“Baptists are a people of the Book”. It is a slogan we have all heard before, and when we are at our very best, no doubt these words ring true. As a denomination, Southern Baptists have now spoken out loud and clear for the inerrancy of Scripture for almost three decades. For this, we should be grateful. But any denomination that is committed to the truthfulness of Scripture will wrestle with what the Bible actually teaches, so it is only natural that we find ourselves in the midst of several intramural debates about faith and practice.
In particular, for the last few years Southern Baptists have been debating aspects of our Baptist identity. Sometimes we debate Baptist principles themselves. For instance, there is an ongoing question as to whether or not a plural elder leadership model is consistent with the traditional Baptist belief in congregational church government. The ordinances are also being debated. Churches, seminarians, bloggers, and agency trustees are discussing the nature and validity of some baptisms. A few among us have considered the possibility of allowing non-immersed Christians to be members of their churches. When it comes to the Lord’s Table, an ongoing question is whether communion should be open to all professing Christians or restricted to only those believers who have been immersed. Although the nature of regenerate church membership was ably addressed in a resolution at this past year’s SBC annual meeting, we continue to have family discussions about such issues as the proper age for baptismal candidates and the specifics of redemptive church discipline.
Then there are those debates that are not related to Baptist principles per se, but rather focus on appropriate boundaries for Southern Baptist belief. This is especially relevant for those who are interested in serving in denominational leadership, whether paid or elected. For example, is it kosher for Southern Baptists to affirm some “miraculous” spiritual gifts traditionally associated with the charismatic and Pentecostal movements? Are there particular worship practices that are inappropriate in a Southern Baptist context? Are there local church offices, besides pastor/elder, that are biblical restricted to men alone? Are there denominational posts that are inappropriate for women to hold? How many of the “points” of Calvinism can someone affirm and still be considered a “good” Southern Baptist? The list could go on.
Of course all of these debates occur in a denomination that is committed to preserving local church autonomy and liberty of conscience, so a variety of opinions exist on each of these issues. And these are just the things that conservative Southern Baptists debate; our moderate friends bring a whole list of other issues to the table, especially in some of the state conventions and in many local associations.
As Southern Baptists continue to discuss these and other important issues, we would do well to remember that, as the Baptist Faith & Message says, our inerrant Bible “reveals the principles by which God judges us, and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried.” In other words, the Bible alone is our ultimate authority for faith and practice, including our Baptist identity. While our theological traditions and historical precedents can aid us in discerning who we are and determining who we ought to be, these are but tools. The Scripture must have the last word because Scripture alone is God’s written revelation to humanity. The buck must stop with the Bible.
We often appeal to what is popular when we discuss controversial issues. But what is popular may not be what is biblical. We often point to Baptist history when we argue for contemporary positions. But Baptists–even Southern Baptists–are not infallible, and just because something may have been true of some Baptists in the past does not mean it is biblical. We sometimes appeal to the practices of other Christian traditions when we try to defend our convictions. But other Christian traditions also often miss the mark when it comes to biblical fidelity. We often appeal to our current or historic confessions of faith when we make our case for certain beliefs, but we must always remember that minor (and sometimes not so minor) differences exist between the various Baptist confessions. More importantly, because most Baptists believe that confessions are non-inspired summaries of what most Baptists believe at a particular point in time, no confession is authoritative except insofar as it accurately conveys biblical teaching. And even then a confession’s authority is a derived authority, being grounded in Scripture and not in the confession itself.
I am thankful we are debating important theological and methodological issues; again, this should be expected in a denomination that takes the authority and sufficiency of Scripture seriously. But we must be willing to make the case for our positions from that Scripture rather than our own opinions, popular sentiment, history, the teachings of theologians, or even confessions of faith. To say it another way, we must be a people of the book as we debate our Baptist identity.
My prayer is that God will grant us great wisdom and abundant charity as we continue to wrestle with who we are and who we ought to be as Southern Baptists. I hope you join me in that prayer.