The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) begins today in San Antonio, Texas.
I am in Augusta, Georgia. And I’m ok with that. Oh, I’d like to visit San Antonio again; it’s a beautiful city and the Riverwalk is everything it’s purported to be. But I chose not to attend the SBC this year. Truth be told, the meeting in Greensboro, North Carolina in 2006 was the first SBC meeting I had attended since 1991. More truth be told, I attended the Greensboro meeting for three reasons: (1) It was close enough to drive; (2) Some folks from our church wanted to go; and (3) The movement among some young SBC leaders to try to stop the continual narrowing of the parameters of participation in the convention caught my attention and I wanted to get a firsthand look at what was going on.
I had stopped attending because the fundamentalist takeover/conservative resurgence had, in my opinion, turned the SBC meetings into right-wing love fests that I could not stomach (for what it’s worth, a left-wing love fest would not make me feel any better). As a matter of fact, in 1991, every time I tried to sit through a session I would feel physically ill. My “side” (we liked to be known by the insipid label “moderates”; our opponents used what was to them the curse above all curses, “liberals,” to name us) had lost and there was nothing to be done about it. So, I have attended one SBC meeting in the last sixteen years, and that’s one more than most of my friends and fellow travelers have attended.
I actually thought about going this year; because of the efforts of the Baptist bloggers and other young leaders, it’s going to be another interesting meeting. But, one only has so much time and money to travel, and I decided that I would rather attend the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Washington, D.C. at the end of June. I suppose that will tell some folks all that they need or want to know about me. I have good reasons for choosing that meeting over the SBC gathering, though, and I will write more about those reasons when the time for the CBF gathering draws closer.
In this context, though, I do want to mention one reason that I am drawn philosophically to the CBF: those Baptists still take the historic and cherished Baptist doctrine of the priesthood of the believer seriously. Mentioning the priesthood of the believer brings me back to the SBC meeting in San Antonio. I am not there this year, but I was there the last time the SBC met in that city. It was 1988. I was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Georgia. Two fine retired couples from our church, Grover and Margaret Newton and Virgil and Louise Griffis, accompanied Debra and me on the trip. Grover had one of those big customized vans and we drove all the way to San Antonio and back, spending the night in Lake Charles, Louisiana on the way out and in Lafayette on the way back. It was a fun trip.
The meeting, though, was not fun; something happened there that showed me and just about everybody else who was paying attention that, from the moderates’ perspective, the battle for the soul of the SBC was lost. That something was the adoption of the following resolution.
Resolution On The Priesthood Of The Believer
WHEREAS, None of the five major writing systematic theologians in Southern Baptist history have given more than passing reference to the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer in their systematic theologies; and
WHEREAS, The Baptist Faith and Message preamble refers to the priesthood of the believer, but provides no definition or content to the term; and
WHEREAS, The high profile emphasis on the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer in Southern Baptist life is a recent historical development; and
WHEREAS, The priesthood of the believer is a term which is subject to both misunderstanding and abuse; and
WHEREAS, The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer has been used to justify wrongly the attitude that a Christian may believe whatever he so chooses and still be considered a loyal Southern Baptist; and
WHEREAS, The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer can be used to justify the undermining of pastoral authority in the local church.
Be it therefore RESOLVED, That the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in San Antonio, Texas, June 14-16, 1988, affirm its belief in the biblical doctrine of the priesthood of the believer (1 Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6); and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we affirm that this doctrine in no way gives license to misinterpret, explain away, demythologize, or extrapolate out elements of the supernatural from the Bible; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer in no way contradicts the biblical understanding of the role, responsibility, and authority of the pastor which is seen in the command to the local church in Hebrews 13:17, "Obey your leaders, and submit to them; for they keep watch over your souls, as those who will give an account;" and
Be finally RESOLVED, That we affirm the truth that elders, or pastors, are called of God to lead the local church (Acts 20:28).
On the Sunday following the adoption of that resolution, a veteran pastor in my area went to his pulpit and told his congregation, “The Southern Baptist Convention that I have loved all my life died this week in San Antonio, Texas.”
