SBC Life Articles

Which Denomination, Which Convention?

On a Sunday evening in mid-September, my assistant and I drove for three hours from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, to a forum at a church in central Texas. The church was examining its relationship with its association, state convention, and national convention. I had agreed to serve as a representative of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Not knowing what to expect, I quickly prepared my responses to the eight questions on the journey to the church. Most of the questions were programmatic and missions oriented, although there were questions about confessions, inerrancy, and the Baptist World Alliance (BWA). Other organizations represented were the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC), the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), and the local association. The public dialogue from the forum was frank and friendly for the most part. Indeed, the organizers limited our ability to address one another. They were adamant that the dialogue should not turn into a debate.

The forum's friendliness lasted for about an hour. The second hour began to turn to more critical discussion when the church members began to display deep concerns about homosexuality. Their question to me was, "Will the Southern Baptist Convention cooperate with a church that supports homosexuality?" My answer was an unequivocal, "No." The SBC voted in 1992, through a change to its constitution, to exclude churches that "affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior." The SBC will simply send the money back if such a church seeks to associate itself through cooperation. The BGCT representative passed the question to another BGCT representative in the audience who gave a more nuanced answer. The SBTC representative leaned over, pointed at me, and said, "We agree with them." The CBF representative took a bit longer to give his very nuanced answer. He admitted that the CBF will pool the contributions from a church which endorses homosexuality with funds from other churches, but claimed that the CBF did not promote the homosexual agenda. This answer did not sit well with the leading men of the church.

Soon, the questions turned to the various organizations' views of women and women in ministry. The representative of the local association, who was also a professor at a nearby university, seemed intent on lambasting the changes made to the Baptist Faith & Message in recent years, especially with regard to women. Honoring the desires of the organizers to not directly address one another, I responded kindly but firmly to the professor's false charges. Southern Baptists are not misogynists but believe that God has created male and female in His image. An equality before God, however, does not negate complementarian roles in this life. Moreover, we believe that God calls women to ministry, but not to be the pastor of a local church.

The 1963 Baptist Faith & Message did not address the fact that the Bible really is the Word of God (article 1). It did not identify homosexuality as sin (article 15). It did not restrict the pastorate to men only (article 6). The reason Baptists did not address these particular issues in 1963 was that liberalism and neo-orthodoxy had not manifested themselves fully in the seminaries as yet, the homosexual lobby had not come out of the closet as yet, and there were no women pastors as yet. The 2000 Baptist Faith & Message addressed these issues because they had become major concerns by this time. I explained to the audience that conservatives are not "creedalists" and do not elevate the confession above the Bible. Indeed, we were willing to change the confession to meet new concerns that the churches faced.

A little later, the other professor again took up the issue of Southern Baptist views of women. He argued that each local church is autonomous and the convention may not say anything about a church that hires a woman pastor. Moreover, he said that the letters of Paul must be read within their historical context. When given opportunity, again without directly addressing the professor, I reiterated that the SBC affirms the autonomy of the local church under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. (I prefer the term, "Christonomy," since we do not believe in a literal "self-rule" but in "Christ-rule"). I also went on to explain that the churches have the right and the responsibility when meeting in association or in convention to exclude those churches which severely violate commonly held doctrines. The autonomy of the local church does not empower one local church to force its aberrant views on all the other local churches.

I then went on to show the dangers of holding the position that employing women as pastors is an indifferent matter, as advocated by the other professor. Drawing on my dialogue experiences with members of the Anglican Communion, I pointed out that abandoning one major ethical position often leads to the abandonment of others. As a pro-homosexual bishop told me, the ordination of homosexuals was a logical extension of the ordination of women which in turn was a logical extension of the ordination of divorced men. Indeed, in England, calls for the ordination of women were followed in a few years by calls for the ordination of homosexuals. Once you begin claiming that a scriptural statement must be interpreted entirely according to the ancient biblical cultural context and that it may not be applicable to our context, you open the door to such ethical shifts.

The other professor could no longer contain himself and burst into the conversation, claiming that Southern Baptists were equating women and homosexuality. I responded that we did no such thing. Rather, we were only pointing out that allowing changing cultural norms to define our interpretation of Scripture automatically opens the door to the radical contextualizing and thus dismissal of other biblical statements. Audience members subsequently told me that the other professor immediately became visibly agitated. At this point, the church's forum moderator closed down the forum as they did not want the forum to become a debate.

We were all guests of this local church, and in honor to our hosts, I dropped the argument. There was no shootout at the corral that day. Hopefully, however, one day, conservative Baptist professors can debate these important issues with their liberal Baptist counterparts. The churches would benefit by an open and frank discussion of such important ethical and hermeneutical issues.

    About the Author

  • Malcolm Yarnell