An Appeal for Realism in Reform: A Response to Ben Lacey


In an article last week posted at the Baptist 21 blog, and then a later discussion on the B21 podcast, pastor Ben Lacey set forth an argument that the Southern Baptist Convention should require all member churches of the SBC to affirm the Baptist Faith and Message 2000, and they must teach and practice in accordance with it to remain “in good standing.” Lacey’s proposal ultimately is not just an encouragement towards confessional fidelity; rather, it represents a sweeping change to the Southern Baptist Convention.

I admire Lacey’s optimism for the possibility of doctrinal unity in our Convention. At the same time, I believe that his proposal is historically problematic, confused at critical points, and practically unrealistic in its implementation. Lacey is not naive—he is making a serious proposal, and it deserves a serious response. I like Ben personally—after all, we went to middle school together. I admire him as a pastor and believe his proposal is made with all sincerity. Because of that, I want to offer a rejoinder to his argument that I hope brings some clarity to our larger debate about confessionalism.

A Brief Historical Case Against Enforced Subscriptionism in the SBC

It is difficult to write an argument against subscriptionism when I personally subscribe to the statement of faith in question and have actively worked in my ministry to persuade others to do so on its biblical merits. Not only that, but I have also spent the last three years leading my church, a revitalization of a formerly moderate-led congregation, toward the very beliefs articulated in the BFM 2000. I haven’t done that because it’s the confession and I have no choice; I’ve done it because I believe the BFM 2000 represents biblical teaching. Nonetheless, we must distinguish between the importance of persuading one another to adopt the BFM 2000 and the use of our bureaucratic mechanisms to compel its adoption under threat of expulsion.[1]

Though there are examples of subscriptionism in the Baptist tradition, there is no such example at the national level of the Southern Baptist Convention. Commenting on the adoption of the 1925 Baptist Faith and Message, William L. Lumpkin writes, “Obviously, the Confession was intended only as a general expression of the faith of Southern Baptists, and it has never been looked upon as authoritative or binding.” In both 1925 and 1963, the BFM was seen as a consensus statement, not the test of fellowship for cooperating Southern Baptists. Until 2000, it was not even binding on our entities. 

Undoubtedly this way of thinking about the Baptist Faith & Message held even in the years of the Conservative Resurgence, where the BFM 2000 was adopted as a revision (primarily on the role of women and the doctrine of Scripture), and yet not a single church was removed from the Convention in the years following its adoption until 2009 when Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, TX was rightly removed for the egregious offense of openly affirming homosexuality—and that was not on the basis of the confession, but for clear violation of Article III of the Constitution.

How can it be that the heroes of the Conservative Resurgence, whose leaders had mounds of evidence of doctrinal differences and deviations in their time, did not see fit to remove a single church in the near-decade following the adoption? Simply put, it is because the Baptist Faith & Message 2000 was intended primarily as a confession to govern the cooperative work of our entities, not as a prerequisite for cooperation in missionary efforts. It is the document our churches approved to hold our entities accountable, not a document intended for Nashville to hold our churches to. Until recently, nobody thought otherwise. Consider, for example, that Alabama Baptists did not even adopt the BFM 2000 until 2014, and even then, not as a compulsory basis for cooperation.

This is not the first time this matter has been considered. In response to a 2013 motion requesting messenger qualifications be updated, an amendment to Article III was considered which said that a church would only be in friendly cooperation if it “has not intentionally operated in any manner demonstrating opposition to the doctrine expressed in the Convention’s most recently adopted statement of faith.” The proposal was not warmly received, and Easley publicly clarified that it was “never our intent” to be perceived as “[imposing] a confession of faith upon a church.” Instead, the language of “closely identifies with” was taken directly from the Preamble to the BFM 2000 as a change, not as a synonym, to the previous language. Proponents of a subscriptionist model have yet to explain in a satisfying way why the language of non-contradiction was explicitly rejected and replaced as they argue that the language of close identification means precisely the same thing.

