Ben Condray considers himself theologically conservative and a traditional Southern Baptist. Yet he takes issue with the national convention's requirement that its seminary professors and denominational leaders agree with the amended Baptist Faith and Message, approved earlier this year. In Texas, that makes him a moderate. "For the last 150 years, Baptists haven't believed in creeds," Condray says. "[They are] something I can't support."
The staff counselor at First Baptist Church of Midlothian, Texas, served as a messenger (delegate) from his church to the Baptist General Convention of Texas (BGCT) convention, held earlier this week. He finds himself in step with the denomination's Texas convention, which cut more than $5 million in funding for the convention's six seminaries, the Southern Baptist Executive Committee, and the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. The move came at the BGCT gathering October 30-31. The money will be redirected to three theological schools in Texas. Although the loss of $5 million is significant, none of the agencies or seminaries to lose money has announced a budget cut.
The issues important to Condray and his fellow Texans include local church autonomy and the right for individual Baptists to interpret Scripture.
Some 6,700 messengers from Southern Baptist churches across Texas overwhelmingly voted for the funding cut. Among other actions, convention messengers voted to allow Baptists from outside Texas to serve on BGCT governing boards.
"No Baptist coerces other Baptists about what they have to believe. That's not how you share the gospel," says David Currie of Texas Baptists Committed, a support organization for moderate Baptist churches.
"We have the right to partner with whomever we want. It was poor stewardship to partner with Southern Baptist seminaries that were fundamentalist and do not teach historic Baptist doctrines."
Moderates complain that Southern Baptist conservatives who have controlled the denomination since 1979 refuse to allow them positions in leadership.
They decry what they view as legalism in the Southern Baptist Convention's refusal to allow differing opinions on the meaning of Scripture, such as women in the pastorate, and accuse its leaders of wedding the denomination to the Religious Right. BGCT president Clyde Glazener told messengers that religious leaders of Jesus' day used the law as a club to beat others into line and spoke against those who use the Bible to claim all others are liberals.
"The best friend to true liberalism is. ... a loveless, witch-hunting fundamentalism," Glazener said. "The thing liberalism and fundamentalism most have in common is that they both think they have God in their hip pockets."
As for the Baptist Faith and Message, the amended version of this statement of faith omits the phrase included in the 1963 statement, "The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ." This omission troubles moderates, who value traditional Baptist doctrines, including the priesthood of the believer. Moderates reject forcing leaders and professors to adhere to the 2000 statement as "creedalism," a litmus test of sorts for believers, which Baptists have long stood against.
But SBC president James Merritt, in an interview with Christianity Today, says that requiring seminary professors to agree with the basic tenets of faith is not creedalism. The professors have had to sign an abstract of principle, stating the theological parameters around which they must teach, since the seminaries were founded, he says. "It only stands to reason that any professor teaching in a Baptist school should be willing to fully support that Baptist denomination's confession of faith," Merritt says.
"So that does not in any sense make it a creed. It just means that we are holding those people who work in the seminaries accountable for what they teach. I don't know why it's such a big issue now.
"I still see nothing in the new Baptist Faith and Message that would cause any professor who is a true theological conservative to be uncomfortable in signing."
Merritt says that he understands the Texas moderates' concerns, but that the integrity of the denomination is at stake. "They're upset over what they've been upset over for the last 20 years, and that is, we have turned our denomination away from theological liberalism, and in fact had theological liberals teaching in our seminaries, to a denomination [that] has returned to its biblical roots of believing the Bible is the total, inerrant word of God," he says. "That's the real issue."
Texas moderates, such as Condray, disagree. They maintain there are very few, if any, liberals in the denomination. "You wouldn't find anyone in the convention hall who didn't believe the Bible," he says. The problem is, however, "There are 14 different definitions of inerrancy." The dispute is interpretation, he says, and moderates disagree with conservatives' rigid meaning to some Scripture passages that they believe are open for discussion.
Both conservatives and moderates lament that these ongoing disputes are causing further fractures within the nation's largest Protestant denomination. "There's no joy in my camp, and hopefully there's no joy on the other side," Merritt says. "I still have faith that Southern Baptists in Texas will do the right thing."
Most Texas Baptists would welcome reconciliation but believe the two sides are too far apart to come together. "I believe I understand how a child feels when their parents are going to get a divorce," says Clint Davis, a convention messenger and pastor from Mount Pleasant.
A messenger at the Texas convention moved that the BGCT look into calling in a professional Christian peacemaker to seek reconciliation with the SBC. The motion passed and will be considered by a BGCT committee.
Would the SBC be open to that? "Obviously, we would be open to reconciliation wherever reconciliation is possible," Merritt says. "I don't know if we need Christian mediators because we're both Christians. Surely there's enough spiritual maturity on both sides to where if there is room for reconciliation, we can sit down at a table and meet."
But Merritt isn't optimistic. He said that three previous attempts to discuss the matter with Texas Baptists failed. "I'm kind of intrigued that now they want to call for mediation and reconciliation. They do need to understand up front that there are certain non-negotiables, and I can tell you that the Baptist Faith and Message as it stands is a non-negotiable."
Is there hope for mending the rift? "There's always hope," says Ken Sande of Peacemaker Ministries, the Billings, Montana-based group that mediates disputes between Christians. "Read Ephesians 2 and you know there's hope. It's not because of who we are, but because of who Jesus is."
For coverage from a moderate Baptist perspective read the Associated Baptist stories "Texas Baptists ratify reduced SBC funding" and "Wade cites SBC's 'rigid limitations' as cause for rift with Texas Baptists."
Or read "Texas convention weighs reconciliation with the Southern Baptist Convention" from Baptist Press, which is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention.
Other media coverage of the Baptist General Convention of Texas's recent moves includes:
Texas Baptists look toward new future—The Associated Press (Nov. 1, 2000)
Texas Baptists cut funds to convention seminaries—The Washington Times (October 31, 2000)
Texas Baptists vote for change—The Boston Globe (October 31, 2000)
U.S. Baptists embroiled in uncivil war—The National Post (October 31, 2000)
Southern Baptists at Odds—The Washington Post (October 30, 2000)
Texas Baptists approve partial break with their denomination—The Miami Herald (October 30, 2000)
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