Toward a Confessional Basis for Cooperation in the SBC: Some Preliminary Thoughts

Southern Baptists are not as confessional as we claim we are, but we ought to be. This is my thesis. For some Southern Baptists, this will seem like common sense. For others, it will be provocative and perhaps even anathema. But the time has come to begin having this discussion. My prayer is that it will soon become a discussion before the Convention itself.

The following paragraphs are cited from my essay “Priorities for a Post-Resurgence Convention,” in Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future, ed. David S. Dockery (Crossway, 2009), pp. 273-74. This post should be understood as a “trial balloon” because it represents as second public mention of a topic that I hope to flesh out in greater detail in the coming months (the first mention was obviously in the essay itself).

A new paradigm for cooperation is necessary because Southern Baptists remain quite diverse, albeit not as diverse as we were prior to 1979. David Dockery argues that SBC conservatives are a loose-knit coalition of at least seven broad groups: fundamentalists, revivalists, traditionalists, orthodox evangelicals, Calvinists, contemporary church practitioners, and culture warriors.[1] I would add Landmarkers, Cooperative Program apologists, and miraculous gifts advocates to Dockery’s list. Tensions exist between some of these groups which can hinder our corporate ability to cooperate with each other. The question before post-Resurgence Southern Baptists is how to determine acceptable diversity within the SBC.

According to the Convention’s constitution and bylaws, any local church is free to cooperate with the SBC, provided that it financially supports the denomination and does not endorse the homosexual lifestyle. Cooperation at this level is defined as the right to send up to ten messengers to the denomination’s annual meeting, depending upon a church’s contributions and/or membership.[2] This minimalist approach means that a church can believe virtually anything, including pedobaptism, and at least in theory cooperate with the SBC! At this time, there is no confessional basis for denominational cooperation, which is probably a bit too close to the pragmatic cooperation of the pre-Resurgence era.

Post-Resurgence Southern Baptists need to embrace a confessional basis for cooperation, but it would probably not be a good idea to mandate complete adherence to the Baptist Faith and Message by all cooperating churches. To do such would demand a degree of doctrinal uniformity that would exclude too many conservative Southern Baptists who are uncomfortable with aspects of the Baptist Faith and Message. David Dockery helpfully suggests that Southern Baptists should not seek such uniformity, but should commit to the best of the Baptist confessional tradition.[3] Perhaps Jim Richards offers a helpful proposal to this end:

The future for the Southern Baptist Convention is to become a confessional fellowship. The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 may be too restrictive. A minimal set of doctrinal statements is necessary for the expansion of the SBC. We cooperate not because of common geography, heritage, or goals. We cooperate because we believe the same essentials (Amos 3:3). At some point someone needs to move the SBC to adopt doctrinal affiliation requirements. Cooperation will be based on agreement regarding the nature of the Word of God and certain doctrines that define who we are. Preaching and teaching doctrine is the only way Baptists will retain their identity.[4]

This seems like a wise suggestion. I would propose that post-Resurgence Southern Baptists adopt a brief abstract of the Baptist Faith and Message that affirms a high view of Scripture, an orthodox statement of the Trinity and Christology, an evangelical understanding of salvation, and a basic Baptist understanding of ecclesiology. This would form an adequate confessional basis for churches cooperating with the SBC.


[1] David S. Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Proposal (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2008), 11.

[2] The Convention’s constitution and bylaws are available online at http://www.sbc.net/PDF/SBC-CharterConstitutionByLaws.pdf.

[3] Dockery, Southern Baptist Consensus and Renewal, 215.

[4] James W. [Jim] Richards, “Cooperation among Southern Baptist Churches as Set Forth in Article 14 of the Baptist Faith and Message,” in The Mission of Today’s Church: Baptist Leaders Look at Modern Faith Issues, ed. R. Stanton Norman (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2007), 151.

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  1. Martin Pitcher   •  

    This would be a very interesting thing to see. The greatest problem that I envision is getting a document out of committee that would be acceptable to the major of cooperating churches. The political factions would be all over the choice of committee members and the power brokers would be pushing the committee to adopt their vision of things. Although our diversity is helpful, this is one area that it is very harmful.

  2. Matt Queen   •  

    Nathan,

    I trust you are doing well. Congrats on your recent signing of the A&P/BF&M 2000 as a newly elected member of the faculty at SEBTS! I am very proud of you.

