Christianity,  Complementarianism,  Theology/Bible

Non-Contradicton (not Subscription) Is the SBC’s Confessional Standard

If anything became clear at last week’s meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Anaheim, it’s this. The SBC has a confessional dispute in front of it, and it is not at all clear where it is going to go. The debate is occasioned by the ordination of female pastors at Saddleback Church in California. When Albert Mohler rose to speak against such a practice last week, it was very clear that the floor of the convention was overwhelmingly behind him. So much so that the Credentials Committee withdrew its proposal concerning Saddleback church’s female pastors.

Nevertheless, in spite of that show of solidarity on the floor of the SBC, a conversation is developing about whether the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) really counts as a confessional standard in the SBC. The dispute centers on what Article III of the SBC Constitution means. It reads this way:

The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention… which… Has a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith. (By way of example, churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior would be deemed not to be in cooperation with the Convention.)

The convention’s adopted statement of faith is the BF&M, and the issue in dispute is what “closely identifies with” means. The preamble to the BF&M makes it clear that no SBC church is required to adopt the BF&M as its official statement of faith. On that much, both sides agree. There is nothing in the SBC Constitution that requires churches to subscribe to the BF&M in their foundational documents. If that is the case (as all sides agree), then what does “closely identifies with” mean?

One interpretation of “closely identifies with” says that churches may hold to some or all of the BF&M while actively promoting doctrines that contradict the BF&M. This perspective was recently advanced by brother Tony Wolfe in an article for the Southern Baptist Texan. (I am going to offer some pushback on this view, but I mean no disrespect to my brother in doing so. I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Wolfe, but I am grateful for him and the work of the SBTC. So I hope what I’m about to say is understood by all in the light of my deep appreciation for my brother and the SBTC.) Wolfe contends that…

Because no church is required by our governance to affirm the BFM2000 to become or remain affiliated, it is up to each Credentials Committee, rotating through the years, to determine the level of cooperation and confessional adherence that would constitute “a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Conventions’ adopted statement of faith.”… Where to draw the line is completely left to the discretion of the Credentials Committee, since their constitutional duty is not to determine whether a church has violated one article or another, but whether that church, in its deviation, still has a faith and practice that is close enough to the faith statement to be considered in general alignment with the Convention’s doctrine and work [emphasis mine].

In other words, this perspective says that the SBC Constitution allows for churches to violate
“one article or another” of the BF&M. There is no explicit limiting principle here instructing us how much or how little of the BF&M a church might violate before being disfellowshipped. It’s more of a subjective standard. Any given Credentials Committee can decide how much deviation from the BF&M they wish to permit. The Committee has a Constitutional duty to make that judgment on behalf of the entire SBC.

I want to suggest that this approach is a misreading of the SBC Constitution. The explicit Constitutional duty of the Credentials Committee is to make sure that churches closely identify with the BF&M, not to determine how much of the BF&M they may violate. The latter notion is nowhere in the SBC Constitution at all. While it is true that the Constitution does not require churches to adopt the BF&M, the Constitution does suggest that churches may not violate the BF&M in their faith or practice. Notice again the language of Article III:

The Convention will only deem a church to be in friendly cooperation with the Convention… which… Has a faith and practice which closely identifies with the Convention’s adopted statement of faith. (By way of example, churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior would be deemed not to be in cooperation with the Convention.) [emphasis mine]

Notice that “closely identifies with” is defined “by way of example.” And the example given concerns homosexuality. An SBC church may have an official faith statement that doesn’t even mention homosexuality. They may have no official statement of faith at all. Nevertheless, if that church has a “faith and practice” that contradicts the BF&M on this point, they would no longer be in friendly cooperation with the SBC. In other words, a church is permitted to adopt whatever faith statement they please, but neither their statement nor the church’s actual practice may violate the BF&M concerning homosexuality.

Notice also that “by way of example” means that the BF&M’s teaching on homosexuality is not the only issue to which the BF&M applies. It’s an “example” of how to define what “closely identifies with” means. The example establishes the larger principle for defining what it means to be closely identified with the BF&M. A church need not adopt the BF&M on any given point, but they must not defy the BF&M on any given point. That’s the principle established by the example.

This reading of the SBC Constitution is confirmed by the recent addition of III.1.4 and III.1.5 to the SBC Constitution, which read as follows:

4. Does not act in a manner inconsistent with the Convention’s beliefs regarding sexual abuse.
5. Does not act to affirm, approve, or endorse discriminatory behavior on the basis of ethnicity.

These statements provide further examples of the principle expressed above. While a church need not adopt the BF&M’s language on abuse or racism, they must not adopt a “faith and practice” that would contradict the BF&M on these points. The confessional standard, therefore, clearly is not subscription to the BF&M but is non-contradiction.

