Southern Baptists Debate Hiring, Firing Standard

When more than half of Southern Baptist delegates approved a motion last month on the Baptist Faith and Message, some say it was a move not to narrow doctrinal parameters of Southern Baptist cooperation. Others say it doesn't change much.

The Southern Baptist Convention had voted 58 percent in favor of calling the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM), which lays out the tenets of the denomination's belief, the sufficient standard for true Southern Baptist identity. But interpretation of the approved motion is wide and SBC president Frank Page says it will be an object of discussion for years to come.

The Rev. Wade Burleson of Enid, Okla., who supported the motion, says the vote is clear. "No seminary, no whitepaper, no trustee board, no President – no one has the authority to narrow the doctrinal parameters of Southern Baptist cooperation but the convention as a whole," he said in an earlier blog post.

Approval for the motion was in response to concerns by some in the denomination about a rightward shift. They have protested such SBC entities as the International Mission Board for barring missionaries over non-BFM issues, particularly private prayer language. The newly adopted statement that the BFM is "sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices" would place pressure on Southern Baptist entity presidents and those who hire and fire employees.

"By and large, the messengers were saying, 'Let's be careful not to become too narrow, too legalistic,'" said Page, according to Christianity Today magazine.

And as Burleson stated before the BFM vote, adopting the statement would "send a strong and irrefutable message" to Southern Baptist agencies and leaders that the "2000 Baptist Faith and Message is the only consensus statement of doctrinal belief approved by the SBC, and to establish doctrinal guidelines or policies that exceed the BFM 2000 is an act contrary to the wishes of the Convention herself."

Conservative leaders such as Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, opposed the motion, arguing that employees should be hired not if they merely meet the requirements in SBC's faith statement, but if they also thoroughly meet the standards. He and Phil Roberts, president Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, said they will use additional restrictions not covered in the BFM such as opposition to abortion and gambling.

Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said he still plans to hire and fire for reasons outside the BFM, such as divorce and alcoholism, according to Christianity Today.

In the meantime, "the motion will remain open for interpretation," according to Page.

With that, former SBC president Jerry Vines told Christianity Today, "Frankly, the motion does nothing. Things will go on just as they have always been."