The truth is that the priesthood of the believer is a vital doctrine not only of the Baptist movement but of the Protestant Reformation in general. The resolution says, “The Baptist Faith and Message preamble refers to the priesthood of the believer, but provides no definition or content to the term”; I would imagine that the framers of the preamble thought that Southern Baptists would be well-schooled in such “definition and content.” For the record, here is the section of the preamble of the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M), which was the version that was in effect in 1988, to which the resolution refers:
Baptists emphasize the soul’s competency before God, freedom in religion, and the priesthood of the believer. However, this emphasis should not be interpreted to mean that there is an absence of certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and with which they have been and are now closely identified.
I would note also the irony in the fact that, while the resolution regards it as problematical that the BF&M did not provide “definition and content” of the phrase “priesthood of the believer,” neither did the resolution! The resolution makes many assertions about what the phrase allegedly does not mean but nothing about what it does mean.
The resolution went on to state, “The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer has been used to justify wrongly the attitude that a Christian may believe whatever he so chooses and still be considered a loyal Southern Baptist.” There may have been some truth to that assertion although I don’t personally know anyone who actually thought that. The real difference was between those who believed that there are “certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and with which they have been and are now closely identified” and those who believed that the lines past which one could not go and still be considered a Baptist should be drawn tighter and tighter. The “draw the lines tighter and tighter” crowd wanted this resolution and they eventually won the day in the SBC; I think it is safe to say that the SBC is still dealing with the aftermath of that victory. Indeed, the kinds of matters that the younger SBC leaders are dealing with now revolve largely around the continual narrowing of the parameters that define who will and won’t be considered a loyal and cooperating Southern Baptist.
It seemed at the time, and I believe that with the passing of the years this has become more and more obvious, that the real intent behind the resolution was to make a statement about where the authority in the church lies. You will notice that the resolution makes a big deal of pastoral authority; one “whereas” and two “resolveds” address it. It is fair to say that the resolution strongly implied that rank and file Southern Baptists did not have the right to arrive at positions on matters of biblical interpretation that might lead them to oppose some position of their pastor. The resolution was an attack on the freedom of Baptists to follow the dictates of their consciences as guided by the Holy Spirit as they read and interpreted the Bible and as they helped to determine the course their church would follow. As my friend said, an SBC that could adopt such a resolution was not the SBC that we had known and loved.
Jerry Sutton, the now retired pastor of the Two Rivers Baptist Church in Nashville, Tennessee, was the chairman of the SBC Committee on Resolutions at the 1988 San Antonio Convention and the author of the resolution on the priesthood of the believer. In his book The Baptist Reformation: the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000), Sutton included a chapter called “Priesthood of the Believer and Its Corollaries” that is basically a long apologia for the resolution. It’s worth reading, especially his comments about his belief that moderate leaders were trying to use the priesthood of the believers doctrine for political ends, given that fundamentalist leaders were using every tactic in the book for their political ends. To be fair, though, I want to offer these words of Sutton that express what he believed the resolution expressed:
The resolution clearly stated that the priesthood of the believer doctrine was a legitimate doctrine. What it did was establish two parameters to the doctrine which kept it from being prostituted for ulterior motives. One was that the doctrine had been used as a covering for heresy, and the other was that it had been used to undercut the biblical role of the pastor. (p. 432)
In his memoir What Happened to the Southern Baptist Convention? (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 1993) Grady C. Cothen, who served Baptists in many capacities but was probably best known as President of the Baptist Sunday School Board, gave the following account of an incident that occurred after the resolution was passed (based on a Baptist Press account):
About a hundred messengers in protest turned in their ballots. Led by Randall Lolley, past president of Southeastern Seminary, about 200 gathered at the Alamo. Standing in front of the site where Americans died for the cause of freedom more than 150 years ago, Lolley declared that the resolution on priesthood was “the most non-Baptistic, most heretical, from the Baptist free-church point of view, statement ever made.” He wrote the word “heresy” across the resolution and tore it up. (p. 247)
I’m sure that many Southern Baptists gathered in San Antonio in 1988 voted for that resolution believing in their hearts that it was a good and sound resolution. I believe that it was the second major nail in the coffin (the first being the adoption of the “Peace Committee” Report in 1987) of the kind of SBC that I had known and loved. I also believe that the priesthood of the believer is a cardinal Baptist teaching that is absolutely crucial in the life of legitimate faith. I gravitate toward Baptists who believe that, too.
I’m not there to see what Southern Baptists gathered in San Antonio in 2007 will do. But, if somebody can get them to move toward reclaiming their birthright as free Baptists, I will give out a grateful “Praise the Lord!”