In a Christianity Today article entitled “Do Good Fences Make Good Baptists?” (8.7.’00) the editors at that time cautiously gave their tacit support of the SBC’s unqualified support of the Baptist Faith and Message and the changes that were made to it at that time. While noting a concern that such a clear statement of faith may inhibit honest dialogue among individuals who gather under the same umbrella of belief, the larger affirmations made in the BF&M were understood to close down the “flea market” or “smorgasbord” type of theological affirmations where beliefs are selected at random.
Seven years later, I do not know if CT would make this same kind of statement as it has drifted theologically in recent years. However, I continue to believe that the BF&M is a helpful tool in reminding Baptists of those cherished beliefs that are essential to sound Christian doctrine.
The genius of the BF&M is that it maintains a confessional nature, while giving clarity to its affirmations. In this day of theological drift and uncertainty, such a statement of faith is essential if the SBC and the TBC are to avoid the slow demise experienced by once stalwarts denominations of faith.
Theological drift is inevitable if not guarded against. Just as we are prone to stray from God (Isa. 53:6), we are also prone to drift in our thinking about God. Unless a concerted effort is made to remain faithful to the “faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3), then theological drift is inevitable.
Three objections arise to question such a focused statement of faith. First, does the clarification of the BF&M inadvertently cut off the academic and theological freedom to pursue truth? The problem with the unbridled pursuit of truth is that it is often done without boundaries and, as a result, ends up leading its pursuer to affirm all kinds of beliefs that are dissimilar to historic Christian faith. Borderless theological pursuit is a dangerous enterprise because it can end in senseless speculation and a loss of theological conviction.
Someone may object by asking, “If the BF&M says all there is to say then what is left to say and what is left to seek?” Plenty! The BF&M affirms the basic parameters of our beliefs as Southern Baptists, but leaves room to plumb the depths of those affirmations. It baffles me as to why the pursuit of truth must always be after “new truth.” Such an attitude strikes one as arrogant because it assumes that we know all there is to know about the truth that has already been revealed.
The second objection is that such a clear confession of faith may offend the non-Christian. While the declaration of Christian belief should not deliberately cut off the unbeliever, we must acknowledge that the Gospel and its antecedents are offensive to the unregenerate mind (1 Cor. 2:14).
In other words, the Christian community cannot allow the unbelieving world to dictate its confession of faith. We do not stick our spiritual finger in the air to catch the way the theological wind is blowing and then determine what we believe. Rather, we seek the Word as to what we believe, presenting such belief to an unbelieving world with grace, love and patience. This is why BF&M builds good fences that mark a clear distinction in what the confessing community believes.
A third objection to affirming the BF&M as a guide for theological identity and accountability can be heard in the cry “creedalism!” Though it should go without saying, let me state unequivocally that Scripture is our ultimate authority; Scripture trumps all human documents. Yet, Southern Baptists and Tennessee Baptists are well within historical parameters by producing a doctrinal summary of those most cherished beliefs that have identified who we are and what we believe. While we may disagree as to what the BF&M might include, the cry of “creedalism” is a false cry that flies in the face of historical precedent.
So, back to the main question, “Do Good Fences Make Good Baptists?” The fence we build by what we believe is not tall enough to keep us from seeing the lost; nor they us. Rather, it is tall enough so that we can lean against its guardrails while talking to our lost neighbor.