How does a community of faith, especially a large denominational group, express its collective voice to issues of its day?
Reflection on the recent gatherings of two large Baptist groups a week apart in Birmingham, Alabama, yielded an observation of two different styles of what a large faith collective might offer as a public expression.
As has been a typical pattern for years, the Southern Baptist Convention concluded its meeting with the adoption of several “resolutions” – affirmations carefully drafted to express common convictions on matters of concern.
Such resolutions serve to give public expression to the stance of the group, and they are communicated as such.
In contrast, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship offered no resolutions as official “position statements” on any of the various issues that were part of the group’s thinking and discussion.
There was no “shying away” from affirmations related to a range of issues that face individuals and congregations, in public addresses and in workshop or forum settings; but there were no capsule “here’s what we believe on that” statements in official form.
The contrast led to some reflection on the nature of resolutions and other types of public affirmation.
Resolutions can be rather benign expressions of appreciation for hospitality or particular contributions to the well-being of the group, or very general affirmations of a common faith against which no one would argue.
But they can also put forth positions on issues of complexity and difference of opinion, the passing of which can be accompanied by rigorous debate.
Once passed, the prevailing position becomes a more or less official stance of the body on the issue; and that position becomes part of the group’s identity, at least in the public mind.
While in Baptist life, resolutions even at the denominational level have no binding authority on individuals or churches, they can sometimes be claimed as a basis for judgments on local matters, such as when a resolution affirming a male-only concept of the pastorate is claimed as a basis for excluding a church from associational fellowship for “violating” that concept.
Resolutions also have a way of reflecting the thinking of their particular time and place, which tends to evolve over time to other ways of thinking.
The formal expression of the resolution can become an embarrassment and an occasion for apology and retraction, as in the case of resolutions supporting slavery and other forms of racial injustice in the past.
A more recent evolution of thinking is illustrated by the 1984 SBC resolution on the ordination of women.
Well intended as they are as expressions of deep commitment to values held by the group, the seeming permanence of a resolution can become a snapshot that takes the place of the moving picture of what a community of faith is.
The group in Birmingham that offered no resolutions as responses to its meeting was bold in its voice in response to issues of racial justice, gender discrimination, the dangers of religiously oriented nationalism, xenophobia and the breakdown of civility.
Speakers and discussion leaders did not hold back in calls for honesty, repentance, sacrificial love and reconciliation on many fronts of our common life. There was plenty of material to fuel a long list of resolutions.
But in response to the standing invitation for resolutions to be submitted, none was offered to the body for consideration.
Attendees left with issues identified, questions explored, options clarified, perspectives refined and commitments deepened, with answers carefully held as works in progress, rather than settled with finality.
It has occurred to me that these two gatherings of two parts of the Baptist family illustrate two different kinds of public testimony that communities of faith, large and small, can offer.
The testimony of resolutions can have a “definitional” quality about it – a “line in the sand” expression that requires a response of acceptance or rejection, a kind of door key for admission and membership to the fellowship.
“This is what we believe; and, if you are part of our group, you will embrace it.” It is not hard to see the exclusionary possibilities.
As an example from the 2019 SBC resolutions, one resolution, “On Sexuality and Personal Identity,” challenges the right of anyone to use the term “gay Christian” to identify a person who is gay and a follower of Jesus.
The alternative testimony of the resolution-free denominational gathering offers a profile of worship, preaching, teaching, communing, exploring, discussing of the many ways that faithfulness can express itself without formal declarations of official positions, but also without backing away from clear expressions of passionate commitments.
Resolutional testimony can offer a kind of “members only” appeal for admission and participation, reflecting patterns of thought on various issues that are considered essential.
Non-resolutional testimony offers an invitation to come to the table, bring yourself and your thoughts and beliefs with you; we will let ourselves be refined by our different perspectives and work together to discover more about what God’s call in Christ means for life as we continue to live it together.