Theological competition between Christian groups has been part of the faith landscape from the beginning. From Gentiles to apostolic authority, from Latin to Greek Bibles, Christians have always been able to find stuff to disagree about.
A recurring source of contention has been Jesus himself. The famous creedal battles of the fourth century pitched those who believed in Jesus’ absolute humanity over against those who asserted his absolute deity. The compromise, that Jesus was both fully human and fully God, allowed both sides to claim victory but also left the matter mostly unresolved.
In fact, the conflict over Jesus continues right down to our present day, albeit in a somewhat less profound form.
Recently the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a pullout group at odds with the politics and theology of the Southern Baptist Convention, came under fire for removing Jesus from their constitution. The charge stems from a proposed change in the CBF vision and purpose statement.
The original statement defined the group’s purpose as “helping churches promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” That statement was revised at the group’s annual meeting to read “help churches fulfill their God given mission.”
Leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention quickly seized on the change as an example of liberal leanings among Cooperative Baptists. SBC leaders have asserted all along that the CBF was comprised of liberals. Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary and perennial hatchet man for the SBC, charged that the CBF was sliding down the slippery slope of theological relativism by removing Jesus from the center of the group’s theological identity.
CBF leaders thought this was a bit of the pot calling the kettle black. One CBF pastor noted that in 2000 Southern Baptists removed Jesus from the center of their identity when they rewrote the Baptist Faith and Message. The 1963 version of the faith statement stated that Jesus is the criterion by which all Scripture was to be interpreted. The document also stated that Jesus was the full and final revelation of God.
The Faith and Message statement adopted in 2000 deleted the statement about Jesus as the criterion for all Scripture interpretation and declared that the Bible was the full and final revelation of God.
Not about to let the CBF upstarts have the last word on the matter, a SBC spokesperson pointed out that the change was necessary. Liberals were using Jesus to justify all sorts of heresies like women in ministry.
Not to be outdone, CBF leaders pointed out that the SBC constitution, drafted in 1845 to allow slave owners to be missionaries, does not mention Jesus at all.
All of which may serve to prove what I heard a historian say one time about Baptists. They may fight, he said, but never about anything important.
Not that Jesus is unimportant. Establishing the church’s identity firmly in the purpose and mission of Jesus is the key to everything. But if this debate was really about following Jesus’ example we would be hearing more about the poor, the imprisoned, the sick and the destitute. According to Jesus it is caring for these “little ones,” that is the mark of true discipleship.
As for the current debate, why not get two or three preachers from each of the two Baptist groups and let them fight it out with play dough at 20 paces. That way everyone could see the school yard level of this debate, while at the same time protect innocent bystanders from being injured by flying rhetoric.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.