To require affirmation of a doctrinal position that those in power hold as essential is to draw a line of division. That is not to say whether such division is good, bad or indifferent. It’s just reality.
For example, the ever-narrowing field of participation in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), carried out by fundamentalist forces in the 1980s, was tied to the repeated assertion that unity could be built only on widespread affirmation of the oddly defined and often changing term of “biblical innerrancy.”
It is an odd in that the implied perfection is tied to unavailable original manuscripts and is changing in that the position is routinely qualified until it has no singular definition. In most cases, as applied by Southern Baptist power brokers, inerrancy means agreeing with them on certain biblical interpretations they deem important.
That is why a round of professors who came to Southern Seminary after the SBC takeover didn’t hang around long. They affirmed biblical “inerrancy” but that was not enough; they were also expected to agree with an interpretation of scripture that forbid women from assuming certain leadership roles in church. (So, in reality, the “essential” was more about biblical “interpretation” than biblical “authority.”)
Three decades after the beginning of the successful campaign to draw in the doctrinal boundaries, Southern Baptist leadership is still struggling to define and defend their views of essential Christian doctrine. Even the very narrowly revised doctrinal statement, Baptist Faith and Message 2000, has not been enough to do the trick. (Just ask an international missionary who keeps finding new doctrinal hoops to jump through when trustees gather supposedly to support their work.)
Danny Akin, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, gave an address on Oct. 8 at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., concerning the future of the SBC. According to a report in Baptist Press, he urged the convention to move more clearly past its racist roots and geographical homeland. He also called for a streamlined denominational structure that provides more resources for overseas missions and urban ministries in the U.S.
Then, as expected of a current SBC leader, he ended with a careful definition of the essentials as he sees them. Not surprising, his call to do the good work of missions and ministry is restricted to those who can affirm his list of essentials — a model of limited cooperation as redefined by fundamentalism.
(Implied is a strong lack of confidence in cooperating churches to determine the essentials at the local level and then cooperate in worldwide missions despite such differences.)
In addition to affirming the Bible as “inerrant, infallible and sufficient in all matters,” Akin’s list of essentials included: belief in the “triune God, rejection of evolution, the full deity and perfect humanity of Jesus, penal substitutionary atonement, the need for regenerate church membership, salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, the reality of an eternal heaven and an eternal hell and the sanctity of life from conception to natural death.”
And, of course, opposition to gay marriage and support for heterosexual married couples to have lots of babies.
Non-essentials for Akin, according to the article, included: “Calvinism, elders, whether certain spiritual gifts are still active, the time of the rapture and the nature of the millennium.”
My interest is not in arguing with Akin’s list but to simply note that division into denominations and within denominations is always tied to whose list of essentials wins out.
It is curious to note, however, that Akin considers opposition to evolutionary science as an essential of faith while tagging the Calvinist position that Jesus died for a predetermined, limited number of persons rather than the whole world as nonessential. (Hint: The reason is that Akin opposes evolution and affirms Calvinism.)
Where Southern Baptist leaders draw lines these days matters little to me. I’ve been on the outside for a long time and prefer life out here. But being a watcher of all-things church keeps me interested in how and where dividing lines are drawn with the markers of so-called essential doctrine.
Within Christendom there are so many different lists of essentials — ranging from the simple call of Jesus to love God and neighbor to all kinds of things. One has to believe this church would have a quite interesting and long list to follow.
For me, the essentials get fewer and firmer as I get older.
Executive editor / publisher at Good Faith Media.