I don’t believe that Wolfe’s interpretation of Article III is correct, but let us imagine for the sake of argument that it were. It would mean that the Credentials Committee has a constitutional duty to permit at least some deviations from the BF&M without any guidance about which deviations are permitted and which aren’t. It means that one Credentials Committee might allow deviations from the BF&M concerning female preachers while another might allow deviations concerning Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

Think about it. What if a church affirmed every article of the BF&M while only denying the one article about substitutionary atonement? On Wolfe’s definition, would they not still be in friendly cooperation if they only deviated on that single point? In other words, if the Constitution authorizes deviation on “one article or another” (as Wolfe argues), then that standard can be applied to any given article of the BF&M—including the sentence dealing with Christ’s substitutionary atonement.

Surely, this is not what the framers of the Article III intended with the language “closely identifies with.” Indeed, the framers have given us guidance on how to read Article III. The examples given in Article III indicate that non-contradiction is the confessional standard not subscription.

If this interpretation of the Article III is correct, then where do we go from here? Should the Credentials Committee be seeking to disfellowship every church they can find with even the slightest deviation from the BF&M? The SBC credentials committee actually isn’t set up to actively police SBC church doctrine. They are set up to respond to reports about deviations from the BF&M. That is the case now, and it will likely be the case when abuse reforms are completed.

So the question is not whether the Credentials Committee should be in the business of seeking out such churches. The question is what should they do when a deviation is reported to them? If this interpretation of Article III is correct, their inquiries are not looking for subscription to the BF&M. Their inquiries are looking to see whether a church has truly denied some part of the BF&M. If corrective action is possible, then the Credentials Committee should encourage and acknowledge that. If the church does not wish to correct the deviation from the BF&M, then the Credentials Committee has a constitutional duty to act accordingly.

UPDATE (6/27/22): Adam Greenway has written an article for Baptist Press that advances the same basic argument that Tony Wolfe outlined above. For that reason, I think that his argument has some of the same weaknesses of Wolfe’s.

I want to engage briefly what Dr. Greenway has written, but before doing so I want readers to know that Dr. Greenway is a long-time friend and colleague in the SBC. He was previously my colleague here at SBTS, and I was thrilled for SWBTS when he was called to be president there. I also have a deep personal connection to SWBTS and Texas Baptists. My father went to SWBTS, and some of my earliest memories of life are on SWBTS’s campus. Indeed, I was baptized in the First Baptist Church of Crowley, Texas, which is the small town that my family lived in just south of SWBTS. My first teaching position was at Criswell College in Dallas. As I said above, I hope this engagement is received in the spirit of gratefulness that I have for Dr. Greenway’s friendship and for Texas Baptists in general.

Defining “Closely Identifies With”

Dr. Greenway frames the burden of his argument in a question:

Southern Baptists face a critical choice at this juncture in our history: do we want to spend endless energy finding new ways to divide ourselves by seeking to disfellowship every local congregation that does not march in lockstep with every jot and tittle of the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM), or will we channel our best efforts into bringing together every church whose faith and practice closely identifies with the BFM for the purpose of reaching our world with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

I agree with Dr. Greenway that Southern Baptists face a “critical choice.” I also agree that we should be endeavor to include within the SBC “every church whose faith and practice closely identifies with the BFM.” The key phrase there is “closely identifies with” because it comes directly from Article III of the SBC Constitution. But Dr. Greenway never really defines what he means by this phrase, and that is the fundamental problem with the argument. By all means, let’s have a “big tent,” but let us take care not to make the tent bigger than the BF&M.

As I wrote above, the SBC Constitution defines “closely identifies with” not as subscription but as non-contradiction. If the standard isn’t non-contradiction, then what is it? Dr. Greenway doesn’t tell us. He says that the only areas of the BF&M that cooperating churches must not contradict are homosexuality, racism, and abuse. But what about the BF&M’s statement on the substitutionary atonement? What about its statement on the holy Trinity? Can churches be in friendly cooperation while denying either one of those articles so long as they agree with everything else in the BF&M? If so, it is hard to tell how the BF&M could serve as any meaningful standard at all for our cooperation.

Denying non-contradiction as our confessional standard means that potentially any part of the BF&M is up for grabs in cooperating churches (except for homosexuality, racism, and abuse). Surely that is not what the framers of the SBC Constitution or the BF&M intended.

