Thursday, October 19, 2006

Which Road Will We Take?

Over the past year it has become obvious that not all Southern Baptists share the same position on every matter of doctrine. I suspect that this has always been true, but some people seem to have been genuinely surprised when they learned that there are Southern Baptists who are Calvinists, who believe that all of the New Testament spiritual gifts are valid today, who accept symbolic post-conversion immersions from non-Baptist churches, who do not believe that taking a drink of alcohol is a sin, who accept leadership by a plurality of elders, etc. Many, and probably most, of the Southern Baptists who hold these views also affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, support the Cooperative Program, and are grateful for the Conservative Resurgence. Basically, they are committed, conservative Southern Baptists. However, for some people these things are not enough to define one as a Southern Baptist; one must also subscribe to a particular interpretation on a whole host of issues not addressed in the BFM, including some of the ones listed above.

There is a strong segment within the Southern Baptist Convention that seeks to exclude, to varying degrees, people who do not subscribe to a certain interpretation on such issues as the ones listed above. Typically this exclusion is manifested in policies that disqualify Southern Baptists who hold such views from service or employment with some SBC entities. The policies passed by the trustees of the International Mission Board in November 2005 and the statement adopted by the trustees of Southwestern Seminary earlier this week are recent examples of this type of exclusion. Now, I'm sure that the trustees of these entities are more than happy to accept money from people and/or churches who hold to such views, but they do not want these people serving with them.

While many, but certainly not all, SBC leaders support the exclusion of these Southern Baptists from various types of denominational employment or service, there are some folks who apparently would like to see these people leave the SBC. Here are a couple of quotes that seem to reflect such a sentiment:

  • Paige Patterson, quoted in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram---"I have opposed [speaking in tongues] for all of these years because I think it's an erroneous interpretation of the Bible," he said. "Southern Baptists traditionally have stood against what we feel like are the excesses of the charismatic movement. All we're doing is restating where we've always been."

    Baptists are "the most intense advocates of religious liberty," Patterson said, defending the right of other Christians to believe in speaking in tongues.

    "But don't wear a Yankee uniform when you play for the Mets," he said.

  • Ben Stratton, in a comment on Art Rogers' blog---I stand with our Baptist forefathers and say that there is no place in Southern Baptist life for pastors or churches that believe in speaking in tongues, either publicly or privately.
While I try to refrain from putting words into the mouths of others (not always with success), I believe these statements speak for themselves. The implied message seems to be, "If you believe that speaking in tongues is a biblically valid practice, we don't want you in the Southern Baptist Convention." Nevermind the facts that conservative evangelical scholars do not agree exactly on whether "tongues" refers only to known human languages or to an entirely unknown/unhuman language, that there is no direct biblical statement that any spiritual gifts would cease before the Lord's return, that Paul said he rejoiced that he spoke in tongues more than any of the Corinthian believers, that the Bible specifically says not to forbid speaking in tongues, and that the BFM never even mentions the subject. Despite all this, some people have determined that all speaking in tongues is unbiblical and thus has no place in the SBC.

For a denomination that historically has championed the priesthood of the believer/all believers it seems unbelievable that certain individuals or groups would presume to declare that the interpretation they favor is THE interpretation that every Southern Baptist must hold to in order to be fully accepted in denominational life. It is even more remarkable that Southern Baptists have allowed them to do so. Does the priesthood of the believer/all believers allow us to interpret the Bible any way we see fit? Of course not. There are a number of core beliefs that define us as Southern Baptists. That is why we have the BFM---to list those doctrines that we as Southern Baptists share in common and that define us. While not every Southern Baptist, myself included, fully agrees with every clause in the BFM we accept it as the defining statement of what Southern Baptists believe. The way I see it, if the BFM does not address a specific issue then we have freedom to interpret what the Bible says about that issue and still be welcome in Southern Baptist denominational life. If we are going to exclude people from service because of their doctrinal views, we as a convention should be the ones making that decision by amending the BFM. That way there is no uncertainty about what THE Southern Baptist position on an issue is.

