"What do Southern Baptists Believe?"
Last month, I began the first of several articles designed to address what it means to attend a Southern Baptist church. So far we’ve learned that the SBC is a group of like-minded, evangelical churches that cooperate together to fulfill the Great Commission. In short, churches voluntarily select to cooperate with the SBC by affirming its doctrinal statement and by giving money to the Cooperative Program (CP). This month, I’d like to expound more on what it means that Southern Baptists are doctrinally likeminded and focus in on two distinctives: autonomy and cooperation.
The Baptist Faith and Message
Baptists are a deeply convictional people who have historically been eager to adopt summaries of our faith which clarify our most basic and essential beliefs about God and his world. Statements like these have been used by Christians throughout church history and are often known simply as confessions of faith. These statements recognize that our faith is established upon truth–eternal truths “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). As a result, these statements aim simply to summarize what the Bible teaches, rightly positioning the locus of authority not in the statements themselves, but in the Scriptures. Statements of faith are useful for many important reasons but one reason central to our discussion is that Baptists recognize that cooperation requires a certain degree of doctrinal agreement. Naturally, we wouldn’t want to send missionaries who go on to teach contrary to the Bible. For Southern Baptists, these essential beliefs are found in the confessional document known as the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (BFM). To be a SBC church implies that your church affirms this statement, though it actually does not require it (more on that later). However, here at Trinity Baptist Church, we have found the BFM to be such a good summary of our essential beliefs that we have chosen to adopt it as our church’s official doctrinal statement (see the TBC Constitution, Article III, Section 3). Functionally, this means that by uniting with Trinity in membership you affirm this statement of faith as an accurate summary of essential Christian belief. If you read the Baptist Faith and Message, and sincerely I hope you do, you’ll find that in some areas, it is very narrow while in other areas it is intentionally broad–even vague. For example, “Christ is the eternal Son of God” (II.B.) is a precise and narrow statement. Yet when it comes to our shared belief on the Last Things it reads “God, in His own time and in His own way, will bring the world to its appropriate end” (X.). I believe this balance is good and right and allows for some degree of diversity on non-essential beliefs. It also reminds us, as our church constitution states, the BFM “does not exhaust the extent of our beliefs.” That’s another way of saying we may believe more than the BFM, but we don’t believe any less.
Though it’s not practical to go through all the important doctrines in the BFM, I would like to highlight two Baptist distinctives, autonomy and cooperation.
The BFM states “A New Testament church of the Lord Jesus Christ is an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers…” That word autonomous points to the conviction that local churches should be self-governing - free from any external authority apart from the lordship of Jesus Christ. This conviction isn’t a descendent from the American spirit, but is instead a biblical conviction. We believe that when local churches are described in the New Testament, these churches are independent entities with their own leaders and authority structures and are accountable for their own decisions (Revelation 1–3). Baptists don’t believe in a hierarchical system, such as bishops and archbishops in the episcopalian form of government. Nor do we believe in the synods, presbyteries, and sessions found in the presbyterian system of government. Put most simply, this is because we don’t see any such systems in the New Testament. Instead, we believe the final authority resides in the congregation, made up of Spirit-filled Christians, as it submits itself to the authority of Jesus Christ. As a result, no earthly body can rightly exert authority over our congregation and tell us how to function. This includes what we should believe, who we should hire, or how we should spend our money. Autonomy does not minimize accountability but instead emphasizes the lordship of Jesus Christ and the accountability of local congregations to appoint biblically qualified pastors, affirm sound doctrine, reject false doctrine, rightly practice the ordinances, and handle matters of membership and discipline. That responsibility resides in the congregation or membership. Our commitment to autonomy has many practical consequences in SBC life. It forms the foundation for voluntary association, which is why some churches give lots to SBC efforts while other “SBC” churches give none. In fact, so committed are we to the principle of autonomy, churches who align with the SBC are technically not required to affirm the BFM (though it is implied through cooperation). It also explains why the SBC doesn’t have elected leaders with authority or power over local churches. The SBC president doesn’t preside over our local church or tell us what to believe, instead he presides over an annual business meeting. An additional consequence of this is that no other person or church can “discipline” or hold us accountable if we err. Nor can we hold other churches accountable. For example, if another SBC church begins to affirm unbiblical tenants of Critical Race Theory, our church is not in a position to hold them accountable for that. That responsibility resides on the members of that church (Galatians 1:8–9).
Once we understand the principle of autonomy, we are in a better position to understand our conviction about cooperation. Here I’ll quote from section XIV of BFM at length, “Christ’s people should, as occasion requires, organize such associations and conventions as may best secure cooperation for the great objects of the Kingdom of God. Such organizations have no authority over one another or over the churches. They are voluntary and advisory bodies designed to elicit, combine, and direct the energies of our people in the most effective manner. Members of New Testament churches should cooperate with one another in carrying forward the missionary, educational, and benevolent ministries for the extension of Christ’s Kingdom.” As I have already stated, being Southern Baptist then is not about total uniformity among SBC churches. Instead it becomes a strategic decision to cooperate with other churches who share our most crucial doctrinal convictions, to extend Christ’s kingdom and to fulfill the Great Commission. We’ll take a look at how Southern Baptists accomplish this cooperation in a future article.