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Church Stealing Charged in States With Competing Conventions

The presence of separate conventions identified with the Southern Baptist Convention in three states has prompted charges of “sheep-stealing,” or seeking to lure congregations out of one fold into the other.

Concerns are sufficient in the Baptist General Association of Virginia for leadership to issue 27-page booklet of “frequently asked questions” being distributed among the state’s churches.

“Takeover of churches is a fact of life in Virginia and other state Baptist bodies across the country,” says the book titled “Truthfully Speaking: The Executive Director and Treasurer’s Frequently Asked Questions and Answers About the BGAV from Around the State.”

The book attempts to counter “untruths and half-truths,” which it says “play a big part in the takeover strategy.”

“For example, BGAV leaders have confronted those who spread the word that the BGAV condones abortion and homosexuality as a lifestyle. Such attempts to intentionally misinform Virginia Baptists are totally unacceptable!”

About 220 churches have left the BGAV to align with the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, a pro-Southern Baptist Convention group that formed in 1996 after failing in efforts to change the moderate-led BGAV from within. Another 48 churches align dually with both conventions, typically a first step toward severing ties with the BGAV.

Questions addressed in the document include whether the BGAV is trying to cut ties with the SBC and its agencies, as its opponents suggest. “Absolutely not,” the leaders respond, noting that the BGAV channeled nearly $9 million to Southern Baptist causes in 2002.

Why does the BGAV sponsor and promote alternative Sunday school literature in addition to LifeWay Christian Resources materials promoted by the SBC? “We support the decision of the local church to choose what literature they use in Sunday school.”

What is the organization’s relationship with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship? Ninety-one of the state’s 1,436 churches gave to a budget option sending all of their world mission gifts to the Atlanta-based CBF. Another 332 chose another plan affiliated solely with the SBC, 732 churches selected an option which funds both and 281 customized their own giving plan.

Others question whether the BGAV is soft on homosexuality and abortion. Answers cite resolutions affirming the sanctity of fetal life and characterizing homosexual behavior as “sinful and unacceptable for Christians.”

Allegations to the contrary on those issues “have appeared in publications of the SBCV and been repeated in e-mails and in churches across Virginia,” the book says, quoting Executive John Upton as declaring, “Baptists have every right to express their views and to affiliate as they wish, but integrity demands that they do so truthfully.”

Doyle Chauncey, executive director of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, said the statement that such charges have been in SBCV publications is “untrue.” A similar Q&A section on the breakaway convention’s Web site responds to those who accuse the SBCV of using a strategy of trying to “infiltrate and steal BGAV churches by using false information and deceptive tactics.”

“It is the official position of the SBCV that its employees will NOT in any way court a BGAV church,” the answer says. “It is true that SBCV employees will often answer the questions of an inquiring church, but those inquiries are not instigated, covertly or overtly, by SBCV employees. When those questions are asked, we do answer truthfully and to the fullest extent of our knowledge.”

The SBCV isn’t the only convention accused of church rustling. The Missouri Baptist Convention news journal “The Pathway” recently accused the breakaway Baptist General Convention of Missouri of hiring a “pitchman” to make calls on churches in the conservative-controlled MBC. The BGCM denied it is interested in luring churches away from the MBC.

Unlike Virginia and Texas, where the SBC Executive Committee receives and distributes funds from two conventions, one moderate and one conservative, the national body declined to receive money from the new Missouri group, saying it wasn’t in Southern Baptists’ best interest to cooperate with another group opposed to the conservative leadership of the Missouri Baptist Convention. Churches in the newer convention may, however, contribute to the SBC directly.

The BGAV booklet also describes the anatomy of the typical “takeover” of a local church, the first step toward severing ties. “Takeover tactics explode lives, reputations and relationships in an attempt to discredit and dis-fellowship any opposition that stands in the way,” it says. “They pit people against each other, creating fear, anger and discord.”

Takeovers happen in different ways, the book warns, often beginning in subtle ways. A fundamentalist with a strong personality may join the church and start sowing seeds of division, perhaps holding private meetings to convince others that the church is not proclaiming “the truth.”

Other new members may join the church with a hidden agenda to join him. When the pastor leaves to go to another church, they manipulate the replacement process and stack the search committee with people who will vote to hire a like-minded pastor.

Other churches report dealing with prospective pastors who conceal fundamentalist leanings or lie when asked whether they support the BGAV. Common tactics involve the browbeating of women and castigation of members who support the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the document says.

The key to preventing a takeover, it says, is “correct information” in the hands of enough people to interrupt the process. “In many situations, information is spread too little, too late or not at all,” the BGAV document says.

Some church members report attempts to convince them that the BGAV opposes and will not cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention.

“We have to get the word out that that is untrue,” said one church member speaking on the condition of anonymity. “The BGAV cooperates with all willing Baptists in missions, and it allows churches to give through different tracks to support different causes.

“That’s called the autonomy of the local church—the very thing the people taking over want to destroy.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.