Firing missionaries for not signing a bad confession was a big mistake.
by Michael Spencer
A little history
Back in the mid 1980's I was a good Southern Baptist moderate/liberal. I was in no shape, form or fashion the person I am today in my thinking about political or social issues. You could find me at meetings of the now defunct Southern Baptist Alliance, and at the moderate clambakes at the SBC's annual meetings. I thought these were my kind of people. Theologically, however, I was always fairly conservative, and eventually the process of putting my worldview together on a consistent basis brought me out of the closet as a conservative and a supporter of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention.
All through my moderate/liberal sojourn, I had recurring qualms. Abortion was the issue that constantly pricked at my conscience. I had no sympathy or appreciation for the pro-choice position, and I was uncomfortable siding with those who endorsed it. I knew there was support among moderates for a lot that didn't click with me, but there was this one thing, this one item that seemed a "checkmate" issue for all of "us" moderates. They called it "religious liberty." It came down to an endorsement of two things: 1) the right to believe whatever you wanted within the "boundaries" of the Christian faith, and 2) the freedom from anyone ever drawing those boundaries in any way that might contradict number one. In other words, we were against those creeds and confessions.
Statements of faith, creeds, confessions- we moderates had no use for them. Moderates insisted that no one has the right to tell another person what to believe. Of course, the SBC had their own unique confession, the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM). Schools, churches and associations often had their own statements of faith, but these meant little to those who loved "freedom of conscience."
While in seminary, I got to see this attitude first hand. Dr. Dale Moody, beloved and controversial professor of theology at Southern Seminary in Louisville, used to get majorly steamed up in class every time there was a signing of the school's "Abstract of Principles" in chapel. (Tenured Professors would dress up in their finery and sign this century old document in an impressive ceremony.) Moody made it clear that he didn't believe most of what was on that piece of paper, particularly the Calvinistic theology on subjects like election and perseverance. He had signed only after telling the powers that be that he disagreed with it and wouldn't be bound by it. They had said, sure, whatever, and he signed it. But Professor Moody never missed the opportunity to point out that those who were signing the Abstract didn't believe it, and shouldn't have to act like they did.
This made an impression on me. I knew he was right because I knew many of these professors, and there was a kind of winking duplicity about the whole exercise. It was at this point that I was confronted with some choices that determined a direction for me from then till now.
I had to admit that the conservatives were right about the theological crisis in the denomination. As a student at Southern in 1979, from 82-84, and again in '87, I saw it up close. Feminism, liberation theology, classical liberalism, the snide questioning of Christian essentials, the ridiculing of evangelism and piety, tolerance of homosexuality- it was all there among significant numbers of students, and several staff. The presence of repellant liberalism at Southern was considerable, and had an undeniable affect in the churches who found themselves with Southern graduates on staff.
I also had to admit that the confessional boundaries of the BFM and the Abstract seemed to mean little or nothing. In essence, moderates said the conservatives were masking a political takeover as an alarm over theology. That was simply not true, at least from my perspective, at the time. I came to see, and to agree, that gaining control of the denominational institutions would be the only way back from the impending mainline-like downgrade that was growing in the SBC.
So when one of my mentors, Dr. Timothy George, came out and endorsed the conservative resurgence, I went over as well. It seemed pretty obvious that when the serious theologians said the issues demanded a change of leadership, I should ask myself how I would look at this in twenty years? What side would I want to be on?
I was right, by the way. The SBC is the only mainline denomination to reverse the seemingly unstoppable tide of liberalism. I believe that without the resurgence, the SBC would have been right in line behind most of the UCC and the PCUSA in becoming a lurching shell of irrelevance and apparent apostasy. The theological disease was real, and tough medicine was needed. It wasn't pretty, but I think the right thing happened. I'm glad I changed teams.
I knew it would be like this.
I also knew something else. Some of the conservatives who ran the SBC revolution were...well-intentioned bullies. I don't mean every one of them, or in their personal lives. I wasn't worried about people getting smacked or imprisoned. Fired? Mistreated? Uh...yeah. I just knew that some of the particular fundamentalist point men in the resurgence were going to step on several toes, stir up a lot of enemies and make more than a few wrong moves.
