Controversy often present at annual convention
Just as you can count on a hot Texas summer every year, you can count on controversy to spring from Southern Baptists' annual June convention. This year isn't likely to be any different as about 10,000 Southern Baptists convene this week in Orlando, Fla.
The country's largest Protestant denomination is expected on Tuesday and Wednesday to make additions to its basic statement of faith, including a prohibition against women serving as pastors and a statement against homosexuality. Other proposed revisions to the Baptist Faith and Message would continue to pull conservative Baptists even further apart from more moderate Baptists.
The Southern Baptist Convention doesn't shy away from controversy, and the last few years are proof. The nation's largest Protestant denomination has been particularly vocal during its annual June conventions. Here's a sampling of actions from the last three gatherings:
June 1999: Messengers, or delegates, vote to rebuke President Clinton for proclaiming June to be Gay and Lesbian Pride Month. The resolution also called on Mr. Clinton, a Southern Baptist, to "rescind his appointment of an openly professed homosexual as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg."
June 1998: Messengers overwhelmingly approve an amendment on family life to the Baptist Faith and Message. The document, which had been unaltered since 1963, is considered a summary of basic beliefs by many Baptists. The amendment included a declaration that a wife should "submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." It also defined marriage as a heterosexual union.
June 1997: The convention votes to boycott the Walt Disney Co. Baptists were offended that Disney offered "Gay and Lesbian Days" at its theme parks and offered medical benefits to the partners of gay and lesbian employees.
SOURCE: Dallas Morning News research
But no matter what critics may say, Southern Baptist leaders say they are just doing what they are supposed to do as Christians.
"I had someone tell me the other day, 'Don't you know that you're rubbing the cat's fur the wrong way?'" said Dr. Paige Patterson, outgoing president of the 15.9 million-member denomination. "And I said, 'Then turn the cat around.'
"He was having trouble understanding why we didn't mind having the world against us. You get used to it, but you don't go out looking for it. But neither should any Christian be surprised, because Jesus said the world hated him and they would hate Christians. For us to be astonished would be to fail to hear what our master said."
But others say that Baptists do, in fact, go "looking for it."
Dr. Bill Leonard, historian and dean of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, says the denomination uses the spotlight on the convention to aggressively push its beliefs.
"The problem is it sounds so harsh in rhetoric in these kinds of moments when the press is focusing attention," said Dr. Leonard, who is a moderate Southern Baptist. "In the public mind, 'It's June and here are the Baptists telling us how bad we are.' That may not be the way they intend it, but that's how they are perceived.
"History will tell in 100 years. Will they be celebrating, or will they be apologizing again for having been insensitive to issues, as they did a few years ago for slavery?"
Dr. Leonard said it is laudable that the convention has drawn a clear picture of who it is and who it wants to be, particularly with the proposed revisions to the statement of faith. But he said it is difficult for the denomination to "have it both ways."
"To have such a publicly rigid face or persona and then to expect people to respond to their message - that is, I think, part of the dilemma that all groups face," he said. "How can you be specific in identity and open to diversity?"
The reality is that the Southern Baptists have been the mainline denomination of the South for so long and things are changing, said Dr. David Key, director of Baptist studies at Emory University's Candler School of Theology in Atlanta.
"The South is changing and becoming more and more like the rest of the country," said Dr. Key, who is also the pastor of a moderate Southern Baptist church outside Atlanta. "This group is very nervous about that, so they continue to pass things that are very counterculture."
He said that the news generated by the Southern Baptist Convention during the last few years is a culmination of the "fundamentalists'" control.
Conservatives took control of the denomination 20 years ago at a convention in Houston. Led by Dr. Patterson and others, the movement was prompted by theological differences between moderates and conservatives, especially on the authority and interpretation of Scripture. Those differences have caused splits at the state level.
Texas and Virginia each have separate moderate and conservative groups. And the North Carolina convention is alternating between conservative and moderate leadership under a power-sharing plan.
In Texas, the 2.7 million-member Baptist General Convention of Texas is led by moderates. Conservatives lead the much smaller Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, born in 1998.
By revising the faith statement, Dr. Key said, the Southern Baptist Convention is "codifying what they've been saying all along."
The first version of the faith statement - which individual Baptists and congregations are free to reject - was written in 1925. It was altered in 1963 and again in 1998.
"When you look at specific responses to contemporary issues, once you start, can you stop?" Dr. Leonard said of recent revisions. "Once you define doctrine so specifically, there may be no end to it because you cannot define specifically enough to satisfy the really doctrinaire folks."
That is a legitimate concern, said Dr. Patterson.
"I do think it is possible to become so sensitive to the world changing around you that you enter into constant change," he said. But he said he would remind critics that the statement of faith hasn't changed that much.
"Every 25 years it does need to be looked at," he said. "We speak to abortion and homosexuality, which in 1963 were just beginning to be issues that were dominating in the horizons. We speak to racism because we were late to the party on that. That should have been spoken to in 1925."
Dr. Key said that the statement of faith will continue to be used as a "beating stick" for convention and seminary employees and missionaries.
"They all have to agree to it if they want to be employed by the SBC."
If the convention's national leaders want to use the statement of faith as a teaching guide, it is up to them, said Dr. Charles Wade, executive director of the moderate Texas convention.
"The definition of a cooperating Baptist church in Texas is not tied to a particular statement of faith, though," he said. "It is tied to a vision of ministry and missions."
Dr. Jim Richards, executive director of the conservative Texas convention, said the national convention gets a lot of attention because of its size and because it sometimes goes against the grain of current culture.
"I think our greatest need as Southern Baptists is to redouble our efforts for missions and evangelism to keep the main thing, the main thing," he said. "It is important, however, to maintain doctrinal fidelity, which gives us a base to launch these enterprises."
Right to evangelize
Evangelism hasn't been easy for Southern Baptists. National convention leaders and other high-profile evangelicals recently released a declaration on religious freedom asserting the right to evangelize.
The document is called "The Chicago Declaration on Religious Freedom: Sharing Jesus Christ in a Pluralistic Society" because much of the drafting took place in Chicago. Another reason was that an interfaith coalition there has criticized Southern Baptist plans to evangelize in the city in July. The interfaith leaders said they feared that the campaign might prompt violence against Jews, Hindus and Muslims.
Baptists were calling for 100,000 volunteers to pour into Chicago on July 8, the beginning of an effort to evangelize 17 major cities outside the Southern Baptist heartland.
But the Chicago Tribune reported last week that only 1,200 out-of-towners had signed up. Local Baptist officials were planning to release at least 6,000 hotel rooms that had been reserved, according to the newspaper.
"When religious leaders major on inflammatory rhetoric and boastful claims, it frightens and irritates other people of faith," said Dr. Robert Parham, executive director of the independent Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn. "Neither Chicago religious leaders nor the state is denying the right of Southern Baptists to engage in evangelical witnessing. So from my perspective, they are crying wolf on religious liberty."
Dr. Patterson said that what people think of the denomination is not a great concern.
"Our greatest concern is pleasing God," he said. "If that pleases the rest of the world, fine. If not, then we're still happy."