The Southern Baptist Convention’s constitution has “structural problems” that are highlighted by a current effort to amend the governing rules to expel churches with women serving as pastors, SBC President Bart Barber said May 10.
Barber, a pastor in a rural area north of Dallas, released a video filmed on his ranch to address the resolution proposed by Virginia pastor Mike Law. The SBC president gives his thoughts on the amendment as he wanders his property on a cloudy day.
Barber says he believes messengers to next month’s SBC annual meeting in New Orleans should be allowed to vote it up or down. Allowing debate on the proposal is not his decision, he explains, but rests with the SBC Executive Committee. Should the Executive Committee not forward the proposal for consideration, a majority of messengers present could bring it to the floor anyway.
But passing Law’s resolution still would not solve a deeper problem with the SBC constitution, Barber says.
“Nobody knows what ‘closely identified’ with means in terms of actually applying it to the case of individual churches.”
“At present, Article III of our constitution says that to be considered cooperating with the convention a church needs to have a faith and practice that is ‘closely identified’ with the Baptist Faith and Message,” he explains. “Now, the thing is nobody knows what ‘closely identified’ with means in terms of actually applying it to the case of individual churches.”
This has, indeed, been the crux of several debates about who should be in and who should be out of the SBC. Some believe the Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement must be followed explicitly, while others see it as a general statement that should not be binding on all cooperating churches.
“Cooperation” is the key word in Southern Baptist polity. Local churches voluntarily cooperate with the national denomination but cannot be controlled by it. There is no connectionalism as in some Christian denominations. All Baptist bodies are considered autonomous. That means the SBC also may choose which churches it allows to be part of its fellowship.
For decades, the key requirement to be in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC was to send money to its unified budget, called the Cooperative Program. More recently, as conservatives gained control of denominational structures, they have enforced doctrinal parameters as well as financial requirements.
But even among the SBC’s conservatives there are divergent views on how firmly the lines should be drawn. Barber’s video was published one day after the SBC released its annual statistical profile, showing the largest single-year drop in church membership in a century.
In addition to Law’s motion on women serving as pastors, Barber said he expects a motion to be made and passed in New Orleans that would require the SBC president to appoint committees to review both the constitution and bylaws and the Baptist Faith and Message. The doctrinal statement was last updated 23 years ago.
“I’m supportive of the idea of having a task force and reviewing these things, particularly when it comes to the structure of our governing documents in the meaning of cooperation,” Barber says in the video.
Of particular interest should be better defining the term “closely identified,” he argues.
“It’s deliberately written very carefully to put phraseology in there that nobody can pin down, that nobody knows what it means.”
“I’m not saying the people who wrote that language ‘closely identified with’ were bad writers, not at all. It’s vague on purpose. It’s deliberately written very carefully to put phraseology in there that nobody can pin down, that nobody knows what it means. And honestly for decades and decades in Southern Baptist life that kind of an approach worked.
“What kind of doctrinal agreement did you need to have to be a cooperating church in the Southern Baptist Convention? Whatever the messengers said it was at any given time. However, we live in a day and time now … that changes the need for us to be able to know what it means.”
If this is not more clearly defined, the SBC Credentials Committee — which rules on whether churches may seat messengers at annual meetings — “is going to have to fill in the blanks,” Barber says. “I don’t think that the Credentials Committee wants that responsibility. And I don’t think the messengers want the Credentials Committee to have that level of authority, to be the people who can just determine by fiat what parts of the Baptist Faith and Message you have to follow, what parts you don’t have to follow.”
This is not just about women serving as pastors, he continues, citing differing practices among SBC churches related to baptism and religious liberty as other examples.
Barber recounts a recent phone conservation with Law, who said to him, “Bart, you know you really agree with me. It’s just you don’t think my method of trying to fix this fixes enough stuff.”
Barber says his position on the amendment is “yes, and.”
“Personally, I’m in favor of letting the messengers vote on Mike Law’s proposed amendment and I’ll be supportive and implement whatever it is the executive committee says,” Barber adds.
At the same time, he favors a thorough review of the SBC’s governing documents to improve “clarity and consistency.” He believes all SBC churches should have “a fair opportunity to know from the outset just by reading the documents what are the core doctrinal beliefs that unite Southern Baptists and where are the areas where although we may have majority thought about some things there’s latitude for cooperating churches to see things differently and do things differently.”