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Why I Do Not Think We Should Revise the Baptist Faith & Message (Right Now)

The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention are not perfect. The people in those churches are not perfect. The way we do things as a convention are not perfect. We have not always gotten everything right, and I have a hunch we will continue to get some things wrong from time to time. How could this not be the case when you ask 10,000 sinners to attend a business session? So I admit up front that, at least in my opinion, there are some flaws in how we do things as Southern Baptists. There are rough edges. There are loop holes. The tricky part is figuring out how we can avoid throwing out the convention baby with the flawed bathwater.

The Southern Baptist Convention exists for the purpose of uniting autonomous Baptist churches together in cooperative missions and those other ministries that assist us in cooperative missions (education, publishing, cultural engagement, ministerial annuity). Cooperation for missions was the driving force behind the formation of the SBC; all of the economic and racial issues were tied in some way to the question of missions. The fundamental thing (no pun intended) that separates Southern Baptists from the Independent Baptist movement is that we believe we can accomplish more together than we can separately. Specifically, we believe we can accomplish more for the cause of missions.

But there is a fly in the ointment. We disagree about a lot of things. Maybe not inerrancy. But almost everything else.

The nineteenth century SBC enjoyed significantly more theological unity than we do at present. This is one reason why the SBC did not adopt a confession of faith in 1845. Some argue that the SBC did not adopt a confession because W. B. Johnson, the first president of the convention and an ardent opponent of confessions, represented the views of the majority. But this is clearly not the case. Every church that sent a "delegate" to the foundational meeting of the SBC adhered to the Philadelphia Confession of Faith, including Johnson's church. I do not wish to speculate too much as to Johnson's motives, though I suspect some of his reasoning may be linked to his own unsual soteriological views. What I do know is that Johnson's "no creed but the Bible" position places him closer to Campbellites than historic Baptists, despite the fact that most progressives (and not a few conservatives) continue to believe that Johnson's view is the historic Baptist position.

The fact is the SBC did not adopt a national confession because they did not need one–all of the churches held to the same confession. And even after the New Hampshire Confession became popular in the latter part of the century, most churches held to one of these two confessions (which, by the way, are not contradictory, despite revisionist claims to the contrary). There was substantial theological unity in the convention.  
That is not to say that Southern Baptist churches were in lock-step agreement on everything. There were always some churches, especially later in the century, that were uncomfortable with the doctrine of definite ("limited") atonoment. There were always a minority of churches that held to either some form of open communion and/or refused to reject potential members on the basis of an alien immersion. Churches and individuals who held these positions, especially the latter two, were in the minority. Many times they were excluded from their associations. But they were still in the SBC. There was some amount of diversity in the SBC.

Flash foward to the early 20th century, and we find that Southern Baptist theology was in transition. The increased emphasis on efficiency led to a slow decline in practices such as discipline and the marginalization (if not elimination) of practices such as adopting confessions and covenants. Furthermore, the SBC became considerably more diverse theologically as more Southern Baptists moved away from 19th century Calvinism and adopted more of a hybrid between Calvinism and Arminianism. There were some churches that continued to reject closed communion and accept alien immersions, but this continued to typically result in expulsion from associations (or even state conventions) into the 1950's and 1960's.

Besides the above, the influence of modernism began to increase among SBC leadership. That is not to say that SBC leaders were all liberals–very few were. But there was the influence of progressive theology, particularly the historical-critical method and evolution. These things became even more prominent after World War II.

The convention adopted its first confession in 1925 in the midst of and largely in response to the evolution controversy. It was a revision of New Hampshire. The convention revised that confession in 1963 in light of the controversy over Ralph Elliott's interpretations of Genesis 1-11. Both versions were adopted to address progressive theology, and both were largely symbolic gestures that quieted the conservative masses but made no impact on the institutional life of the SBC. This was especially true of the 1963 confession, which contained the absurd preamble that turned it into a suggestion rather than a confession and codified a sub-biblical view of personal autonomy that better reflected the Enlightenment than Baptist history. Soul competency became the triumph of personal preference, drawing on the earlier teaching of E. Y. Mullins. For many progressives (and too many conservatives), the preamble is the only part of the 1963 BF&M that matters, because its the part that makes sure the other parts don't matter.

