A Statement on Doctrinal Clarity Before the 2024 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention

I have never known anything other than being a Southern Baptist, and to be honest, that means being a very happy Southern Baptist, happy that there is a Southern Baptist Convention, happy that I was raised from the time I was in cradle role within the context of the Southern Baptist Convention at its churches. And now for more than 30 years, I’ve had the privilege of serving as president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary here in Louisville.

From time to time, it’s pretty clear that an impending Southern Baptist Convention meeting comes with a little more importance and urgency than is sometimes the norm, and history tends to turn on such years as Southern Baptists meet together. Now, I want to start out by telling you I have a lot of confidence in Southern Baptists. I have so much confidence in Southern Baptists, that I am not going to let any one annual meeting determine what I believe to be the health or faithfulness of the SBC. I think in humility, we are all working out some things over time, but it’s that very context that leads me to want to at least share a word of encouragement, and I hope exhortation to the Southern Baptist Convention, as we get ready to meet in Indianapolis.

I think we do recognize that this year’s a bit different. There are so many issues on the table, and honestly many of them are very important, important not only to doing the business of the Convention within a two or three day period, but quite honestly setting the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention as we look to the future. I also have to speak from personal experience having lived through so much of the development of the SBC, the history of the SBC. I came to adulthood with the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention raising so many issues of urgent concern, and it was clear to me that those were legitimate and urgent issues of concern. And now we’re at a very interesting point and I just want to speak directly to a couple of things that I think are particularly pressing as we look to the SBC meeting in Indianapolis.

One of them is that we face an escapable theological responsibility.

There are times when the SBC simply has to stand up and say, this is what we believe. This defines the boundaries of our cooperation. This is central and very important to our identity as Southern Baptists. The SBC when it was founded in 1845 was in a very different world in many ways, but I’m very thankful for the founding wisdom at that time of understanding that one of the key issues is churches that are in friendly cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention. And I think we all know that in an increasingly secular society, all kinds of pressures are going to continue to come up against us, which means that Southern Baptists are going to have to be more clear about doctrine and about what we believe the Bible clearly teaches than was the case in the past. We’re having to say things out loud that previous generations of Southern Baptist didn’t even have to say.

One of the things we have to say is that the office of pastor is limited to men, as qualified by Scripture. There’s an entire pattern of biblical complementarianism, which is very important here. And we understand that Southern Baptists, I believe, still are quite aware and quite convictional about the fact that the Office of Pastor’s restricted to men. Now, here’s where confusion among us becomes very dangerous and very subversive to our ability to cooperate. That’s why I believe that it’s very important that we recognize, that our confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message comes with very clear assertions and it comes with consequences. Inevitably, we are going to have to define many of these issues by how much we really are in friendly cooperation with one another. Now, there are those who say this is just one of those issues that has arisen.

It’s not central and essential. Let me just say that the Southern Baptist Convention has been struggling with this issue and seeking to articulate this conviction for 40 years. This is not a suddenly developing issue. What has arisen is the fact that some churches are, quite honestly, straightforwardly telling us that they are basically out of sync with the Southern Baptist Convention on the issue of women preaching and women holding a pastoral office. And this is where honestly, I think the only way for the Southern Baptist Convention to deal with this is to do so by some mechanisms such as the bylaw amendment that was adopted last year and approved and now comes before messengers again. I really believe that this bylaw is very important. I believe that it isn’t developing anything new for the SBC in terms of conviction, but it’s basically just applying the convictions we’ve been saying for decades frame the reality of our cooperation.

I also want to say that even as I support the amendment and hope to see it passed again and overwhelmingly as a statement of common conviction, I want to point back to the convention just last year, 2023 in New Orleans when it came to dealing with this question with some specific churches, the SBC did so with clarity and with overwhelming consensus. That didn’t mean it was easy, but it did mean that Southern Baptists recognized it was important. I don’t want to set up the Southern Baptist Convention to have to do this year after year after year as if we don’t know where we stand on this issue. Southern Baptists really do believe in the autonomy of the local church. We can’t force any church to be a part of the Southern Baptist Convention, but the SBC also has the responsibility to define what are the boundaries, what is the basis, the foundation for the cooperation that brings us together for common work. And so the phrase, the autonomy of the local church is precious to us because a church that disagrees with us is free to go associate with churches with whom they’re in full agreement. The Southern Baptist Convention also has the equal right, and the responsibility to set the parameters of our own cooperation. Now, let’s be clear. No one said that’s going to be easy. Frankly, we don’t even know what issues we might face in a matter of just a few short years, but I do know this: given shape of the culture, given the secularizing pressures of the age, I don’t think anyone thinks that list is going to get shorter. I think in honesty, we all recognize it’s going to get longer. Southern Baptists just want to make sure we get the list right.

I also want to say that I think it’s really important we recognize that this is an issue of biblical obedience. This is not just a question of biblical interpretation and the moment we begin defining some issues as just matters of biblical interpretation, the question becomes, well, which are those? Obviously the liberal Protestant denominations put basically everything in that category. I think Southern Baptists know better than that.

Let’s be honest. There are hard things Southern Baptists sometimes have to face, but here’s the great good news. Think of how many Southern Baptist churches have been so faithful, so generous, so cooperative for so long. I want to make sure that continues in the future and I want to make sure our churches are excited about being a part of the work that binds us together: sends missionaries to the end of the world, trains, preachers to stand in the pulpit and has Southern Baptists on the front lines where it matters. I’m excited about that. I want to see that continue.

I’m looking forward to being with you in Indianapolis. I really do trust Southern Baptist when we get together to do the right thing sometimes, eventually. I am speaking to this today because I want to encourage Southern Baptist to do what I believe is the right thing, which is to arrive and uphold our convictions clearly, to send a very certain sound. To make very clear, not only for now, but for the future of the Southern Baptist Convention, we really are settled on this issue and we need to move on because I guarantee you there are other pressing challenges yet to come. I hope and pray Southern Baptist will be up for those as well. In the meantime, let’s pray together for the Southern Baptist Convention. Let’s talk to one another honestly and kindly about these matters and let’s show up with conviction in Indianapolis. I’ll see you there.