Watergate, women, Weber, and The Wonderful World of Disney.

Those were four of the topics considered at last month’s 117th annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, attended by a record 18,000-plus messengers (delegates).

Watergate was alluded to in several talks and a resolution. Pastor Edwin Young of the 4,300-member First Baptist Church of Columbia, South Carolina, issued a stinging rebuke of President Nixon in a speech to SBC pastors. He called the transcripts “one of the most pornographic, vulgar, and blasphemous documents” he’s ever read. Not once, said Young, does one find in the tapes the President asking “What is right?” “What is moral?” “What is honest?” Young was given generous applause after the Watergate reference, but later he was also given some stiff reprimands privately by the opposition.

Introduced as a committed Christian, Texas governor Dolph Briscoe declared that when government departs from the principles of justice, equality, and morality, “it ceases to serve the people.” He said ministers can play a vital, dominant role in building a state and nation that is “dedicated to the best interests of all the people.”

Pastor W. A. Criswell of the Dallas First Baptist Church lamented the President’s language. Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, an active SBC layman (he’s a deacon and Sunday-school teacher in Atlanta), predicted Nixon will be impeached. He chided Christians for lack of involvement: “There has never been an adequate role played by Christians in this nation … in shaping the standards and quality of public life.”

Vice President Gerald Ford, however, evoked thunderous applause at a laymen’s meeting when he said he’d prefer to speak on what’s right about America.

Without debate the messengers passed a mildly-worded Christian Life Commission (CLC) resolution calling for morality in government and urging “that when there is gross failure … legal procedures be scrupulously followed in assessing guilt and removing from office those judged guilty.”

On the matter of women, messengers wavered somewhat. They rejected a constitutional amendment by a Texas man which would have forbidden SBC boards and agencies from endorsing anyone but men to the military and institutional chaplaincy. But they also tabled a CLC recommendation that SBC agencies and churches elect “women to positions of leadership for which God’s gifts and the Holy Spirit’s calling equip them.” Observers said some feared the measure tacitly endorsed women as deacons and pastors. (About one dozen women have been ordained to the ministry by local SBC churches, a source of agitation to many other churches.) Additionally, the messengers turned down a CLC proposal that at least 20 per cent of the membership on SBC boards be women.

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A last-minute dark-horse candidate, Jaroy Weber, 52, was as surprised as anybody when he was elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention. But he’s not exactly an unknown. He is pastor of the 9,700-member First Baptist Church of Lubbock, Texas, the SBC’s second largest, and for the past year he was president of the SBC Pastors’ Conference. Earlier, he served pastorates in Alabama, Louisiana, and elsewhere in Texas, and at one time he was evangelism secretary for the Louisiana Baptist Convention.

A graduate of Fort Worth’s Southwestern Seminary, he describes himself as a “conservative, Bible-believing preacher.” He favors a new name for the SBC, thinks women have been great for the church but isn’t ready to see any ordained as deacons in his church, and sees no theological storm clouds that might disrupt the SBC. As for goals, he wants to see the SBC push on in evangelism.

Relatedly, the convention overwhelmingly reaffirmed a 1971 resolution approving abortion in cases of “rape, incest, clear evidence of likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” An outright anti-abortion proposal was referred to next year’s convention.

In a surprise of sorts, Lubbock pastor Jaroy Weber was elected SBC president (see box, this page), defeating in the run-off Kenneth L. Chafin, a Houston pastor and former evangelism professor and executive. Weber was nominated by prominent Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers, a board member of the Baptist Faith and Message Fellowship (BFMF), a small group of SBC pastors and laypersons concerned about doctrinal purity in SBC seminaries and printed materials. Some thus saw Weber as “BFMF’s man,” but several BFMF leaders, while expressing approval of Weber, said they had voted for Wichita Falls (Texas) pastor Landrum P. Leavell, who was among those defeated on the first ballot. (Some observers interpreted Weber’s win as essentially a backlash vote against Chafin and Leavell, both of whom allegedly politicked for months for the job.)

Weber said his only connection to BFMF is that he has friends who are members of it. In an interview he stated that he is not gunning for a fight on the seminary issue (the documentary theory of interpretation, for example, is taught in some SBC seminaries; this is the same issue at the heart of the upheaval in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod). There is room in the SBC for differing interpretations, he said, and any gross deviance can be looked after by the respective seminary boards. SBC unity, he added, has priority.

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Among other actions, the delegates voted to ask NBC-TV to move the Sunday evening show, “The Wonderful World of Disney,” to another time or to show re-runs at another time. Most Southern Baptists, the statement said, are in training union or church services at that hour.