We have reached a point in the SBC where we are going to have to decide once and for all which road we are going to take when it comes to dealing with differences of interpretation on issues not covered by the BFM. We can continue down the road of excluding those who, although they affirm the BFM, have different interpretations on doctrines not addressed by the BFM. If we follow this road, however, those who are excluded from denominational service will undoubtedly begin to channel their support (including their money) toward other organizations that actually welcome their service as well as their money. Many will eventually leave the SBC altogether. But this doesn't have to happen. We can acknowledge that, while every doctrine is important, not all doctrines are essential to fellowship or cooperation. We can invite every Southern Baptist who accepts the BFM to be a full participant in denominational life, even if they have a different position on issues not addressed by the BFM. This road will strengthen the SBC by encouraging cooperation and allowing us to focus on the Great Commission rather than squabbling over nonessential doctrines. And this road will help our witness by giving us true unity, a unity where we work together even though we don't agree on everything. The choice is ours. Which road will we take?


John Fariss said...

Tim, we not only have to decide which road to take, but depending on our choice, we may have to be willing to expend a great deal of energy to take it--to, in Jesus' words, "count the cost." The powers that be took a certain road beginning back in 1979-80, and that road has become deeply rutted, so that getting out of it and into another will take a massive effort. And least I be misunderstood, the "road" and the "ruts" to which I refer is NOT theological conservatism, but the MANNER in which theological conservatism was pursued. I was a new 25ish year old Christian in '79-80 and pretty much uninformed and ignornant of anything but the saving grace of Jesus Christ, but by the mid '80s, that had changed. I saw "going for the jugular" happen, I saw good and Godly men labeled with the red letter of "Liberal" for no reason other than that they disagreed politically or semanticly with these same powers. And that way has become the road we Southern Baptists follow (not all of us of course, but collectively, as a denomination it is). And as Familt Counseling--which by the way is a most Biblical pursuit--teaches us, changing the way in which a family relates to one another takes not only a commitment, but much energy as well.

BTW: I agree with you, and even like the way you put it. I am simply cautioning that while the decision can be made internally (intellectually and/or emotionally), there are additional requirements to put our decison into effect.

Bishop Joe said...

If I might humbly suggest a couple of points we may want to consider? First of all, we need to recognize that SBC agencies (IMB, SWBTS, etc.) are not churches. As such either entity is well within its rights to mandate what is and what is not acceptable from its employees. These positions are not forcing any beliefs on churches or on individual church members.

In the case of SWBTS specifically, we need to keep in mind that our SBC seminaries are creedal institutions. It is their responsibility to clarify their doctrinal stances whenever major issues arise. If the BF&M is silent or unclear on an issue, and it is determined by the trustees to be needed, it is the institutions responsibility to its students to be crystal clear about how the institution stands on a matter. And I would hope that we all agree that a proposed doctrine dealing with matters of revelation would need clarification.

Do we need some clarity on this matter within the BF&M? Absolutely! But no SBC agency should be asked to be vague on their doctrinal stances (particularly the neo-charismatic variety) until we as a convention get around to settling this issue. If the trustee board of a seminary were to announce that they were in full support of their professor’s right to practice snake handling, I would respect their right to make such a declaration. They are being upfront and honest with their students and financial supporters concerning their beliefs and practices. And I would continue to support their right to make such a policy as I vote to remove each board member and the president of this fictional snake-loving institution.

I apologize for the length of this comment but I have some difficulty with brevity. Please feel free to leave an egregiously long post on my blog: Have a great day!

Tim Sweatman said...


I agree that it's going to be a long, difficult, and even painful process to become a convention characterized by cooperation rather than by coerced conformity. As of now I believe that it is worth the cost, but I am continually evaluating this.


Bishop Joe,

I admit that our SBC entities possess the legal right to set their own doctrinal standards, but that does not mean that they should have the right to do so. No SBC entity should be allowed to exclude an otherwise qualified Southern Baptist who affirms the BFM and who supports that entity financially through the CP because he or she has a different interpretation on a matter not addressed by the BFM. To allow our entities to do this makes the BFM a worthless document and also relegates many committed Southern Baptists to a second-class status in denominational life. It strikes me as hypoctirical for our entites to say to churches and qualified individuals, "Keep giving us your money, but we don't want you serving with us."

