FIRST PERSON: A worthy confession of faith
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (BP)--A startling survey by George Barna released last summer demonstrates how desperate the need is for Southern Baptists and other evangelicals to reassert the importance of doctrine in our churches and to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 3).
The survey found that only 8 percent of American adults could be considered to be "evangelical" in their beliefs -- a drop of one-third from just 10 years ago. The survey found that only 14 percent of Baptists (of all denominational varieties) fit the evangelical standard. Some of the findings among Baptists are alarming: Only 34 percent acknowledge the existence of Satan; only 43 percent agree that salvation is possible only through God's grace, not through good deeds; only 55 percent of Baptists agreed that Jesus lived a sinless life; and only 66 percent agree that the Bible is totally accurate.
With such appalling doctrinal laxity among Baptists, who could argue that we have a serious need for remedial theological training among us? That's one of the values of the exercise the Southern Baptist Convention undertook nearly two years ago in adopting a revision of the Baptist Faith and Message -- the confession of faith most widely affirmed in Southern Baptist life.
I believe the case is clear that Southern Baptists are instinctively confessional and we have indeed used our confessions as doctrinal measuring sticks for denominational employees. But ultimately, some may question whether the latest edition of the BF&M is a good confession of faith. I believe the answer to that question is a resounding "yes" for two reasons: 1) the criticisms against the 2000 edition of the BFM are ill-founded and 2) there are great strengths in this statement of faith not present in earlier editions.
Various criticisms have been lodged against the BF&M 2000, but three stand out as the most popular and serious challenges to its legitimacy: confessions of faith should not be used as "instruments of doctrinal accountability" (as asserted in the BF&M's preamble and addressed in this series the previous two days); the Bible has been elevated above Jesus Christ; and it is wrong to limit the office of pastor to men.
Has Jesus been sublimated to an inferior position with respect to the Bible? Absolutely not. This claim is very serious since Christians confess that salvation is found only in Jesus Christ. It would be a gross theological travesty if Jesus were diminished in any confession of faith, and a grave distortion of the biblical witness itself if the Bible were made a "fourth" member of the Trinity (what some have called the "Quadrinity"), as some BF&M critics have claimed asserting "bibliolatry" is at work. The BF&M 2000, critics insist, is no longer "Christocentric."
This criticism centers largely around the decision of the BF&M study committee to not carry over a sentence from the 1963 edition's article on "The Scriptures": "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ."
Several responses easily set aside this spurious criticism. First, most critics fail to note what was put in the place of the so-called "criterion" language: "All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation." This statement, as well as the article on "God the Son," declares the centrality of Christ in Scripture. Further, the criterion language does not exist in any Baptist confession of faith prior to 1963. If "bibliolatry" is present in the 2000 edition, it must also be true of the 1925 BF&M and all other Baptist confessions. Finally, the criterion language was problematic for the manner in which seminary professors used it as a means of pitting Jesus against other parts of the Bible they found unseemly. There's great irony in this development since the sentence was added by Herschel Hobbs and the 1963 BF&M committee to answer liberal professors who attempted to undermine the inspiration of Scripture.
No, the Bible has not been made an idol for veneration in the BF&M 2000. Instead, the confession rightly declares the Bible is "God's revelation of Himself to man" and it is "totally true and trustworthy."
The other most widely lamented change to the BF&M 2000 is the following sentence from the article on "The Church": "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture." Most of the secular media focused on this change, and the sentence has brought continual criticism from certain quarters in Southern Baptist life.
While contrary to America's contemporary politically correct culture, there should be no debate that the sentence in question is centered squarely in the biblical witness (1 Timothy 2:12-14; 3:1-7; Titus 1:6). By God's design and for our good, he has limited to men the role of pastor -- and not just any men, only those "as qualified by Scripture." Although women cannot serve in this capacity, the BF&M 2000 affirms an important spiritual truth that women are "gifted for service in the church." This proper understanding of women's giftedness is found nowhere in any previous edition of the BF&M.
One of the functions of a confession of faith is to express what is commonly believed and practiced among Christians. Until the feminist political movement of the latter half of the 20th century, the fact that the Bible limited the role of pastor to men was not controversial in the least. Even to this very day, this is not a matter of debate among most Southern Baptists. There can be no doubt that the BF&M 2000 clearly conveys the common belief and practice of Southern Baptists on the matter of women pastors -- we just don't have them. A study two years ago found that less than one-tenth of 1 percent of all Southern Baptist churches had women pastors -- only 35 of more 41,000 churches. Clearly, Southern Baptist belief and practice is well-settled in this area and the BF&M 2000 accurately reflects that belief and practice.
Strengths of BF&M 2000
The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 is a worthy confession of faith not just because the criticisms against it are ill-founded, but also because there are great strengths in this statement not present in the 1963 statement. This should not be surprising, since the issues facing Southern Baptists today are different than those faced by a previous generation that was well-served by the 1963 statement. One of the reasons confessions of faith are revised is to speak to the matters that are at stake in the Christian church and the society in the present age. In an admirable way, the BF&M 2000 advances the Baptist witness on a number of important theological and moral fronts.
Perhaps most importantly, the newest edition of the BF&M counters "Open Theism," an aberrant theology that claims that God does not know the future. This view is contrary to the biblical and historic understanding of God's character. In the article on "God," the BF&M asserts: "God is all powerful and all knowing; and His perfect knowledge extends to all things, past, present, and future, including the future decisions of His free creatures." This important addition puts the SBC clearly on the record against this aberrant theology that is enjoying growing support among evangelicals.
The BF&M 2000 also bolsters the article on "God the Son" by clarifying that the work of Jesus on the cross was "substitutionary" -- Jesus took our place and paid the penalty for our sin. The article further clarifies that Jesus is "fully God, fully man."
Answering our Pentecostal and charismatic friends who claim a "second blessing" following salvation, the article on "God the Holy Spirit" affirms: "At the moment of regeneration He baptizes every believer into the Body of Christ."
Responding to much gender confusion in our society today, the article on "Man" is strengthened by affirming that "the gift of gender is thus part of the goodness of God's creation." In the same article, the issue of racism is clearly addressed: "Every person of every race possesses full dignity." "Racism" is also added to a list of social ills Christians should oppose in the article "Christians and the Social Order."
The BF&M 2000 responds to the growing clamor of universalism in our culture and even among some Christians by insisting, "There is no salvation apart from personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord" in the article on "Salvation." Jesus himself declared: "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me" (John 14:6).
Speaking to America's sex-saturated culture, the BF&M 2000 stands against "all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality and pornography" in the "Christians and the Social Order" article. Also, America's culture of death is rejected: "We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death."
Finally, the entire article on "The Family" is a much-needed witness to the biblical pattern of the family against those in the culture and even some Christians who seek to undermine God's design.
The BF&M 2000 is not inerrant; only God's Word enjoys that status. One day, if the Lord tarries, it will be necessary to amend this confession of faith. Nevertheless, this statement speaks to the most pressing theological and moral issues of our day in a manner that is consistent with Southern Baptist belief and practice, as grounded in Scripture.
In an age that rejects absolute truth, waters down theological verities and spurns biblical standards of morality, Southern Baptists have stood against the tide by affirming a confession of faith that exalts Jesus Christ, contends for the faith and witnesses to God's standards of righteousness. The BF&M 2000 is a confession of faith that is worthy of our support.
Smith is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness.