Recently our blogging brother Les Puryear offered a piece of analysis at his blog entitled BFM2K: Not Minimal or Maximal but Consensus. In his post, Puryear strove to discard the language of "minimal" or "maximal" with regard to the application of The Baptist Faith and Message, preferring instead to refer to it as the "consensus" of the Southern Baptist Convention. The ultimate implication of Puryear's post was, contrary to the wording of the title, to make the BF&M both a maximal and a minimal document. Here's that conclusion expressed pretty plainly in the article:
For those who wish to reduce the doctrinal standards of the SBC, which are addressed by BFM2K, I submit that you are in violation of the consensus position of the SBC.
For those who wish to stipulate additional doctrinal standards which are not addressed by BFM2K, I also submit that you are in violation of the consensus position of the SBC.
Puryear buttresses his argument with language from the infamous Executive Committee statement proffered to the convention through the Garner Motion:
The Baptist Faith and Message is not a creed, or a complete statement of our faith, nor final or infallible; nevertheless we further acknowledge that it is the only consensus statement of doctrinal beliefs approved by the Southern Baptist Convention and as such is sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices of entities of the Convention. (emphasis mine)
Puryear includes in his article a two-point definition of "consensus" that is helpful and from which I will draw in my counter-analysis. I think that much of Puryear's analysis is thoughtful, sincere, and potentially helpful. Certainly these are the most important questions of our time in the SBC, and we do well to clarify them. I am thankful for Les Puryear's efforts in that direction.
I agree with this article and with the EC statement (which I endorsed) that the BF&M represents a consensus of SBC doctrinal opinion. However, I think that it is important to note that, by the definition of "consensus" given in Puryear's article (and it is a good and accurate definition), every decision of the SBC is a consensus decision. Thus, I can accurately say that the current trustees of the International Mission Board, approved by the messengers to the SBC, are the only consensus decision makers regarding doctrinal policies at the IMB. The rest of us can all hold our own opinions about what ought to occur there or at any other entity, but our opinions do not enjoy the gravity that trustee opinions hold by consensus action of the convention.
The BF&M is a consensus document; it is not the only, total doctrinal consensus of Southern Baptists. As "statement[s] of doctrinal beliefs" go—formal documents containing a partial listing of articles of the faith for a group of people—The Baptist Faith and Message is indeed the only one of those endorsed by the consensus opinion of the convention. However, the convention has expressed consensus upon a large number of doctrinal issues not contained in any formal "statement of doctrinal beliefs." As I stated long ago (see here), the SBC now has a consensus opinion upon global warming. Of course, some folks have taken issue with the global warming resolution, but certainly no more than have objected to the latest revision of The Baptist Faith and Message (not even as many!).
So, the Southern Baptist Convention has put its consensus behind a great number of propositions. Puryear's article mentions (even if I would give the idea more attention) what does effectively differentiate The Baptist Faith and Message from other consensus actions of the convention: certainty and importance. Southern Baptists have nowhere hinted that we enjoy no more consensus than the boundaries of the BF&M, but we have stated that we have made an effort to identify critically important items by their inclusion in the BF&M. These thoughts we identify as "those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us," that is, the things about which have achieved a high level of certainty. Further in the preamble we read about the importance of these doctrines in verbiage that Puryear has quoted: "We are not embarrassed to state before the world that these are doctrines we hold precious and as essential to the Baptist tradition of faith and practice."
Nevertheless, the convention itself has demonstrated by its own actions that it is entirely capable and willing to find consensus on other items of either lesser certainty or lesser importance than the doctrines enshrined in the BF&M. Indeed, should the people of the SBC make any plain statement about the desired role for The Baptist Faith and Message, that action in and of itself would be a consensus statement outside of our statement of faith.
In conclusion, those who lead our entities find themselves discharging their duties within a number of common-sense constraints. They dare not contradict The Baptist Faith and Message where it speaks, because Southern Baptists have demonstrated their consensus behind it as an "instrument of doctrinal accountability." As such an instrument, it is a minimal statement of doctrine (to reject any portion of it is to be in disagreement with the document and to be subject to convention accountability). They dare not ignore other consensus statements of the Southern Baptist Convention, although these lack the full force of the BF&M, since Southern Baptists have not generally declared these as thoughts "most surely held" or "essential." Nevertheless, to contradict the consensus opinion of the SBC as expressed in a resolution or motion is a serious thing indeed. Finally, they dare not oppose the trustees of the institution, because they are the only consensus group of people to make decisions for the institutions which they govern.