Baptists battle gets poltical in spirit


Tuesday, September 26th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


One side is barnstorming across Texas, with rallies from Del Rio to Muleshoe to Eagle Lake. The other side is sending its biggest guns to promote its position, with a 10-gallon emphasis on Texas connections.


Lone Star style politics, you bet. But this is a battle for the allegiance of Texas Baptists – and the millions of dollars that Texans send annually to the nation's largest Protestant denomination.


Southern Baptists all over the nation are tracking the conflicting crusades leading up to next month's meeting of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. There, some hope to take the unprecedented move of creating a new, moderate Baptist denomination. On Tuesday, the state convention's executive board is expected to approve a plan that would shift more than $5 million away from the national convention's schools and agencies next year.


If approved at the state convention next month, the budget shift would be an aggressive declaration of independence by the largest state organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. (A new, much smaller organization, the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, remains loyal to the SBC.)


The struggle is important to many Southern Baptists and to many Texans because of the numbers: Texas donations cover about 14 percent of the budget of the Southern Baptist Convention. And about one in every eight Texans is Baptist.


Moderates who control the state convention are using their best-known leaders to hold two dozen "Jesus rallies" over the next three weeks. An unexpected name on the speakers' list for a rally next week in Sugar Land is Joel Gregory, who hasn't served in a pulpit since his short stint leading First Baptist Church of Dallas.


Dr. Gregory was once a rising star in conservative national Baptist circles. But he'll be speaking in support of the moderate state convention.


"This is a movement to preserve the integrity of the Baptist General Convention of Texas," he said. The conservative national convention has shown "a fundamental breakdown in the historical understanding of Baptist life," he said.


Conservatives countered the moderates' campaign blitz with a meeting last week in Fort Worth, bringing seminary and Baptist agency heads to field questions from leaders from across the state. They created a 14-page handout that will be sent to millions of Texas Baptists. And they're creating a new Web site (baptist2baptist.org) to carry their message online.


The language of the conflict is as colorful as any secular Texas election wrangle. State officials brand the national leaders as "fundamentalists" who have sold out traditional Baptist values. The other side says it's the keeper of real Baptist tradition and describes state leaders as angry, hostile and disloyal.


National leaders with Texas connections all but jangled their spurs at a meeting last week to demonstrate their understanding of the needs of Texas Baptists.


Dr. Richard Land, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission – and a Houston native – announced, "It's good to be back in Texas."


Dr. Paige Patterson, head of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., and former associate pastor at First Baptist Dallas, introduced himself as the "missionary to the wild, wild East."


Touting Texans


Moderates are also showing off their Texas heritage.


"Texas Baptists, we're saying we're not changing," said David Currie, head of Texas Baptists Committed and the organizer of the Jesus rallies. "We're going to stay who we are."


Leaders of both sides say they regret the level of rhetoric.


"I really think the use of political strategy is wrong in God's work," said the Rev. Russell Dilday, who lost his job as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth six years ago in the decades-long battle between moderates and conservatives. "But once one group organizes a completely democratic structure to manipulate it ... the only way to fight that is to organize an equally efficient group to get out votes for your side."


The need to get the word out directly to Texas Baptists is one thing both sides agree about. Even as state leaders kicked off their rallies last week, most of the top leaders of the national body came to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth to meet with directors of missions from more than three dozen local associations from across the state.


"We're not organized at the Southern Baptist Convention level to go from precinct to precinct in a political way throughout the state of Texas," said SBC executive board president Morris Chapman. "But we are going to try to communicate our message the best way we know how."


Olin Boles of the Gulf Coast Baptist Association asked what may be the central question:


"Are the differences that divide us more than the ministry that unites us?"


The differences


For outsiders, the differences can be hard to follow. Both sides profess faith in salvation through Jesus and the authority of the Bible. Both sides affirm the peculiarly Baptist independence of local churches and the so-called "priesthood of the believer." And both sides say their highest priority is saving souls for Christ.


But as usual, God and the devil are in the details.


Twice during the last three years, the national convention has amended the Baptist Faith and Message, first created in 1928 and rewritten in 1963 as a summary of Baptist beliefs.


Conservatives who support the new document say it reflects current Baptist thought. Moderates, including the leaders of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, say it is a radical shift away from Baptist tradition.


One point of theology and one of practice seem to have drawn the most fire. The religious question is whether the Bible is the only way to understand Jesus or whether one's personal experience of Jesus is the lens through which the Bible should be read. The new document takes the former position, the old one the latter.


For Dr. Gregory, who was on the conservatives' side a decade ago in the fight over absolute Biblical authority, the Southern Baptist Convention leaders have gone a step too far, he said.


"The disagreement has shifted to the interpretation of Scripture rather than the inspiration of Scripture," he said.


Conservatives say their interpretations are self-evident from what the Bible says.


The practical question is how loyal Baptists should be to any document other than the Bible. National leaders have begun requiring all seminary professors and other denominational leaders to sign the new Faith and Message. Moderates say that creates a creed, something Baptists have always rejected.


Dr. Patterson said the Faith and Message has not become a creed. It's not treated as if it were equal to the Bible, he said.


But the directors of missions who met with national leaders last week may have a message for both sides.


Some pastors in his association say they want to create yet another Baptist association, said Warren Hart of the Red River Valley Baptist Association:


"STOP. Sick and Tired of Politics."