Things were different by 1998 and 2000. There was more consensus in the SBC than there was in 1963, though probably not as much as 1925 and certainly not as much as 1845. The miraculous gifts movement, in all its manifestations, influenced many Southern Baptists in how they talked about the Holy Spirit and how they ordered their worship (even many who are cessasionists). The fundamentalist and neo-evangelical movements advanced a lowest-common denominator "conservative ecumenism" that downplayed ecclesiologicl convictions, always a problem for a people who historically believe the gospel has ecclesiological and not just soteriological consequences. Atheological pragmatism turned many Southern Baptists into practical Arminians, though they are typically "Arminians in denial" because of the misinformed assumption that Arminianism doesn't square with "eternal security." At the same time, many Southern Baptists were reembracing Calvinism, either through intra-SBC Reformed influence (Founders, Calvinistic professors), SBC-friendly Reformed influence (Together for the Gospel, IX Marks), or the wider evangelical Reformed movement (John Piper, Reformed conferences and pastors, Reformed collegiate ministries). All of this is simply scratching the surface.

The point is, the SBC is still very diverse, albeit the diversity is different than it was in 1960. There are those who claim that "some SBC leaders" want to "narrow the parameters." This is certainly one way to interpret what is happening in the SBC. But might I suggest another, more historically accurate way to interpret current issues is that the SBC lost its doctrinal center long ago, so now any attempt to return to our historic roots in any way is perceived to be a threat to cooperation. And it is.

So the question before us is whether or not we should consider revising the Baptist Faith & Message so that it can address some of the current controversies in the SBC. Should the SBC take a stand on some of the isues that divide us? Personally, I am opposed to further revisions at this time. Let me explain my rationale:

First, if the BF&M continues to be revised every time there is a theological controversy in the SBC, then it ceases to be a confession in the historic sense of the term. Instead, it becomes a lengthy position paper that is revised with every wind of change. Now hear me out–I do not believe confessions are non-revisable. What I do believe is that it is possible to over-revise a confession. Southern Baptists would do well to sit on the BF&M for awhile unless a genuine threat to either the gospel or the nature of Baptist identity is presented. In my understanding, none of our current controversies would fall into this category.

Second, the BF&M is already so broad you could drive a Mack truck through it. It is a remarkably "big tent" document, progressive protests to the contrary notwithstanding. It allows for significant diversity of belief in a number of areas. Those areas it is most narrow are ecclesiological, which is understandable in a denomination-specific confession, especially produced by a bunch of Baptists.

Third, the SBC is far too divided right now to try and revise the confession. Now I realize some of you will disagree with me that the SBC is really that divided. Others will suggest that the confession needs to be revised precisely because the SBC is so divided. But I don't see it that way. At present, the BF&M is only really important for those of us who have to affirm it as a term of employment or denominatonal service. It doesn't matter to many churches, and I would hazzard a guess that it doesn't even really matter to the vast majority of churches that claim to believe it. And that's a shame, as well as a departure from how Baptists have traditionally valued confessions. The problem is not in the confession, though in my personal opinion it could be improved in some areas. The problem is with the convention itself, where multitudes of our pastors cannot articulate the gospel and where Baptist distinctives are increasingly downplayed, redefined, or ignored alltogether. To be candid, I fear what the BF&M would look like right now if some of the folks in our fair convention got hold of it. I would rather us be patient and pray for renewal before we touch the BF&M again.

So to clarify, I am actually all for eventually revising the confession. But we are not ready for that yet. We are far too confused about who we are and what we are here for. But as we work through some of our issues over the next generation–and it will take a generation–perhaps the Lord will prepare us to revise the BF&M in a way that really draws us together and really empowers us to be a gospel-driven, gospel-proclaiming convention.

Hell, Fire, and Brimstone

Tuesday morning, at about 5:45 am, I awoke to the sound of loud beeping that was coming from our smoke alarm. As I opened my eyes, I saw smoke slowly rolling into our bedroom. Half-asleep, I immediately shot up and ran just a few feet away into our 9-month old son's bedroom, where the fire was burning. I was shocked to see a fire about the size of what you would see burning in a fireplace. Fortunately, I remembered that my son was in our bed because he woke up a few hours earlier.

My wife quickly called 911 and I ushered our sleeping baby boy out of our room (which is located adjacent to his room) and into his mother's arms. I then grabbed the fire extinguisher, cut the safety cord, and ran back into the baby's room. In the 1 minute it took from the first time that I saw the fire, as well as the last, the flames were now reaching the ceiling.

As one is spraying the contents of a fire extinguisher into a room that is engulfed by flames, he doesn't anticipate the volume of smoke that is inhaled and blocking his sight. You often hear of the effects of fire, but not of smoke. I sprayed as much as I could in about 5 seconds before I couldn't breathe or see. I could literally feel smoke burning the inside of my nostrils.

I ran out of the house and approx. 2 minutes later the fire department came to the rescue. After breaking the front door down, they then shot about 90 gallons of water into our baby's room and ended the threat.

Upon walking back into the house, my wife and I saw how soot covered the entirety of our home. As we entered into the baby's room it was evident that had our son not been in our bed he would have suffered at least from smoke inhalation.

