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

[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.

Confessional Consensus, Part 2

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.

Confessional Consensus, Part 1

I believe it is no longer possible to “guilt” the next generation into the SBC. That worked in past years when the SBC was a tribal culture and there were few legitimate options for partnering, but guilt will not play now. The tribal culture has also dissipated; it is necessary to find another means by which we work together. Previous generations were part of the SBC because that was how they identified themselves–it was an “identity” that was cultural, sociological, and religious. Today, many younger leaders see it as an “affiliation” rather than an “identification.”

The tribal culture of the past was due largely to a methodological consensus. That is, we looked and behaved the same due to the singular way in which we tended to do ministry. As a result, a Southern Baptist church in Alabama functioned almost identically to one in Georgia and a Southern Baptist church in Georgia functioned almost identically to one in Kentucky. Almost anywhere in the country, if you walked through the doors of a Southern Baptist church you would recognize the terminology, the order of service, the songs and, if all the pastors had access to W. A. Criswell’s tapes, the message.

This is how it was phrased in my paper presented to the Baptist Identity II Conference at Union University in October 2009:

Cooperatively fixing this problem will not be easy. We have no historical precedent in denominational life for cooperating with such incredibly diverse expressions of church and ministry. On the contrary, it is telling that the discipleship arm of the Southern Baptist Convention was called the “Baptist Sunday School Board” until just a few years ago. For decades, Baptists had Sunday School (with attendance pins), 9 verse invitation hymns, suits, and King James Bibles and everyone knew what a Southern Baptist looked like. Judson Allen explains it well in the 1958 Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists:

A Southern Baptist tends to remain a Southern Baptist, whether he lives in Virginia, Georgia, California, Ohio, or Montana. He needs not easily adjust to a church fellowship in which methods and practices are different from those to which he has been conditioned. Churches which are methodologically different are automatically suspect.

In our convention, new “churches which are methodologically different are [still] automatically suspect” in many quarters of the convention. Those methodologically different churches know that– and have become less involved with each passing year.

And this was not only the case in Baptist churches. Methodist churches were alike pretty much across the board, as were the Presbyterians and so on.

What we have seen in recent times is the collapse of tribalism formed around methodology, that is, the methodological consensus has ceased to exist. In today’s SBC, we have a denomination where churches look and practice some very different expressions. This is to the great joy of some and the unending consternation of others. Regardless, we must look for something else to be the gravitational pull of our cooperation since methodology no longer has that ability.

I am convinced we need to find a way to cooperate around a common confession and cooperative mission, all the while recognizing that there are new paradigms of ministry.

For example, most Purpose Driven contemporary Baptist churches look more like Purpose Driven contemporary Methodist churches methodologically than they do like traditional Baptist churches. So, the big question is, can we cooperate around our confession and a common mission, or must we all look alike from carpet color to choir robes or function the same from bulletins to the Doxology?

The Baptist Faith and Message is our confessional consensus. Formulated and approved by the convention, it should fix the boundary for churches and entities that call themselves Southern Baptist. Those who would want to impose their own more narrow parameters of cooperation place others in the unenviable position, to use a football metaphor, of having the goalposts moved while the field goal attempt is in flight. If indeed we have a consensus, and we do, let that be the center point of our working together.