    Concerning the proposal you state here, do you also envision this truncated abstract replacing the current function(s) of the BF&M 2000 for our Convention, if not replacing the BF&M 2000 altogether? If not, then what would be the purpose(s) of the BF&M 2000? To which document would our Convention appeal when seeking to express and/or articulate our confession?

    Wouldn’t proposing that we adopt the BF&M 2000 as a Southern Baptist church’s confessional basis for Convention cooperation be a more natural and less complex solution to this issue?

  3. Roger Simpson   •  

    The idea of a “critical subset” of the BF&M which defines “cooperation” might be OK if it could be done without stirring up the pot too much. However, I don’t think that whatever “lack of cooperation” that is going on within the SBC family is due to parsing words with the BF&M. But I could be wrong.

    The BF&M is only changed once in a generation: 1925, 1963, 2000. It takes quite a lot of consensus building and “homework” to get these BF&M changes vetted and passed. I don’t think the SBC could stand having to deal with “continual” discussions on a more “flexible” and “minimalizt” subset of the BF&M. People would say that a mini-BFM was an attempt to short-circuit the real BF&M which has some plank in it that they fought long and hard for — such as more explicit language on the role of women.

    Personally, I don’t think every jot and tittle of the BF&M is that big a deal. I think there are areas in it which most don’t follow to the letter — such as “closed” communion. A fair reading of the of the BF&M seems to me to stipulate “closed” communnion. Closed communion may be the “preferred” view on paper but I doubt that it is the majority view in actual practice.

    There are a lot of “interest groups” in SBC life. Trying to ammend the BF&M (or some working document that purports to replace the BF&M) would ignite discussions anew regarding hot button issues which were more or less “put to bed” in 2000 when the last BF&M vote took place.

    I think any attempt to either (a) eliminate the BF&M and/or (b) marginalize it by defining some subset which defines “cooperation” would cause a dust-up that would cause more negative effects than any positive good to be gained.

    Is it the case that some SBC churches don’t participate in the Cooperative Program because of some plank in the BF&M they don’t agree with?

    If history is any guide then the next revision of the BF&M will likely be in 2037. So I don’t think this can of worms should be opened up now.

    Personally, I think we should have a BF&M. I think the 1925, 1963, and 2000 versions are the “same”.

    Roger

  4. Louis   •  

    I agree. But my observation is that the SBC IS slowly becoming a convention based on a common confession.

    I believe that the BFM is the confession being used now, with some “unofficial allowances” made in the areas where disagreement is recognized.

    I believe that the generation leading now will have to pass from the scene to replace the BFM with some other confession. The steps to do that would be horrific at this time. I just don’t think it can happen now.

  5. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Martin, one of my only concerns about this type of proposal is the potential for manipulation by various stakeholders in the Convention. But at the end of the day, I think Southern Baptists would only approve a document that really does represent what the vast majority of our churches hold to, especially in light of the purpose of this abstract, which is different than the purpose of the BF&M.

    Roger, to be clear, I am not arguing against having the BF&M. It is a good statement that I affirm. It needs to stay, and when necessary, be revised. I am proposing a second, complementary statement that is an abstract of the BF&M and is for the purpose of intrachurch cooperation, not the maintenance of orthodoxy among denominational servants.

    Louis, I too think there are “unofficial allowances” made. Which is why I think an abstract of the BF&M is probably preferrable to full subscription on the part of churches.

    Matt, thanks for the congratulations. I hope you are enjoying your new gig at SWBTS. First of all, I do not see this as a “truncated” confession, but rather as an “abstract” of our confession. The former seems to me to communicate inappropriate compromise, while the latter seems to indicate appropriate consensus. Second, I do not see this abstract replacing the BF&M. In fact, I do not see it changing anything about the way we currently use the BF&M, which from a corporate/denominational standpoint is restricted to denominational servants and elected and appointed leaders. That would not change. Third, the SBC could refer to both when appealing to our beliefs, just as we presently appeal to the BF&M tradition as refined and improved over time and our track record of resolutions and other position statements.

    Finally, while adopting the BF&M as a prerequisite for friendly cooperation would certainly be easier, I am not convinced (at this point) it is wiser. Simply put, there are some things in the BF&M that I believe and I trust you believe, but that I don’t think ought to be mandated belief for cooperation. For example, as Roger mentions the BF&M argues that baptism is prerequisite to the Lord’s Supper. I agree 100% and have argued for this position in print. But I know there are vast numbers of Southern Baptist churches that only require belief as prerequisite to communion. I do not think these churches should be excluded from the SBC. I also know many others who agree with the “substance” of the BF&M, but quibble over language in any number of articles. Some of these folks would likely not affirm it in the scenario I am proposing, and I don’t think they should be excluded over minor differences over terminology.