Regarding your statement about our seminaries, I do not believe that seminaries should have an "official" position on doctrinal issues other than what the BFM says. Since our seminaries are funded by CP dollars from all SBC churches, and since our seminaries exist to serve all SBC churches, our seminaries' doctrinal statements should reflect what the SBC as a whole has said we believe in. The proper way for our seminaries to address theological issues not addressed by the BFM is for professors to explain the varying interpretations (including their strengths and weaknesses) to students and allow the students to study the issue and reach their own conclusion. That is how higher learning is supposed to work.

Ben Stratton said...


You wrote: "That is why we have the BFM---to list those doctrines that we as Southern Baptists share in common and that define us. . . The way I see it, if the BFM does not address a specific issue then we have freedom to interpret what the Bible says about that issue and still be welcome in Southern Baptist denominational life."

Here is the problem. The Baptist Faith and Message does not address speaking in tongues or other Pentecostal issues in any way. As I have told you before the Baptist Faith and Message has been a reactionary document and up until the last few years there was no reason to put an article in the BFM on tongues. It was known by all that Pentecostals/Charismatic spoke in tongues and Southern Baptists did not. Unfortunately things have changed in the last few years. Now according to your line of reasoning, a Southern Baptist church or pastor can speak in tongues publicly or practice being slain in the spirit and still be a cooperating Southern Baptist. After all the BFM "does not address this specific issue".

Bowden McElroy said...


I realize this post is a week old and I'm late to the party, but I would like to throw my two cents in.

I really see a difference between IMB/NAMB and the seminaries. The difference is one of quantity. We only have one SBC entity to send missionaries abroad (and only one for missionaries here at home) and therefore I, like you, believe the trustees of IMB and NAMB should not move beyond our statement of faith when selecting personnel.

A prospective seminary student, however, has six choices about where to attend school. (I look for geographic limitations to be eliminated in the near future as the accrediting agencies catch up to the technology of distance learning). What if each school were free to develop it's own doctrinal statement (as long as it was within the boundaries of the BF&M).

Then the market would influence which seminaries thrived and which didn't. Or, maybe all would thrive, thus reflecting some diversity within the denomination.

So... in a way, I find myself agreeing with Joe and Ben; though for vastly different reasons.

In fact, I'll go a step further and say I think it's a misuse of CP funds to have six identical schools offering many of the same programs. Why not have a Calvinist school, a "uber-conservative" (to borrow a phrase from Joe) school, an outside-the-box, west coast, missional school, etc?

Tim Sweatman said...


My main problem with such a scenario is that a seminary should be a place where students are exposed to a broad range of ideas on theological issues (exploring the strengths and weaknesses of them) and equipped with the exegetical and hermeneutical skills to examine in depth what Scripture says concerning these issues. I am very uncomfortable with the idea that a seminary should indoctrinate students into a narrow theological persuasion. Theologically our seminaries should teach a wide scope of views within the bounds of the BFM. One of my concerns is that if our seminaries espouse competing doctrines then we're going to have graduates believing that their seminary's official position is THE right one, and eventually we'll end up with six separate factions within the SBC. By having a unified theological position for all of our seminaries based on the broad parameters of the BFM, and teaching students that on other issues there is some room to disagree, we would foster unity within diversity. Where our seminaries should specialize is in the more practical aspects of ministry, and to an extent this is already happening.

Tim Sweatman said...


You are right. I do believe that such a pastor can still be a cooperating Southern Baptist. Would I agree with his position on these issues? On speaking in tongues, yes, as long as the conditions of 1 Cor. 14 were met. On being slain in the Spirit, absolutely not. If Southern Baptists do not want people who believe in these practices to be part of the SBC, then the convention as a whole needs to make that decision, NOT individual trustee boards.

Kevin Holmes (and still baptist by conviction) said...


Who is included and who is excluded seems to depend on the nature of the interaction between the individual/church and the SBC.

To be a "regular SBC member" just be a member of a church who gives at least $250 a year to the cooperative program or directly to the IMB. To be involved in leading you must meet qualification "A" and have a "Stepford" theology.

So if you are giving money and prayer support, we don't care what you believe, practice, or teach as long as you do it quietly ("Don't ask ... Don't tell). If you desire to play an active role, you must look and sound like a programmed clone of some self appointed saviour of the SBC.