The convention also:

• passed a resolution on peace after deleting a statement recognizing that each individual should determine “God’s will concerning participation in war”;

• approved a statement urging SBC agencies to promote programs and establish employment practices that show “racism is theologically untenable”;

• rejected quota plans for assuring racial and ethnic representation on boards;

• elected Pastor Charles King, 78, of Frankfort, Kentucky, as second vice president, the first black in history to serve as an officer of the 12.3 million-member denomination;

• approved without debate a $40 million budget;

• approved a motion by Criswell that a committee study the possibility of changing the name of the 129-year-old body;

• tabled a measure that would have created a Commission on Evangelism separate from the home mission board (a committee is studying the issue);

• heard evangelist Billy Graham conclude the proceedings with a message before some 25,000 on Christ’s second coming.

Showers And Skinflints

Retired pastor J. D. Grey of New Orleans, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, at last month’s annual SBC meeting mildly rebuked another former SBC president, Pastor W. A. Criswell of the 18,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas. Criswell, 65, had remarked during a Sunday sermon in May that he intends to return to the church “every penny” he earned in salary during his thirty years as pastor. The sum amounts to more than $600,000. He has already begun to put it into the offering plate; much of it, however, may be given posthumously as a bequest. “I have always wanted to do God’s work without any kind of financial reward,” he said.

His remark was not reported by the press until the week before the denomination’s convention in Dallas. Grey, in a speech to SBC pastors, said he was worried that “some tightfisted skinflint of a church member somewhere” might pick up the news story and try to cut his pastor’s salary, and that pastors all over the country might be hurt financially by the report. “God’s word says the laborer is worthy of his hire,” he asserted. He evoked laughter when he said, “I’m computing how much they owe me. I never was paid as much as I was worth back there in those early days.” Grey said later he objected not to Criswell’s decision but rather to his announcing it.

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Criswell’s annual salary is $25,000. He owns his home, his tape cassettes and fifteen books have sold well, he fills numerous speaking engagements, and he has received many “private gifts,” from suits and automobiles to corporate stock. Along with these showers of blessing, says Criswell, “God has given me the ability to save money and to invest it wisely.”

Showers also fall upon his church, which has an annual budget in excess of $4 million and has just embarked on a multi-million-dollar expansion program, partly to provide facilities for the thriving three-year-old Criswell Bible Institute. A few days before the convention convened a lawyer telephoned and announced that a Methodist woman who had never visited the church had nevertheless bequeathed it land valued at more than $300,000. She had seen Criswell on television and was impressed by his preaching, the lawyer explained.

Canadian Presbyterians: Establishing The Priorities

The Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC), formed in 1875 when four branches of Presbyterianism in Canada came together, began a year-long celebration of its centennial with the opening of its 100th General Assembly in Kitchener, Ontario. A capacity crowd filled St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (with 2,900 communicants, it’s the PCC’s largest) for the opening service, and a large overflow audience viewed proceedings on closed-circuit television at a nearby Lutheran church.

About 250 commissioners were on hand for the assembly’s study and business sessions. They unanimously chose as moderator Hugh F. Davidson, 65, stewardship and budget-promotion secretary of the church for the past fourteen years. To Davidson has gone much of the credit for the increase in the PCC’s budget from $1.5 million during his first year in office to more than $2.2 million last year. The commissioners also voted to increase the basic minimum stipend for ministers by $900 to $6,400 next January. (Twenty graduates enter the ministry this year, sixteen from Knox College in Toronto and four from The Presbyterian College in Montreal.)

His predecessor, the Reverend Ag-new H. Johnston of Thunder Bay, Ontario, suggested that the PCC moderator, largely a figurehead, from now on be encouraged to speak out for the church “even if he says the wrong thing.”

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A long statement detailing the basis and purpose of the mission task of the Church sparked lively debate. Presented by a former moderator, Murdo Nicolson of Calgary, Alberta, convenor of a special committee, the statement laid down the distinctions between evangelism and social service, establishing the former as a priority. In amended form it is to go down to the synods and presbyteries for study and report to the committee on church doctrine.

A special committee report on the charismatic revival aroused debate that culminated in acceptance of the following summary as an interim statement until the whole document has been more carefully scrutinized:

A charismatic experience is an experience of the presence of Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit in a gathering of Christians or in an individual’s personal life, and a response of enthusiasm and exaltation thereto. This experience of the presence of Jesus Christ is documented in Holy Scripture, and, therefore, has a legitimate place in the life of the Body of Christ, the Church.

The communication-services committee, criticizing the quality of television programming, urged that “all broadcasters in Canada provide television entertainment for children, presenting social values that encourage a sensitive approach to life and respect for people.”