    Thus, while I can affirm all of the BF&M, I think a better route is writing a succinct abstract of it that emphasizes a basic orthodoxy on the Trinity, Christology, and eschatology, a basically evangelical view of Scripture and salvation, and a basically Baptist view of the church. The point is to include as many confessionally minded Baptists as possible, not to exclude other orthodox, missions-minded Baptists. We could easily say that the BF&M clarifies anything that is unstated in the abstract. Many churches do this very thing now–write a short confession, but also point folks to the BF&M (or another confession) as a more in-depth explanation of their beliefs.

  6. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Finn:

    This is the first I’ve heard of the idea of a “simplified consensus document”. You mention several references — such as Dr. Dockery’s “Consensus and Renewal”. It has been about a year since I read Dr. Dockery’s book, but I don’t recall him calling for a new consensus document. I interpreted his comments as “we need to bury the sword and not argue over third tier issues”.

    Are there real-world situations now where the cooperation of a local SBC church is being hamstrung due to some “plank” in the BF&M? Do you think, for example, that we are about to loose “a whole generation” of new SBC leaders because of holding to certain “narrow” parameters on secondary or tertiary doctrines that are codified in the BF&M?

  7. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Roger, That was indeed a major thrust of Dockery’s book. But I’m not talking about Dockery’s book. I’m talking about an idea I’ve been stewing on for some time.

    I think you misunderstand my rationale for starting this conversation–I’ve probably not been clear, which I attribute to my poor communication skills and the preliminary nature of my suggestion.

    I do not think we are about to lose a “whole generation” of folks becaue of what the BF&M says about any issue, let alone those that might be perceived as secondary or tertiary by some among us. Quite the opposite. I see a younger generation that believes Southern Baptists are still far too atheological, basing our cooperation mostly on pragamatic financial considerations rather than theological affinity. Adopting a denominational confessional standard as the basis of cooperation would help to remedy this. But if we do adopt such a standard, I agree with Jim Richards that the BF&M might be too specific in some areas wherein there can be legitimate debate. Hence, my recommendation (echoing Richards) that we adopt a short abstract of the BF&M for the purposes of interchurch cooperation.

    The problem is not that younger Southern Baptist aren’t theological enough–far from it. Rather, most younger Southern Baptists I know think the SBC isn’t theological enough–we expect our denominational servants and elected and appointed leaders to be orthodox, but virtually anything goes in local churches so long as you give some money and don’t ordain homosexuals. Most of the guys I know who are “on the edge” are not primarily concerned that we fight over silly stuff (though that is a concern)–they are rather concerned that we don’t take doctrine nearly serious enough. That is the genesis of my suggestion.

  8. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Finn:

    I was not aware that in SBC life their is a perception (a reality?) that we are not confessional. Dr. Mohler is always talking about something like “the belief once and for all to the saints delivered” [my rough paraphraise] which implies that as a result of the CR that we now have a confessional core that is robust and that the next step is beefing up cooperation.

    In any case, the BF&M is anything but short. It runs to 18 articles — on 22 pages — covering everything from “Salvation” and “Grace” to “Peace and War” and “The Family”. To the extent that we need something more terse maybe something like the Apostles’ Creed would be a place to start. I could be wrong but I don’t think there is anything is the Apostles’ Creed that would be “out of sync” with a “Baptist flavor of Christianity”.

  9. Matt Easter   •  

    Nathan – Would you wish to include disciples baptism [by immersion, even?] in the confessional abstract (perhaps associated with words on Baptist ecclesiology)?

  10. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Roger, I have also argued that next time the SBC revisits confessionalism, whether through adopting an abstract or revising the BF&M, we need to commend to our churches the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds. The General Baptists did this in the Orthodox Creed of 1678, and I think it would be good for us to do the same.

    Matt, Absolutely. I would consider confessor baptism by immersion to be central to a Baptist view of the church. Also a believer’s church, congregational polity, local church autonomy, liberty of conscience, and a free church in a free state.

  11. Louis   •  

    By the way, in case you guys did not know this, the issue of a doctrinal confession being the premise for denominational affiliation is NOT appreciated by all.

    As a contrast, I was directed recently to something that Walter Shurden put in writing as sort of “advice” to the CBF.

