In a previous article about confessions of faith and their role in Baptist life, I argued a point I still believe: Confessions of faith are invaluable for the doctrinal unity and integrity of both local churches and denominational bodies.
I take doctrine very seriously, understanding theology as a central part of how believers follow Christ. I also prize unity and cooperation.
Unfortunately, I must acknowledge confessions of faith often fail to produce the doctrinal unity they are meant to uphold. Important as confessions are, they easily can produce conflict and division, even among a group of believers claiming to follow the same confession.
The Baptist Faith & Message 2000
One of the most prominent—and painful—examples of this reality in recent years has been conflict within the Southern Baptist Convention over their statement of faith, the Baptist Faith & Message 2000.
The current version of the Baptist Faith & Message came on the heels of decades of painful theological disputes within the SBC. After those battles, the new version of the confession of faith was meant to serve as the foundation of the convention’s doctrinal unity. I believe the BFM has failed to accomplish this purpose.
I disagree with a few sections of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, but many Southern Baptists who claim to agree with their confession in toto nevertheless continue to get caught up in vicious and destructive theological disagreements.
There are two recent issues I think are representative of the problem the SBC has with its statement of faith: Beth Moore and critical race theory.
Beth Moore and the role of women
I am a huge fan of Beth Moore and her teaching ministry. Many Southern Baptists do not share my opinion. Moore recently made national news for leaving the SBC, due in no small part to conflict over her ministry—among other issues.
For years, Moore and her supporters argued she conducted her ministry in accordance with Article VI of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000, which states, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.” Moore never has claimed to be a pastor, but this has not dissuaded her critics.
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Many Southern Baptists, particularly some prominent pastors, have excoriated Moore for rejecting “a long-time held belief of the SBC … the very teaching of Scripture,” that “women are not called by God to be preachers in the pulpit to men.” Other Southern Baptists, however, have defended Moore.
So, who’s right? How does the SBC decide who’s right? Back in the early 2000s, most Southern Baptists thought their new version of the Baptist Faith & Message settled the question of the convention’s stance on women in ministry. Clearly, it did not.
Critical race theory and the Bible
The other major theological controversy wracking the SBC is critical race theory. Arguments over critical race theory are part of the bigger topic of race and racism, both in the SBC and in wider Christianity.
Some Southern Baptists believe critical race theory, a particular academic approach to studying race and racism, can be helpful in addressing contemporary issues of racial justice and racial reconciliation. Other Southern Baptists argue employing critical race theory in any way functionally declares Scripture is “insufficient alone to diagnose social ills.” The point of debate is the sufficiency of Scripture and the appropriate way(s) to interpret it.
As in the case of Beth Moore, the text of the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 does not offer any clarity. How can Christians, particularly Southern Baptists, make use of ostensibly non-Christian ideas and theories as we seek to analyze and understand the world around us? How does one honor biblical authority in the process? The Baptist Faith & Message doesn’t say.
The debate over critical race theory—really, the wider debate over race and racism—threatens to tear the SBC apart. But Southern Baptists are incapable of resolving this theological dispute by appealing to their statement of faith. On this deeply pressing issue, the Baptist Faith & Message fails to provide a solid foundation for unity.
“The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
Is the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 itself the problem? I don’t believe it is. I am convinced the doctrinal disputes damaging the SBC are not something any number of revisions to the confession of faith ultimately could solve. The real problem is spiritual.
Paul wrote, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6 NASB). His point is the letter of the Law on its own can only expose and condemn sin; the Holy Spirit alone can bring true transformation and righteousness. I believe a similar principle applies to confessions of faith.
On their own, doctrinal standards cannot bring unity; they can only foster disagreement and division, even among those who claim they hold to the same standards. True unity comes through the transformative work of the Holy Spirit, whom Christ has poured out on the church.
A serious mistake many Christians make when trying to establish unity is prioritizing doctrine and doctrinal agreement. Don’t misunderstand me: Doctrine is extremely important. But without the Holy Spirit working in us, making us more loving, trusting and self-sacrificial toward one another, no confession of faith ever can bring unity, doctrinal or otherwise.
Joshua Sharp is a writer and Bible teacher living in Waco. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Truett Theological Seminary. The views expressed are those solely of the author.