Two of the memorable moments in this week's Southern Baptist Convention in St. Louis, Missouri, had little to do with official actions by the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Both moments, when police ejected gay protestors from the hall and when a former convention president called Muhammad a "pedophile" gave newspapers their headline material.

But internally, SBC convention goers hailed a durable spirit of unity at the annual meeting. Delegates (called messengers) elected as president Jack Graham, pastor of the 20,000 member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, and as first vice president Texas judge Paul Pressler, one of the architects of the conservative resurgence who became a lightning rod in the bitter, decade-long battle for control of the denomination. Both men were elected without opposition.

Messengers approved with little discussion new initiatives to encourage evangelism at the local church level and to strengthen families, passed a resolution sharply critical of Today's New International Version of the Bible, and urged local congregations to be vigilant in protecting children from sexual abuse.

Harmony upstaged

In a denomination where unity is news, the harmony of this annual meeting was upstaged first by gay demonstrators and then by attacks on Islam.

Messengers to the convention are accustomed to demonstrations by a variety of outside groups on the sidewalks around the meeting place, including in recent years a big chicken and the vegetarian Jesus (animal rights activists in costume). This is the first time demonstrators entered the meeting place and attempted to disrupt the convention business session.

The interruption by gay demonstrators was brief, and in the din of the domed stadium in St. Louis, largely unheard. SBC president James Merritt had refused to meet with Mel White, a gay minister and leader of Soulforce, which advocates acceptance of practicing homosexuals by Christian churches. White's group contends that the SBC's stance on homosexuality encourages hate crimes against gays.

Merritt had warned the crowd that some disruption was likely. As Merritt began to preach, protesters stood one or two at a time and shouted while police officers led them away. Merritt continued uninterrupted. "I've got news for the pornographer, the adulterer, the homosexual, and the pedophile, we [Southern Baptists] are not going away," Merritt said. "We are not going to march under the white flag of compromise."

The demonstration was over within ten minutes. In addition to the 12 protesters removed from the convention center, 38 were arrested outside.

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Allah is not Jehovah

Media attention quickly turned from the gay-rights protest. SBC leaders found themselves carefully defending or tactfully distancing themselves from the attack on Islam by former SBC president Jerry Vines. At the Pastors' Conference, a pre-convention event, Vines, pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Florida, cited religious pluralism as a source of problems in America today.

"They would have us to believe that Islam is just as good as Christianity, but I'm here to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that Islam is not just as good as Christianity," Vines told the pastors, urging them to preach the supremacy and sufficiency of Christ. "Christianity was founded by the virgin-born son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives, and his last one was a 9-year-old girl. And I will tell you, Allah is not Jehovah, either. Jehovah's not going to turn you into a terrorist that'll try to bomb people and take the lives of thousands and thousands of people."

Both Merritt and Graham later defended Vines and his statements, but it was pointed out that Vines was not speaking on behalf of the denomination and that his comments were not official SBC action.

Asked for a response to the demand by the Council on American-Islam Relations for an apology from the SBC, Richard Land, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said "We don't get our instructions from [them]." Some denominational leaders conceded that Vines's statements were imprudent, given the war on terrorism, and inopportune. Reports of his sermon overshadowed attempts to redirect the denomination to evangelism and family issues.

Fewer baptisms

The Executive Committee rolled out two initiatives, neither of which was explained in much detail. One in particular seemed to grow from outgoing President Merritt's concern that the denomination is losing its evangelistic zeal. Southern Baptists' annual baptisms, which peaked in the mid-1950s, have never surpassed 450,000, even as the membership has climbed steadily to 16 million. The result is a widening current member-to-new convert ratio, a figure that at 38 to 1 last year, worries baptism-minded leaders.

Merritt expressed a sense of urgency on leaving office. "I am very concerned about our future. If this convention continues to do business as usual, its best days are behind, not ahead." Incoming president Graham expressed more optimism.

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With the internal battle over inerrancy and denominational control ended, SBC leadership seems to be reaching for terminology that will rally local churches and believers in an era characterized as post-denominational. Several ideas were floated, but none were especially well articulated. The "people of the book" appeared hopeful about their next chapter, but uncertain what it is. One long-time observer concluded, "We've decided what we believe about the Word; now we have to decide what we're going to do with it."

