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June 17, 2000
Column #981


     ORLANDO - On Wednesday, the Southern Baptist Convention approved its first major revision of the ''Baptist Faith and Message,'' its confessional statement, since 1963, moving America's largest Protestant denomination in a more conservative and Biblical direction.

     ''Nearly four decades after the Convention's last comprehensive action, a new generation must take up the stewardship of the faith `once for all delivered to the saints' (Jude 3),'' said Dr. Adrian Rogers, Chairman of the redrafting committee. He noted new reasons to do so: ''Moral decay and assaults upon cherished truths dominate the arena in which we must now minister.''

     For example, in 1963 abortion was universally condemned and illegal, pornography was in its infancy, homosexuality was undiscussed and racial segregation was pervasive across the South. Therefore those issues were not mentioned in the last Baptist Faith and Message. Feeling the ''responsibility of speaking to the issues'' of today,'' the new version urges Christians to ''oppose racism, every form of greed, selfishness and vice and all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality and pornography...We should speak on behalf of the unborn and contend for the sanctity of all human life from conception to natural death.''

     The change given the widest publicity, is this addition: ''While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture.'' It is based on Paul's letter to Timothy: ''I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man.'' The Associated Press predicted the measure risked ''a wider split'' in the denomination.

     ''I'm very sad. Women ministers are not going to have a place in Southern Baptist life any more, said Rev. Martha Phillips, interim pastor of Mount Vernon Baptist Church, where Vice President Al Gore is a member. ''I think more churches will leave.''

     Asked about it, newly elected SBC President James G. Merritt said, ''I don't fear a split. I don't even fear a splinter.'' He is right. There are only 35 female pastors in the 41,000 churches, which is .9 of one percent. Even if every church with a woman pastor left the denomination, the impact on the SBC would be tiny since 200-300 new churches are added annually.

     Further, no Baptist church has to agree with the Message, which is simply a consensus of what Baptists believe. It has no inherent authority. Only ''Scripture is totally true and trustworthy,'' the new statement asserts.

     The female pastorate issue did not even surface in the debate before 11,000 messengers (delegates) approved the Baptist Faith and Message. 

     The hot issue was a theological one, based on another change. The new statement removed this sentence: ''The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.'' 

     Charles Wade, pastor of First Baptist Church of Arlington, Texas, argued it should be retained, ''We are indeed people of the book, but we are people who bow only before Jesus Christ our Savior.''

     The new Message restated the matter this way: ''All Scripture is a testimony to Christ, who is Himself the focus of divine revelation.''

     Dr. Richard Land, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, explained: ''We all believe in Jesus Christ, but the only Jesus Christ we can know is revealed in Scripture.''

     In an earlier interview, Land noted that many Baptists dismissed the writings of Paul, if they seemed to contradict Jesus: ''Some have argued Jesus would oppose capital punishment, since he said, 'Love your enemy.' However, Paul in Romans 13 came close to explicitly endorsing capital punishment.'' Thus, he argued all Scripture is equally authoritative.

     Anthony Sizemore, another Texas pastor, countered: ''The Bible is a book we can trust. But it is still just a book. Christians are supposed to have a relationship with Jesus Christ.'

     Dr. R. Albert Mohler, Jr. President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and the man some called the ''Thomas Jefferson,'' who drafted much of the new language, replied:

     ''This is what it all comes down to. The issue is whether the Bible is the word of God, or whether it is just a record of God's word. `All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, (2 Tim. 3:16).' It is not merely a record of God's word.'' Vigorous applause greeted his remarks. 

     When a vote was taken, more than 90 percent supported the Committee's new language.

     To those in mainline denominations, the drive of the Southern Baptists for a deeper commitment to Scripture may seem fundamentalist. But the Presbyterians, United Methodists and Episcopalians have lost millions of members, while Southern Baptists have added millions. 

- Copyright 2000 Michael J. McManus.

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