    One of his major pieces of advice was something like this (this is a very close paraphrase but I will put it in quotes for readability, you can look it up to confirm) –

    “You (the CBF) will be tempted to put down on paper what you believe. Resist that temptation.”

    I am not trying to pick a fight here. Only illustrating.

    Shurden, the CBF, the Baptist churches affiliated with them and their seminaries rally around something other than doctrinal confessionalism. They still have a common confession, mind you, but it is boiled down to 2 points, as far as I can tell.

    1. Freedom for any Baptist to believe as he/she sees fit (per the Priesthood of the the Believer), and

    2. A particular view of the legal interpretation of the First Amendment of the U.S. Consitution – a strict separationist view.

    I am glad that the SBC is in the doctrinal confession camp and becoming more so.

    It is impossible, in my opinion, for people in the doctrinal confession camp to coexist peacefully with people who are opposed to that. I am glad that these 2 groups now have their own paths to follow. It will be more productive for both groups.

  12. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Louis, I have some very good friends who are moderates. I don’t think our moderate friends are always wrong, but I do think those in the Shurden camp are fundamentally wrong about Baptist identity and the nature of confessionalism. The SBC isn’t perfect, but we are in a much better place on these issues than where we were three decades ago.

  13. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Finn:

    I have the anthology “Southern Baptist Identity” (I didn’t realize I had it). I’m going to read your article on page 256-280 again.

    My mistake over here was not differentiating between Dockery’s “Southern Baptist Identity” book with his “Consensus and Renewal” book.

    I not connecting on why it is that SBC could be viewed as “atheological” given that we have a BF&M that covers the waterfront on just about every issue — even some “non-core” issues.

    If we are “atheological” it must be in spite of, not because of, our written confession. If this is the case how is some other confession, which would be a subset of the BF&M, going to help?

    Also, how can a given document — in this case the BF&M — be at the same time “atheological” and “too restrictive”?

  14. Louis   •  

    Nathan, I, too, have moderate friends. I wrote my comment to illustrate the difference between the SBC and the CBF on the necessity and importance of a confession being the basis for fellowship.

    You are correct. Moderates are not always wrong. But I have not seen any movement in the moderate camp to move toward a common theological confession. If fact, it has been studiously avoided, even by those who disagree with Shurden.

    That being the case, it is good that Moderates and Conservatives remain in separate groups for seminary training, missions, etc.

  15. Nathan Finn   •     Author

    Louis, agreed on all counts.

    Roger, the perception is that the SBC is “atheological” because the only people–the only people–who need to think about sound doctrine at all are professors, missionaries, some other denominational servants, and (in theory) elected and appointed officials. But no churches–not one–has to affirm any doctrine of any kind except opposition to homosexuality. We are selectively confessional. This is an improvement from the pre-CR days, to be sure. But in my opinion it is a baby step toward being a fully confessional Convention.

  16. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr Finn:

    I know that there have been a few cases where associations or state conventions have kicked out churches due to “women pastors” or “views on homosexuality”.

    In theory, this same mechanism could be implemented to kick out churches who don’t hold to the trinity, substitutionary atonement, bodily resurrection, etc. However, I’m not aware that any of our 44,000 SBC churches actually deny these basic tenets of Christianity.

    Are you calling for each church to sign off on the BF&M (or something else) each year and send the paper to Nashville? This seems to me to be out of sync with the idea that the locus of control in the SBC is with the local church. Local churches join together voluntarily in associations/conventions to do certain missionary work.

    I believe it is a major leap from denominational employees signing off on the BF&M and local churches signing off on it.

    To the extent that the SBC is “non confessional” it is due to inattention. We have the proper “paper trail” in place.

    In the Reformed Church of America, your Sunday school teacher might talk about the Heidelburg Catechism or the Belgic Confession once in a while.

    I teach a Bible class at the SBC church I attend here in OKC and I’ve mentioned the BF&M several times. I’ve even mentioned the New Hampshire Confession and the Apostles creed.

  17. Nathan Finn   •  

    Roger,

    Yes, these decisions are made by associations all the time. But my concern is with the SBC, which is autonomous from other state bodies and associations.

    How do you know what our 44,000 churches believe? There is no confessional standard. Your knowledge, just like mine and everyone else’s, is anecdotal. My suggestion would change that.

    I am not calling for any particular strategy of implementation. All I’m doing is suggesting something ought to be done. So as for annual signing, who knows? That remains to be worked out. We are just starting this discussion.

