ARCHIVES: The 1988 convention debate on the Priesthood of the Believer

In 1988, the SBC Resolutions Committee brought forward one of the more poorly-worded theological statements of the last 40 years. That year’s Resolution Number Five on “The Priesthood of the Believer” was a platform-orchestrated response to moderates in search of a doctrinal rallying point that might counter the majoritarian acceptability of the Patterson-Pressler shibboleth of inerrancy.

Walking away from San Antonio, moderate hopes began to diminish. In fact, they may have had reason to be concerned.

Soul competency is now barely mentioned among polite company in Southern Baptist circles. The priesthood of every believer is even less understood than it was before 1979. The separation of church and state is routinely swept aside like Richard Land’s 1990s-era combover.

Nevertheless, the 1988 Resolutions Committee — under the leadership of then-Chairman and former Nashville-area pastor Jerry Sutton — drafted a resolution that not only consumed the overwhelming majority of time allotted to the committee report, but managed to stretch into two days of convention business as messengers questioned the voting results announced by the convention president, Adrian Rogers.

The resolution was ultimately adopted by a narrow margin based on the keen eyeballing of hand-held ballots by members of the 1988 Tellers Committee, then-Registration Secretary Lee Porter, and employees of the San Antonio Convention Center.  SBC Parliamentarian Barry McCarty explained the controversial ruling at length to the messengers.

Jerry Sutton went on to lose the convention presidency in 2006, retire at age 57 from his Nashville ministry, and serve in the administration of Midwestern Seminary. The convention has never again adopted a resolution on the Priesthood of the Believer, though the matter briefly arose during debate on the revised Baptist Faith & Message during the 2000 convention in Orlando, FL.

As Southern Baptists continue to analyze the many events surrounding the 2018 annual meeting in Dallas, a review of the 1988 floor debate on the priesthood of every believer could prove illuminating.