The annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention continues today in San Antonio, Texas. I am writing in Augusta, Ga., and I’m OK with that. Oh, I’d like to visit San Antonio again. It’s a beautiful city, and the Riverwalk is everything it’s reputed to be. But I chose not to attend the SBC this year.

Truth be told, last year’s meeting in Greensboro, N.C. was the first SBC meeting I had attended since 1991. More truth be told, I attended that meeting for three reasons: (1) It was close enough to drive; (2) Some folks from our church wanted to go; and (3) The movement among some young SBC leaders to try to stop the continual narrowing of the parameters of participation in the convention caught my attention, and I wanted to get a firsthand look at what was going on.

I had stopped attending, because the fundamentalist takeover/conservative resurgence had, in my opinion, turned the SBC meetings into right-wing love fests that I could not stomach. Back in 1991, every time I tried to sit through a session I would feel physically ill.

My “side”–we liked to be known as “moderates,” but our opponents used what was to them the curse above all curses, “liberals,” to name us–had lost, and there was nothing to be done about it. The one meeting I have attended in the last 16 years is one more than most of my friends and fellow travelers.

But I actually thought about going this year. Because of the efforts of the Baptist bloggers and other young leaders, it’s shaping up as another interesting meeting. But, with only so much time and money to travel, I decided I would rather attend the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Washington at the end of June.

In this context, I mention one reason that I am now drawn philosophically to the CBF. Those Baptists still take the historic and cherished Baptist doctrine of the priesthood of the believer seriously.

Priesthood of the believer brings me back to the SBC meeting in San Antonio. While I am not there this year, I attended the last time the SBC met in that city.

It was 1988. I was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Adel, Ga. Two fine retired couples from our church accompanied Debra and me on the trip. We rode in one of those big customized vans. We drove all the way to San Antonio and back, spending the night in Lake Charles, La., on the way out and in Lafayette on the way back. It was a fun trip.

The meeting, though, was not fun. Something happened there that showed me and just about everybody else who was paying attention that, from the moderates’ perspective, the battle for the soul of the SBC was lost. That something was the adoption of the Resolution On The Priesthood Of The Believer.

On the Sunday following the adoption of that resolution, a veteran pastor in my area went to his pulpit and told his congregation, “The Southern Baptist Convention that I have loved all my life died this week in San Antonio, Texas.”

The priesthood of the believer is a vital doctrine not only of the Baptist movement but of the Protestant Reformation in general. Yet the 1988 resolution said, “The Baptist Faith and Message preamble refers to the priesthood of the believer, but provides no definition or content to the term.”

For the record, here is the section of the preamble of the 1963 version of the Baptist Faith & Message , which was the version that was in effect in 1988, to which the resolution referred:
“Baptists emphasize the soul’s competency before God, freedom in religion, and the priesthood of the believer. However, this emphasis should not be interpreted to mean that there is an absence of certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and with which they have been and are now closely identified.”

The 1988 resolution went on to state, “The doctrine of the priesthood of the believer has been used to justify wrongly the attitude that a Christian may believe whatever he so chooses and still be considered a loyal Southern Baptist.”

There may have been some truth to that assertion, but I didn’t know anyone personally who actually thought that way. The real difference was between those who believed there were “certain definite doctrines” on which Baptists could agree and those who believed those boundaries should be drawn tighter and tighter. The latter crowd eventually won the day in the SBC.

I think it is safe to say the SBC is still dealing with the aftermath of that victory. Indeed, the kinds of matters younger SBC leaders are bringing up now revolve largely around the continual narrowing of the parameters that define who will and won’t be considered a loyal and cooperating Southern Baptist.

It seemed at the time, and I believe that with the passing of the years this has become even more obvious, that the real intent behind the resolution was to make a statement about where the authority in the church lies. The resolution made a big deal of pastoral authority.

The resolution strongly implied that rank-and-file Southern Baptists did not have the right to arrive at positions on matters of biblical interpretation that might lead them to oppose some position of their pastor.

It was an attack on the freedom of Baptists to follow the dictates of their conscience as guided by the Holy Spirit as they read and interpreted the Bible and as they helped to determine the course their church would follow. As my friend said, an SBC that could adopt such a resolution was not the SBC that we had known and loved.

After the resolution passed, about 100 messengers turned in their ballots in protest. Led by Randall Lolley, then president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, about 200 gathered at the Alamo. Standing in front of the site where Americans died for the cause of freedom more than 150 years ago, Lolley declared the resolution “the most non-Baptistic, most heretical, from the Baptist free-church point of view, statement ever made.” He wrote the word “heresy” across the resolution and tore it into pieces.

I am sure that many Southern Baptists gathered in San Antonio in 1988 voted for that resolution believing in their hearts that it was a good and sound resolution.

I believe it was the second major nail in the coffin (the first being the adoption of the Peace Committee Report in 1987) of the kind of SBC that I had known and loved.

I’m not there to see what Southern Baptists gathered in San Antonio in 2007 will do. But, if somebody can get them to move toward reclaiming their birthright as free Baptists, I will give out a grateful “Praise the Lord!”

Michael Ruffin is pastor of The Hill Baptist Church in Augusta, Ga. This column appeared previously on his blog. It is edited for length.

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