I admire some of these men a great deal. They are dedicated Christians with a tremendous appreciation of Biblical truth. Many of these conservative leaders can articulately put the SBC conflict into the context of the cultural and theological "wars" of the postmodern era. They've had a tough job, and a pretty thankless one from anyone not sitting on their side of the field. Changing decades of policies, ending needless programs and policies, precipitating the inevitable personnel changes, making integrity mean something; reformation isn't a job for sissies. It's the sort of thing that gets you in the papers, that puts dozens of homosexuals singing "We Shall Overcome" all night outside your office. It gets you bomb threats, and certainly earns you labels like "bigot" and "Nazi." But it had to be done, and those who carried through the resurgence showed they had the stomach for a tough game. I salute them.
So I wasn't surprised when, once in power, conservatives didn't always act like charm school graduates. There were many times I winced, and shook my head, and times I simply said I couldn't agree at all. I'll spare you the particulars. If you have watched the conservatives run the denomination they now control, you know what I am talking about.
One thing I could support was a new and deeper appreciation of confessionalism. While I understand the moderate fear of rampant, abusive creedalism, I could not see how Southern Baptist life has been made better by the demise of all confessions into the category of a violation of conscience. I remember a Southern Baptist Fellowship leader saying our only confession should be "Jesus is Lord." With all due respect, such a sentiment doesn't separate orthodox Christianity from any number of damning errors. We have to answer "Which Jesus?" in the multi-religious pluralism of our culture. Confessions were the right medicine for that malaise, and Southern Baptists should have known it.
I've since become an enthusiastic confessional Christian. In my opinion, a church that doesn't have a vital and frequently referenced confession likely has problems. I was happy to see Southern Seminary's Abstract of Principles once again actually function as a meaningful confession. It has made my alma mater a better school. I am happy to see confessional Christianity once again held in high esteem in many churches. Churches that treasure and use their confessions seem to be a healthy churches.
Which brings us to the Baptist Faith and Message revision of 2000, and the resulting conflicts with IMB missionaries.
The BFM is an unusual confession. A Southern Baptist Calvinist like myself would have been happy to stay with the New Hampshire Confession of Faith, and perhaps that excellent confession will find more acceptance in the aftermath of the current furor. The BFM was first adopted by the SBC in 1925, when the focus issue was evolution. The BFM has always been controversial, and was never well liked or universally endorsed. For years the BFM held interest and influence for denominational leaders and the ministerial class. Among churches, the BFM was about as marginal as a confession could be, and it presided quietly over the anti-creedal years of moderate/liberal control, with its 1963 revision only making it less interesting. It will never be called a great confession, though certainly, Baptists could do much worse.
The primary problem with the BFM is the tendency of Southern Baptists to change it every time something strikes them as important. This isn't a recent development, but is the whole history of the BFM from 1925, to 1963, to 2000. While the rule of thumb about any good confession is "Leave it alone," the BFM has been a work in flux from day one, and as I will demonstrate later, this has been a negative, rendering the BFM hardly fit for the work of reformation and restoring confidence in confessions in Baptist life.
For instance, look at the evolution from the BHM's predecessor, the New Hampshire Confession, to the BFM itself. By 1963, the BFM no longer contained articles on the fall, justification, the freeness of salvation, regeneration, repentance, sanctification or the relationship of law and Gospel. While some of these matters were briefly addressed in other subject headings, the omission of these major doctrines indicated exactly what you might suspect. Southern Baptists didn't want to quibble over justification or other previously important theological matters.
By the sixties, the BFM had accumulated a new set of articles that seemed appropriate for the times, but were even less doctrinal. Now there were articles on man, the Kingdom, evangelism and missions, education, stewardship, cooperation, the social order, war/peace and religious liberty. If these look suspiciously like a mix between a denominational agenda and the kinds of issues that moderates cared about, you are correct. If the most recent revision of the BFM looks like a shopping list written by conservatives, you are also correct. This is no way to treat a confession.
