Humans are most fallible, incapable of discerning Truth on our own; therefore, holding fast to God's Word as the one and only infallible source of Truth, and relying on the Holy Spirit to reveal to us all we need to know therein, is at heart and center of Southern Baptist theology.
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Today, in the United States, there exist over nineteen Baptist denominations. Not only is the Southern Baptist denomination the most prominent, in recent years it has become the most "controversial," at least through the lens of the media.
I've been affiliated with Southern Baptist churches and their convention (SBC) most of my life. I've attended their seminars, retreats, and camps and regularly subscribed to SBC literature for personal growth and corporate worship. While I don't believe that Baptists, specifically Southern Baptists, are a better "brand" of Christian or "closer to God" than others, I do believe that their theology and teaching best aligns with my biblical beliefs and convictions and most importantly, with the Word of God.
Throughout the last century, the SBC has been criticized for a number of long-held beliefs and practices, some unapologetically true, but not all. For example, do Southern Baptists believe that the Bible is 100% without error and still applicable to modern society? Does membership in Southern Baptist churches actually exclude those who profess different beliefs about salvation? Are women viewed as oppressed and inferior to men with limited opportunities to serve in the church? Let's dive into these three often misunderstood topics to sort truth from error about what Southern Baptists really believe and practice, based on their interpretation of Scripture.
True: Southern Baptists Believe in the Inerrancy and Infallibility of the Bible
God's Word is the final authority for believers; Holy Scriptures provide a perfect, divine blueprint for the Christian life. Simply put, the Bible isn't capable of being with error; as the SBC states, the Bible is "Written by men and divinely inspired. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and Truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter."
The belief in Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) united Southern Baptists for decades. However, by the mid-1920s, their colleges and seminaries began subscribing to a more liberal approach to the interpretation and authority of Scripture. The Inerrancy of the Bible became a significant source of conflict between the denomination, prompting the SBC to write its first confession of faith, The Baptist Faith and Message. Since its origination in 1925, the BFM has been amended on three separate occasions in response to a cultural crisis or unbiblical teaching that has crept in and begun to permeate Baptist theology.
The latest update was in 2000, which inserted, "Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy." As members of the SBC, churches avow that all Scripture is accurate and trustworthy. However, not all congregations endorsed the complete revision of the BFM 2000. The inerrancy of Scripture was just one section in the document.
Why is it so important to be united on the authority and trustworthiness of Scripture? By not asserting that "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16), man ceases to be held accountable to an absolute standard of righteousness. Truth becomes relative and manipulated through personal beliefs, opinions, and perceptions. Humans are most fallible, incapable of discerning Truth on our own; therefore, holding fast to God's Word as the one and only infallible source of Truth, and relying on the Holy Spirit to reveal to us all we need to know therein, is at heart and center of Southern Baptist theology.
True: Membership in a Southern Baptist Church is Exclusive, Not Inclusive
Am I saying that church membership is exclusive in the Southern Baptist Church? Yes. In a Southern Baptist church, one must make a public profession of faith and be baptized by immersion before becoming a member. While "every tribe and nation" (Revelation 7:9) are welcomed to participate in various facets of church life, actual church membership is open only to those who have publicly professed faith in Christ and been baptized after conversion, not before. Until a few years ago, I assumed that other denominations held the same view, but after discovering this was not necessarily true, I sought to know why Southern Baptist churches deem these requirements vital for church membership.
First, we must understand that God takes the role of the church very seriously and so should its members. God's chief purpose for the church is to provide a place to worship the LORD together, to proclaim the Gospel and teach the Word, to rebuke sin and discipline disobedient members, and to administer the last commands or ordinances of Christ. After Jesus’ resurrection from the dead and His ascension into heaven, He left the Holy Spirit to help believers proclaim the Gospel near and far (Acts 13:4-5) and to continue in good works to build up the church that was predestined by God (Ephesians 2:10). How can anyone rightly worship the Father, share the Gospel of Christ, or edify others in the faith if they aren't a true child of God themselves?
Second, Christ commanded believers to observe two ordinances or laws specifically to be administered by the church, not lone individuals: baptism (Act 2:38) and the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 11:24). While salvation itself is personal, the life-changing power of the Gospel is to be public. The church fulfills God’s intended purpose for believers to come together for corporate worship, for proclamation of the Gospel, and for administering Christ’s ordinances. The act of baptism doesn’t save, but it does invite witnesses to rejoice with us and participate in our reconciliation to God through our faith in Christ alone. The Lord's Supper presents a time to remember and reflect on Christ's atoning work on the cross on our behalf. It is an external reminder of the broken body and shed blood of Christ, necessary for our salvation. By partaking, we acknowledge with thanksgiving and humility the matchless grace and infinite mercy God has bestowed on us who, by grace through faith, have become heirs of salvation (Ephesians 2:8).
Third, upon adoption into the family of God, He gives His children varying spiritual gifts. In the church and through the church, we exercise our spiritual gifts, all to bring the Lord glory and to make Him known. And, He gave us a helper, the Holy Spirit (1 Corinthians 12), who only dwells inside those who by grace alone trust Christ alone through faith alone. Thus, like membership in a Baptist church, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is exclusive to those who believe.
False: Southern Baptist Churches Oppress Women
Sadly, like other denominations in recent years, Southern Baptist churches have also found themselves the subject of sexual misconduct and abuse. Without validating or refuting the recent buzz regarding various allegations of sexual abuse by certain individuals, I would like to address the charges of male chauvinism within the SBC.
By and large, Southern Baptists are complementarian, meaning they believe that men and women are equal before the Lord while possessing different roles in the home and in the church. These differences complement the other without violating their equality in the eyes of God.
Just as God is the head of man, the Bible states that the man is the head of the household. Wives are to respect their husbands' authority as he submits to God and loves her as Christ loves the church, and both are to serve one another and demonstrate respect and love for the other. This is God's design for marriage and family (Ephesians 5:25-30). Biblical leadership and godly submission in marriage are beautiful examples of Christ's love for His bride, the church, and His submission to His Father's will through His death on the cross. This is not a means of oppression or a chauvinistic abuse of power; it is accepting and following God's design for men and women, which is similar, yet different.
Harkening back to creation, God established the order of authority in both the home and the church by first creating man then woman (1 Timothy 2:11-14). Therefore, Southern Baptists believe that the position of pastor, as head of the local church, is reserved for men, as well as the position of deacon; notwithstanding, women are not simply allowed to serve in other capacities, but they are encouraged to lead and participate in many activities that also include important decision-making for the church body.
I trust this brief peek into the Southern Baptist denomination has helped to clarify certain positions or perhaps debunk common misconceptions. Although a Southern Baptist through and through, my ultimate identity is in Christ alone. Wherever you attend church, I pray you hear the Good News which saves to the uttermost (Hebrews 11:25).
Photo Credit: ©RNS/Southern Baptist Theological Seminary