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The Southern Baptists Revise Their Statement of Faith
by Dee Reju
Meeting in Orlando, Florida, on June 13–14, 2000, the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) approved an extensive revision of the denomination’s statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message. Eleven thousand attendees, or “messengers,” representing 15.8 million Southern Baptists throughout the world, came together to appoint members to boards and committees; to elect a president, the denomination’s chief spokesman; to hear reports from the institutions that the convention supports; and to vote on resolutions. But by far the most controversial action was the addition of one sentence to the statement of faith: “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 SBC is a voluntary association of 41,000 Baptist churches. Local churches have the authority to make their own decisions—even in matters of faith. Like an industry trade association, the SBC has no more power to tell its member churches what to do than the Chemical Trade Association has to tell Dupont how to run its day-to-day operations. Member churches set their own voluntary financial contributions and elect messengers to the two-day, annual meeting of the SBC.
In 1845, churches banded together to create the SBC mainly to pool their resources for missions. Over time, cooperation expanded to other areas, including seminary education, insurance and retirement for ministers, representation in Washington, and encouraging a Christian presence in ethics debates. In 1925 the denomination also adopted a statement of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, in response to attacks on supernaturalism.
By the middle of the century, the more liberal Southern Baptists (or “moderates”) had risen to the top of most SBC institutions and were radically changing the denomination. (Conservatives cared more about the gospel and were generally preoccupied with their local congregations.) In 1963, Southern Baptists revised their statements in response to assaults upon the authority and inspiration of the Bible.
In the 1970s, Paul Pressler, a judge, and Paige Patterson, a college president, both from Texas, led a campaign to battle liberals on all fronts. In what is now known as the Southern Baptist Controversy, conservatives battled liberals over the meaning of the gospel; they recovered crucial institutions like the six SBC seminaries; and they debated the authoritative role of Scripture in the life of the Christian. Over the span of thirty years, conservatives regained control of the denomination.
The Baptist Faith and Message, of course, is not binding on local churches, which remain free to declare truth as they see it revealed in Scripture. Nevertheless, the denomination’s statement provides “general instruction and guidance for our own people and others concerning those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us” (Report of the Baptist Faith and Message Study Committee to the Southern Baptist Convention, June 14, 2000, p. 2). In accordance with this purpose, the statement of faith has periodically been revised to answer challenges posed by the culture at large.
This year, the SBC revised its statement to say that women cannot be pastors. In making this statement, the Baptists were guided by their understanding of biblical teaching. Southern Baptists hold firmly to the authority of Scripture. Thus, believing that the Bible clearly teaches that men are to take leadership roles in both the church and the home, they are compelled to follow that teaching. Beginning in Genesis 2, where God established Adam’s leadership in marriage, and continuing throughout the Bible, it is understood that God has designated leadership roles for men. Thus, the Baptists had no choice but to reject the feminization of the pulpit.
Southern Baptists also believe that the Bible clearly reveals that both men and women are created in the image of God and are of equal value before him. So although the revised statement of faith makes clear that women should not be pastors, it affirms that they are called and gifted to other sorts of Christian ministry—administration, teaching, discipling, counseling, missions, and so forth. (At no time in the history of the SBC have there been more women training in the six Southern Baptist seminaries than there are right now.)
For most Southern Baptists, the statement on God’s assigned roles for men and women in the church and the home is not something new. It is simply a public declaration of what Baptists have always believed the Bible to teach. However, since the culture in which Baptists live has continued to change, and is now openly supportive of women holding the office of pastor, they felt called to reaffirm the traditional understanding of the roles of men and women.
Political correctness obviously has no hold on Southern Baptists. The exclusion of women from the pulpit—so controversial in the outside world—sailed through virtually unchallenged at the SBC in Orlando. The representatives overwhelmingly approved the revised confession of faith.
Dee Reju has served on the pastoral staff of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. since December of 1999. He recently completed his Master of Divinity degree at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.