The “battle for the Bible” may be over among Southern Baptist pastors, but people in the pews are less likely to pledge allegiance to inerrancy.
Responses to a survey by the research arm of LifeWay Christian Resources, taken this spring, showed that 100 percent of the 778 Southern Baptist pastors surveyed strongly agreed with the statement “I believe in the divine inspiration of Scripture.” That’s not surprising — but a full 97 percent also strongly agreed with the sharper statement “I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.” Two percent “somewhat agreed,” and zero percent disagreed.
In contrast, a 2007 survey of 2500 laypersons who attend a Protestant church at least once a month showed less belief in a perfect Bible. Respondents were asked if they agreed with the statement “the Bible is the written Word of God and is totally accurate in all that it teaches,” a more elaborate way of saying “inerrant.” Sixty-nine percent of the 260 who attended SBC churches strongly agreed, and another 11 percent “somewhat agreed,” according to Brad Waggoner, a LifeWay executive who plans to publish a book based on the survey information.
While a clear majority of Protestant church-goers affirmed biblical perfection, their confidence falls well short of the surveyed pastors’ near-unanimous devotion to inerrancy. LifeWay president Thom Rainer interpreted the results as a warning signal that the SBC’s “battle for the Bible” is not yet over. In an interview with Baptist Press, he said “Yes, we have settled the issue of the authority of Scripture in our confession. That battle is over and done. However, I believe that the battle for the authority and sufficiency of God’s word is never really done. It is as old as the Garden of Eden and will continue until Jesus comes back. As we can see, Southern Baptists pastors are overwhelmingly inerrantists – but they are also discerning enough to know that we must always be on guard against compromise and error.”
Maybe it’s the laypeople who are the more discerning. Maybe they’d rather learn from the Bible than fight over it. Many of them know idolatry when they see it, and they refuse to attribute the divine quality of perfection to anything they can hold in their hand. Many, no doubt, have read the Bible with a careful eye, and have seen enough scriptural inconsistencies to know that the word “inerrant” can’t really be applied to the Bible unless the word is saddled with so many exceptions that it becomes meaningless. They know it’s quite possible to trust the Bible as a source of inspiration and instruction without putting it on the pedestal of perfection.
The discrepancy among Southern Baptists is not as great, but a disconnect between Catholic laypersons and the teachings of Rome strikes me as similar. In one notable example, Pope Benedict XVI has reaffirmed a church teaching that birth control shows disobedience to God and should not be practiced — but a 2005 survey (referenced in this Newsweek article) showed that 75 percent of Catholics don’t buy it.
Like priests who hold forth illogical doctrines that are routinely ignored, those who control today’s SBC may have persuaded pastors to profess inerrancy, only to discover that capturing the minds of their members is another thing entirely.