The better question may be, “Is Paige Patterson Now An Advocate for Broader Baptist Parameters After Being For Narrower Baptist Parameters?” Wade Burleson alerted Southern Baptists to the way an update to the SBC Constitution may lead to the exit of Enid, Emmanuel from the SBC. For those keeping track, that would be quite a shift given Wade’s long involvement in Southern Baptist life – former President of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and on the Board of Trustees of the International Mission Board, among other areas of service.
Amendments to Article 3 would adjust the calculus used to govern the definition of “cooperating Southern Baptist Church.” On the one hand, it does seem prudent to make an adjustment to the financial criterion used to determine the commitment of a cooperating church. The current annual contribution of $250, set in 1888, made it a relative non-issue when Jerry Falwell led the Thomas Road Baptist Church to join the SBC after the Conservative Resurgence had effected a narrow enough tent to suit him.
Up to that point, 1998, Falwell had clobbered the SBC as not conservative enough. That all changed when Thomas Road made a sufficient contribution, maybe $250, to be considered eligible as a cooperating church and cast ballots that same year – 1998. Ironically, or maybe not, Paige Patterson was elected President of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1998. It would not be a stretch to link the advances of the Conservative Resurgence to narrow the SBC to the point Falwell felt comfortable leading his church to contribute and then, one would presume, vote for Patterson. It would surely have been, “Atta boy!”
That does not mean to imply that Falwell would have had trouble with the new $6000 figure. But, when you can give a paltry sum to give credence to a movement that you believe aligned the largest Protestant denomination with your own ideology, then why not. The symbolic move solidified many minds among Independent Baptists that finally the SBC had moved enough they could now participate. Be sure and read that last line again. That did not mean they would become Southern Baptists, but it did mean something had changed about the SBC.
The sticking point for Wade Burleson, and Emmanuel Baptist Church, is not a matter of economics, at least at the outset. One could argue there would be an economic fallout. Immanuel is large enough that its cooperative dollars would be much more significant to lose than, say, our own at Snow Hill. No, the point of issue is the way the Baptist Faith and Message is moved to a bounded set document rather than a centered set document.
What Do Sets Have to Do with Anything?
Baptist Confessions, even Southern Baptist versions like the Baptist Faith and Message, have long served as centered set documents. That is, there is enough latitude, for instance, to include those holding to any of the major views on the eschaton, or what we refer to as “last things.” Take for instance First Baptist Church, Dallas. During George W. Truett’s pastoral tenure he led the church from a post-millenial sensibility. He led FBC, Dallas while subscribing to the first iteration of the BF&M voted the confessional statement in 1925. W.A. Criswell became pastor of the, then, flagship SBC Church and led from a decidedly Pre-Millennial Dispensationalist interpretation. He led FBC under the approved 1925 and then the 1963 version of the BF&M. There was room for both of these men to faithfully subscribe to the BF&M while differing on a matter deserving its own article in the BF&M.
Creeds tend to be bounded sets. They function in a way to suggest adherents must opt for this millennial position to the exclusion of all others. Here I am sticking with my current illustration. We could address the very current, and ongoing, debate about the co-existence of Calvinists and non-Calvinists, or however you prefer to delineate the differences, be it Reformed Baptists and Traditionalists, under the same BF&M.
The matter Wade pointed to concerned Open Communion, be it full Open Communion or some modified position on that spectrum. The BF&M is decidedly opposed to such a position. He drew out that were Article 3 to pass it would mark Immanuel as a non-coopearting church. There are other issues that could result in other ejections from the SBC, to be sure. But, this is one that Wade seems to believe would affect more churches. The adoption of Article 3 would shift our confessional statement, the BF&M, to a bounded set document, or creed, instead of its long history as a centered set document. Clearly this is not about an increase in the contribution threshold for cooperating churches. There is little doubt this is about narrowing the parameters of cooperation.
Southern Baptists’ Own Narrow Gate
Jesus sets the agenda. He is the narrow gate in Matthew. He is the Gate to the sheep pen in John. Jesus gets to set the agenda for who is in the Kingdom. Dallas Willard, in The Divine Conspiracy, contended Jesus scandalized the religious elite and their structures by daring to include who they had excluded. Rather than a spiritualized chiastic progression, Willard pointed to the Beatitudes as descriptive of the very people sitting in the crowd listening to Jesus who learned those who had told them their weaknesses disallowed their participation in the Kingdom of God had been wrong. They were being swept into the Kingdom by Jesus’ announcement and declaration. It is not unlike viewing the Beatitudes as an explication of Jesus’ first announcement of his mission in Luke 4.
Since the CR, we have seen, in fits and starts, the attempts to return to a religious elite telling the rest of the Convention who should get to play and who should not. Give more if you want to be identified as cooperating. Why in our State Convention there is no attempt to ask what circumstances resulted in a decrease in CP giving. Instead, a pastor or church are summarily blacklisted from boards, committees, and former invitations should your church’s giving reflect a decrease. The only interest is in a church giving more. Period.
Practice Communion this way if you want to be considered in fellowship. Why do you offer the Lord’s Supper quarterly or annually? There may be more scandal Scripturally over our lack of frequent fellowship of the Bread and the Cup than allowing, for example, a Presbyterian, paedo-baptist, to share in Communion on a Sunday morning. We could digress into the entire oxymoron that is Reformed Baptist. But, that would miss the point. Or would it? We Southern Baptists like to build our own gates. And, we like them ever narrower. The Article 3 revision will do just that. But there is more.
Maybe the Numbers Reflect Something Else
Lifeway recently released the latest statistics for Southern Baptists – baptisms, membership, attendance. In our usual double down on our piety – calls for more prayer, more personal holiness, and more soul-winning, is it possible that we have been pointing to the wrong gate? Instead of pointing to Jesus and His Way, could it be we have been so exercised by the dimensions of our own gates that our numbers reflect the consequence of our own ideology?
There is little doubt that if Southern Baptists keep narrowing the dimensions of the door, soon no one will get in. That could include you. And, the consequences would be the death of a denomination.