Encouraging scholarship, strengthening faith identity, and interpreting contemporary issues in Baptist life.

Baptist Freedom
and Conscience
Series

 Home Staff Local Church News & Views Issues Bulletin Conferences / Seminars Sabbaticals Certificate Links


An Unconscionable Confession:
The 2000 B F & M

by Dr. Bruce Prescott
 

Liberty of conscience used to be something that every Baptist held dear.

John Smyth, the historical founder of the Baptist movement, took exception to the church enforcing creeds. He believed that, "Christ only is the king, and lawgiver of the church and conscience." Thomas Helwys, founder of England's the first Baptist church also published England's first treatise calling for universal "freedom of conscience." Roger Williams, founder of both the first Baptist church in America and the Colony of Rhode Island, secured the first charter in the world that established "free, full, and absolute liberty of conscience." Virginia Baptists, "fearing that the liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life, was not sufficiently secured," refused to ratify the U.S. Constitution until the first amendment was added to guarantee that church and state would be separated. Those early Baptists were opposed to anything that "emboldens people to judge the liberty of other men's consciences." Sentiment against creeds was still so strong in 1845 that the Baptists who founded the Southern Baptist Convention refused to write a statement of beliefs. They would follow "no creed, but the Bible."

To allay fears about the danger of creedalism, when in 1925 the SBC adopted the first Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) statement, its non-binding character was made clear by the assertion that it has "no authority over conscience." Later, in the 1963 revision, an explicit statement was added declaring that BF&M statements were not "official creeds carrying mandatory authority." Herschel Hobbs, chair of the 1963 BF&M committee, predicted that, "In all likelihood the only thing that would divide Southern Baptists with regard to their faith would be for one group -- to the right or left of center or even in the center -- to attempt to force upon others a creedal faith."

Confessions vs. Conscience

As they enter the twenty-first century, Southern Baptists have reversed their stand against creeds.

The revisers of the 2000 BF&M deleted the 1963 statement denying that the BF&M carries "mandatory authority" and replaced it with the assertion that BF&M's are "instruments of doctrinal accountability." (See Preambles) That statement alone would have been enough to convince our Baptist forefathers that people were being emboldened, "to judge the liberty of other men's consciences."

History has vindicated the Baptists who warned that "confessions of faith" could become creeds that would undermine the inviolability of every believer's conscience and lead to divisions. In 1791 John Leland wrote,

"Why this Virgin Mary between the souls of men and the Scriptures? Had a system of religion been essential to salvation or even the happiness of the saints, would not Jesus, who was faithful in all his house, have left us one? If he has, it is accessible to all. If he has not, why should a man be called a heretick because he cannot believe what he cannot believe, though he believes the Bible with all his heart? Confessions of faith often check any farther pursuit after truth, confine the mind into a particular way of reasoning, and give rise to frequent separations."

Christ can no longer be the only "king and lawgiver of the church and conscience," when "instruments of doctrinal accountability" are made to mediate like the "Virgin Mary between the souls of men and the Scriptures."

Church Competency vs. Soul Competency

Historically, Baptists have insisted that every believer is competent to interpret the scriptures according to the dictates of a conscience that is guided by the Holy Spirit. Under the traditional understanding of "soul competency," each soul is directly accountable to God for his/her beliefs and actions.

The 2000 BF&M redefines "soul competency." It makes every soul accountable to the church for his/her beliefs and actions. Southern Baptists are now "accountable to each other under the word of God." (Preamble, 2000 BF&M) Rather than reading and interpreting scripture for themselves, twenty-first century Southern Baptists will be holding each other accountable for adhering to the official interpretations of scripture that have been codified in the 2000 BF&M.

The Bible vs. Jesus

The most unconscionable change in the 2000 BF&M is its promotion of the Bible at the expense of Jesus.

The preamble to the 1963 BF&M declared that, "Baptists are a people who profess a living faith. This faith is rooted and grounded in Jesus Christ who is 'the same yesterday, and today and forever.' Therefore, the sole authority for faith and practice among Baptists is Jesus Christ whose will is revealed in the Holy Scriptures. A living faith must experience a growing understanding of truth and must be continually interpreted and related to the needs of each new generation."

In 1963, "living faith" was understood to be a dynamic, personal relationship with Jesus. Here truth is ultimately personal. Jesus is, "the way, the truth, and the life."

The preamble to the 2000 BF&M deletes that statement entirely and replaces it with a declaration that, "Our living faith is established upon eternal truths."

In 2000, "living faith" is understood to be mental assent to the logic of a doctrinal expression of "the truth as revealed in scripture." Here truth is ultimately rational. It is a property of words and sentences in the Bible.

The priority of faith in the Bible over faith in Jesus is made more explicit in the 2000 BF&M's article on scripture. In 1963, the Bible was described as "the record of" God's self-revelation. God was understood to have supremely revealed himself by incarnation in Jesus. The Lordship of Christ over the process by which every believer interprets scripture was acknowledged by the affirmation that, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."

In 2000, the description of the Bible as a "record" of God's revelation has been deleted. The affirmation that Christ is the "criterion" by which the Bible is to be interpreted has also been removed. Jesus has been demoted and the Bible has been promoted. Now the Bible is understood to be the supreme revelation of God and Christ is merely "the focus of divine revelation." The Lordship of Christ over the process by which believers interpret the Bible for themselves has been replaced by a process in which believers adhere to the interpretations provided for them by the 2000 BF&M.

Hierarchy vs. Autonomy

Historically Baptists have stood in the free church tradition. We have understood churches to be autonomous and free from ecclesiastical control. Decisions about who the congregation called as pastor and/or ordained as deacons was determined by how the congregation felt led by the Holy Spirit.

The 2000 BF&M decrees that "the office of pastor is limited to men" and ignores the biblical examples of God calling women to lead men in worship and service (Ex. 15:20; Judges 4; 2 Kings 22:14, Micah 6:4; Joel 2:28-29; Luke 2:26-28; Acts 2:16-21; Acts 18; Acts 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5; Rom. 16:1,7).

There can be no doubt that the 2000 BF&M has been designed to authorize the hierarchical exercise of ecclesiastical control over those churches that feel led by the Holy Spirit to call women as their pastors. Other violations of local church autonomy are sure to follow.

Husbands vs. Wives

Finally, the 2000 BF&M advises only wives that they must "graciously submit" to their husbands and neglects to tell husbands that they must submit with as much or more grace than their wives.

The BF&M's interpretation of Eph. 5:22 ignores the grammatical (in the Greek) and logical priority that must be given to the command to mutual submission in (Eph. 5:21). It makes the husband "lord" of the wife rather than acknowledging that Christ is Lord over both. Adding to these errors is the view that the metaphor "head" (Eph. 5:23) should be seen as an image of a proud and powerful "military ruler" rather than as an image of a self-sacrificing and humble "suffering servant" who voluntarily sets aside power and glory and gives his life for his family (Phil. 2:3-8).

These issues make acceptance of the 2000 BF&M unconscionable for Mainstream Baptists.

 

Copyright 2001 MAINSTREAM BAPTIST NETWORK P.O. Box 6371 Norman, OK 73070-6371 (405) 329-2266.
Last modified: February 19, 2001

 

Go to Baptist Pamphlets Index

 

 

The Center for Baptist Studies, Mercer University, 1400 Coleman Avenue, Macon, GA 31207      Phone (478) 301-5457