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Taking God at His Word

National | The Southern Baptist Convention closes a liberal loophole in its statement of faith

Issue: "Dumpsters or hospitals?," June 24, 2000

in Orlando - Although the national media focused on the question of women as pastors in advance coverage, it proved virtually a non-issue at last week's annual meeting of the 15.8-million-member Southern Baptist Convention in Orlando. An extensive revision of the 15-page, 28-article Baptist Faith and Message (BFM) statement-the nearest thing Southern Baptists have to a confession of faith-was up for a vote. But only a single sentence attracted media interest: "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture." The sentence sailed through unchallenged, largely because it simply reflects the longstanding belief and practice of SBC congregations. Only 35 or fewer of the SBC's 41,100 churches have females as pastors, according to a study by Midwestern Baptist Seminary. Instead, the main bone of contention in floor debate was the authority of Scripture. Both the original 1925 BFM and a 1963 revision held the Bible to be divinely inspired and inerrant, the "supreme standard" for conduct and belief. However, the 1963 revision added wording that provided a loophole for theological liberals to bend Scripture to fit their own views. It described the Bible as "the record of God's revelation of Himself to man," and it added a subjective sentence: "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." The drafters of the 2000 BFM revision cut out the words, "the record of," to "clarify," as they explained separately, that the Bible is not merely the record of God's revelation, "but is itself God's revealed Word in written form." They also axed the last sentence of the 1963 revision, replacing it with: "All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation." The 1963 language long has been a source of controversy. It helped to keep liberals and moderates in place at the SBC's six seminaries in the years leading up to the conservative takeover of the reins of power, which began in 1979. Faculty members at SBC seminaries are hired and retained partly on the basis of their affirmation of the BFM statement. Many liberal teachers from the 1970s and 1980s are gone, and the seminaries are run by conservative administrations. But to help guarantee that the seminaries remain faithful to the Bible in the future, a BFM study committee appointed last year decided the loophole must be closed. Some in the SBC have used the 1963 language "to drive a wedge between the incarnate Word and the written Word, and to deny the truthfulness of certain passages," the drafters explained. In Orlando, executive director Charles Wade of the 6,000-church Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT), moved to incorporate into the new preamble some of the vague 1963 language liberals could use for cover. BGCT leaders opposed to the conservatives already have been redirecting some denominational giving by SBC churches in Texas to other causes and groups, including the dissident Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. (The CBF, with ties to some 2,000 churches, is a sort of denomination within a denomination, working for a return to pre-conservative days. Mr. Wade is a former CBF leader. In reaction to the BGCT stand, about 200 conservative churches in Texas have organized Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.) The nearly 12,000 registered messengers (delegates) by a show of hands overwhelmingly defeated the Wade motion. Messengers defeated several similar bids resoundingly. Moderate Anthony Sizemore of Texas proposed a replacement for Article 1, Scripture. It borrowed heavily from the 1963 version but would have omitted both the 1963 and 2000 claim that the Bible is truth "without any mixture of error." The Bible, his motion said, "is a record of what Christ has done; He is the revelation." In response, Albert Mohler, chief architect of the 2000 BFM and president of Southern Baptist Seminary, observed: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is what it all comes down to, whether the Bible is the word of God or a record of the word of God." The messengers began applauding and cheering. "It is the revelation of God," he declared over the approving roar of the crowd. Among other topics, the paper addressed the "openness" controversy over God's omniscience raging in some evangelical circles. It says that God's "perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures." Messengers approved the document by what appeared to be a huge margin and applauded its passage vigorously. It has only advisory or guidelines status for churches but it is a "regulative" document for SBC agencies and seminaries and their employees, Mr. Mohler told reporters. But, he pointed out, "no one is obligated to accept employment in the SBC."

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Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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