    I would disagree with you strongly that my suggestion takes “the locus of control in the SBC” away from the local church. It would be a decision of churches, represented by messengers, to decide what the standards of cooperation would be. It is in fact that way now–churches through messengers have mandated financial contributions and opposition to homosexuality as standards. I’m simply suggesting one more standard–some form of confessional fidelity. You misunderstand Baptist polity.

    For my part, I’m not so much concerned with why the SBC is minimally confessional (we are not totally non-confessional). All I care about is rectifying the situation. We began going down this road when we switched representation to exclusively churches. Adopting the BF&M (and revising/amending it) took us further in this direction. Mandating employee affirmation of the current BF&M was yet another baby step. It’s time to take the plunge and embrace a consistently confessional identity.

  18. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr Finn:

    Your point is well taken. I retract my statement regarding “locus of control”. As you say, the messengers to any association, state convention, or the SBC can draw up parameters as to what defines “friendly cooperation”. We both have cited examples of this such as “women pastors” and “homosexuals as members/staff members”.

    As far as I know, most of the examples of particular churches being “kicked out” has happened at the associational level or state level — not with the SBC.

    The nub of the issue that I was trying to get at is the tension between having some “confessional document” such as the BF&M gain more explicit adherence given the “bottoms up” vs. “top down” aspect of our polity.

    The BF&M acknowledges this tension by saying in its prolog:

    1. Any group of Baptists . . . have the inherent right to draw up for themselves and publish to the world a confession . .

    2. The sole authority for faith and practice . . . is the scripture. Confessions are only guides . . . .

    3. Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches

    ===

    My take away: any confession, such as the BF&M, requires voluntary buy-in by the churches. To the extent that people and/or churches aren’t buying in then the solution must be “going on the road” to educate/pursuade people. The problem is not that we need a confession; rather it is the extent to which any presently existing confession and/or newly drafted one is going to be operative given our polity.

    If there is a disagreement between some doctrinal point then as Baptists we are going to be arguing this on its merits based upon the Bible — regardless of what any confession says or doesn’t say.

    As to the question of what any one of the 44,000 SBC churches believe. My answer is, “Of course, I don’t know”. We only have the anecdotal evidence that some have been kicked out when their practices “cross the line”. What constitues “crossing the line” is defined in the by-laws of various associations and state conventions via language as to what constitutes “cooperating churches”.

    One implementation of your idea would be a state convention ammending its bylaws in an annual meeting (as a result of an affirmative vote of messengers) to include language saying if you don’t hold to this enumerated list of doctrines then you are not “in friendly coopeeration”. I can’t gauge the likelihood of such a thing happening.

    Along with tightening up on “doctrinal accountability” of the churches is the need for “regenerate church membership”. Right now I’d say the loose link is between churches and their members; not between the 44,000 supposedly cooperating churches. However, both of these issues can be worked on in parallel.

  19. Nathan Finn   •  

    Roger,

    Ah, then it appears we are not far apart after all. To be clear, I don’t see this as “imposing” a confession on the churches–the churches will decide what they want to do (as always). As for educating about the BF&M rather than adopting an abstract, that might work. I would certainly have no problem with that as someone who affirms the BF&M without any qualms. My suggestion for an abstract is based upon my assumption–perhaps ill-conceived–that a not sizable churches will be uncomfortable affirming the BF&M in a “strict subscriptionist” (i.e. “jot and tittle”) sort of way, if for no other reason because of its clear affirmation of close communion. And for my part, while I strongly hold to that view, and would not want to see Southern Baptists codify open communion (which I could not in good faith affirm), I do not think that issue is worth losing even one church over if indeed it were the only reason. That’s jsut the most obvious example. Hence, my suggestion for an abstract. We shall see what happens, if anything, down the road.

    NAF

  20. Roger Simpson   •  

    Dr. Finn:

    Your points are well taken. We will see what happens.

    Certainly Baptists should have a more robust understanding of what it is they believe as individuals and hold in common with members of their (local) church.

    To my knowledge, and I admit that I don’t get around much, you are the first person calling for more focused confessional foundation. So it took me a while to come up to speed over here and get on board.

    I guess right about now the new academic year is starting up. If I was 30 years younger I’d figure out a way to sneak into some of your classes there at Southeastern. I’m a Software Engineer here with a BSEE and MBA and an ex-Silicon Valley Microcode Development manager. If God would have wired me differently maybe I’d be sitting in you class or even doing your job!

    Roger Simpson
    Oklahoma City OK

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