejected same-sex marriage. In 2023, the language related to pastoral leadership was clarified to make clear that the New Testament terms for elder, overseer, and pastor are all referring to the same biblical office. Both amendments were in response to progressive understandings of gender that threatened the Convention’s historic commitment to complementarianism.

Far more important than the amendments have been the two substantial revisions to the BF&M. In 1963, the confession was revised in the wake of the Genesis Controversy that erupted over Ralph Elliott’s book The Message of Genesis (1961). The revised article on Scripture left the door open for Neo-Orthodox understandings of the Bible that were popular in the Southern Baptist academy of that era. In the years following the 1963 revision to the BF&M, Elliott was terminated from Midwestern Seminary for insubordination and three professors at Southeastern Seminary were quietly pressured to secure other jobs for advocating Rudolph Bultmann’s “demythologization” of Scripture. However, no Southern Baptist entity formally adopted the 1963 BF&M as its confessional standard and the confession did not factor in the seating of messengers to annual meetings.

By the mid-1990s, the seminaries were moving in a more confessional direction. The presidents of Southern Seminary and Southeastern Seminary recommitted their respective institutions to the Abstract of Principles, resulting in significant faculty retirements and departures at each institution. In 1997, the presidents of all six seminaries adopted a statement titled “One Faith, One Task, One Sacred Trust,” which offered a clear defense of confessional fidelity.

The Baptist Faith & Message was revised again in 2000. As in 1963, many articles were revised, but the most important revisions in 2000 included an updated article on Scripture that was more consistently evangelical and an updated article on The Church that articulated a complementarian view of pastoral ministry. In the years after the adoption of the BF&M (2000), all Southern Baptist entities moved in a more confessional direction. The seminaries adopted the BF&M (2000), sometimes alongside other institutional statements, and required faculty to affirm the confession. Both the International Mission Board and the North American Mission Board began using the BF&M (2000) to vet their respective missionaries. LifeWay Christian Resources used the confession to provide doctrinal guidance for its publication strategy.

By the 2010s, discussion was shifting from the confessional fidelity of SBC entities to doctrinal integrity among cooperating churches. Looming in the background was the persistence of racism in some churches and progressive views of human sexuality in other churches. (The latter had been declared out-of-bounds for cooperating churches via a constitutional revision in 1992.) In 2014, the Convention adopted a revision to Article III that called for cooperating churches to have “a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith.” The ambiguity of this statement is a key reason for the creation of the Cooperation Group at the 2023 SBC Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

As of May 2024, the SBC requires seminary professors, foreign missionaries, church planters, and other Convention servants to affirm the BF&M (2000). Southern Baptists also clearly prefer for trustees and committee members to affirm the confession but have not officially required it. The SBC has not required confessional affirmation from cooperating churches, though one result of the Conservative Resurgence is that Southern Baptists have emphasized greater consensus around first and second order doctrines over the past generation. Article III clarifies that cooperating churches cannot disagree with what the BF&M (2000) states or implies regarding human sexuality, racism, and sexual abuse. If the Indianapolis Convention affirms the “Law Amendment” in 2024, then churches will need to agree with the BF&M (2000) on a complementarian view of the pastoral office to remain in friendly cooperation.

Southern Baptists have been clear in recent years that our entities should affirm and abide by the BF&M (2000). Likewise, through constitutional amendments, the Convention has made it clear that cooperating churches cannot disagree with the confession at certain points. The issue facing us in the coming days is whether or not the Convention desires for cooperating churches to affirm the entirety of the BF&M (2000) or prefers to retain the present practice, which allows specific messenger action to determine the ongoing interpretation and application of the confession for seating messengers. We believe there are reasonable arguments for both positions.

Those who favor confessional affirmation argue that our present cultural moment no longer affords Southern Baptists the luxury of assuming a doctrinal consensus as a basis for cooperation. Greater doctrinal and ethical clarity is needed for faithful cooperation. Those who favor retaining the current practice argue the current mechanisms already allow messengers to address those issues where greater consensus is desired for cooperation. Also, there are some issues, especially in matters of ecclesiology such as the terms of communion and church polity, where Southern Baptist practice is more diverse than our current confessional standard.

The Cooperation Group trusts the messengers, under the leadership of the Holy Spirit, to determine the best model that balances doctrinal fidelity, a cooperative spirit, and missional faithfulness.

In addition to Nathan Finn, this essay was co-written by Cooperation Group members Trevin Wax, Jonathan Leeman and Kason Branch.

    About the Author

  • Nathan Finn

    Nathan A. Finn is professor of faith and culture and executive director of the Institute for Transformational Leadership at North Greenville University. He is also the Recording Secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention.

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