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Being Baptist in the Baptist Union of Southern Africa Post Kuils River Assembly 2019

Being Baptist in the Baptist Union of Southern Africa Post Kuils River Assembly 2019

At the recent BU Assembly representatives from member churches voted to supress a motion put forward by the Executive to initiate a process for churches to consider voting on aproposed new 2017 Statement of Belief (2017 SB). The vote to suppress was carried by a high majority. It was clear that the proposed 2017 SB was seen as unnecessary and divisive by the majority of church representatives. This result was also interpreted as being a definitive ‘No’ to the long standing appeals for a clearer and firmer united theological front of the Baptist Union in light of internal and external doctrinal challenges (especially those on the authority of Scripture and gender issues). That an intention to table and discuss theological revision of our current Statement of Faith has been supressed cannot but lead to the conclusion that many BU churches and leaders desire no further theological position beyond that expressed in that 1924 Statement of Belief (1924 SB). What is most alarming is that the 2017 SB – which clearly articulates a confessionally traditional or ‘conservative’ position, as well as directly addressing some of the most important issues in our generation – has been rejected by many South African Baptist leaders.

The 2017 SB was the final product of a process launched by the Executive in 2016. The stated reason for this original Task Team was to craft an updated 1924 Statement of Belief (1924 SB) that would address the challenges of the hour yet also be as inclusive as possible to reflect the diversity within the BU. Most, if not all on the Task Team, were guided by the maxim ‘unity in essentials’ as we began to update the 1924 SB with ‘healthy doctrine’ that each participant believed was essential for all South African Baptists today to hold forth to our generationpresent and future. Two surprising things occurred as we got under way: (1) most of us on the Team agreed doctrinally on what our Baptist essentials ought to look like, and (2) we agreed that we needed to offer a broader and weightier Statement of Belief as the theological ballast for the BUSA. Once our unity and objective was in place, we found that a topical format with tight and weighty propositional content was our best way to articulate those Baptist essentials.  The end result was a proposed Statement of Belief with a quantity and quality beyond which we had anticipated, but was one that we heartily believed was needed for our present and future mission as BUSA.

As one can see, our proposed 2017 Statement of Faith:

1. affirmed a position on the inerrancy of Scripture (unlike the 1924 SB),
2. was inclusive of the traditional BUSA Calvinist vs Arminian, Charismatic and Cessationist polarities (similar to the 1924 SB),
3. relevantly proposed an unambiguous biblical doctrine of Creation, affirming all that we deemed essential for Evangelicals to believe in the area of human dignity, the sanctity of life, and doctrine of marriage (unlike to 1924 SB, besides the short 2000 addition on heterosexual marriage),
4. presented a richer Christology of Christ’s Person and Work than the 1924 SB did a central doctrine which we believed needed a richer expression,
5. added to the 1924 SB entirely new clauses on the Holy Spirit and the Mission of the Church, 
6. included more detail on the Church (a crucial Baptist topic), such as gender parity and diversity, and also the differing ministerial roles in the local church.

It was clear to most of us that as the 1924 SB was formed and filled in the context of urgent Baptist needs in the early 20th century, it was now however inadequate to serve the urgent needs of South African Baptists in the 21st century. We also knew that not all within the BU would be happy with every assertion (particularly the mention of male headship in the church), yet after due majority of votes the Task Team believed all our assertions were of a high ranking status and needed to be affirmed by Baptists today. In hope we thus presented our Statement to the Executive at Baptist House in June 2017, who expressed appreciation for our work and stated that they could subscribe to its contents. We were hopeful that their implicit acceptance in 2017 would materialize more explicitly among the churches in Kuilsriver in 2019. As you know, this did not happen.

After it was clear that the majority of the remaining church delegates at the recent Assembly chose rather to reject our proposal, some assessment now has to be made. The response to supress the proposed 2017 SB is clearly symptomatic of an underling condition in the BU that requires diagnosis and anappropriate response. That response for us is to come to the following conclusions:

1. For too many in the Baptist Union, Denominational Unity is more prized than Theological Fidelity.  The culture in the Union is now social more than theological.
2. There is currently a preference in the BU for full gender parity in marriage and ecclesiastical ministry, rather than for the traditional and biblical gender roles.
3. There is an apparent complacency with regard to teaching and fortifying the current and coming generation to stand and fight against the Satanic lies we are currently facing.
4. There is a toleration of theological downgrade for the sake of keeping in denominational fellowship with ministers and churches who hold views on Scripture and gender that are contrary to traditional Christian orthodoxy.

