Supporters of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of North Carolina (CBFNC) who cherish traditional Baptist principles will want to join a conversation currently underway regarding the organization’s “foundational statements.” My guess is that many CBFNC supporters are unfamiliar with the document in question, a brief statement of identity, mission, values, and virtues that is similar to an even briefer statement adopted by national CBF (links leading to pdf versions of the current and proposed documents are available here).

Over the past few years, CBFNC leaders have been doing what responsible leaders of living organizations do to remain relevant, and that includes a periodic review of just about everything, including the foundational statements. That review, however, has taken an unexpected turn away from some principles that most CBF folk, I suspect, would consider to be core aspects of the Baptist identity.

At heart, the proposed revisions reflect two competing Baptist ideologies. The predominant view, one held especially among Baptist historians, has focused on scriptural authority, soul competency, church autonomy, and freedom of religion as classic marks of the Baptist identity (see, for example, Walter Shurden’s book The Baptist Identity: Four Fragile Freedoms).

A competing view, sometimes dubbed “Bapto-Catholic,” emerged from a group of then-younger moderate Baptist theologians who like creeds and prefer to see Baptists as less distinctive and more enmeshed with the larger church. Their approach, as expressed in a 1997 document called the “Baptist Manifesto,” rejects the individual interpretation of scripture with the surprising assertion that “Scripture wisely forbids and we reject every form of private interpretation that makes Bible reading a practice which can be carried out according to the dictates of individual conscience.” The Manifesto cites 2 Peter 1:20-21 as its authority for rejecting individual interpretation, but as Shurden points out in a helpful and considerate critique of the manifesto, the reference offers questionable support.

A task force appointed in 2007 to review CBFNC’s foundational statements has clearly come down on the “Bapto-Catholic” side of the fence, proposing revisions that would add creeds, remove individual interpretation, and downplay church autonomy — things many moderate Baptists hold very dear.

CBFNC leaders are wisely hosting a number of listening sessions across the state to explain the proposed changes, receive feedback, and get a conversation going. That’s good, because the changes are significant, and constructive conversation is appropriate. My teaching schedule won’t allow me to attend any of the sessions, so I’m adding my voice to the conversation here.

The most obvious and significant proposed change is a virtually complete rejection of a belief in the priesthood of the believer. The second sentence of the current statement says “Our oneness is expressed through a devotion to historic Baptist principles of faith and practice.” It is followed closely by concise statements about the centrality and authority of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the autonomy of he local church, and freedom of religion. 

The proposed revisions, in contrast, emphasize Baptists’ “continuity with the historic church,” and put the Apostle’s Creed (without identifying it) front and center. The paragraph following the creed declares:

Because we are committed to historic Baptist principles and practices, we declare the convictions we share with our Baptist sisters and brothers throughout the world because God has granted us a distinctive journey as a people of faith.

That sounds good, but the statement is followed by 10 confessional statements in which the priesthood of the believer is absent, the autonomy of the local church is downplayed, and religious liberty is barely mentioned, muting some of the most distinctive aspects of the Baptist movement.

The closest thing to a statement on priesthood is actually a rejection of the traditional view. CBFNC’s current foundational statements clearly affirm “the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit.”

The proposed revision contains two statements that approach the issue. The second confession says “As we study and practice the Scriptures communally and personally, the Holy Spirit transforms our lives, our congregations, and our world.” The third confessions declares “We confess that the Christian faith is best understood and experienced within the community of God’s people who are called to be priests to one another.”

Those statements seem designed to remove the right of individual interpretation from the Baptist equation, leaving the only legitimate interpretation of scripture as being within the larger, authoritative community.

The fourth confession appears to support local church autonomy (“under the Lordship of Christ each congregation is free and responsible to discern the mind of Christ and to order its common life accordingly”), but the fifth downplays autonomy by emphasizing that “through the Holy Spirit we experience interdependence with other believers and congregations who follow Christ, and we seek the unity of the church for which he prayed.”

The end result is that the individual freedoms of both believers and congregations so characteristic of our Baptist heritage is in danger of being lost within their respective communities — or so it seems to me.

The question that comes to mind has to do with what community, or who in the community, determines what interpretations are acceptable. In the absence of a Baptist magisterium, the answer seems to be found in creeds and confessions of the church, several of which are referenced and “commended to our fellowship for further study and reflection” in the proposed revision.

There is much in the task force’s recommendations that Baptists can affirm, but issues such as those mentioned above, plus the lack of a clear statement supporting the separation of church and state, will leave many CBFNC supporters wishing for revisions to the proposed revisions.

Listening sessions were held Sept. 7 and 9 in Raleigh and Durham. Upcoming meetings will be at First Baptist Church of Ahoskie (Sept. 13), First Baptist of Greensboro (Sept. 15), Pritchard Memorial Baptist in Charlotte (Oct. 14), First Baptist of Bladenboro (Oct. 19), and First Baptist of Asheville (Nov. 1).

Whether you favor the original statements, support the revisions, or would like to see something in between, I hope you’ll join the conversation by participating in one of the sessions, commenting on this blog, or communicating in other ways with CBFNC leadership. The ability to disagree agreeably and to debate respectfully has also been a Baptist hallmark — one we certainly don’t want to lose.

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