I have a copy of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 on my desk. I have never used it for my daily quiet time. I have not opened it in a while. To be honest, I am not sure why I left it there, but why it is there is of no importance. The little red booklet is insignificant, but what it represents is essential. It is the Baptist Faith and Message, the confessional statement adopted by Southern Baptists. It is the key to weathering the challenges of change in denominational life–as we wrestle through what a resurgence of Great Commission focus might mean in theory and in practice.
A denominational confession is a statement of biblical truths around which we rally, young or old, traditional or contemporary. A confessional statement serves at least five purposes, each of which is essential. These purposes help illustrate an important truth–no denomination or fellowship of churches can work together long term without a confessional statement. The confessional statement of the denomination enables us to embrace biblical and faithful but culturally diverse churches because we stand together around the biblical essentials, essentials from which flow a renewed emphasis on the Great Commission.
A confession is:
A Statement for the Denomination
I cannot tell you what every individual Southern Baptist believes, but I can tell you what Southern Baptists as a whole believe. That is the value of a faith statement–it says, “This we believe!” Some Baptists may act in racist ways, but Southern Baptists know that racism is a sin. Some Baptists may believe traditional worship is a command, but our faith statement welcomes diverse types of worship expression. A statement of faith gives us enough in agreement to work together knowing that we share a common theology.
A Standard for Denominational Agencies
Confessional statements give direction about who can serve at a denominational agency. Churches do this every day–they make sure their staff believes what they believe. That might be the Baptist Faith and Message or something of its own design. But a denominational confessional statement gives denominational agencies the standard they need. That standard promotes trust–the churches are assured that their missionaries (whom they may never meet) and the churches they plant are adhering to the collaborative statement adopted by the churches.
A Source for Local Churches
There is no mandate that a local church adopt the SBC confessional statement. However, the SBC’s confessional statement can be a tool that aids local churches. First, it can help a local church that wants to affiliate. That church can see what Southern Baptists believe and decide if they agree with those beliefs. Also, as new churches are started, they may wish to look to the denominational confessional statement as a guide. In addition, established churches have a tool they can use to state their general doctrinal beliefs as well as a source for teaching theology.
A Sentry Against Theological Drift
Our doctrinal statement says that Southern Baptists believe in certain things–the authority of scripture, the deity of Christ, the sanctity of life, the standard of marriage, and much more. These statements define what we are and shield us from any theological drift that might lead us away from orthodoxy by defining “outer boundaries” of what it means to be Southern Baptist. Leaders outside of those bounds may be believers, but we think they are outside of our best understanding of biblical truth.
A Shield Against Excessive Distinction
A faith statement also shields a denomination from overemphasis on certain rules or distinctions. It defines the “inner boundary.” Some will say that we must dress a certain way, have a certain name, or use certain programs–but these are not what define us. If the confession does not include it, it is not SBC doctrine. It may be a local church, an association, a state convention, or an unwritten distinctive, but it is not an SBC doctrine.
Confessional statements are always controversial. That is part of their nature–they draw boundaries on the left and the right to protect us from the extremes at either end of the theological spectrum. Because they serve such a great purpose there is great wisdom in updating a faith statement, but it is such a major task it should be done infrequently. The Baptist Faith and Message has had three major revisions (1925, 1963, and 2000), and these were each about 40 years apart.
A confession does need updating because the world changes (though not the Word). For example, who would have known in 1963 that homosexuality would be an accepted lifestyle by the year 2000. Or, thank God that He has allowed us to see the sin of racism more clearly than we did in 1963. It is impossible to know what issues will need to be addressed in 2040, but by then there will be new issues to address and perhaps old ones to revisit.
I do not know what every Southern Baptist believes. Nobody can. Each of us has different ways of thinking. But I can tell you what we (as Southern Baptists) believe because we adopted a confession to inform the world, inform the churches, inform those on the left and right, and affirm to the Lord where we stand biblically and culturally. That faith statement can especially help us today as our churches become more diverse culturally and methodologically. We can measure innovations by the standard we said we agreed to–the statement that defines what Southern Baptists stand for. Doctrine matters– and that makes the booklet on my desk very valuable.