Since Baptists have traditionally been known as ‘people of the Book’ and as Protestants who are leaders in sound theology and doctrine, our Baptist Union’s preference for a currently deficient Statement of Belief comes perilously close to undoing this divine purpose that has raised up the Baptists. Many of us have become Baptist for the very purpose of being part of a theologically driven fellowship of independent churches. If we were experientially driven, some of us would join an explicitly Charismatic fellowship. If merely socially motivated maybe we would join the Methodists, and if antiquity is our my main concern the Anglicans could the place to go. But since we believe fidelity to the Scriptures needs to determine ones choice of denomination, we are Baptist. But what if the Baptist denomination we are a part of has become a social fellowship that chooses theological minimalism in order to embrace more diversity? What if it slackens on its fidelity to the Scriptures? How then do we relate to our historic Baptist institution which does not want to be Baptist in the way we think Scriptures call us to be? – and this in such a critical hour! Our initial hope for the much needed united theological front in the BU on vital doctrinal essentials is fast dwindling. Have we crossed the Rubicon in Kuils River or have we just been down a few rapids of the Orange River soon to get back to normal? Do we do something new in order to ensure that Baptists in South Africa remain Baptists?

We all need the wisdom from above described in 1 Chronicles 13:32:

“Men from Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (NIV 2011)

On behalf of various members of the original draft team of the 2017 Statement of Belief.

 

15 Responses

  1. Ellis Andre says:

    Well written. I am coming in on this discussion late but I believe much is to be gained by talking theology and hearing one another. There needs to be ongoing discussion. Whatever the outcome at the Assembly, the matter itself is far from over.

    • Paul Hartwig says:

      That cannot be denied Ellis. But ‘the enemy is at the gates’ and the Baptists are ‘discussing and debating’ as to whether to do something about it.

    • Riaan Niemand says:

      hi there Andre

      it would have helped you to be in the conversation from the start. I will reply below

  2. Thembelani says:

    Well articulated. I concur with this assertion. We really need wisdom. As a Baptist minister in Cape Town. I’m really sorry for our denomination. Indeed it’s becoming a social club more than a church. Of Jesus Christ Christ. No love for the truth anymore. I don’t see my future with this denomination. Unless they come back to the Scriptures. It’s so sad really.

  3. Neil Henry says:

    Joining you in prayer!

  4. At the peril of once again being branded a liberal. (Which I am not) This writing is sadly not the whole picture and disappointingly emotional. Let me respond to the points above.
    1. For those of us who feel strongly about unity it was clear that little attention was given to the implications of this statement of faith. There was a strong feeling that the process was indeed hijacked by the reformed grouping within the forum. Seriously is th Arminian and Reformed stance the only stance? This is afterall 2019 so long after the reformation. Is the bible not the basis of our faith why are they held in higher regard? Was this not the reason for defining our faith better if possible?
    2. This comment helps put in perspective the religious right of the statement and does not and have not been the stance of everyone in our union for the more than 30 years that I have served in the Union. Why make it an emotional water shed now? To jump to this conclusion is an emotional jump not a historical or factual conclusion at all.
    3. It is difficult not to take offense to this statement. How can you say that we care less about the generation to come because of a vote on the assembly floor. This is simply a lack of understanding the real issues.
    4. “downgrade” the term helps and gives perspective on the authors theological departure point. It comes from our departed and highly regarded brother (this does include me) Charles Spurgeoun. A careful study of the Charles Spurgeoun story will bring us to the same conclusion that many of us have of the mega church model. That a uniquely gifted individual will fill the church anyday but beyond that the crowd will go elsewhere to the point where hardly anyone was attending the Metropolitan Tabernacle after him. To brand those of who have a contraty view to that of the author is nonsense and disappointing to say the least. To equate the author’s, a denominational leader, views to that of traditional authodoxy is a little bold to say the least and needs to be challenged because it is indeed putting a wedge between brother and brother in direct oposition to the bible. It hurts the bride of Christ. So lets stop the emotional nonsense and really enguage theologically with a teachable spirit intact.

