This week, I finished proofreading an essay I read at the Evangelical Theological Society last November on the conflicted history of Baptists and freemasonry. It will soon be published in two slightly different forms, but if you are dying to read it, click on the link here. As I reread through the paper for the umpteenth time, I reflected on a perennial problem Baptists have wrestled with over the past four hundred-plus years of our history. Do we have a creed or a confession that governs what we must believe or do our confessional statements merely reflect what a group of Baptists believe at the time it is drafted? Baptists in general and the SBC in particular has sent out conflicting signals on freemasonry. Some Baptists vigorously oppose it while others leave it to personal conscience or a particular local church to decide, thus while Southern Baptists attempted to warn churches against membership in masonry in the 1990s, there is still a significant number of masons among SBC church membership. Baptists, who argue that there is no creed that binds us, argue that your church can decide what your church should do, but our church will decide what we will do.
This question was implicitly behind some of the controversy at the recent SBC annual gathering in Anaheim about which I wrote last week. Among the contested questions left unresolved this year was the membership of Saddleback Church, founded in Lake Forest, CA in 1980 by Rick Warren. Last year, Saddleback ordained three women to pastoral ministry, prompting the SBC Credentials Committee (CC) to review their membership as a church in friendly cooperation with the SBC. Rather than coming forward with a recommendation that the SBC disfellowship Saddleback based on the clear statement on the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, chapter seven which reads in part While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture, the CC suggested the SBC commission a study to determine just how SBC churches use the term pastor. This elicited a strong opposing reaction from the floor because the SBC, it was asserted, settled this more than twenty-years previous. R. Albert Mohler, president of Southern, used the strongest of language to state this but his younger colleague Adam Greenway, president of Southwestern Seminary offered an alternative suggestion that the SBC should do a study on just how much of BFM2000 a church in “friendly cooperation” with the SBC must believe. Greenway was born in 1978 near the beginning of the Conservative Resurgence, while Mohler, twenty years his senior, lived through those years as a student and budding SBC leader. He knew well the issues that surrounded the revision of the BFM in 2000, on which committee he sat, as it sought to address the ambiguities and weaknesses of the previous iteration of the BFM (1963). Because many Baptists believe that confessions and creeds have no real authority over what Baptists must believe—“the New Testament is the all-sufficient ground of our faith and practice, and we need no other statement,” (countermotion made by Cornelius Woelfkin, pastor of Park Avenue Baptist Church, NYC, after WB Riley, pastor of First Baptist Minneapolis, read the entire text of the New Hampshire Confession of Faith  into the record at the 1922 annual meeting of the Northern Baptist Convention), many Baptists argue they are free to decide for themselves what is necessary.
As I watched the floor debate unfold in Anaheim over this issue, I texted my PhD mentor, Tom Nettles, a Baptist historian, that it was occasions like this that made me consider becoming a Presbyterian . . . briefly. While Presbyterians do have a confessional standard—the Westminster Confession of Faith (1644)—that standard is no stronger than the commitment of those who are charged with insuring compliance. The Presbyterians experienced the effects of rising liberalism in the early part of last century because many Presbyterians refused to be bound by the Westminster statement. Infamous Baptist liberal, Harry Emerson Fosdick, preaching from a Presbyterian pulpit in New York, threw down the gauntlet with his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, asserting that times had changed, and theological belief needed to change with them.
Whether it’s freemasonry, theological liberalism, women as pastors, or some other yet to be disputed issue, Baptists will continue to feel the pull of theological drift because many refuse to adhere to a doctrinal standard. I lived through the Conservative Resurgence, moving away from the SBC into independent Baptist life, but happily returning to the SBC world in 2000 when I began work on my PhD. I read widely on the “battle over fundamentalism” in the SBC both pro and con so that I might understand the world in which I was studying. I entered Southern less than a decade after a very young Mohler took the reins, but by the time I was studying there, it was a bastion of conservative thought. Nearly all of the progressives had either retired, moved on to other more liberal schools or flew quietly under the radar. Molly Marshall is an example of progressives who saw the handwriting on the wall and were forced off the faculty. In 2001, the former journal of the seminary, The Review and Expositor, published a volume “Sexuality and the Church.” SBTS Old Testament professor Joel Drinkard Jr. was the business manager of the journal and was asked by Mohler to sever his relation over the content of some of the articles. Drinkard quietly left the journal and was allowed to work a few more years until he “retired” quietly in 2008. In 2011, he became the scholar in residence at Campbellsville University. Southern seminary’s faculty are required to adhere to its articles of faith, The Abstracts of Principles, pledging to teach “in accordance with and not contrary to” its clear doctrinal declarations. Despite that pledge, Drinkard remained under the radar at Southern a few more years.
This is part of the challenge of theological orthodoxy. A man may claim to believe one thing, but in reality, he believes something else. As the fundamentalist-modernist controversy raged in the Northern Baptist Convention, convention president Helen Barrett Montgomery urged Shailer Mathews to encourage seminary professors from the University of Chicago Divinity School to preach something “safe” in the local church pulpits. Divinity School theologian George Burman Foster was notorious for creating controversy among the churches promoting liberal views. In the same way, Ralph Elliott tells of “double speak” that some Southern Baptist liberals used to cover their true views and conceal their theological drift.
So, what should the SBC do with the issue of women pastors? Rick Warren said recently that it was a peripheral issue, and that Southern Baptists should keep the main thing the main thing. Reminds me of what Shailer Mathews, Chicago Divinity school dean and prominent liberal placed on a banner which was hung over the platform at the annual meeting of the Northern Baptist the year he was president—“Let’s Get Together By Working Together.” Implication—let’s ignore our differences for the greater good. If the SBC took a narrow view of the BFM2000 and requires strict, literal adherence it would surely split the convention. No one is gonna tell my church what they must believe! As I warned my professor so long ago, the Conservative Resurgence wouldn’t last because the seeds of decay were never really removed. As the world saw at Anaheim, a generation has arisen that “knew not Joseph” and the same issues are being discussed again with a finger to the wind to see which way it is blowing.
Maybe it’s time for Baptists to rethink our credal commitments and let the chips fall where they may.