Responding to the Baptist21 Proposal

Southern Baptists have been having an intramural debate about how to ensure that our complementarian convictions remain a firm part of our cooperative effort together. Thankfully, there seems to be broad agreement with what the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) says. We can’t be certain until the annual meeting next month, but I’m reasonably confident that we have broad agreement about what to do with Saddleback.

Nevertheless, there is still some disagreement about other measures that we might take to make sure our complementarian commitments are clear. Pastor Mike Law has proposed an amendment to the SBC Constitution that would add some clarity, and I have already endorsed that proposal here.

The brothers at Baptist21 have just posted an alternative to Mike Law’s amendment, and I encourage you to read it. They argue that the SBC needs to do two things:

  1. Vote to sustain the removal of Saddleback.
  2. Amend the SBC Constitution to clarify how the BF&M determines the boundaries of our cooperation.

The guys at Baptist21 are good brothers and have the same goal that I do in all of this—to uphold our complementarian convictions as a point of cooperation. Likeminded brothers do well to have constructive conversations about the best path forward. Nevertheless, I am not convinced by this new proposal. Here’s why:

1. The SBC Constitution Isn’t Unclear

Article 3 says that cooperating churches need to have a faith and practice that “closely identifies with” the BF&M. It does not require that churches adopt the BF&M. It merely requires that—whatever beliefs or practices a church adopts—that they not contradict the BF&M. We know that’s what “closely identifies with” means because all of the examples that are listed there (homosexuality, sex abuse, racism) are examples of contradictions to the BF&M.

The problem isn’t that the Constitution is unclear. The problem is that many are reluctant to acknowledge accountability to the entire BF&M. So they are looking for ways to make this or that portion of the BF&M optional for cooperation. But that is not how the SBC Constitution reads, nor is it what messengers approved when they adopted the language in 2015. The Constitution calls for churches not to adopt a faith or a practice that contradicts the BF&M. We can’t wish that clarity away simply because some parts of the BF&M are difficult for some churches.

2. Racism, Abuse, Homosexuality are Examples of Contradiction, Not the Only Contradictions

Baptist21 says that Mike Law’s amendment fails to address what “closely identifies with” means. Mike Law’s amendment doesn’t need to clarify what is already clear. The BF&M cites homosexuality, abuse, and racism “by way of example” to show that contradictions to the BF&M are not consistent with “closely identifying with” the BF&M. It simply isn’t plausible that any of the framers intended homosexuality, racism, and abuse to be the only grounds for challenging a church’s credentials. Again, there is more clarity here than some readers want to acknowledge.

If the convention were to adopt Mike Law’s amendment, the change would simply be adding one more “example” to the list. As with the previous examples, it would simply be providing additional clarity in a time when a particular issue is contested. That’s all. There would be no suggestion that these issues are the only items of accountability. The entire BF&M has been and remains our statement of theological accountability for cooperation, not an ad hoc list in the constitution.

3. We Should Let the Credentials Committee Do Its Work

The Constitution together with the BF&M already give the Credentials Committee the guidance they need to do their work. Why not just let them continue to do their work with the structure that we have? They can use their discretion with any referral that they receive. Upon appeal, the messengers will have the final say on whatever decision they make anyway. Aren’t the messengers competent to make decisions about matters that might come before them? Is it not the messengers that approved this structure in the first place?

4. Permitting Contradiction to the BF&M Cannot Be the Answer

Baptist21 suggest this:

“We’d be in favor of another type of amendment being proposed, one that would define article 3.1 with positive statements about what ‘closely identifies’ means such as: inerrancy, justification by faith, believers baptism by immersion, regenerate church, and qualified male only pastors/elders/overseers would be, in our opinion, a more comprehensive way forward.”

These kinds of halfway covenants are not new in the history of the church, and I believe that the record shows that they don’t work out well. Once you establish and formalize permission to defy all or even part of the confession, you have set in motion the destruction of confessional accountability. If there is something deficient about the confession, then the proper way to address that deficiency is to change the confession on that point. The wrong way to address it is to leave the problem in the confession and then teach people that parts of the confession aren’t necessary.

But I don’t think that’s our problem. No one is arguing that there are problems with the BF&M. They are arguing that there are problems with some churches’ willingness to keep it. We won’t fix our problems by watering down the confession to placate a tiny minority, and I don’t think the messengers would approve such a path anyway.

I appreciate my brothers at Baptist21. We really do want the same thing here. Nevertheless, for the reasons I stated above, I’m just not convinced by their proposal. I would rather leave things as they are right now than to pursue any measure that requires us to read the BF&M and Article 3 as if they aren’t clear. Adam Greenway argued on the floor of the convention in Anaheim that they weren’t clear. I thought it was a mistake then, and still believe it to be a mistake now.

This isn’t complicated. We have what we need in our current structure. We just need to have the conviction and resolve to carry it out.