    • Paul Hartwig says:

      Hi Riaan. Just two things in reply to your comments from one who was involved in formulating the proposed 2017 Statement of Belief (SB):
      1. The proposed SB is not a ‘Reformed’ statement. We were all committed to inclusivity on the Arminian-Calvinist tradition. Any claims to a hijacking by a Reformed group is not true.
      2. North Baptist Church’s motivation for suppressing the Exec’s proposal centred around the irrelevance of the proposed new SB since member churches are not required to subscribe to any Statement of Belief to be part of the Union. Most of us on the Task Team believe that the current front-lines of present and future generations on issues such as the sanctity of life and marriage should be formally addressed by Baptists in a Statement of Belief. Since the 1924 does not address this current issue, many of us what that to change.
      3.

    • Paul Hartwig says:

      Hi Riaan. Just two things in reply to your comments from one who was involved in formulating the proposed 2017 Statement of Belief (SB):
      1. The proposed SB is not a ‘Reformed’ statement. We were all committed to inclusivity on the Arminian-Calvinist tradition. Any claims to a hijacking by a Reformed group is not true.
      2. North Baptist Church’s motivation for suppressing the Exec’s proposal centred around the irrelevance of the proposed new SB since member churches are not required to subscribe to any Statement of Belief to be part of the Union. Most of us on the Task Team believe that the current front-lines of present and future generations on issues such as the sanctity of life and marriage should be formally addressed by Baptists in a Statement of Belief. Since the 1924 does not address this current issue, many of us what that to change.

      Regards, Paul (Hartwig)

      • Riaan Niemand says:

        Thanks for this Paul, I am aware and share your concerns but also have concerns about the blatant statements made about churches who want to address these matters in more practical ways. The blanket statements about people who voted against, is in my opinion as bad as the concerns that we may have about the sanctity of marriage.

        What I addressed was not the statement but the irrational conclusions made. Let’s take this off line where you and I can chat as friends and not include a myriad of other people who are reading these posts.

  5. Peter Smallbones says:

    I think we must be careful what is said. It is very easy to be disparaging of those of us who voted against this new SoF being tabled without even listening to the reasons. To say “For too many in the Baptist Union, Denominational Unity is more prized than Theological Fidelity. The culture in the Union is now social more than theological.” is just a cheap shot. with no substance. Firstly, if we want to be theological and biblical, we have take seriously the command to “be eager to maintain the ubity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We need to be seeking the answer to the prayer Jesus prayed in Jhn “17:21  I pray that they may all be one. Father! May they be in us, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be one, so that the world will believe that you sent me. ” And his command in Jhn 13:34,35  “And now I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. If you have love for one another, then everyone will know that you are my disciples.” To struggle for unity in the midst of theological differences is not a mere social club, rather it is following the biblical injunction! It is easy to keep unity when we agree on everything – much more challenging when we don’t adn that struggle will demand spiritual growth!
    But also, having spoken to many who voted against the motion, the vast majority did not do so because they fundamentally disagreed with very much of the content, but rather because they are Baptists. We are not a confessional church. Our Declaration of principle states the “every church has the liberty to interpret and adminíster Christs laws.” We cannot impinge on the churches right by saying they can or cannot have women in leadership!
    Rather than forcing everyone to interpret scripture the same on certain pet doctrines, a far better way way to tackle theological differences is to engage in theological debate. We need to bring our differences into the open and listen to each other. The theological forum was meant to do that but not no theological debates have been held. When we have debated with each other then perhaps we can together agree on a need for changes to the statement of faith that maintains our Baptist theology and is helpful to counter the errors of the day.
    I pray that we will go forward in faith striving to be true to scripture which also includes striving to maintain unity .