In God's divine mercy and providence, our baby boy Jackson, woke up at 3:30 am and we laid him in the bed with us. 99% of the time I usually wait for him to fall asleep and then gently place him back in his crib.

However, that night, as I waited for him to fall asleep I had a strange peaceful feeling and decided that I wanted my son to sleep with his parents that night.

All I can say is that $40,000 in structural damage as well as thousands of dollars in property damage/repair/cleaning later, the entire family is safe. The baby has been checked by a doctor and is fine.

However, the real eye-opening part of the entire experience is that I got a slight taste of Hell Tuesday morning.

Fire is hot. Smoke is hot. And the damage they can do together is breathtaking.

Our church has baptized 7 adults over 18 years of age in the past 2 months. We are in the middle of VBS this week and Jesus is being preached. Over the past few weeks we've noticed how little attacks have been going on in the church that haven't before.

I am confident that Satan's demons are attacking our church. A fire during VBS – which happens to be the most important week of the year for my job description?

Make no mistake about it, brothers, if you preach Christ unapologetically Satan and his demons will attack you in some way, shape, or form. It may be disasters, it may be through gossip, it may be through unruly selfish church members. Whatever it is, the Devil has no dealings with a lukewarm church. If you are preaching Christ, hold on.

I had a taste of Hell on Tuesday morning. Hell is real. It is a place of pain. It is a place of suffering. It is a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth. And a lot of people are going to spend eternity there and God has called every believer to do what he can to preach Christ.

Hell is real. People are going. Preach Christ and hold on.

When Bloggers Become Tractarians

Back in the fall I wrote a series of articles on my personal blog. That series began with a post titled "Why I Don't Want to Be a Southern Baptist Sometimes" and was followed by sixteen posts on "Possible Solutions for What Ails the SBC." Because I am no longer blogging on my personal site, I have had requests in recent days to make hard copies of those posts available in some other format, just in case I decide to take the old website down. I have no intentions of taking the site down–I hope to convert it to a personal website in the near future. But I have decided to make the posts available in one place by editing them in booklet form and making them available as a downloadable pdf document. If you would like to read these posts, you can download the booklet as an attachment from this post. I also intend to put the booklet somewhere on my old blog site at some point in the coming weeks.

Ethics and the SBC (Part 2)

In my last post, I surveyed three major ethical systems that, in my opinion, summarize the history of ethics in a broad fashion. Yet, I probably frustrated some of those who took the time to read the post because the content of the post had little or nothing to do with the second half of the title—the SBC. Well, this is the follow-up to the first post where I will attempt to make observations and draw some conclusions about ethics in the SBC. I am particularly interested in observations from the churches of the SBC rather than the seminaries. My goal is not to draw conclusions about the ethical behavior of individuals within the denomination. Rather, I intend to address general observations from my own experiences in churches across four different states in which I have been a member, served, taught, and preached as well as observations made known to me by others.

How are ethics, or perhaps the term moral theology fits better, taught in the typical, conservative SBC church? I propose that the typical approach is that of deontological ethics. Imagine with me for a moment a fourth grade Sunday School classroom at FBC Somewhere. As the teacher attempts to address the finer points of moral theology to this group of 9 and 10 year-olds, he/she will probably say something along the lines of this: "God wants you to obey your parents. You need to do your best in school. Stay out of trouble. Pick the right friends…." Then little Johnny asks, "Why?" Typical responses: "Because it is the right thing to do. Because God says so. Because the Bible says so. Because it honors your parents…." The list could go on, but you get the point. Fast forward 5 or 6 years to a high school SS class, and the tactic does not change that much—only the issues change. Now the teacher says, "Don’t do drugs. Don’t have sex outside marriage. Graduate from high school and go to college…." The now bitterly sarcastic teenager responds, "Why?" The answers are much the same: "Because it is the right thing to do. Because that is what God commands in his Word. Because when you get married your spouse will appreciate it…." One last time, let us move forward 20 years to a married adult SS class. This time the teacher proclaims, "Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t steal office supplies from your job. Discipline your kids with love…." In response to the now probably sincere question of rationale, the teacher responds, "Because God teaches us these things. Because you owe it to your boss. Because it is the right thing to do…." I am confident that I am not far off the path of moral instruction in the typical, conservative SBC church. If your experience was different, I suggest that it was the exception rather than the norm.