At the same time, the Preamble also says that Baptist have long adopted confessions “as instruments of doctrinal accountability.” This is where it's important to be clear. What I am saying is that it is entirely appropriate to appeal to the Baptist Faith and Message in deliberations about seating messengers and friendly cooperation. What I am not saying is that the BFM 2000 has no bearing on how we determine cooperation. Inasmuch as the BFM 2000 is a consensus statement of Southern Baptist belief, it is appropriate to expect that Baptists may exercise their right to decide what churches can seat messengers, whenever and however they want. In fact, messengers could choose to unseat messengers for faith and practice not specified in the BFM 2000 if a church were to do something so far outside our consensus as to bring reproach upon the Convention. But messengers are not required to unseat messengers on this basis, though they may be convinced to do so.

But I am also saying that even this is a far cry from forcing churches to adopt or proactively affirm the statement for themselves under threat of expulsion. There are those who will appeal to the autonomy of the convention in deciding who it associates with and remind conversation partners like me that no church is forced to do anything. After all, if a church no longer wants to cooperate, they may go their own way. But surely churches who have cooperated for decades (or centuries, for some!) under one set of standards should not be casually disfellowshipped under the principle of “that was then, this is now.”

For Lacey, this future fracture is a cause for grief, but a necessary one: “we cannot move forward unless we agree on who we are, what we are doing, and where we are going.” One may wonder why, after 100 years, we cannot continue going on this way and why the Convention must accommodate itself to those making such demands? Why must those who wish for a system completely different from the one we have be the ones to stay, and those who wish for our broad consensus to prevail be the ones to go? It may not be a violation of local church autonomy to suddenly refuse cooperation to churches who don’t formally adopt or proactively affirm the confession, but it is undoubtedly pulling the rug out from under them—especially those who have given literally millions of dollars to our common cause and committed no violation apart from being unwilling to affirm a confession of faith under duress.

In the Southern Baptist Convention, what we have is a statement of faith to which all entities must adhere without exception. The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 governs our cooperative work—and this is a good thing that should be celebrated and defended! Lacey’s concern, per his podcast interview, is that churches that do not share our doctrine may become involved in our convention, give money to our work, and the downstream effect of their involvement is that our convention will be influenced to believe and practice like them and less like the biblical fidelity currently expressed in the BFM 2000 than we want.

But even if you take the case of egalitarian churches, consider what that means: they give money to a) seminaries that will not train pastors to believe like them (and will not train women pastors at all), b) one mission board that will not plant churches that teach or practice like them, and c) another mission board that will not commission missionaries sent by their churches unless they can sign the BFM 2000 without reservation. What we have is a system that has effectively built in safeguards against theological creep at the entity level, where our actual cooperative work primarily takes place. Should we really change that for 40,000 churches because of a small group of exceptions at local churches who rarely do more than send a check to a system in which they cannot fully participate in the first place, and which could break fellowship with them at any moment? How many among us require every one of our church members to affirm our statement of faith at every point, and not just our leaders, teachers, and staff—while retaining power to remove egregious offenders?

Confusion at Critical Points

Lacey’s argument is also confusing at many points. For example, he argues that previous generations of Southern Baptists enjoyed shared consensus that helped the old way work, but the current cultural and denominational moment reveals that consensus has withered. Only two paragraphs later he says that old strategies paved the way for liberalism within the convention. Which is it? Are we in a uniquely challenging day and age for cooperation, or have we failed to complete a work of reform undertaken 50 years ago?

Lacey makes no mention of the fact that it was a voluntarist system, not a subscriptionist system, which regained influence over the SBC’s entities. Confessional enforcement was not the tool of the Conservative Resurgence at the local level: the Scripture was. At the same time, subscriptionism is no guarantee of faithfulness. Mainline denominations that long required subscriptionism were lost—and now their subscriptionism is being retooled as a weapon against Bible believing congregations.

Last year, the Convention’s business also gave cause for concern on this issue. Alongside names like Mullins, Hobbs, and Rogers, there is now a fourth name: Cornutt. Admittedly, one of these things is not like the others. And yet, Jared Cornutt’s motion managed to amend the BFM 2000 for the first time in 23 years after only 5 minutes. How many churches in the time since have even managed to adopt the new language—or even considered it? Is our process of codifying confessions even stable enough to sustain this level of accountability?

