Last month in Atlanta, Southern Baptist moderates laid plans that could lead to a new Baptist denomination.

Former Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president Jimmy Allen had an announcement to make to the nearly 3,000 disenchanted Southern Baptist “moderates” who met last month in Atlanta. Allen, convener of the Consultation of Concerned Baptists, merely wanted to inform participants that copies of the three-day meeting’s program were available outside the assembly hall. In making this matter-of-fact announcement, Allen suddenly found himself fighting tears as he suggested the program would someday be a collector’s item, a valuable memento of a major landmark in Baptist history.

The uninvited emotion supported the interpretation of the meeting that was offered by Albert Mohler, Jr., editor of the Christian Index, newspaper of the Georgia State Baptist Convention. Said Mohler, “What is happening here is the birth of a new denomination, being undertaken by people who, in their hearts, don’t want to take that step.”

Indeed, various moderate spokespersons said their purpose was not to divide the SBC but to seek renewal. However, they said they could no longer in good conscience support many of the SBC’s goals and programs as they are being defined and carried out by its present leadership.

Speakers made frequent, disparaging references to what they called the “fundamentalist takeover” of the 14.9 million-member denomination. Said Daniel Vestal in his keynote address, “[The fundamentalists] have not only maligned and libeled good and godly people, but they have caricatured and misrepresented others.”

By winning 12 straight elections (CT, July 16, 1990, p. 40), conservatives have increasingly gained control of SBC entities, including the seminaries, essentially on the strength of the appointive powers of the president.

Exceeded Expectations

Vestal was a candidate for president of the SBC this year in New Orleans. The morning after he was soundly defeated, he called for a gathering such as the one held last month. Organizers had originally planned for 300. Vestal said he was “overwhelmed” by the actual attendance. Offering an explanation, he said, “There’s a great deal of grief and pain out there in Southern Baptist life that’s looking for healing.”

In Atlanta, Vestal ran unopposed, as participants selected him to head a 60-to 70-member steering committee that will develop detailed proposals regarding the forms and functions of the new group. The committee will consider recommendations that emerged from last month’s meeting, including alternatives in information systems, theological education, and Sunday-school literature.

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The plan calls for the group to convene again next spring, at which time many anticipate formally approving specific goals and activities. As of now, the group has no name; leaders refer to it as “the fellowship.” Said Vestal, “The desire to … label is premature because you can’t control the wind of the Spirit.”

But participants last month did vote their approval of a financing mechanism, an alternative to the SBC financing channel. The Baptist Cooperative Missions Program has been established in Georgia as a nonprofit corporation. This was a significant step, since the major historical link among Southern Baptist churches has not been a formal statement of theology or doctrine (see “Baptists’ ‘Achilles’ Heel’?” p. 44), but rather cooperative giving to missions.

Some in Atlanta suggested it won’t be long before moderates begin sending out their own missionaries. They said qualified SBC missionary candidates are being denied field opportunities, perhaps because they are divorced, support women’s ordination, or in some other way do not measure up to the scriptural standards put forth by current SBC leaders.

Conservatives have regularly maintained they have needed to purge the SBC of impurity—specifically, theological liberalism. Conservatives have emphasized their concept of the inerrancy of Scripture, defined in part by the affirmation of Adam and Eve as literal, historical characters, and by opposition to women’s ordination.

Moderates, in contrast, have emphasized the Baptist heritage of allowing individual believers to interpret God’s will, and individual churches to establish their own policy and practice.

The Past Recalled

Many who gathered last month said the meeting was reminiscent of the SBC prior to the political controversy, days when annual conventions were worshipful, celebrative events, not political battlegrounds. Recent years, said Allen, have witnessed “missionaries talking to empty houses and politicians in front of packed houses.” At last summer’s SBC meeting in New Orleans, so many had left after the presidential vote that resolutions opposing homosexuality and abortion could not be passed for lack of a quorum (CT erroneously reported their adoption).

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In Atlanta, Allen, who moderated throughout, cut corners on Robert’s Rules of Order, yielding instead to common sense and magnanimity. It was clear from the frequent, sarcastic references to the personalities and strategies of SBC conservatives that moderates harbor some bitterness. But the last thing they say they want is open confrontation with the current SBC leadership, due perhaps to uncertainty among people in the pews as to which side they would choose if and when it comes down to that. A motion that the steering committee give special consideration to Augusta, Georgia, as the site of next spring’s convocation was solidly defeated. It was in Augusta that the SBC was formed in 1845.

Long-Standing Issues

Although the conservative dominance of the SBC was the occasion for last month’s meeting, some of the issues addressed antedate the political controversy of the last 12 years. Stan Hastey, president of the moderate Southern Baptist Alliance, maintains, for example, that the SBC has never adequately repented for, nor addressed the reality that, the unifying factor in its formation was support for slavery.

Participants emphasized inclusivity—particularly of women and laypeople—as a priority. This was reflected in the makeup of the steering committee, which will determine whether what happened last month will achieve the historical significance some have predicted.

Conservative leader Paige Patterson said moderates “are attempting to accomplish with their money what they could not do with their votes.” He said if the result is less giving to the cooperative program, moderate-supported efforts would suffer most. Patterson added, “We’d like to do something for them that they never did for us when they were in power. We’d like to affirm their full liberty to do whatever their conscience leads them to do. If that means forming a new denomination, God bless them in it.”

By Randy Frame in Atlanta.

Baptists’ ‘Achilles’ Heel’?

Is the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) a denomination? It depends on how the term is defined. SBC congregations cooperate with one another through donations to a common missions fund. Officials of various agencies control how the money is spent.

But there is no statement of theology or doctrine that forms the basis of membership in the SBC. In theory, a Unitarian church, if it contributed to the SBC cooperative program, would be as much a “member” of the SBC as any other congregation that so contributed.

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According to Albert Mohler, Jr., editor of the Baptist publication Christian Index, there was a time when theological orthodoxy and agreement could be safely assumed among Southern Baptist people. But that time is long past. This explains in part the urge among conservative Southern Baptist leaders to establish some theological reference points.

In contrast, said Mohler, there are “many moderates who resist the very notion of doctrinal parameters. They see it as antithetical to the Baptist heritage.”

Such an inclination is reflected in the views of Stan Hastey, leader of the moderate Southern Baptist Alliance. “We need to commit ourselves to the lordship of Christ as defined in Scripture,” says Hastey. “That to me is enough of a creed.”

According to Hastey, “Baptists have never been a creedal people until the twentieth century.” Hastey maintains that major consensus statements affirmed by Southern Baptists in 1925 and in 1963 have wrongly been turned into “tests of fellowship.”

Said Hastey, “Historically, Baptist confessions of faith … were never intended as doctrinal statements in the sense that the Westminster Confession has been for Calvinists.” He continued, “We have been a much freer people than most modern-day Baptists would ever admit, freer in the sense that we allow the Holy Spirit the freedom to instruct individual believers. We’re more like Quakers than Calvinists.”

Mohler, however, refers to the resistance to establish stated theological criteria as Southern Baptists’ “Achilles’ heel.” He said, “The SBC, in order to have any integrity as part of the body of Christ, has to define what parameters within which to find belief.” In an apparent reference to moderates, Mohler added, “Inclusivity isn’t enough to establish a rationale for a new denomination.”

Conservatives have begun the process of establishing doctrinal criteria, but, said Mohler, “there is no firm sense of what kind of positive theological agenda they want to see in place.” Mohler emphasized the importance of limiting theological statements to “first-order theological issues.” When it comes to such issues as women’s ordination and views of the end times, he said, there must be ample room for diversity.

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