So, let’s evaluate these statements and answers in moral instruction from an ethical standpoint. I argue that almost every single example falls in line with deontological ethics. Now before I go too far in my evaluation and critique, I want to be clear that I am not dismissing deontological ethics. It still has a valid role to play, but that discussion will come in another post. The focus of the aforementioned moral instruction is on what is right. It also bears the burden of duty and obligation. When the fourth grade SS teacher tells the students to obey their parents because God says so, this is unadulterated divine command theory of ethics, which is a form of deontology. Divine command theory understands that God made the universe and that God made the rules about right and wrong. Our creaturely nature, therefore, obligates us to rules that are part of the created order. And, while there may be logic to God’s action and decrees, it is presumptuous for humans to believe that our finite minds can discover it. In essence, our duty is to God and that should be enough. Even if God had given the rationale for his commands in Scripture (which I believe He does), it would not be necessary because we are bound by this duty to obey. This divine command theory is, in essence, a form of deontology. Some of the other responses focus on the "rightness" of the action or the obligation to one’s neighbor (boss, spouse, parent, etc.). Again, these responses are duty-based and duty-bound concepts of moral theology. Are they wrong? Not necessarily. Do they miss out on something greater? I would argue that they do miss it. Why?

Deontology is worth its weight in gold when used to evaluate the shortcomings of other systems of ethics. It usually provides a consistent, objective standard from which to evaluate actions because it draws the individual back to a set of rules and/or principles. However, deontology also has its drawbacks, especially from a Christian perspective. First, deontological ethics relies upon reason to the extent that the individual must evaluate the action in light of a set of principles/duties. In this sense, individual reason is raised to a similar standard as the set of rules or duties. Therefore, a person who is looking for the best way to fulfill an obligation must use his own reason to determine what is best. Unfortunately, as Christians we believe that man’s reason is fallen. Now is not the time to get into a debate over how much man’s reason is fallen, but we can at least agree that it is not perfect. Therefore, man must depend upon a faulty cognitive ability to determine what is right in relation to a set of duties. Granted, most of the time, this should probably work, but it is not free of error. Second, deontology has little or no means to determine the necessity of supererogatory acts. Supererogatory acts are those acts performed to an extent not required. The best example of this would be going the second mile. In Matthew 5:40–41, Jesus said, "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two." Deontology has no way to deal with such statements. The deontologist would say, "If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, give him exactly what the court requires but nothing more. Whoever forces you to go one mile, do not go a step farther because the law only requires one mile." Of course, someone could argue that the command is here in Matthew 5 and now becomes a duty. My response is that it certainly does but only to the extent to which man’s reason can carry him beyond the two specific examples given here in Scripture. At its heart, deontology is missing something—it needs more information.

Even with its lack of fully working out moral theology, deontology is where we have traditionally stood as Southern Baptists. I cannot speak for the entire history of our convention, but I would venture to say that deontology has dominated the day for most of this span. So this is where we stand as far as ethics are concerned within our convention. I know there are pockets within our convention that offer a fuller understanding of moral theology, but again, they are the exception rather than the rule.

As I make these observations and critiques, I am aware of movements in the realm of moral theology and ethics that have dismissed deontology for something new and different. Some of our SBC churches have also latched on to these new movements. That will be the subject of part 3.

On Revising the Baptist Faith & Message

Conservative, confessional Presbyterians adhere to the Westminster Confession of Faith. Other Reformed pedobaptists still hold to the Heidelberg Confession. Many confessional Lutherans affirm the Augsburg Confession. The "capital R" Reformed Baptist movement embraces the Second London Confession. Conservative Anglicans affirm the Thirty-Nine Articles. With the exception of the Westminster Confession, which was revised by progressive Presbyterians during the 20th century, to my knowledge all of these confessions remain basically unchanged since their final drafts were written in the 16th and 17th centuries.

Not so with Southern Baptists. While most Southern Baptist churches affirmed either the Philadelphia or New Hampshire confessions in the 19th century (or abstracts of those confessions), the SBC as a denomination did not get around to adopting a confession of faith until 1925. As most readers know, it was a revision of New Hampshire. In 1963, that confession of faith was revised. It was amended in 1998. In 2000, another revision was approved. That's four changes in a seventy-five year time period, all of which were tied in some way or other to theological controversy in the SBC.

The SBC is now once again in the midst of theological controversy, albeit most of it is taking place among fellow conservatives. Some question whether or not Southern Baptists should codify in our confession a particular stance on controversial issues like miraculous gifts, alien immersion, etc. Others complain that the confession's explicit endorsement of closed communion is out of touch with contemporary Southern Baptists. Still others wish the BF&M was either more Calvinistic or revised in such a way that strict Calvinism would be incompatible. A few even want the 2000 revisions either reversed or downplayed; some want us to back off on the female preaching thing and/or re-insert Hershel Hobbs's preamble to the 1963 edition, which basically argued that confessions were important until you disagreed with them, and then you could reject them because your competent soul is a higher authority than the opinions of the believing community. But I digress.

As the SBC moves forward and seeks God's face for our corporate future, do you think we should revise the Baptist Faith & Message? If so, what areas need to be revised? If we do not revise the Baptist Faith & Message, what do you believe is the best way to address present and future theological controversies in the convention?