    • Paul Hartwig says:

      Hi Peter. A few comments in reply to your post…
      1. Since Baptists have from the beginning separated (we grew out of the English Separatists) from other Christians, must we now reverse and return to the unity of the Anglican Church in obedience to the Scriptures you quoted? Baptists have always been willing to separate formally from other evangelicals though keeping functional fellowship with them. Organizational separation is not a sin, as much as institutional unity is not a virtue.
      2. I cannot comprehend your statement that because we are Baptist ‘we are not a confessional church’. The majority of Baptists have always crafted Confessions, right from the start. Those Baptists who have not done so are anomalies. The issue is the function of Confessions of Faith, not Confessions themselves.
      3. Forming a Union on the Declaration of Principle alone respects the autonomy of the local church but gives the wider Associational body no regulatory control of who belongs to the Association. In a bye-gone era when the culture was relatively Christian, this was possible. Today though I believe our churches deserve and need more than the Declaration of Principle.
      4. Your last concern about public theological debate- a big Amen to that need! But this has never been given, not a National or Regional Level (justified hyperbole). That the Statement of Faith was left till the last day of the Assembly is symptomatic of the decentralization of theological wrestling. Lip service is paid to it. When have we as theological lecturers been called to address regional meetings designed to hammer out burning theological issues? I have never been to, or heard of, a WPBA meeting that has discussed texts of Scripture or theological challenges we are facing. There have been many managerial, pragmatic gatherings, and social events, but no theological conferences amongst ourselves. I think the article about that claims the BU is now more a social than a theological body is empirically true.
      Regards,
      Paul (Hartwig)

  6. David Lock says:

    Thankyou for your personal assessment on what the motion to suppress at the Kuilsriver Assembly meant. I think you have made several assumptions that are not held by people who were not in favour of a new statement of belief. We do want theological vigour, but we also want to be a broadly evangelical Union of churches. We all hold to a high view of Scripture, but some of us feel there are better words to describe what that means than “without error”. Those of us that have a more egalitarian view of gender roles do so because of a belief that that is what the Bible teaches. I recognise that others see it differently, but that is why we need to be more broadly evangelical. It is my view that rather than have a new statement of belief, we need good teaching on what we mean by our statement of belief. The statements are timeless. How they are understood needs to be taught to each new generation living in their different world. I would encourage the team that put the new statement of belief together to seek to teach the BU rather than control it. An official teaching document for the next 10 years would be very helpful and would have my support.

    • Paul Hartwig says:

      Hi David.
      These are some of the comments that we should have spoken of and heard at the Assembly in a discussion time. The suppression of the Exec proposal (and the probable reality that these matters will earnestly be engaged with sometime soon) made sure they were not heard and responded too.
      Hopefully the tide will turn and an Assembly can be devoted to theological identity of BUSA.
      Regards,
      Paul

  7. Peter Smallbones says:

    Thanks for your comments Paul. I also think that we should make more use of our theologians to influence the denomination. I had hoped the Journal would help in this regard. Just to clarify, when I talk about unity I do realise that each denomination has it’s differences and we separated from others because of our theology of the church. My point is that we need to be very careful what we choose to separate over. I do not think a difference in the way we interpret the role of women in scripture is sufficient to divide over. The use of the word “without error” is also such a meaningless idea that without much explanation, does not contribute to a high view of scripture. The proposed SoB becomes very narrow and while many Baptists may agree with it, we need to choose very wisely what issues we determine as germane to being Baptist.
    By saying that we are not a confessional church I am referring to the fact that we do not have a founding confession of faith as some churches do – Westminster confession for Presbyterians, 39 articles for Anglicans etc. Our SoF is purposely succinct and is not designed to be a wide explanation of theology.
    Further I would like to take issue with the following statements in the original document so authoritatively given out without any backing.
    “2. There is currently a preference in the BU for full gender parity in marriage and ecclesiastical ministry, rather than for the traditional and biblical gender roles.
    3. There is an apparent complacency with regard to teaching and fortifying the current and coming generation to stand and fight against the Satanic lies we are currently facing.
    4. There is a toleration of theological downgrade for the sake of keeping in denominational fellowship with ministers and churches who hold views on Scripture and gender that are contrary to traditional Christian orthodoxy.”
    These statements are simply designed to stir the emotions and not the mind. Many of us believe that woman need to be seen as equal because of our biblical understanding. Further, who are the complacent ones who are failing to stand against Satan. If you think I am one, then please do me the courtesy of lovingly telling me and help me to do better. The bible tells us clearly what to do when a brother sins – go to him and point it out to him! There is too much mudslinging at the moment and this is not right.
    Lastly, the issue of gender has been discussed many times at Assemblies over the past 30 years. Every time, the result is that both views need to be accepted. Now suddenly some want to say only their view must be the norm for all Baptist Churches even though we allow for each church the liberty to interpret and administer Christ’s laws .
    If only we had been able to have theological forums at the BU Assemblies like was asked for in 2015 where our differences could be discussed in a context of brotherhood we could have avoided this mudslinging that is going on now.
    Come, lets reason together

