What the BF&M; statement means—and doesn't mean
By JAMES A. SMITH SR.
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Perhaps the most widely discussed action of the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in San Antonio last week was the affirmation by messengers of a SBC Executive Committee statement on the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, our denomination's confession of faith. Certain persons—in spin control overdrive—are claiming this action means SBC entities cannot go beyond the BF&M; when evaluating prospective denominational employees or establishing doctrinal policies.
There's only one problem with this claim—the statement says no such thing. Words have meaning and there's simply no way to make the statement say what it does not.
Rick Garner of Ohio, offered the motion: "I move this Convention adopts the statement of the Executive Committee ... found in the 2007 Book of Reports ... which reads: 'The Baptist Faith and Message is neither a creed nor 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.'" Messengers approved the motion with nearly 58 percent of the vote.
In order to understand what the Executive Committee's statement means—and what it clearly does not mean—we need to remember the statement was made in response to a motion made by Boyd Luter of Texas during the 2006 SBC annual meeting in Greensboro. In keeping with its practice to refer motions addressing entities, the Committee on Order of Business referred Luter's motion to the Executive Committee for its response.
Note carefully what Luter's motion called for—and how it differs from the Executive Committee's response: "I move that the Executive Committee consider, as a measure of full authentic Christian accountability, that, in the event any Bylaw 14 or 18 entities put into effect (or already have in effect) any doctrinal position or practical policy which goes beyond, or seeks to explain the explicit wording of the duly constituted authoritative language of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, such wording/policy be voted on by the messengers present at the next annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention as an amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, and in the case in which a sufficient vote in favor of the amendment is not received, the wording/policy thereby be rescinded."
This motion explicitly would require SBC entities—the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board, the seminaries, Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, GuideStone Financial Resources, LifeWay Christian Resources and the Executive Committee—to put to a vote at each SBC annual meeting doctrinal positions the entities adopt that go beyond the BF&M.; If such a doctrinal position was affirmed by the SBC, it would be added to the BF&M; if it was rejected, the entity would rescind the policy. Never mind that the trustees are elected by the Southern Baptist Convention to govern these entities, including the establishment of doctrinal policies.
The Executive Committee wisely chose not to advocate this position. Instead, the EC statement, now adopted by the SBC, notes the BF&M; is not a "creed or complete statement of our faith nor final or infallible," acknowledges it is the "only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs" and asserts it is "sufficient in its current form to guide trustees" in making policy. This statement merely acknowledges what is already routine practice—our SBC entities are guided by the BF&M; in making policy, including doctrinal matters on which the BF&M; is currently silent.
Unfortunately, the debate about the EC motion was clouded by comments made earlier in the day by Executive Committee president Morris Chapman. In his report to messengers, Chapman proposed two recommendations to assist Southern Baptists in addressing contentious doctrinal issues:
"Any practice instituted by an entity in the Southern Baptist Convention that has the force of doctrine should be in accord with the Baptist Faith and Message and not exceed its boundaries unless and until it has been approved by the Southern Baptist Convention," and, "If an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention adopts a confession of faith separate and distinct from the Baptist Faith and Message and it includes a doctrine unsupported by our confessional statement, the entity should request approval from the convention prior to including the doctrine in its confession."
Essentially, Chapman's recommendations are more consistent with the 2006 Luter motion, which the Executive Committee explicitly chose not to affirm, than they are with the statement adopted by the Executive Committee. Instead, the Executive Committee adopted a cautiously worded, helpful response.
The substance of this debate was addressed in my May 31 editorial, "IMB doctrinal guidelines deserve SBC support." I will not repeat here my arguments, but that editorial speaks directly to the spin control some are putting on the BF&M; action in San Antonio.
Addressing the importance of this matter more eloquently than could I, R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, largely dispensed with his intended remarks during his report to the SBC in order to speak to messengers on the critical matter of evaluating prospective faculty.
"If you're going to hire a seminary professor, you want the one who most comprehensively embraces the truth taught by the Scripture and embraced by this denomination," rather than "those who merely meet the most basic requirements," Mohler said, as reported by Baptist Press.
"That means that you would expect and you should demand that the presidents of your seminaries, as they do, and the boards of your seminaries, as they do, take that responsibility seriously to inquire of anyone who would teach at our seminaries what they believe on any conceivable issue to make sure that there be no error, that there be no heresy, that there be no lurking misconceptions that would do injury to the next generation of Christian preachers."
Mohler, who served on the committee that revised the BF&M; in 2000, said, "I promise you that we are guided by the Baptist Faith and Message as we envision any issue that comes before us, as we envision the hiring process and the establishment of policies within not only The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but all of our seminaries."
In response to a messenger's question, Mohler explained why seminaries need to ask questions of professors beyond the issues addressed by the BF&M;, citing as an example the practice of speaking in tongues. Mohler contended Southern Baptists want the seminary to ask whether prospective professors speak in tongues and not hire those who do, even though the BF&M; is silent on this doctrinal issue. Such issues, he said, "nonetheless are a matter of our accountability to the churches of the Southern Baptist Convention."
Unfortunately, many in the secular press inaccurately reported the SBC action on the BF&M; statement. Such an example can be found in the Lakeland Ledger. In a June 16 column, religion reporter Cary McMullen said about the BF&M; statement, "It forbids the convention agencies from setting rules for employees that go beyond the limits of the Baptist Faith and Message, the denomination's statement of doctrine." Words have meaning and there's simply no way to make the BF&M; statement say what McMullen reports—passing on the spin control of SBC critics.
If the Southern Baptist Convention wishes to direct its entities to restrict doctrinal examination of prospective employees to solely what is required by the Baptist Faith and Message, messengers would be entirely within their rights to do so. Thankfully, that's not what the SBC did in San Antonio. However, should such an action be taken in the future it would have devastating consequences for the doctrinal soundness of SBC entities, eviscerate the trustee system by turning the SBC annual meeting into a Committee of the Whole deciding every minutiae of personnel policies for the entities, and transform the Baptist Faith and Message into a monstrous document that would soon look like the Internal Revenue Code.
The Southern Baptist Convention's affirmation of the Executive Committee statement on the Baptist Faith and Message is an appropriate reminder to our entities of the importance of our confession of faith in guiding their decisions, while not harming the ability of entity administrators and trustees to evaluate fully the doctrinal soundness of prospective employees and establish doctrinal policies consistent with Southern Baptist convictions.