My Hope for Unity in the SBC
I haven’t written much about the recent controversy surrounding the publication of “A Statement of the Traditional Baptist Understanding of God’s Plan of Salvation.” While I helped draft a brief response to the document from the contributors to Between the Times, the Southeastern Seminary faculty blog, I’ve refrained from personally wading into the public discussion. But like perhaps many of you, I’ve read lots of blogs, press releases, summary articles, and even email chains related to the document and the ensuing debate. Much of it has been discouraging.
It’s not my intention to critique the statement itself; many others have done so and I share many of the concerns I’ve read on the internet. Neither is it my intention to criticize those who wrote or have signed the document; I wholeheartedly affirm the publication of any confessional statement that represents the views of some Southern Baptists. I want to simply urge all Southern Baptists of good will to be willing to cooperate with other Southern Baptists who do not share your convictions over doctrines and emphases that aren’t clearly spelled out in the Baptist Faith and Message (2000). This goes for folks on all sides of the Calvinism discussion and any other similar debate we might have.
I believe Southern Baptists can unify around a four-fold set of emphases and priorities, all of which are spelled out in the BF&M 2000:
1). The inerrancy of Scripture. Virtually all engaged Southern Baptists unequivocally affirm biblical inerrancy. This includes every missionary, church planter, curriculum writer, and seminary professor. It includes all of our elected or appointed leadership. We don’t need to go back to the days when inerrancy was a debatably issue among Baptist leaders. The concept of inerrancy is affirmed in our confession (though the word isn’t used), and it should remain a key component of our cooperation.
2). An evangelical view of salvation. I know there are some Baptists who don’t like the word “evangelical” for any number of reasons. But in this context I’m not speaking of the evangelical movement(s) so much as a broadly reformational understanding of justification by faith alone and substitutionary atonement, an emphasis on the necessity of repentance and faith for salvation, and an urgency to share the gospel with unbelievers. Baptists across the Calvinist-Arminian spectrum and those who prefer to eschew historical theological labels can affirm these doctrines, albeit some (hyper-Calvinists, Wesleyan Arminians) will be excluded because they are beyond the pale of our confessional consensus.
3). A Baptist view of the church. Baptists have always debated the finer details of ecclesiology, but this has been within the boundaries of what has come to be known as a Baptist understanding of the church. (By the way, “Baptist” is a historical theological label, though one that speaks to one’s ecclesiology rather than his soteriology.) We should continue to unite around a believer’s church, confessor baptism by immersion, congregational polity, local church autonomy, and affirmation of a free church in a free state. We should continue to emphasize the biblical priority of local churches, which are outposts of the kingdom and local embodiments of the universal church that will finally gather together at the last day.
4). A commitment to the Great Commission. At the end of the day, Southern Baptist churches voluntarily cooperate together in associations, state conventions, and the SBC itself so that we can play our parts in fulfilling the Great Commission. Other ministries have come and gone over the years, but we’ve always prioritized evangelism and church planting. Theological education, cultural engagement, publications, mercy ministries, and other ministry priorities are at their healthiest when they are means unto the proclamation of the gospel and the making of disciples among all the peoples of the world.
I well understand that there is room for debate in at least the latter three of my suggested priorities. We’re currently debating the best way to articulate an evangelical understanding of salvation, particularly the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. We also continue to discuss the most effective way to cooperate for the sake of the Great Commission, especially as it pertains to our denominational structure and funding practices. And we’re always debating ecclesiological matters, currently the propriety of “spontaneous” baptisms and the compatibility of a plural elder leadership structure and congregational polity (among other issues). I’m under no illusion that my suggested points of consensus provides neat and tidy answers for all our debates.
Nevertheless, I remain convinced that if we all agree to unite around these four priorities as they are framed in the Baptist Faith and Message, we can continue to live together and labor together as Southern Baptist Christians. We all need to be open to correction, maintaining a teachable spirit. We all need to forebear those who disagree with us over debatable matters. We need to focus the vast majority of our energies on the matters we share in common, not the issues upon which we disagree. And we need to demonstrate to the world that Southern Baptists care about more than simply fighting with among ourselves and trying to win arguments.
I continue to hope and pray for a greater sense of unity in the Southern Baptist Convention. I hope you’ll join me in that prayer.