In his conversation about his article with B21 podcast host Nate Akin, Lacey cites Charles Spurgeon and the Downgrade Controversy of the 1880s as an example of the need of the confession. “When people want to say less about what the Bible teaches, that’s always a concerning sign.” But is that really a comparable situation to the SBC? The SBC has a confession of faith which is evangelical, conservative, and robust—the product of one of the great conservative triumphs in the history of Christianity—and nobody is arguing for getting rid of it.

More than that, as a relatively brief consensus statement, the Baptist Faith & Message is by its nature saying less than nearly every significant Statement of Faith that came before it, especially the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith and the Philadelphia Confession. The intention of the BFM 2000 is to express our points of common consensus, not to enumerate the intricacies of Baptist doctrine. To overstate the case about saying less, as if disagreement is downgrade, is to draw a historical parallel that cannot be meaningfully sustained upon close examination.

Practical Complications of Lacey’s Proposal

Perhaps my greatest objection to Lacey’s proposal is that it is unworkable practically. One of the test cases for subscriptionism has been the question of open communion. Undoubtedly, open communion is a minority report in the history of Baptist faith and practice. However, according to LifeWay Research from as recently as 2012, over 52% of SBC pastors answered that their church practices a form of open communion. To Lacey’s credit, he says in the podcast interview that this isn’t an issue over which to break fellowship for him—and he is right that Baptists have often disagreed historically over who can come to the Lord’s table for communion (from John Bunyan and John Ryland to John Gill).

One option is strict enforcement, which would remove thousands of Baptist churches from the SBC immediately and likely crater the Convention’s cooperative work. Lacey suggests that the SBC could simply amend the BFM 2000 and allow for closed, close, and open communion. But what is the likelihood that the Southern Baptist Convention would radically alter the nature of cooperation toward strict subscriptionism while simultaneously acting to diminish its own statement of faith on the question of the Lord’s Supper? If Baptists believed in gambling, I am sure there are thousands of Baptists who would take a bet against that. This is to say nothing of contested issues represented in the BFM 2000 around the ordo salutis, the Lord’s Day, and the democratic processes that govern Baptist churches. A proposal that doesn't account for the political realities of our convention and the actual on-the-ground realities of the majority of our churches is nothing short of wishful thinking.

Second, Lacey admits during the podcast interview that “it’s going to require us to have some processes in place to discern who is in open defiance of the Baptist Faith & Message.” He admits a problem he has yet to solve is how to actually police this. But, says Lacey, “We can figure that out. We need to be positive about who we are, what the Scripture requires of us, and then let’s figure out the implications after [beginning down this road],” which Lacey admits make take 5 to 10 to 20 years. I agree with Lacey that we should loudly champion the teaching of our statement of faith, especially at the entity level. At the same time, I would offer as a rejoinder that if the implications are potentially devastating to our ongoing cooperative work, we need to figure them out now.

For example, one implication seems to be that the Convention will need an investigatory body far more powerful than the current credentials committee. It will have to be one that can deal with the now-mandatory adherence of over 40,000 churches and its millions of members to every point of the BFM 2000 and any future revisions to it. Lacey admits that this could take place at the local level or the state level, but this confuses the nature of our cooperative relationships between the various state conventions, associations, and the SBC.

The state and associational level are autonomous. They have no bearing on membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, nor can they be forced to participate in any such enforcement mechanism. Some may argue that to make it so is to establish a sort of connectional structure that could establish liability for all parties. Even if you could have this work take place at the state level, what mechanism would be in place to ensure that the various states adjudicate these measures equally? Surely we can see where this is leading. The shadow of magisterium is cast upon the wall in such top-down proposals, and others like it, and Baptists should resist.

Of course that is not the only risk. There is another risk that is not an inevitability, but which must be answered before any step is taken in this direction. How do you carry out this kind of plan without establishing an ascending liability that no Baptist body would readily accept? It is fundamental to the legal constitution of the Southern Convention that the convention does not investigate churches or have a proactive responsibility to hold them accountable. What kind of judicial apparatus could be put in place to carry this out that does not lead to the undermining of our arguments based upon local church autonomy?

A Metaphor for Change

I pastor a church that will celebrate 190 years of Baptist ministry this fall. We are a downtown First Baptist Church (though not in name, but certainly in culture and tradition), with all the reputational benefit and baggage that brings. We moved into our current building in 1852. There are things about our building I love; there are things about it I don't love. As part of discussion about our future, a master plan team is currently deciding the best steps for us to take going forward with our property.