  8. John Welsford says:

    I was quite distressed after the 2019 Baptist Union assembly. Although I had reservations about the 2017 Statement of Faith, I was very much looking forward to the discussion that I anticipated would take place. I had corresponded with the BU office previously about my desire to see a change in the Statement of Faith, and at last there seemed an avenue of potential possibility in the offing. I was very much disappointed about how things turned out.

    The question has been raised, “What is wrong with the 1924 Baptist Union Statement of Faith?” I hope you will humour me, by allowing me to posit an opinion that is not strictly along the lines of Systematic Theology and pertains more to questions of our identity.

    Maybe it’s just me, but as a Christian in this country I shudder whenever I see photographs of the “Net Blankes, Whites Only” signs that used to be a common sight across this nation. It is painful for me to think that Christians could embrace the ideology of Apartheid and practice racial discrimination in stark contrast to the Biblical imperative for God’s people to love their neighbours as themselves. It is inexplicable and theologically incomprehensible, violating the most basic and fundamental tenets of Christian belief and the understanding of God’s kingdom. It constantly presents an ongoing crisis to my faith that Christians could embrace such madness and find all sorts of justifications for their instituting discriminatory practices.
    Sad to say, the Baptist Union was unfortunately deeply entrenched in the practice of racial discrimination. For most of our history it was a matter of “Net Blankes, Whites Only” in the Baptist Union assembly. We incorporated institutional racism, enforced segregation and practiced a paternalistic attitude to people of colour that resulted in a great disparity in resources and member status. White control was entrenched, even though non-white Baptist membership far exceeded white Baptist membership (Europeans 11,727; Africans 22,456; “Coloureds” and Indians 2,421. – pg.35 SA Baptist Handbook 1858-59). Up until the ideological tensions in the Baptist Union in the 1980’s that resulted in the breakaway of the Baptist Convention, black Baptist churches were not able to participate in the Baptist Union assembly except through two representatives from the BMD. Black Baptists were not regarded as equals and black pastors were effectively reduced to a servile status under the structures of the Baptist Union. How this theologically was meant to reflect on our Christian faith and our Baptist Principles utterly baffles me. It was a mockery comparable to a “quasi-Christian” cult.

    And this where the who question surrounding the 1924 Baptist Union Statement of Faith is decided for me, simply because it was drawn up and adopted by people who practiced racial discrimination and were as such actively engaged in a racist institution. I find therefore find it hard to believe that the Baptist Union at that time were even genuinely concerned about creating a definitive statement representing Christian orthodoxy. Can a bad tree bear good fruit?

    It should therefore come as no surprise that I regard the 1924 Baptist Statement of Faith with the same disdain that one would attribute to a confessional statement coming from a church that subscribed to the ideologies of Nazi Germany, or in more contemporary terms, a confessional statement coming from a church that subscribes to same-sex marriages. It has no credibility. It is anathema. Even if it contains elements of good doctrine. Even if it was delivered to the Baptist Union by an angel. It’s a remains a bench with a “Net Blankes, Whites Only” sign on it – and must go.

    To my mind there could be no better good for the Baptist Union to discard the dead wood of its colonial history and rediscover what it means to be a Baptist on a theological level and redefine our sense of identity and ethos in the context of contemporary South Africa. I wonder if this is not where a good deal of our ideological struggles lie. But my collective experiences within the BU and the steamrollering of the proposal to table the 2017 Statement of Faith are a sobering reminder that free thinking does find many friends in our Baptist circles. It’s with the minority. Probably it is, just me.

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