A pastor once told me that he didn’t feel he should serve on one of our statewide committees because he wasn’t in complete agreement with the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message statement. He cited Article VII on “Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.” He said he felt it described what is commonly referred to as “closed communion,” meaning that only the baptized church members of a local congregation should participate in that church’s Lord’s Supper ordinance.
I assured him that, in my experience, most SBC churches today practice a more “open communion,” where any believer baptized in a church of like faith and practice is invited to participate in that church’s observance of the Lord’s Supper. Later, however, I reread that article in the BF&M and had to agree that the Lord’s Supper described there sounded more closed than open.
The pastor went on to serve on the committee, since it was his church’s cooperating status with IBSA that qualified him to serve, and not his personally held belief about how the Lord’s Supper may be observed. And to my knowledge, no motion “charging doctrinal incompatibility” (a phrase from the IBSA Constitution) has ever been brought against a church at an IBSA Annual Meeting because it practiced open communion.
Yet if recent events are any indication, motions charging churches with doctrinal incompatibility (or not “closely identifying” with the BF&M, to use SBC Constitution language) may become more common in Baptist life, certainly at the national SBC level, and perhaps at some state and local levels. I believe messengers should be alert, cautious, and wise in handling such motions, especially at this June’s Southern Baptist Convention in New Orleans. At the same time, I’m reassured because caution and wisdom have characterized our Convention across the years.
To a certain degree, the felt need for such motions is being driven nationally by reports of mishandled sex abuse cases in some churches, or racism in others. In 2019, the SBC Credentials Committee became a standing committee of the Convention, meaning that in addition to seating messengers at the annual SBC meeting, it was also given the year-round responsibility of responding to such reports.
Since that time, the issue of women serving as pastors has also come to the forefront, most visibly in the case of Saddleback Church in California. This past February the SBC Executive Committee, acting for the SBC between its annual sessions, deemed six churches “not in friendly cooperation with the SBC,” with five having women in the role of senior or teaching pastor, and one being charged with mishandling a sexual abuse case.
Sadly, in my view, the need to confront evils such as sexual abuse and racism in some churches may also create an environment in which diverse and autonomous churches are more frequently charged with doctrinal incompatibility. If we’re not careful, the Baptist Faith and Message statement which has long provided clarity, unity, and yet flexibility for our churches’ Great Commission cooperation may instead be used as a tool for tighter conformity.
Let me be clear in stating my complete support of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, both personally and as the standard for hiring staff at IBSA. I believe it is a great gift to our churches, and that it provides, in almost miraculously few words, a general summation of what most Southern Baptists believe about the key doctrines of the Bible.
I also have great confidence in the Spirit-filled, collective wisdom of the messengers who represent their churches in our national, state, and local gatherings. Together, let’s pray that we will continue to strike a healthy balance between the doctrinal integrity and accountability that a faithful fellowship of churches can help preserve, and the freedoms of individual expression best left to autonomous churches.
Nate Adams is executive director of the Illinois Baptist State Association. Respond at IllinoisBaptist@IBSA.org.