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FIRST-PERSON: Three concerns regarding the Law Amendment

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Editor’s note: Randy C. Davis is the president and executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board.

Messengers attending this June’s Southern Baptist Convention in Indianapolis will cast votes on items of significant importance. The deciding second-year vote on the “Law Amendment” is at the top of that list.  

The Law Amendment, proposed initially by Virginia pastor Mike Law, passed on first reading at last year’s annual SBC in New Orleans by the required two-thirds vote. According to the SBC Constitution and Bylaws, to make a permanent change to that document requires passage by two-thirds vote over two consecutive years. This is the pivotal second year. 

The proposed amendment would be a sixth item listed under Article III, Section 1 of the Convention’s Constitution and Bylaws and reads in context: 

1. The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention, and sympathetic with its purposes and work (i.e., a “cooperating” church as that term is used in the Convention’s governing documents) which:

6. Affirms, appoints, or employs only men as any kind of pastor or elder as qualified by Scripture.

I am firmly conservative and complementarian in my theology, and I wholeheartedly affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. Article VI of the BF&M speaks to the senior pastor role. We are not confused. However, I believe the Law Amendment draws a line that points us in a direction away from our denomination’s historical polity. 

I have three primary concerns about this amendment and its possible unintended consequences, so therefore I am not in favor of it becoming a permanent part of our Convention’s governing documents. 

Southern Baptists throughout our history have respected differences of opinion on doctrinal issues for the sake of a shared mission. I sincerely pray we can capture that civility regarding this challenge. I respect views on both sides of the Law Amendment, but I believe we would do well to pause and give its implications thoughtful consideration. 

I am concerned about whether the amendment is imperative.

First, is the amendment imperative? Messengers to last year’s convention overwhelmingly voted not to seat messengers from churches that had either a lead pastor or a campus pastor who is a woman. It was the messengers’ clear affirmation of their understanding the BF&M’s statement defining a pastor “as qualified by Scripture.” The messengers’ vote also demonstrated the SBC has a healthy mechanism in place to address questions related to doctrine and cooperation. Collectively and collaboratively, we as a Convention can — and do — address challenges without the need to modify our governing documents.  

I am concerned that the amendment could be unintentionally damaging.

But beyond considering if the Law Amendment is imperative, we need to consider the damage this amendment could do to the guardrails provided by the BF&M. 

Our confessional statement has provided doctrinal clarity and has served the SBC well. It has effectively provided needed parameters for SBC seminaries, its mission boards, state conventions, other entities and churches. The BF&M 2000 committee was composed of brilliant minds, men and women. Dr. Adrian Rogers, who chaired that committee, moved at the 2000 SBC Annual Meeting the adoption of the Baptist Faith and Message report with the following paragraph added as the sixth paragraph of the report’s preamble: “Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches. 

“We honor the principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers, affirming together both our liberty in Christ and our accountability to each other under the Word of God” (2000 SBC Annual, Item 112, page 76).

We’ve ardently maintained through the years that the BF&M is a confessional statement (defining our distinctives as Southern Baptists) and not a creedal statement. However, if we begin narrowly interpreting the BF&M through the Law Amendment and require (through the Credentials Committee) strict adherence by every Southern Baptist church to participate in a like-minded, cooperative, Great Commission effort, haven’t we begun “to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches,” denying their liberty in Christ? 

The Law Amendment brings the SBC to the brink of becoming a legalistically narrow road that chokes participation rather than being a Great Commission superhighway promoting missions and traveled by churches of all sizes and cultures. Our historical Baptist polity is to trust the local church to decide its own structures under the umbrella of our doctrinal belief system. 

I am concerned about the future implications of the amendment in SBC life.

Finally, if we take this step to reframe the BF&M and rewrite our Constitution and Bylaws to include the Law Amendment, where does it end? Will the Convention (or the Credentials Committee) then decide which “official” version of the Bible churches must use to be considered in “friendly cooperation”? Or that churches must adhere to a premillennial, postmillennial or an amillennial perspective to participate? Or that churches must be reformed or non-reformed to maintain their status? 

Sound far-fetched? Hardly. Who would have imagined just a few years ago we’d be one step away from monumentally shifting our convention’s governing documents to throttle participation rather than grow it? 

And at what point will we have thwarted the local church’s autonomy while continuing to propagate the idea that its members have freedom to govern themselves? As one of my fellow state executives said last summer, “The Southern Baptist Convention is organized to promote a mission not to police our churches.”  

Regaining a reasonable perspective:

Let’s zoom out a moment and regain a reasonable perspective. The SBC is not on the precipice of collapse if we don’t pass the Law Amendment at this convention. We are not on the slippery slope of liberalism. Far from it. We have boundaries in our confessional statement that serve us well and will long into the future. We have proven through the messenger process we can police ourselves without infringing on a local church’s right to govern itself and without making monumental changes to the SBC Constitution and Bylaws. 

More than narrowing the field of participation, we need to look up and see the fields white unto harvest. We must collectively and cooperatively mobilize if we are to be a part of seeing some from every tribe, tongue and nation come to faith in Jesus Christ. We must lay hold of God’s Great Commission vision that unites us and drives us into a spiritually lost world. 

I’m for that direction, and that is where I believe we need to invest our energy and focus when we convene in Indianapolis in June. 

It is a joy to be with you on this journey even when the ride gets bumpy.

    About the Author

  • Randy C. Davis