Southern Baptist moderates who oppose the conservative leadership of the country’s largest Protestant denomination last month elected leaders of a new mission agency—a body that could become the nucleus for a breakaway denomination.

“Brothers and sisters, our long denominational exile is over,” said John Hewett, 38, pastor of the First Baptist Church, Asheville, North Carolina, who was elected moderator of the new Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at the closing session of a convocation of about 6,000 dissenting moderates. Meeting in Atlanta, May 9–11, moderates said they have given up the political struggle to recapture national leadership of the 15 million-member Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and have founded the new group as a way to cut financial ties with it and bypass its conservative leaders.

Hewett and other moderate spokesmen insisted their actions did not mark the start of a new denomination, but they declined to rule out the possibility for the future. In his acceptance speech, Hewett declared that he envisions the new group as seeking to embrace “a coalition of free and autonomous churches and individuals, devoted to the historic principles.… As free Baptists we are resolved to live free or die.”

In a show of its “inclusiveness,” as well as its designs for permanence, the convocation elected veteran peace-and-antihunger activist Patricia Ayres of Austin, Texas, as moderator-elect. Construction executive William Owen of Ardmore, Oklahoma, was elected recorder.

Source Of Funds

The May meeting was a follow-up to a session in Atlanta last August in which about 3,000 dissident moderates voted to seek a way for their local churches to support mission work apart from the SBC executive committee, which administers a $140 million annual Cooperative Mission budget. The moderates’ interim mission group reported donations of nearly a half-million dollars through March 31, from 211 churches and individuals. The new group approved a 1991 budget of about $320,000, including expenses and backing for mission projects.

By contrast, the SBC lists nearly 38,000 local churches and about $4.7 billion in total annual collections at all levels. The convention supports 3,800 foreign missionaries in 121 countries.

The SBC’s vice-president for public relations, Mark Coppenger, downplayed the significance of the Atlanta conclave in an interview, saying, “It doesn’t seem to be that big a movement. I don’t see it as a massive rift.” He also dismissed the moderates’ money boycott as negligible thus far, saying donations to the SBC’s mission fund for the current fiscal year (beginning last October 1) are up 1 percent from last year.

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With moderates channeling their energy in alternative directions, the Southern Baptist’s annual meeting, to be held in Atlanta in early June, will likely be one of the most harmonious in more than a decade. At press time, SBC president Morris Chapman faced no declared opposition for a second one-year term. For his part, Hewett told reporters he will skip the SBC meeting.

Emotional Ties

While there was obvious sentiment for an immediate formal break at the Atlanta convocation, leaders said many moderates retain such deep emotional ties to the SBC that forcing a vote on starting a new denomination would have badly fragmented the dissidents’ fledgling movement.

“For Southern Baptists, this is our family,” said Atlanta pastor Daniel Vestal, who was defeated last year in his moderate-backed bid to become convention president. “It’s our spiritual home. It’s not easy for us to walk off.” But he likened the moderates’ situation to that of John Wesley and Martin Luther, both of whom sought to “renew” their churches from within and started breakaway movements only after deciding internal reform had failed.

A declaration from the interim panel that called the Atlanta meeting charged that conservative leaders were incapable of compromise, and that the moderates’ only options were to “come to their position or … form a new fellowship.”

“The ideas that divided Baptists in the present ‘controversy’ are the same ideas that have divided Presbyterians, Lutherans and Episcopalians …; these ideas will not be papered over,” the statement said.

Moderates have long charged that their conservative foes aim to squelch dissent, try to impose narrow theological belief tests for church-supported missionaries, involve church agencies in right-wing politics, try to keep local churches from ordaining women ministers, and seek to purge nonconservative seminary professors.

Conservative leaders counter that their movement upholds traditional Christian doctrine, including a belief that the Bible is “inerrant,” and that it has in fact restored the SBC to its historic doctrinal roots.

Richard Leigh Walker in Atlanta.

Capital Currents
Hatfield Finances Probed

According to published news reports, the Justice Department and the Senate Ethics Committee are conducting separate inquiries into the personal finances of evangelical Sen. Mark Hatfield (R-Oreg.). Central to the investigations are Hatfield’s initial failures to report gifts, trips, and scholarships that he and his family received from the University of South Carolina and an affiliated foundation over a period of several years.

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Hatfield’s office declined to comment on the investigations. The Washington Post quoted the senator as denying any improprieties, but acknowledging he was “careless” in failing to report the gifts as the law requires. Hatfield reported the gifts earlier this year in an amended financial disclosure form.

Also being publicly questioned are personal loans to the senator, totaling about $75,000, that were forgiven by John Dellenback, former Washington Congressman and former president of the Christian College Coalition (CCC). A front-page article in the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call extensively detailed the loans and CCC support of two pieces of legislation that Hatfield voted on, but also noted that loans were “probably” appropriate under the Senate rules at the time. Hatfield is on the CCC board of reference.

Dellenback could not be reached by CHRISTIANITY TODAY for comment. However, Rich Gathro, CCC vice-president for advancement, denied that Dellenback forgave the loans to promote the CCC’s political positions. “[Dellenback and Hatfield] are such strong, deep, lifelong committed brothers in Christ, it is just ludicrous to think there was anything inappropriate there,” he said. Gathro further noted that the CCC engages in little direct political work, relying on the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities to represent its interests. “Hatfield has always shown genuine support for us … but his involvement with the coalition is that of a man of faith,” Gathro said. “His well of integrity from our perspective is very deep.”

Vote Splits Dallas Church

Highland Park Presbyterian Church in suburban Dallas will remain in the Presbyterian Church (USA) (PCUSA). But the church may take a long time to recover from a recent vote on the congregation’s denominational ties.

A majority of the church’s members voted on May 19 to leave the PCUSA for the more conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). However, the church will not leave the denomination because the vote did not achieve the two-thirds majority required to authorize such a move. According to the auditing firm that counted the ballots, 2,493 voted to leave, while 2,024 voted to stay.

As a result, about 1,500 people gathered in a local high-school auditorium on Sunday, May 26, to form a new PCA church, tentatively called Park Cities Presbyterian Church. Luder Whitlock, president of Reformed Theological Seminaries in Jackson, Mississippi, and Orlando, Florida, will preach there for the summer.

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Clayton Bell, senior pastor of Highland Park, said the split should be considered positively. “I think it will give people who are totally uncomfortable with the PCUSA a place to go. And it will leave those of us who are in Highland Park Presbyterian Church now united in a renewed effort to serve the Lord in, with, and through the PCUSA,” he said.

Those choosing to leave cited the liberal leanings of the PCUSA, including a recent controversial report on human sexuality (CT, April 29, 1991, p. 29).

According to Grady Crosland, leader of Presbyterians for Congregational Unity, the group that urged leaving the PCUSA, about half of the male elders and more than half of the diaconate of the church voted to leave the mainline denomination.

Bell disputed that estimate and said the vote reflected more on how some people felt toward the PCUSA than toward Highland Park. He noted that only about 50 percent of the church’s 8,100 members voted.

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