Conservatives re-elect Charles Stanley as president, and a ‘peace committee’ is formed in an attempt to restore unity.

A record turnout was expected for last month’s annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), but nobody predicted that 45,431 messengers (delegates) would show up. Southern Baptists clogged Dallas’s freeways as they hurried to the expected shoot-out between conservatives who want to stop a perceived “liberal drift” in denominational seminaries and agencies, and moderates who say they desire “unity amidst diversity.”

Conservatives claimed the major victory by re-electing Charles Stanley as president of the 14.3 million-member denomination. Garnering 55 percent of the votes, Stanley defeated Winfred Moore, the candidate backed by denominational moderates. Moore is pastor of the First Baptist Church in Amarillo, Texas, and president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. He later was elected to the office of first vice-president, a position that has no appointive powers.

A gulf has been widening between denominational conservatives and moderates since 1979, when Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers was elected SBC president with conservative support. Conservative-backed presidential candidates have been elected every year since. Stanley’s victory last month moved conservatives closer than ever to gaining control over the institutions of the nation’s largest non-Roman Catholic denomination.

In an attempt to bridge the gulf between the opposing factions, SBC messengers approved a denominational “peace committee.” The committee was proposed by an ad hoc task force of state Baptist presidents and former SBC president Franklin Paschall. The task force named a roughly equal number of conservatives and moderates to the panel, as well as some who are not identified with either group. Stanley and Moore were named ex officio members with voting rights.

The committee will study the causes of the division in the SBC, and it will propose solutions aimed at reconciliation. Paschall said the panel will deal with “issues,” “personalities,” and “spiritual problems.… We’ve been pitting power against power, and it’s a no-win situation. Whoever wins, we all lose.”

The peace committee received support from conservatives as well as moderates, but other issues led to intense parliamentary wrangling. Conservatives turned back efforts by moderates to trim presidential appointment power. Stanley referred most of those motions to the SBC executive committee, where conservatives are close to having a majority. He ruled some of the motions out of order, provoking moderates to protest from the floor.

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A war of words had been building for months before the Dallas convention. Preconvention campaigning for the office of SBC president had been heavy. The heads of three Southern Baptist seminaries openly opposed Stanley’s re-election. Roy L. Honeycutt, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, had called for a “holy war” against the “unholy forces” of the SBC’s conservative faction. Russell Dilday, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, charged that SBC conservatives were trying to make “clones” of W. A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas’s First Baptist Church. Such comments brought a sharp response from the 76-year-old pastor of the denomination’s largest congregation.

“It isn’t right for them to take our Cooperative Program [unified budget] money and damn us,” Criswell said. “In some respects we have a hierarchy more dominating than the Episcopal Church. They say we [conservatives] are talking against missions. That’s a cover-up. Our dispute is not over the convention way of doing missions, but over liberalism and denial of the integrity of the Word of God.”

Both factions tried to enlist support by mail and telephone. Criswell wrote to the pastors of all 36,000 Southern Baptist congregations, asking them to vote for Stanley. Two of the most vocal moderate spokesmen, Dilday and Honeycutt, warned against a conservative takeover of the denomination. In Georgia, 2,000 moderates signed a full-page ad in the Atlanta Constitution opposing Stanley, pastor of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church.

Moderates backed Winfred Moore, who has strong conservative credentials. “Some folks think I’m to the right of the Ayatollah,” he said. “I believe every word in the Bible, just as it was written.”

Moore’s church baptized 234 persons last year, and it gave nearly $600,000 to the Cooperative Program, the SBC’s method of unified funding for missions, seminaries, and denominational agencies. However, conservatives took issue with his willingness to tolerate diversity in the SBC. He has said that he sees no liberal drift in the denomination. And at last year’s convention of Southern Baptists, Moore sought to block the election of conservative strategist Paul Pressler, a Houston appeals court judge, to the denomination’s executive board.

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In contrast, Stanley showed by his appointments to the SBC committee on committees that he is committed to placing conservatives in positions of influence. As president, Stanley has the authority to appoint the committee on committees, which in turn nominates members of a committee on boards. That committee nominates a percentage of the trustees who oversee denominational seminaries and agencies. Messengers at the annual Southern Baptist Convention can vote to accept or substitute nominees for the committee on boards.

At last month’s convention, messenger James Slatton, of Richmond, Virginia, presented a motion to replace the entire 52-member slate of nominees for the committee on boards. He wanted to substitute the presidents of state Baptist conventions and state Woman’s Missionary Unions. In response, Stanley ruled that Slatton’s slate of nominees was out of order and that messengers would have to nominate and discuss substitutes one by one. Stanley’s ruling was appealed and rejected by a vote of the messengers. After conferring with parliamentarians and legal counsel, Stanley ruled that an SBC bylaw required messengers either to accept or reject the entire slate of nominees. He said nominations could not be made from the floor.

With some messengers shouting “point of order,” Stanley quickly brought to a vote the conservative-backed nominees for the committee on boards, and the slate of nominees was approved. A second slate of nominees backed by conservatives for boards of trustees also won approval, despite challenges from denominational moderates.

“They’ll say we were disturbing the peace,” said Slatton at a subsequent news conference. “I say a guarantee of peace is due process and a structure that makes peace possible. Regrettably, we don’t have due process.”

“We will continue to stand our ground and plead for fairness,” said Bill Sherman, a moderate from Nashville. “Forty-five percent of the messengers voted with us [in the presidential election]. If the president [Stanley] will show some statesmanship and give a balance to the committee on committees, with representation from the 45 percent who voted against him, then Southern Baptists can be united. If not, I can assure you we will continue to have confrontation.”

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Sherman said he was not optimistic that this would happen or that the peace committee could bridge the chasm. “Until Baptists are going to be accepting of other Baptists as Baptists,” he said, “we will never have a resolution of this problem.”

Jack Harwell, editor of Georgia’s state Baptist newspaper, the Christian Index, predicted that the peace committee will “come up with something approximating the five basics.” He was referring to biblical inspiration, and Christ’s virgin birth, deity, substitionary atonement, and bodily resurrection.

Moderates and conservatives soon will begin making plans for next year’s convention in Atlanta. Because SBC presidents are limited to two successive terms, Stanley cannot run for re-election in 1986. Harwell predicts a presidential contest between former SBC president Adrian Rogers and Winfred Moore, who lost the election this year to Stanley.

“Moore is the biggest gun the moderates have,” Harwell said. “He will inject himself into the [appointment] process, and if not consulted [by Stanley], he can call press conferences and issue statements.

“The word I get is that the fundamentalists have been saving Adrian [Rogers] for the most critical time,” Harwell said. “Atlanta will be it. That will produce a confrontation bigger than this one.”

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