Another summarized, "It's easier to be against something than for something."

"Disappointment" with TNIV

In convention business, messengers rejected a motion, which would have granted exemption to current missionaries who have refused to sign the Baptist Faith and Message, a doctrinal statement that was revised in 2000 to say that a wife should "graciously submit" to the leadership of her husband. It was estimated that 150 missionaries have not endorsed the statement of SBC beliefs, but Graham said the number is less than that. Graham said missionaries should not accept denominational support if they cannot sign "an instrument of doctrinal accountability."

Concerning the Today's New International Version Bible, the convention passed a resolution expressing "profound disappointment with the International Bible Society and Zondervan Publishing House for this inaccurate translation of God's inspired Scripture." Critics fault the TNIV translators for frequently using "they" or "them" instead of "he" or "him" and "obscuring" references to "father," "son," and "brother." Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler criticized the TNIV for its use of the dynamic equivalence method of translation. "If we really believe in verbal plenary inspiration, then words are important. None of us is without the responsibility to check our cultural context and to try our best to make sure we are not driven by extra-biblical considerations."

The resolution asks convention agencies to refrain from using the TNIV. Jimmy Draper, president of Lifeway Christian Resources, said his agency will not sell the TNIV in its extensive chain of bookstores. SBC publisher Broadman and Holman, meanwhile, is preparing the Holman Christian Standard Bible, a more literal, formal equivalence translation, for release in 2004.

Social issues

The strongest official statements came on two social issues. On the eve of the Dallas meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops to discuss policy for the handling sexual abuse of children by priests, the SBC passed a resolution urging its local congregations to turn abuse accusations over to civil authorities "to punish to the fullest extent of the law sexual abuse among clergy and counselors."

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The resolution was not to admonish Catholics, but to warn Baptists, said Bobby Welch, pastor of First Baptist Church of Daytona Beach, Florida. "We shouldn't enjoy this Catholic mess too much," he said. "We are waiting on the other shoe to drop, and when it does, don't be surprised if there is more and more within our ranks."

President George Bush greeted conventioneers live by satellite on the opening day. Bush received four standing ovations, and Merritt joked after the telecast, "The president may be a Methodist, but he's the closest thing to a Southern Baptist president we've had in a long time." The SBC regularly admonished President Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, for both political acts and moral failings.

In this meeting, messengers backed Bush's efforts to appoint federal judges, saying the Senate Judiciary Committee has "engaged in unprecedented obstructionism." Later the convention urged Bush to renew his efforts to ban partial-birth abortions, which the resolution noted, had become a back-burner item after the September 11 attacks. Messengers voted to resurrect the resolution for a floor vote, after the resolutions committee had refused to bring it for consideration.

Eric Reed is managing editor of Christianity Today sister publication Leadership Journal.

Related Elsewhere

The Southern Baptist Convention website has a transcript (and video and audio) of President Bush remarks to the SBC Tuesday. BP News convention coverage includes:

Graham elected SBC president; Porter lauded for service (June 12)
50 homosexual activists arrested attempting to disrupt SBC (June 12)
Leaders hope EKG spurs Baptists to evangelism (June 12)

Other media coverage of the convention includes:

Southern Baptists skip convention | Local churches don't send many to meetings. (The News & Observer)
Southern Baptists take their message to strip clubs | Their mission was part of the Southern Baptist Convention's annual meeting. But the big story could be the Baptists who do not show up. (Chicago Tribune)
Baptists' strong words spark protest| The head of the Southern Baptists condemned homosexuality from the podium yesterday as angry homosexual-rights protesters and a Muslim group marched through the convention hall. (The Washington Times)
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Also: Gay rights protesters disrupt Baptist meeting | 50 arrested at St. Louis convention. (The Dallas Morning News)
Also: Protesters interrupt Baptist meeting (Associated Press)
Muslims angered by Southern Baptist on Islam | A leading Islamic group demanded Tuesday that the Southern Baptist Convention condemn "bigoted" and "hate-filled" statements made by one of its pastors. (CNN)
Southern Baptists call for 'sexual integrity' of church personnel | Delegates also voice support for Israel. (Associated Press)
Also: Southern Baptists reflect on Catholic abuse scandal, urge discipline for Baptist abusers (Associated Press)