The revisions and additions to the 2000 edition of the BFM reflect conservative concerns about the BFM. I want to make it clear that I have no quarrel with most of these revisions, and some are, in fact, very good as corrections of errors or assertions of truth. For example, the BFM contained a horrendous circular error about the relationship of Christ and scripture. The change in the revised BFM is absolutely necessary if the relationship of Christ to the Bible is going to be freed from the sorts of nonsense that liberals have demonstrated the last fifty years. But as examples of the art of tinkering with a confession based on contemporary concerns, they are classic. (The changes to the BFM 2000 from the 1963 version are detailed in this Baptist Standard article. A moderate/liberal comparison and commentary can be found here. (pdf)
Let it be said clearly: outraged moderate defense of the BFM now is almost hilarious. No group held any confession in greater contempt than the moderate/liberals held the BFM when they were in control. Even though the 1963 version of the BFM contained much language that reflected their own views on many theological and social issues, the moderates still opposed any serious use of the BFM by conservatives unhappy with the direction of the denomination. Note the reaction of moderates to the formation of the "Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship" in the early 1970's. Casting themselves as the "protectors of the integrity of the Baptist Faith and Message" is laughable.
So how did we get from a confession no one really liked to this missionary bruhaha and the loss of many good people from the mission field? The problem is that, once the BFM was revised, the conservative leadership of the SBC decided that every missionary on the field would endorse the BFM or be dismissed. This decision was endorsed by the International Mission Board, and was patiently, and fairly, enforced by the leadership of the IMB. As any informed Southern Baptist knows, over 30 SBC missionaries resigned, and thirteen were terminated. In principle, I have no issue at all with this policy. In practice, there are some issues that I believe need to be considered carefully.
One is the ethics of firing people hired before such a requirement was in place. I work for a ministry associated with the Kentucky Baptist Convention. At this point, the KBC does not require the employees of an affiliated school, such as ours, to endorse the Baptist Faith and Message. Since a portion of my salary is paid for by the Kentucky Baptist Cooperative program, I can fully understand such a request. If, however, an order came down to "endorse or be fired," I would be in a quandary of conscience, not because of the content of the BFM, but because of the idea that a confession that was not part of my initial association with the school now had become the "price" of a continued association.
I am totally at a loss to explain what is accomplished by requiring past employees of the IMB missionary family to sign or be fired. Since the IMB can easily require all future missionaries to sign as a condition of appointment, the requirement for current staff to sign seems specially aimed at creating a crisis for some missionaries. The IMB would deny that this requirement was meant to root out moderate sympathizers, but that appears to be exactly what has happened. It is not the first time the conservative leadership has shown moderates willing to stay that the door was open and their bags were packed. I find it a very unclassy act.
Another objection comes from Southern Baptist Polity itself. The BFM is a statement approved at the annual meeting of the SBC. The messengers of the churches endorse it, but it has absolutely no binding power over any church unless that church approves of it in their own constitution. Most SBC churches do not use the BFM in any binding way at all. In the same way, the IMB is funded by the Southern Baptist Convention, which is made up of churches, most of which do not use the BFM as a requirement for membership, ordination or ministry. Predominantly Southern Baptist local associations and state conventions do not use the BFM to enforce conformity. What is the precedent in Baptist life for the IMB's actions? Why is a document so unimportant in the denomination so important to the IMB's work?
So how does the IMB see it as appropriate to require missionaries, who are all members of SBC churches, to endorse the BFM, which is not even close to being universally endorsed by SBC churches? Yes, it is not wrong for the IMB to do this, but it seems to be in defiance of the kind of Baptist polity that has united Southern Baptists and allowed them to cooperate in missions and ministry for almost a century. This action by the IMB seeks a level of doctrinal conformity that local churches, associations and state conventions don't enforce. Is this really wise?
An example would be a denomination like the Presbyterian Church in America. The PCA is a confessional church at every level. The Westminster Standards are endorsed everywhere in PCA polity, from membership to ministry. So would there be any surprise that a PCA mission board would require endorsement of those confessions by missionaries? Of course not. But the SBC is completely different in its attitude and use of the BFM as a confession, and requiring "sign or be fired" conformity by missionaries is frankly, almost bizarre.
