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Debate Reveals Fault Lines in Southern Baptist Convention

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The Southern Baptist Convention on Tuesday previewed new fault lines developing between factions for exclusivity and accommodation in America’s largest Protestant religious body.

Tuesday night messengers in San Antonio, Texas, debated whether to allow trustee boards to adjudicate doctrines left unsettled by the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message.

“If the Baptist Faith & Message is sufficient for the Southern Baptist Convention at large, it should be sufficient for all Southern Baptist entities and institutions,” said Rick Garner, senior pastor of Liberty Heights Church, an SBC-affiliated congregation in Liberty Township, Ohio.

Earlier Garner made a motion to put the entire convention on record as affirming a statement passed in February by the SBC Executive Committee declaring the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message “sufficient in its current form to guide trustees in their establishment of policies and practices of entities of the convention.”┬áThe motion carried 2,137-1,565.

A little more than a year ago, the SBC International Mission Board approved new policies against appointing missionaries who pray with a “private prayer language”–a form of speaking in tongues typically associated with charismatics and neo-Pentecostals–and tightening requirements for baptism. Neither issue is addressed specifically in the Baptist Faith & Message, the SBC’s official guideline for doctrinal accountability.

A majority of IMB trustees said the changes were necessary to ensure doctrinal integrity of Southern Baptist missions. Opponents said they are secondary concerns that should not disqualify people who affirm basic Baptist beliefs from full participation in convention life.

“Now that we have clarified and solidified what we think about the authority of God’s word, we are struggling with the temptation to lay down certain interpretations to compare a true Southern Baptist with a maverick Southern Baptist,” SBC Executive Committee President/CEO Morris Chapman said during a report. “We must not make every doctrine a crusade or political football.”

Robin Hadaway, a professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and former IMB missionary, said SBC entities need to be free to base hiring decisions on moral issues like divorce, speaking in tongues and use of alcohol and tobacco that are not included in the Baptist Faith & Message.

He said the confession of faith is a “guide” for the entities but not “an exhaustive list.”

“Let’s not make a creed of the Baptist Faith & Message,” Hadaway said. “Let’s keep it a guide.”

Dwight McKissic, an African-American pastor nearly dismissed as a trustee of an SBC seminary for criticizing the IMB policy during a chapel sermon and disclosing that he personally uses a private prayer language, said the argument creates a “quandary” for churches like his, which buy into the SBC because they agree with the Baptist Faith & Message but not with policy decisions that are inconsistent with that statement.

The debate, along with occasional disparaging references to the “emerging church,” signals a growing generational shift between an old guard that fought to rid the SBC of “liberalism” and younger pragmatists who contend that continuing to fight old battles and failure to adapt to today’s culture put the convention at risk of becoming irrelevant.

SBC President Frank Page, elected last year as a dark horse with backing of the agents of change, urged Southern Baptists to transcend internal differences lest the denomination’s churches become “right but empty.”

“You want to know why our baptisms continue to languish in a day and time when people are receptive to the gospel?” Page asked in his presidential address. “It’s because we have not been right with God. In our arrogance we have been fighting the wrong battles.”

Media covering the convention compare the rift to the holy war between conservatives and moderates that dominated headlines for more than a decade between the late 1970s and early 1990s, but attendance numbers suggest it is so far a comparatively minor skirmish.

As of Tuesday evening registration totaled 8,560, about one-fourth of the 32,727 messengers the last time the convention met in San Antonio in 1988. Unless registration bumps before adjournment tomorrow past 8,582 (1998 in Salt Lake City), it will be the second-smallest convention since 1951. The attendance record, 45,519, was set in Dallas in 1985.

Lacking a contested election for president–Page, pastor of First Baptist Church in Taylors, S.C., as expected, won a traditional second one-year term by acclamation–attention turned to the race for first vice president, a largely symbolic vote gauging the convention’s mood.

Benefiting from a home-turf advantage, Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, defeated David Rogers, a missionary in Spain, by a vote of 2,177 to 966.

Rogers, the son of the deceased and beloved former SBC president Adrian Rogers, has blogged about his disagreement with the new IMB policies.

Rogers is not attending this year’s convention, because he is attending his son’s high-school graduation in Spain, David Dykes, pastor of Green Acres Baptist Church in Tyler, Texas, said in his nomination speech for Rogers, but he would have been able to serve, because he is scheduled for stateside assignment beginning next month.

Dykes’ church is a leading financial supporter of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, one of two competing state conventions, both recognized by the SBC. While the larger and more-established BGCT gives more money of the two to the SBC–$13.8 million compared to $11.2–the smaller and younger SBTC gives a higher percentage–54 percent of undesignated receipts–and is generally viewed as more sympathetic to the SBC’s fundamentalist direction.

In his nomination speech, First Baptist Church of Dallas Pastor Mac Brunson enthusiastically introduced Richards, a longtime combatant in the SBC’s “conservative resurgence” who once chaired the Christian Life Commission, as “one of us.”

In other business, the convention voted to refer a motion to study the feasibility of establishing a database of Southern Baptist clergy and church staff who are credibly accused of, have confessed to or were convicted of sexual abuse or harassment to the SBC Executive Committee.

The motion by Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., requests the Executive Committee report findings and/or recommendations at the convention next year.

Christa Brown of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), a victim-advocacy group that has been pushing for a comprehensive SBC-wide program to combat sexual abuse by clergy, applauded it a “a step forward” toward making “kids safer for the future.”

“This is just one step,” Brown said in a statement. “There is much more that needs to be done, but this is a good step.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.