Centuries ago, the Baptist church was founded on the principle of freedom of conscience. According to Baptist belief, individual Christians are fully competent to study the Bible for themselves and to seek guidance from God (the “priesthood of the believer“); consequently, Baptists of all stripes strongly opposed the adoption of any formal creeds, save perhaps “Ain’t nobody but Jesus going to tell me what to believe.” To this day, many Baptist churches maintain this commitment to the autonomy of the local church and the individual believer.

Since 2000, however, the Southern Baptist Church has departed sharply from its roots. Although the SBC’s updated Baptist Faith & Message (BF&M) statement is not formally labeled a creed, all references to individual conscience have either been eliminated or redefined to effectively outlaw dissent on any matter outlined in the BF&M. Southern Baptist congregations must now strictly interpret the Bible according to the positions detailed in the BF&M, and the Bible itself has been elevated to a position once reserved for Christ alone. Churches that even appear to be deviating from the party line may be subject to disciplinary hearings.

In light of this major shift, it comes as little surprise when Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and one of the driving forces behind the changes made to the BF&M, claims to speak infallibly on behalf of all true Christians, as he does in his most recent essay on the issue of homosexuality.

In Mohler’s mind, any Christian who disagrees with his claims of “truth” on this issue is a “liberal” who has “surrender[ed]… to the homosexual agenda” and “redefined compassion.” That many Christians who take the Bible seriously have reached different conclusions than his – or that allowing for such disagreement would be fully in keeping with Baptist tradition – is simply not an allowable possibility.

Mohler does make extensive use of the word “compassion” in his article, but also makes it clear that, in his mind, the only way that a Christian can show compassion to gay or lesbian individuals is to browbeat them into entering an ex-gay program, where they can learn how to “escape the powerful bonds of that sin.” Once properly repentant, such individuals are to be fully welcomed by the church, but Mohler strongly implies by his wording (“men and women freed by God’s grace from bondage to homosexuality”) that celibate gay Christians who otherwise agree with his theology could still be treated as sinners deserving condemnation if they refuse to play Exodus International’s identity games.

Given Mohler’s use of the same ambiguous catchphrases that ex-gay spokespersons routinely use, it comes as little surprise that Exodus VP Randy Thomas would give his wholehearted endorsement to Mohler’s call for like-minded Christians to be even more vocal and persistent in their condemnations against gays, “liberals” and anyone else perceived as being too soft on sin. Neither Exodus nor the SBC’s current leadership appear to have room in their theology for the possibility that their own interpretation of God’s will for everyone is anything less than infallible, or for a God who judges people by the condition of their hearts rather than by the perfection of their beliefs (and who does not conflate the two).

Within such a legalistic mindset, the Holy Spirit is treated as powerless to guide individual believers, and certainly does not have permission to act in any way that might appear to deviate from what the Bible (as clarified by the BF&M) “clearly” says on any matter of consequence. “God’s standards” are so perfectly understood that any evidence that might cause His followers to reconsider their stance on an issue can never be anything more than the lies of the devil, and even the most sincere change of heart can be nothing but “surrender” and “capitulation.”

Without strict conformity and unquestioning obedience, the entire church would quickly be in danger of apostasy, according to Mohler. By such standards, the founders of the Baptist church would have been heretics of the worst sort.

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