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The Southern Baptist Convention's recent shift prompts largest state group to hold back $5-million in protest.
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2000
Texas Baptists dealt a serious blow to the Southern Baptist Convention on Monday, voting to cut off $5-million in funds to protest a recent fundamentalist shift in the nation's largest Protestant denomination.
Leaders of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, by far the largest of the denomination's state groups, and officials of the Southern Baptist Convention saw the vote as a moment of truth, a warning that dissatisfaction with the national leadership's attempts to consolidate power could become serious enough to someday split the denomination.
"This is meant to indicate our grave concern over the continuing move of Southern Baptist leaders toward a more fundamentalist position," said the Rev. Charles Wade, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He called some of the leadership's recent decisions "almost blasphemous."
Southern Baptist leaders who had traveled to the annual state convention in Corpus Christi to lobby Texas leaders were shaken by Monday's vote.
"It's a very sad day for the Southern Baptists and for the spirit of cooperation," the Rev. Bill Merrell, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention, said after the vote. "Many see this as the beginning of the endgame in which a new national convention will be formed."
The vote follows the defection of hundreds of churches around the country after the central leadership's June vote to ban female pastors and its declaration two years earlier that wives should "submit graciously" to their husbands.
This month, former President Jimmy Carter mailed a letter to 75,000 Baptists saying he "can no longer be associated" with the Southern Baptist Convention because the denomination's leadership has become "increasingly rigid," imposing a doctrine that "violates the basic tenets of my Christian faith."
The 2.7-million Texans, who represent nearly a fifth of Southern Baptists, voted Monday to cut most of the money -- $4-million -- they give to six Southern Baptist seminaries. Wade said the seminaries teach an "over-direct evangelizing" style at the expense of more traditional Christian social work.
Instead, they will divert that money to the three more moderate Texas Baptist seminaries. Almost half of Southern Baptist seminarians attend schools in Texas.
The Texas convention also cut off all $1-million of support to the denomination's headquarters in Nashville, which is controlled by the new leadership. Texans will continue to contribute $2-million to missionary work at home and abroad.
Perhaps more important, Texas leaders changed their constitution to actively welcome other states to join the Texas convention and serve on its committees, a move Southern Baptist leaders saw as planting the seeds of a competing denomination.
Politically, Texas leaders are not nearly as liberal as Carter. But the dispute transcends politics and involves elemental theology, the kind that historically has split denominations.
As the protesters see it, the fundamentalists who have taken over leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention in the past 20 years have changed the very nature of the 150-year-old denomination, moving it away from one that values religious autonomy -- an individual's personal experience of faith and relationship with Jesus Christ.
In its place they have established a system under which self-appointed "Baptist popes," as critics call them, become the sole interpreters of biblical truth and impose that truth on believers.
"In church history there are times when those in power have used the Bible as a club to bludgeon the conscience," Wade said. "But we believe God created us to be free moral agents."
Texas leaders specifically object to a June modification to the Baptist Faith and Message -- the closest statement the denomination has to an official creed. The statement, revised only twice before in the denomination's history, drops language that says the faith is "grounded in Jesus Christ." Instead, it says the Bible "is the source of our authority."
Southern Baptist leaders dispute those objections as based on an extreme reading of the changes.
In a World Wide Web site set up to rebut the charges, they deny "demoting Jesus" and "replacing him with a book."
The statement merely clarifies misunderstandings caused by vague language in the 1963 version, they write. Often, the emphasis on Jesus has allowed believers to use their religious experience to engage in freelance scriptural interpretation, writes Russell Moore, a Baptist theologian.
Merrell added that Southern Baptist seminaries have always required their students to sign statements saying they agree with tenets of the faith.
"The Baptist Faith and Message has been the victim of severe negative spinning," Merrell said Monday. "If you read it closely, you will see that we reject the idea that any ecclesiastical body can coerce the beliefs of anyone."