Authorial Intent in the BF&M

Dr. Greenway cites a Baptist Press article from 22 years ago and claims that “Various members of the BFM Study Committee that authored the revisions referred to the proposed change to Article VI as relating only to the office of senior pastor.” If authorial intent means anything, then this claim certainly would be relevant. But the article in question actually doesn’t support the claim. Adrian Rogers, Richard Land, and Albert Mohler were all on the BF&M Study Committee, and all of them are quoted in the article. But none of them are quoted relating the word “pastor” solely to the office of senior pastor. That’s just not in the article. Nor is it in the other article that Dr. Greenway links to.

Indeed, as I have noted elsewhere, three of the committee members—Mohler, Kelley, and Land—wrote a book explaining the BF&M, and all three of them recognize that every pastor is to serve as a bishop who exercises and fulfills the ministry of the Word on behalf of the congregation as the gathered people of God” (underline mine). Notice that they say every pastor—not just the senior pastor, but every pastor—serves in a ministry that is limited to men as qualified by scripture. That is the view of these three framers. Is there evidence elsewhere to contradict this? I have not seen it yet, and I don’t find such evidence in Dr. Greenway’s article.

Concept Creep with the Term “Pastor”

Dr. Greenway also writes:

In short, when it comes to church practice across the SBC landscape, the word “pastor” does not necessarily mean today what it meant in the year 2000. Just because a local church uses “pastor” in its vocabulary does not necessarily mean said church is using the BFM for its dictionary.

This undoubtedly is true, but it is also no solution. It is simply a restatement of the problem. Using established terminology with different definitions is a recipe for doctrinal disaster. Historically, it’s a move taken right out of the progressive playbook. I am not saying that Saddleback or churches like it are liberal. I don’t believe that. I’m saying that faithful evangelical churches will always have to be vigilant not to let these ambiguities creep into their faith and practice.

There are in fact some SBC churches that have adopted of view of pastoral ministry that is out of step with the BF&M. The BF&M only recognizes two offices—pastor/elder/bishop and deacon. Anyone serving in that first office (senior, associate, or otherwise) must be a man as qualified by scripture. Churches that are installing women into that office (senior, associate, or otherwise) are contradicting the BF&M, which by definition is the opposite of “closely identifies with.”

I’m sure some of these churches are not trying to liberalize or deny the Bible. Perhaps in some cases it’s just a simple matter of concept creep. If so, it’s a relatively easy fix. Align your pastoral offices with the biblical norms reflected in the BF&M in order to continue in friendly cooperation. For me, that is a much better path forward than disfellowshipping. If a cooperating church simply won’t make that change in response to an inquiry from the Credentials Committee, then the obvious question is why?


One final thing. Dr. Greenway writes:

I also believe that just because I consider another SBC church to be wrong does not automatically mean I think they should be out.

I agree with this. There are countless churches in the SBC with which I would have important doctrinal differences. My personal differences, however, aren’t the issue. The issue at hand relates to our cooperation as Southern Baptists. When churches begin denying the BF&M in their faith or practice, that is a problem. And it is a problem that the Credentials Committee has a constitutional duty to deal with when such churches are referred to them.

Here’s my question to Dr. Greenway, Dr. Wolfe, and other who hold this position. What articles of the BF&M are actually necessary for cooperating churches in the SBC? May cooperating churches violate the article on close communion? Substitutionary atonement? The Trinity? If not, why not? If yes, then what other articles may cooperating churches violate?

I don’t want to give the impression that the SBC should be trigger-happy on disfellowshipping churches. Our credentials committee is not set up to be an active inquisitor but a passive one. They don’t seek out churches to disfellowship. The Committee only responds to referrals that are brought to them. So I wouldn’t want or expect a forward-leaning, wide-ranging inquisition from the Credentials Committee on this. That is not how our bylaws set them up to work.

If however a church gets referred to the committee for denying this or any other part of the BF&M, the Credentials Committee should allow the church every opportunity to rectify the situation. The SBC Constitution and Bylaws allow for that. If the church does not wish to rectify their departure from the BF&M, then I believe the Committee has a Constitutional duty to recommend that they are no longer in friendly cooperation with the SBC.

Disfellowshipping a church should not be anyone’s first choice. Let’s hope all things, believe all things, and maintain an eagerness that a given church would come back around to friendly cooperation. Let’s work toward that kind of solution first. But Saddleback seems beyond that to me.

Saddleback was referred to the Credentials Committee over a year ago for ordaining women pastors. Since that time, they’ve announced that a husband-wife team will take over leadership of the church, and both of them will be pastors. Saddleback has had plenty of time to decide whether or not they wish to rectify the situation and remain in cooperation with the SBC. Indeed, their pastor seemed to double-down on their defiance of the BF&M on the floor of the SBC. So I would support their removal.

The big tent must not be bigger than the BF&M. The BF&M is big enough.