Evaluating a New Proposal for Restructuring SBC Cooperation

Yesterday, Colin Smothers and I released a podcast previewing some of the items that will be coming before the SBC next week. Because it is the CBMW podcast, we focused entirely on issues related to gender and sexuality, and we spent the bulk of our time talking about Saddleback, Rick Warren, and female pastors. We spoke a little bit about the various proposals for structural change that have been circulating, and I reiterated my support for the Law amendment. But by far, I do believe that the most important matter before messengers on the question of female pastors is how the convention deals with Saddleback. It’s very important that the convention speak with a unified voice in favor of what the Bible says about the qualifications for pastor, and I believe that we will.

Having said that, I thought it might be useful to add a little more commentary about the proposals for structural reform that are on offer. On that score, a new wrinkle was added just this morning with the announcement of a motion to form a task force to study whether or how to amend the Constitution and Bylaws of the SBC. The basis for the motion is the idea that our current structure is too vague and doesn’t tell us clearly what role our doctrinal statement (the BF&M) plays as a basis for cooperation. I don’t agree with this assumption and therefore don’t believe that a motion like this is warranted. I want to explain why.

Before I do that, let me say that the men offering these proposals are trusted brothers and friends. We are all complementarians and have the same doctrinal convictions about qualifications for pastors. I view this conversation not as a pitched battle between enemies but as a constructive conversation among brothers who love each other and the SBC and who cherish our cooperation together. We have some prudential differences about things, but these aren’t fundamental. We are reasoning together in good faith. We are all going to be cooperating together on the other side of this no matter which proposal carries the day.

With that said, here’s why I don’t believe a motion to form a task force is warranted:

1. Our current structure already gives messengers all that they need to apply our doctrinal statement to churches who depart from the BF&M. This doesn’t mean that messengers will always vote to remove churches that are referred to the Credentials Committee. They may not. Nevertheless, they have the means and the right in our current structure to make the final decision, and I believe that they are about to demonstrate that in the upcoming vote on Saddleback. It’s hard to make the case that we need more clarity to apply our doctrinal statement when the messengers are about to demonstrate that they have all the clarity that they need to deal with Saddleback. We don’t need a study committee to fix something that isn’t broken.

2. I have written previously that I support Mike Law’s proposed amendment. I have also made clear that my support for this amendment should not be construed to imply that our current BF&M and Constitution are unclear. I don’t believe that they are. The BF&M already says that the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture. The Constitution already says that cooperating churches need to have a faith and practice that “closely identifies with” that belief. And the Messengers already have the right to vote on any appeal brought before them. The messengers are free to remove any church that they believe does not closely identify with the SBC’s statement of faith. They are also free to overrule the recommendations of the Credentials Committee and the Executive Committee. Those things are already written unambiguously into our Constitution.

Mike Law’s amendment doesn’t change this fundamental structure. It merely adds one more example of the kinds of ways churches might contradict the BF&M (the current examples listed are homosexuality, racism, and sexual abuse). It is an attempt to provide additional clarity to the existing structure. I think the structure we have is already clear, and supplying additional clarity would serve the SBC in this moment. In any case, retaining our current structure (even with the possible addition of the Law amendment) would be preferable to a protracted process of rewriting our governing documents.

3. Those who have articulated support for a new task force have also suggested that the aim would be to clarify which parts of the BF&M are the basis for cooperation in the SBC and which parts SBC churches may ignore. The President of the SBC told the Baptist Press that he did not believe that basing our cooperation on the entire BF&M would be a good solution for the SBC. Based on this, it seems like a task force studying this issue would likely recommend to the messengers some version of a two-way covenant.

A two-way covenant would require seminaries, mission boards, and other entities to adhere to the entire BF&M but only require cooperating churches to adhere to a watered-down version of the BF&M. In my view, this two-way covenant proposal will not work. It would be better to keep the status quo than to formalize which areas of the BF&M cooperating churches may ignore. Such a move would effectively eviscerate confessionalism within SBC cooperation. Over time as more and more churches enter the SBC on the basis of the watered-down version of the BF&M, such churches will rightly wonder why their members aren’t qualified to be sent out as missionaries or to teach at our seminaries. They will insist that the entities of the convention operate according to the same watered-down version of the BF&M that is required of cooperating churches. A two-way covenant simply will not work over the long term. It will eventually fold, and we will be right back where we started.

Instead of going down that road, I would prefer to retain our current structure. Adding the Law amendment won’t fundamentally change that structure, but it will add additional clarity on the question of women serving as pastors. I respect my brothers and sisters who are in a different place on all this. And I intend to remain a happy, thankful, cooperating Southern Baptist no matter which proposal wins out in New Orleans. Nevertheless, I’m not persuaded by this new proposal. I’m open to being persuaded, but to persuade me I would need to see that our current structure isn’t working and that the new proposal wouldn’t lead to a two-way covenant. In any case, I wanted to make my reasoning clear because there would never be time to explain all of this from a microphone during debate. I hope it can be a part of our thinking as we approach New Orleans.

Let’s pray for the SBC and for one another. We need it!