Baptists on the brink

Texans are famous for their independence, but when Texas Baptists took a stand at their state convention two weeks ago, it was for much more, they claim, than just doing things their way: It was to save the soul of the Baptist tradition.

In a stunning step that sent a shock through the conservative-led national Southern Baptist Convention, Texas Baptists voted to withhold more than $5 million in funding from the SBC's seminaries and executive committee. They then voted to open the doors of the Texas Baptist Convention to churches from outside the state.

No one underestimates the potential impact of these actions on the future of America's largest Protestant denomination, now close to 16 million.

"They are lining up the boxes for a parallel and competitive national convention," is the view of Bill Merrell, the SBC's vice president for convention relations.

"This is the most significant schism that Southern Baptists have confronted since they split from Northern Baptists in 1845 to form the Convention," says Bill Leonard, professor of church history at the moderate Wake Forest Divinity School in North Carolina. "It's going to have long-term effects on the entire system."

Fragmentation has occurred among Southern Baptists ever since conservatives took over the denomination 20 years ago. Some moderate churches broke off in 1987 to form the Alliance for Baptists, and, others in 1991, to form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), which now claims some 1,800 congregations. Over the past decade, a slew of alternative seminaries and agencies has developed, some with links to the CBF. But this is the big blow - almost 1 of every 5 Southern Baptists is a Texan - and it has arisen following revisions made at the SBC annual meeting in June to the church's basic statement of faith.

At the core, it is a conflict between those seeking to conform the tradition to strict "biblical faithfulness" and those for whom individual freedom to interpret Scripture stands as a fundamental Baptist principle. SBC conservatives have emphasized biblical "inerrancy," but "Texans understand that Baptists were founded on the principle that every individual has a responsibility and privilege to interpret Scripture out of their relationship with God," says the Rev. Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT). Flowing out of this divergence, for example, are the SBC's recent stands calling on women to be submissive to their husbands and forbidding women pastors.

Former President Jimmy Carter publicly ended his lifelong affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention earlier this month, saying that the latest steps violate the premises of his Christian faith.

Who is the final authority?

"The conservative fundamentalists have taken steps incrementally, culminating in the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message document, to exert authority and control over the conscience of believers and to impose a creedal document upon the Baptist family," says Mr. Wade. "We have had confessions of faith throughout Baptist history, but they have always carefully defined themselves as statements 'without mandatory authority.' "

That phrase was replaced in the new statement with the intent to make it "an instrument of doctrinal accountability." Now SBC employees and professors at SBC seminaries are expected to sign the new document.

The Texans conducted a study of the seminaries and hiring and firing of faculty. They then voted by 3 to 1 to divert $4.3 million from the six SBC-funded seminaries and $1 million from the SBC Executive Committee and to give the funds to Baptist seminaries and institutions in Texas. "Our intent is for Texas Baptists to make sure we hold the Baptist vision secure," Wade says. Some 15 years from now, he adds, pastors from SBC seminaries will have a very different view from traditional Baptist teachings.

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., takes issue with that claim. "The explosive issue is whether or not there is a set of basic convictions that should bind all Southern Baptists together and that we should expect of those who teach and serve in our seminaries and institutions," he says. "The alternative to that is theological anarchy."

According to Dr. Mohler, the signing of statements of faith has always been expected in Baptist seminaries, but it just hasn't been enforced. And he believes most Baptists support it.

Dr. Merrell also disputes the claim of creedalism, pointing out that state conventions and local churches are free to choose whether or not they approve the latest statement.

Last week, Arkansas's state convention rejected the statement. Others have supported it, and some conventions are divided. "In North Carolina, what's holding it together is four giving plans that allow churches to give toward or away from the SBC," Dr. Leonard says. "Otherwise there would be a division."

Texans are also unhappy, Wade says, with the removal of the sentence saying that Jesus Christ is the criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted. "Jesus reinterpreted the Old Testament," he says, "and early in Baptist life, it was made clear that the Old Testament was to be interpreted by the new, and all of it by Christ."

The conservatives dropped the sentence to keep Jesus from being used, they say, in opposition to Paul and Old Testament writers, as, for example, on the issue of women's role in the church.

"Women have been at the heart of this fight," says Nancy Ammerman, professor of sociology of religion at Connecticut's Hartford Seminary. "Over 1,000 Southern Baptist women have been ordained to the ministry, with some 50 to 100 who are actual senior or sole pastors. Now it will be much less possible for a church to call a woman pastor."

Trust is what binds churches

Baptists have never had hierarchical structures - local churches are autonomous and call their own clergy - but they did develop a vertical system of relationships between local, state, and national bodies and a cooperative program of funding. It's this structure that the Texans have threatened.

"[They have] turned back seven decades of partnership and destroyed the vital system of trust that has bound Southern Baptists and our state conventions together," says Mohler, a key SBC leader.

"The SBC was predicated on a vast connectional system.... To lose [Texas], the jewel in the crown ... is a major disconnect," Leonard concurs.

What happens next is difficult to predict. Each side says the other has been misrepresenting it among the faithful, and there seems little appetite for attempting to bridge the divide. "They are insisting that the SBC change the Baptist Faith and Message statement," Merrell says, "which is the height of arrogance."

"The conservative leaders have engaged in a 20-year campaign to put a very conservative stamp on the SBC," says Professor Ammerman, author of "Baptist Battles." "They are doing exactly what they set out to do. The fact they might lose support along the way is not likely to deter them."

Now the 6,000 churches in Texas will have to decide whether they are going to follow the direction set by the BGCT or send their own monies to the SBC.

More crucial, perhaps, will be the extent to which churches outside of Texas begin to align themselves with the Texas convention. Some have already started to do so. "The national Baptist organization was the Wal-Mart of denominations - you could get everything there," Ammerman says. "Now people can not only imagine going somewhere else, but they've got the somewhere else to go."

Leonard sees this as a time of permanent transition. "It may take a long time for the implications to become clear," he says, "but the system is coming unglued." It could become a difficult period for local churches, as ministers have to decide where they stand, and congregations, which pick their own pastors, whom to choose and what group to align with.

What is clear, he emphasizes, is that Southern Baptists really have to talk about identity. This has been an issue for the under-40 crowd, the divinity school professor says, and now it's something everyone has to face. "The SBC, to its credit, has said, 'We've revised our confession of faith; this is who we are, live with it.' Now other Baptists have to say, 'No, let's go find something else.' And I think that's fine."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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