Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Reflections from a Distance

For the first time since 2003, I was not present at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Furthermore, since I have been able to spend an average of only a few minutes a day online for the past few weeks I was unable to follow the events leading up to San Antonio and the convention itself as closely as I would have liked. In addition, since I have dialup Internet access at home and streaming media and blogs are blocked on my computer at work, I have been unable to watch any of the convention proceedings. I say all of that to make it clear that my observations about San Antonio are based entirely on secondhand knowledge.

I came away from the 2006 convention in Greensboro optimistic that meaningful reform could be accomplished in the SBC, but based on what I have read over the past few days I believe San Antonio demonstrated that reform is a long way off, if it is even possible at all. Ironically, it is the reform movement's most tangible victory in San Antonio---the adoption of the Executive Committee report concerning the role of the BFM as it relates to the agencies of the convention---that is the primary source of pessimism. The fact that the report was adopted with 57-58% of the vote should be a cause for optimism, as this demonstrates that the majority of Southern Baptists seem to desire that we come together around the essentials of the faith and core Baptist beliefs to cooperate for the sake of missions and the work of the Kingdom. However, the response by certain convention leaders and defenders of the status quo reveals just how deeply entrenched the opponents of reform are.

The words that follow are somewhat strong, and it is with dread that I write them, but after several days of reflection I sincerely believe they are true. The response of many SBC leaders reflects a degree of arrogance and even contempt toward the people who make up the SBC. Here are a couple of reasons why I believe this to be the case:

  1. Soon after the vote to adopt the report, some defenders of the status quo began saying that the motion to adopt passed because the messengers did not understand what they were voting on. While the wording of the actual motion might leave some wiggle room for interpretation, let us remember that earlier in the day Executive Committee President Morris Chapman spoke about this issue during his report to the convention. Now if anyone is qualified to speak to the meaning of the Executive Committee report, I would think it would be the president of the Executive Committee. Dr. Chapman's remarks leave no room for ambiguity when it comes to the Executive Committee report:
    (1) Any practice instituted by an entity in the Southern Baptist Convention that has the force of doctrine should be in accord with the Baptist Faith and Message and not exceed its boundaries unless and until it has been approved by the Southern Baptist Convention and secondly,

    (2) If an entity of the Southern Baptist Convention adopts a confession of faith separate and distinct from the Baptist Faith and Message and it includes a doctrine unsupported by our confessional statement, the entity should request approval from the Convention prior to including the doctrine in its confession.
    If this convention followed a pattern similar to the ones I attended, the vast majority of the messengers were present for Dr. Chapman's address. While Dr. Chapman's remarks are not an official part of the report adopted by the messengers, they certainly inform us about the Executive Committee's intent in presenting the report. I would expect that people who are committed to the ideal of original intent when it comes to interpreting Scripture and the U.S. Constitution would be consistent and apply the same standard to this report. Thus, those who heard Dr. Chapman almost certainly knew what the Executive Committee meant when they presented their report. In addition, the debate on the motion to adopt the report clearly demonstrated the way most proponents and most opponents of the motion viewed it. It is likely that some individual messengers were unclear about what was being voted on, but to claim that the messengers as a whole did not understand even after hearing Dr. Chapman's remarks earlier in the day and the debate before the vote is an insult to the intelligence of Southern Baptists and, in my opinion, reflects a mindset that believes we should let denominational elites run the convention because those poor deluded folks who make up the convention cannot be trusted to understand the issues.
  2. After the motion to adopt the report passed, some of our entity leaders basically said they were going to follow business as usual. In other words, even though the convention had expressed its will that the BFM be the doctrinal guide for our entities, some entity leaders have decided not to adhere to the will of the convention. Some of them have tried to advance the argument that the report is ambiguous, but as I demonstrated above that is a weak argument. Others make the point that the BFM is a "minimalistic" document that only expresses our core doctrinal beliefs as Southern Baptists and is not meant to be exhaustive. I agree with them on this point, but not on its ramifications. They seem to be saying that since the BFM is a minimalistic statement, our entities need to define more narrowly what Southern Baptist doctrine is. The problem with this approach is twofold. First, no single entity can speak for the SBC as a whole. Second, if two entities adopt contradictory positions, which one is the SBC position? The fact that the BFM is a minimalistic statement does not mean that our entities need to add to it in a de facto manner. It means that as a convention we come together around the essentials of the faith and core Baptist doctrines. The BFM is minimalistic so that cooperation and participation can be maximized. Art Rogers explains this concept in a simple but profound way:
    This [the BFM] is the minimum consensus that we can honestly expect to achieve in our varied interpretation of the Word. In other words, pretty much everything else that we agree on is a bonus, but not a test of fellowship.
    Regardless of which reason is given, those who would lead our entities to continue making their own doctrinal statement are going against the expressed will of the SBC. One of the greatest weaknesses of the SBC is that the convention is powerless to put a stop to such a blatant disregard for the will of the convention. In a practical sense, SBC leaders are not accountable to the convention, and they know it and act accordingly.
In addition to the aftermath of the vote on the Executive Committee report, another discouraging sign was the refusal of the Committee on Resolutions to present Tom Ascol's resolution on integrity in church membership to the convention for the second straight year. Considering all the publicity this issue received over the past year, it is unbelievable that this resolution was not reported out of committee. To me, the failure to bring this resolution to the floor reflects a general unwillingness within the SBC to deal with issues of substance that directly affect our churches, and in this case an issue that makes a mockery of one of our core Baptist beliefs---regenerate church membership.

I am much more pessimistic about the future viability of the Southern Baptist Convention as an avenue of cooperation and partnership for the work of the Kingdom than I was a year ago. I haven't even addressed the failure of the IMB Board of Trustees to rescind the narrow doctrinal requirements that were imposed on missionary candidates in November 2005, the actions of the Executive Director of the Florida Baptist Convention in distributing Jerry Vines' infamous anti-Calvinism sermon to every pastor in the state, or the departure of several of the leading voices from these debates and discussions. When all of these things are taken into account, we seem to be going the wrong way.


Les Puryear said...


I couldn't agree with you more. Excellent post.


Debbie Kaufman said...

Tim when you come back, you always come back with a bang. This post is no exception. :)

Alan Cross said...

Excellent observations, Tim. Those are my thoughts exactly. I was actually left standing at the mic on both the BF&M motion and Ascol's Resolution to speak in favor of both. I have lost quite a bit of confidence as well.

One other thing to consider: The EC responded to Boyd Luter's request, which was VERY specific in what it was asking for. They seemed to affirm a great deal of what he was asking for in 2006 in Greensboro. That motion did not arise in a vacuum. To assume it did and that you can only deal with the words, as some are saying, is ridiculous.