Ruining a Good Recipe
As I said earlier, I supported and still support the conservative resurgence in the SBC for, among other reasons, their openness to recovering the confessional heritage of the SBC. I believe confessions and creeds- and the catechisms they generate- are the basic instruments of the church's educational ministry. They keep theology and doctrine before the church. The Trinity, the two natures of Christ, the doctrine of scripture- all these things are as relevant today as they ever were in church history, and Southern Baptists need to know and study them. Pragmatism, liberalism and modernism have influenced evangelicals in ways that need the classic Christian confessions as antidotes.
But the "good medicine" of confessionalism can become the "bad medicine" of enforcing too much conformity on the wrong issues. And in this, the recent use of the BFM raises the most concern for me. Particularly upon two of the recent revisions: the article that states a pastor must be male, and the article on the submission of wives to husband; both articles that could hardly make reasonable claim to unanimity and/or confessional necessity. Do these statements rise to the level of issues that should prompt the firing of missionaries? Is the SBC really saying that there is such doctrinal uniformity and importance on these issues among their members that it's "sign or be fired?"
Good, Biblical evangelicals in every denomination disagree on the issue of the Biblical interpretation of passages dealing with the gender of the pastor. It's not an issue on which leaders ought to be hijacking a confession to eliminate the opposition. Diversity on this issue poses no threat to the SBC. The statement on "submission" is good Biblical teaching, but why does the scriptural command to mutual submission in marriage not also merit a mention, since it is fundamental to understanding how both husband and wife are under the same command to submit to one another? Making this issue a reason to fire a missionary seems preposterous.
The BFM has other problems. The paragraph on "Man" is just plain lousy theology, and no one should have to endorse it. The moderate/liberal leftovers in many of the 1963 revisions are not worthy of confessional status, particularly issues like "education" and "cooperation." If people are going to be fired, do they have to be fired for refusing to endorse these kinds of denominational promos masquerading as doctrine?
Plainly, the leadership who crafted and enforced these recent changes did not have "confessional" purposes in mind, but political purposes. Their unwillingness to improve the theology of much of the BFM, indicates the real agenda isn't so much reform as control. If that is the case, confessionalism will deserve the bad name it's going to get from the SBC.
The conservatives in the leadership of the SBC, most of whom haven't allowed the Apostle's Creed in their churches in 40 years, are now willing to fire missionaries over the BFM. It's inexplicable except as a sign of a tendency to go too far and insist on too much for inadequate reasons. This isn't helpful confessionalism- it's hurtful confessionalism. It's not using a confession to create unity, but to eradicate disagreement over issues where legitimate, scriptural discussion should be encouraged. It is almost comic to think what the Westminster Confession would look like if Southern Baptists had it in for 400 years. Right alongside the doctrine of justification would be a plug for the latest evangelism program and an endorsement of tax cut legislation.
The SBC has a system in place to handle timely issues that do not rise to the level of confessional status. "Resolutions" are brought every year to speak to issues of denominational concern. But a resolution could never be used to enforce conformity, and that is why the SBC leadership is not happy to leave many of these issues at the level of resolutions. If changes to the BFM continue to follow the agenda of the current group of SBC leaders, then confessionalism in the SBC will fail to have any lasting appeal to the churches. That will be a shame.
Here's my suggestion. Lose the BFM. Go back to the New Hampshire Confession, a confession that has the character of a great statement of faith that will unify and encourage churches. Recover the theology of the years when the SBC cared about doctrine, but knew how to leave the "issue of the week" alone. Keep the current issues on the resolutions table, and don't use the BFM to respond to the latest battle in the culture war. Most of all, determine that until a confession truly unifies the SBC, denominational agencies will not force their employees to endorse such a flawed document, or lose their ministries. On issues where Southern Baptists are still having spirited discussions and investigations of what they believe the Bible teaches, let's not make missionaries choose sides in order to have a ministry. Their work is surely more important than that.
I knew the current group of SBC leaders would make some mistakes. This episode has been one. Will they learn from it, or are we just seeing the beginning of an era of enforced conformity without true unity? I hope concerned Southern Baptists will seek to influence our denomination to appreciate the greatness of its confessional heritage, and to let that heritage become the foundation for reformation and renewal in our churches, not a reason for more division in an already divided denomination.