By a strong vote the assembly agreed to continue support of the World Council of Churches’ fund to combat racism, although a number spoke in opposition.

A gift of $1,000 for youth evangelism was received from the Reverend and Mrs. Donald R. Sinclair of Guelph, Ontario, whose 19-year-old daughter was killed by Zambian soldiers on the Rhodesian border last year. The money came from interest on a trust fund that the Sinclairs set up with the ex gratia payment of $50,000 from the government of Zambia.


Lester Roloff: Trouble In Texas

Aiming to “put a little fear of God into the press,” evangelist Lester Roloff, 60, of Corpus Christi, Texas, last month filed libel suits totaling $35.5 million against several newspapers, reporters, and the National Broadcasting Company (NBC).

Roloff’s troubles with the press began a year ago when sixteen of the several hundred girls at his Rebekah Home for Girls in Corpus Christi signed statements complaining about the treatment they had received. Some told of beatings. One father said he saw a girl being beaten while two men held her upside down. County authorities launched an investigation and reported their findings to the state’s Department of Public Welfare (DPW), then to the attorney general’s office when no action was forthcoming by the DPW. Word was leaked to reporters; their stories led to moves by the DPW and hearings in the Texas House of Representatives.

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Citing biblical grounds, Roloff candidly admitted that spankings were administered occasionally at his Texas homes, all unlicensed (Rebekah, the Anchor Home for Boys near Zapata, and the Lighthouse for Adults and Boys on Padre Island); “better a pink bottom than a black soul,” he quipped. He acknowledged that he fed the girls only two meals a day and one on Sundays, that he provided little education and no counseling or sex instruction (as required by welfare regulations), and that the girls were marched into a hall to listen to his daily broadcasts but were not permitted any other radio or television programs.

But, he pointed out, the girls—ages 12 to 18, committed by courts as delinquents or by parents—benefited by the Rebekah brand of discipline, and he introduced several girls whose testimonies backed him up. The girls were in good health, he noted, adding that the Bible was the only handbook of regulations he needed, especially since most of the girls were “problem cases.”

A court ordered Roloff nevertheless to conform to minimal DPW regulations and to obtain licenses or close. The order also enjoined Roloff’s employees from any punishment that caused physical harm to the youngsters, from withholding food, from using handcuffs, and from pulling hair. Also, boys under 16 were barred from the Lighthouse.

Meanwhile, reporter Mimi Crossley of the Houston Post ferreted out accounts of Roloff’s placement of babies born out of wedlock; these were given to adoptive parents in various states—often in violation of law. DPW officials warned Roloff he could not operate an adoption agency without a license. Roloff indicated he was concerned only that the babies be placed in the homes of believers, and he denied that money other than costs figured in placement.

The evangelist at first agreed to bring his operations up to standard and to get a license, but then he balked. Since he received no public funds, he argued, he should not be required to submit to public supervision. Many of the youths were returned home or sent elsewhere, and the Lighthouse and the Anchor Home were closed. But there were still seven girls under 18 at Rebekah when the October 1 deadline for getting a license passed.

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Roloff was slapped with a $5,400 fine and ordered to jail on contempt charges. Freed on appeal, he took his case to the state supreme court which, in a technical decision in late May, ruled in his favor. The court said that the DPW had always defined children as persons under 16, that the law permits up to six children in such homes without a license, and that fewer than six under 16 were at Rebekah on October 1. Therefore, it ruled, Roloff had complied with the lower court’s order and was not guilty of contempt.

Shocked DPW officials, warning that the ruling would remove a number of child-care institutions from state supervision, said they will press for definitive legislation next year.

A few days after the ruling Roloff filed the libel suits, alleging that the reports shattered his image as a man of God “in the eyes of those who do not understand the truth.” Cited were the Houston Post and reporter Crossley ($5.5 million), the Texas Observer of Austin and reporter Molly Ivins ($5 million), the Chicago Daily News and the magazine New Times ($5 million each) for running the Ivins reports, National Spotlight of Canada ($5 million), and NBC and its correspondent Floyd Kalber ($10 million) for a January news telecast.

Roloff, an independent evangelist who broadcasts on some 100 stations, graduated from Baylor University and started out as a Southern Baptist pastor in Corpus Christi in the forties. In 1954 he left the Southern Baptists when they banned him from a Baptist-owned radio station for his “attacks against individuals, churches, schools, and denominations.” Two years later he bought the station. His current annual income is reportedly about $2 million. A licensed pilot, he flies his own plane on visits to rehabilitation facilities he still runs elsewhere in the nation.

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