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New guidelines for starting Southern Baptist churches that affirm biblical inerrancy and oppose the ordination of women as deacons reflect recent trends rather than the Bible or Baptist history, said moderate scholars asked to comment by EthicsDaily.com.

Trustees of the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board on Oct. 6 approved new guidelines that leaders said were needed to counter new models of church planting including the “simple” church, home-based worship lacking organization and trappings of traditional churches, according to Baptist Press.

But slipped into earmarks of a “true church”—the kind that NAMB church planters desire to ensure are Southern Baptist—are requirements that critics said don’t conform to beliefs and practices of many existing congregations.

Stan Norman, an associate professor of theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, wrote the position paper adopted by NAMB, “Ecclesiological Guidelines to Inform Southern Baptist Church Planters.”

Norman wrote the following in a section church covenants: “Although they may state the various beliefs and convictions of the congregation, the covenant of a Baptist church must minimally affirm three things: the Lordship of Jesus Christ over the church and its members; the divine inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of the Bible; and the membership of the church consisting only of regenerate persons who have professed their faith in believer’s baptism by immersion.”

Steven Harmon, associate professor of Christian theology at Campbell University Divinity School, noted that affirming inerrancy goes further than 2000 revisions to the Baptist Faith & Message, but that isn’t surprising given “the theological orientation of the current leadership of the SBC.”

Loyd Allen at Mercer University’s McAfee School of Theology said while many Southern Baptists may assume the inerrancy claim, there are many current and historic Baptist church covenants that do not use the term.

“Though NAMB can certainly require an inerrancy statement in a church’s covenant, it cannot do so on the basis of current practice of Southern Baptist church covenants or on the basis of historical precedent,” Allen said.

“Neither the scriptures nor any of the Southern Baptist confessions of faith use the word ‘inerrant’ to describe the Bible,” said Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists. “Why should new churches be required to affirm anything different than what the Bible says?”

Curtis Freeman of Duke Divinity School criticized the inerrancy requirement as “fundamentalist imperialism.”

About deacons, Norman observed:

“The BFM 2000 leaves open the issue of whether or not women can serve as deaconesses in SBC churches. My position is that, if a local church ordains its deacons, then women cannot serve in this capacity. In SBC life, ordination carries with it implications of authority and oversight, and I believe the Bible relegates authority and oversight to men (I Timothy 2:12-15.)

“If a church, however, does not ordain its deacons, then the authority-oversight prohibitions would not apply. In that case, the generic meaning of the term ‘deacon’ (Greek: diakonia) is that of a servant or a table waiter. Thus, any member of the congregation is qualified to serve.”

Freeman, research professor of theology and director of the Baptist House of Studies at Duke, criticized Norman for “bad historiography and worse theology.”

“Women have served faithfully throughout the history of Baptist life,” Freeman said.

Allen, professor of church history and spirituality at McAfee, cited an 18th century church manual written by a Baptist leader and historian that included a model for ordaining deaconesses. The leader also listed numerous Baptist churches in the South where women held the office of deacon, Allen said.

Prescott, executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, said Norman’s whole concept of orientation “has no real basis in Scripture.”

“It is based on historical practices, not the Bible,” said Prescott, who has a Ph.D. from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Doug Weaver, assistant professor of religion at Baylor University, said history shows that women “have performed numerous ministries that have demonstrated biblical authority,” including service as preachers, deacons and missionaries. “What we don’t find much of is women practicing the authoritarianism that too many Baptists tend to equate with authority.”

Weaver said Southern Baptists have desired to imitate the New Testament church throughout the denomination’s history. He suggested, however, that any denomination aspiring to that model should ask about speaking in tongues, foot washing, anointing with oil and a host of other practices that Baptists usually relegate to the past.

Harmon also described as “lamentable” the restriction of church membership to those who have been baptized by immersion. While many early Baptists did regard infant baptism as “no baptism at all,” Harmon said, several Baptist churches in the past few decades have admitted persons baptized as infants into membership without rebaptism, while themselves baptizing only conscious believers by immersion.

“The NAMB directive wrongly rejects the important steps taken by such Southern Baptist congregations toward the unity Christ desires for his church,” Harmon said.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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