A Fork in the Religious Road

Southern Baptists in Texas elect moderate president, an upset to national leadership.

The Southern Baptist Convention has not grown to be the nation's largest denomination by being shy with its opinions. This, after all, is the church that boycotted the mighty Disney Corp. for its gay-friendly policies and has formed the bedrock of support for the powerful Christian Coalition and the anti-abortion movement.

But such conservative outspokenness may have backfired in the very heartland of Baptist support - Texas. At a convention last week, representatives of Texas' 2.7 million Southern Baptists struck a blow for moderation, electing a state president who is decidedly moderate and strongly critical of the national church leadership.

To be sure, the Texas vote was a stunning upset for the Southern Baptist leadership. But in a broader sense, it offers a peek into the internecine conflict that other churches are facing as they enter the public arena.

As Episcopalian or Lutheran or Methodist pastors will attest, strong stands on social and political issues can often lead church members to rebel, and to remind their leaders that they like to reach decisions through individual prayer and study of the Scripture.

"When you launch out into political society, there's going to be divisions," says James Wall, editor of the Christian Century magazine in Chicago. "The Bible is not all that explicit on what God expects on some of these issues. So you just have to interpret Scripture as best as you can."

"I would see this vote as a good sign for the Baptist church," he adds. "Anytime you choose a moderate over the left or right wing of a church, you have individuals expressing a desire for less conflict within their church."

Getting back to its roots

For his part, president-elect Russell Dilday sees the election as an affirmation of "the true Baptist spirit, which is not a rigid, hyper ultraorthodox approach." When the Southern Baptist Convention was formed 151 years ago, it was intended mostly to share funds for missionary work and evangelism. It is not a means of imposing political or doctrinal views from the top down, he says.

While some moderates regard Mr. Dilday as something of a modern Martin Luther, battling for the soul of the church, many conservatives worry that he may dilute church doctrine.

Some influential conservative churches have already withdrawn all financial ties to the Texas convention, sending funds instead to the nationwide Southern Baptist leadership in Nashville. A few pastors even talked of leaving the state convention altogether.

Others, however, have been more cautious. "Some of these younger pastors wanted to pull out of the convention," says the Rev. Harold O'Chester, a conservative pastor and head of the 4,000-member Great Hills Baptist Church in Austin. "But I said, 'Just relax ... what goes around comes around.' "

That doesn't mean that Mr. O'Chester is particularly happy with the church's new moderate direction. In fact, he says, moderates unwittingly may be diluting age-old Baptist doctrine on everything from sexual morality to the leading role of men in their families and churches. "Every individual has the right to interpret Scripture in his own way," O'Chester says, "but the corollary of that is you don't have the right to believe anything you want in Scripture and still call yourself a Southern Baptist."

Indeed, how a Baptist interprets Scripture is at the heart of some of the church's sharpest divisions. Conservatives generally hold that every line of the Scriptures must be taken literally and followed to the letter. This has meant, for instance, that moderate Baptists would accept a woman as a pastor, but conservatives would not, citing the Apostle Paul's injunction that "The woman should learn in silence."

New president's plans

Even so, Dilday wants to recruit more women and minority pastors, and also set up new state Bible colleges to compete with more-conservative Southern Baptist seminaries.

But Dilday's views have gotten him into trouble before. Three years ago, he was fired by the Southern Baptist Convention as head of the conservative-controlled Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, for not being conservative enough. Today, he is a professor at Baylor University's Truett Seminary in Waco, Texas, which itself broke ties with the Southern Baptist Convention six years ago to avoid increased intervention by conservatives.

By and large, moderate pastors support Dilday's election - he has vowed he will not impose his own beliefs on any church.

"I think it's great if it keeps Texas on a moderate course," says the Rev. Robert Ballance, pastor of the Highland Park Baptist Church in Austin. Unlike some churches, Baptists don't have a hierarchy. "Baptists have the notion of the priesthood of the believer... so each member has the right to read Scripture and interpret it as he or she feels led."

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