The Shelby Baptist Association recently joined a growing number of autonomous Baptist associations and state conventions who feel the need to adopt the Southern Baptist Convenion Baptist Faith and Message.
Baptists dont believe in evolution. But we appear to be practicing it. For nearly a quarter of a century Baptists have been in the news fighting about the Bible. Women in ministry, homosexuality and other issues have often been at the forefront of news coverage. But our battle has been over how we read, understand and apply the Bible.
Most Baptists are culturally conservative. Even the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has issued a formal statement stating that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness. We also believe in the love and grace of God for all people, both for those who live by this understanding of the biblical standard and those who do not.
In other words, homosexual behavior, divorce, adultery and any other relationship that falls short of the one man, one woman for life ideal involves sin. Many Baptist churches are welcoming of homosexuals -- in the sense that the church welcomes all sinners, but few would be affirming of homosexual behavior as compatible with a Christian lifestyle.
Moderate Baptists have made much more noise about openness to women in ministry but actually have very few women serving as senior pastors (which is the actual focus of the Baptist Faith and Message statement limiting the office of pastor to men, as qualified by scripture.) The debate among Baptists is more over whether or not this is merely a local church issue. Southern Baptist leadership has said clearly it is not.
Many might question then whats the issue? Arent two very conservative groups in the Baptist family simply quibbling over theological technicalities that have all the appeal of the medieval argument over how many angels can fit on the head of a pin.
Baptists have consistently maintained no creed but Christ, no authority but the Bible until now.
Baptists cherish and defend religious liberty, and deny the right of any secular or religious authority to impose a confession of faith upon a church or body of churches. We honor the principles of soul competency and the priesthood of believers, affirming together both our liberty in Christ and our accountability to each other under the Word of God.
The real issue is whether or not the individual Baptist or local congregation is free to study the Bible. A local pastor was quoted by the Commercial Appeal as saying There is only one interpretation of scripture with various applications." Truth, properly understood, has a primary focus. A proposition and its denial cannot both be equally true. In other words, there may be only one fully intended meaning to a passage of Scripture.
The problem comes when we associate our interpretation with the correct interpretation of a passage. No conscientious believer would knowingly and willingly espouse heresy. But because of our fallen condition we can never assume that we have full and final understanding of the truth. This does not mean we should be silent but rather that we should be humble -- realizing that we are capable of being wrong and misunderstand the meaning or intent of a passage of Scripture.
From an historic Baptist perspective, the various creeds and confessions of the larger Christian community (and even various Baptist confessions of faith) are valuable not as an end in themselves but as continuing witness to the Churchs understanding of what the core of the faith once for all delivered unto the saints really is.
Creeds and confession are imperfect and fallible documents and therefore should never be given final authority over conscience or belief. These documents are approximations of spiritual truth. They are culturally and historically conditioned. God has much truth and light yet to shine forth from his word. according to Baptist forefather John Hewlys.
It is because we are not able to know with absolute certainty that our interpretation of biblical doctrine is in every detail fully in conformity with the mind and will of God that we are cautious in clamming too much for our confessions of faith. Baptists would rather hold imperfectly to the final truth and authority of the Bible than to hold perfectly to an imperfect human summary of Divine truth.
Those who want every thing in black and white with easy answers to all questions will not be comfortable with this. A pastor friend told me that we couldnt just depend on the Bible as our standard because there are so many different interpretations of the Bible out there. So the BFM keeps us from the myriad of interpretative voices and removes the wiggle room from our doctrinal expression.
Unfortunately it also removes the mystery. Biblical interpretation is messy. The Bible is a dangerous word. It doesnt always comfort. Nor does it readily conform to our agendas, needs and selfish interpretations. The question is not do we have the message of the Bible, the question is does the biblical message have us.
The Bible must be allowed to be a living word that will confront, challenge, provoke and change us. When we think weve got it down in a simple confessional statement we are deceiving ourselves. Baptists have historically had too much appreciation for the Bible to allow any human confession or creed to come between us and the Word of God. The temptation to do so is a danger in Baptist life and polity we should avoid.
(Dr. L. Joseph Rojas is pastor of Union Avenue Baptist Church.This article has been abridged for the lay reader.)