One option we have is to get rid of our aging building altogether. We could do something completely different out by the bypass! In some places our building is not as accessible as I want it to be, and in other places it has way more doors in and exits out than I would prefer. If I could start over outside of town with a new building, it would be quite a bit different than this one. But one thing we have now is that part of who we are is what we have inherited. If we made that choice, we would lose a lot of our congregation. Some of them would stop being us and parts of us would no longer be part of what makes us us to begin with. If we made that choice, we would lose the funding we use to do ministry in the first place. There are some things that would be “better,” but it would cost us dearly. Is that a real option? Of course not.

Instead, as we look at renovations, we are dealing with the realities of who we are and what we have inherited. To make improvements in one area, we aren't willing to lose our fellowship. And so, changes will be slower, frustrating at times, and have to be adapted to what we have to work with. We have to make our peace with some of the imperfections that are part of who we are. I think the Southern Baptist Convention is similar in a lot of ways. It's clear that as a convention of churches, concern for doctrinal fidelity is on the rise, and I celebrate that. But the steps that we take have to take must account who we are, what is practically possible, and ask with the utmost care what we are willing to lose. I think the same outcomes can be accomplished through persuasion better than they can be accomplished through compulsion.

I like Ben Lacey personally, and I respect him both as a pastor and thinker. I am grateful for his passion for God’s word. I want unity, and doctrinal unity, the way he describes it. I think that given the time and a challenge, Ben and I could probably craft a robust confession of faith we both agree on, with even more detail than the BFM 2000. Theologically, Lacey and I are extremely close together, even in the wide spectrum of the SBC. But practically, I do not see a way forward for any proposal calling for the SBC to force local churches to adopt the BFM 2000 or proactively affirm it, and which would then have to adjudicate those claims year after year.

We don't solve the problem of constitutional amendments by kicking the can of our debates from the bureaucratic level down to the confessional level. We no more need constant fighting about amendments to our confession to get our way then we need constant fighting about amendments to our constitution to get our way. I would be naive to pretend that our system is all fine and dandy, and cannot be improved upon. I could be convinced by other proposals that strengthen our confessional fidelity, especially at the entity level. But when I look at the possibility of compulsory affirmation for churches that have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars towards our cooperative work while warmly enjoying unbroken fellowship together, with the threat of expulsion for noncompliance and the possibility of implications that pull us apart from one another and harm our future work, I don't see improvement. Future proposals should bear all of these complications in mind. The churches of the Southern Baptist Convention must be faithful to Christ and his word, but top-down enforcement of confessional subscription is not the way to get there.


[1] Let me offer a word of clarification: Ben and I spent some very helpful time on the phone discussing this proposal and my response. He does not believe churches should have to formally adopt the BFM 2000 as their statement of faith. He does believe there should be a process by which they indicate their full affirmation of the confession (whether at the messenger registration level, or otherwise). I don’t believe that changes the discussion much: affirmation still requires church action, as messengers cannot unilaterally represent affirmation to the Convention that has not been ratified by church action. Messengers are not delegates, and they cannot speak on behalf of churches that have not spoken for themselves. Whether or not he believes churches should have to vote to signal affirmation, it seems to me that it is a necessary consequence as churches speak by congregational action, not merely the convictions of their pastor(s).

Editor's Note: As a part of its commitment to fostering conversation within the Southern Baptist Convention, the Baptist Review may publish editorials that espouse viewpoints that are not necessarily shared by the TBR team or other contributors. We welcome submissions for responses and rebuttals to any editorials as we seek to host meaningful conversations about the present and future of our convention.

Griffin Gulledge

Griffin Gulledge

Griffin Gulledge is pastor of Madison Baptist Church in Madison, GA. He is married to Rachel. Together they have two children. Griffin is a graduate of Auburn University (B.A.) and Samford University's Beeson Divinity School (M.Div.). He is currently completing his Ph.D. at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in systematic theology. Griffin is a member of the Georgia Baptist Mission Board Executive Committee. Previously, he served as Director of Marketing and Communications at SEBTS. In 2021, he was recipient of the ERLC's John Leland Religious Liberty Award. He is a founder and member of the leadership team for The Baptist Review.