Houston convention forever
changed Baptist life
___By Mark Wingfield
___Twenty years ago this month, Houston played host to a Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting where two historic events occurred:
___ To kick off a sweeping evangelistic effort called Bold Mission Thrust, 50,000 Southern Baptists jammed into the Astrodome for a Bold Mission Rally at which evangelist Billy Graham preached and 1,100 people were commissioned for missionary service.
___ To kick off a sweeping effort to reshape the leadership and direction of the SBC, two Texans succes
sfully rallied messengers to elect Adrian Rogers as convention president, launching a 15-year movement some have called a "conservative resurgence."
|PAIGE PATTERSON speaks to reporters during an SBC annual meeting.(File photo)
___The next week, Baptist Standard Editor Presnall Wood wrote an editorial in which he identified the convention's dueling themes as "bold missions" and "bold politics."
___"Only time will tell which will have the greater impact on the future of the Southern Baptist Convention," Wood wrote.
___Southern Baptists of all stripes agree that the 1979 convention was a watershed moment not only for the SBC but for American Protestantism. But as for the outcome of the question posed in Wood's editorial, the passage of time has created an ever-widening gulf of viewpoints.
___As the 20th anniversary of the Houston convention approached, a cross-section of Southern Baptist and Texas Baptist leaders was asked last month to respond to this question: "How is Baptist life different in 1999 than it was in 1979 as a result of the so-called 'conservative resurgence' in the SBC?"
___About half those surveyed responded, but those responses easily fell into two starkly different assessments.
___Those who supported the conservative movement generally see the SBC as a better place after the battle. They see what Wood described as bold politics having strengthened the SBC's bold mission.
___"God has honored the willingness of Southern Baptists to stand for the truth of his word," said Morris Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee.
___Those who opposed the conservative movement generally see the SBC as a worse place after the battle. They say bold politics stamped out bold mission.
___"The last 20 years should be an embarrassment to any thinking, traditional Baptist," said David Currie, director of Texas Baptists Committed, a moderate group that has fought to keep the Baptist General Convention of Texas from following in the SBC's new footsteps.
___One sign of the changing times is that the current SBC president, who is expected to handily win re-election to a second term later this month in Atlanta, is Paige Patterson, a co-architect of the conservative movement who once considered himself an outsider to the SBC bureaucracy.
___"The Southern Baptist Convention has returned to the faith of its fathers, to the faith of (B.H.) Carroll, (A.T.) Robertson, (L.R.) Scarborough, (J.L.) Dagg and Lottie Moon," Patterson said.
___Further, he added, "the seminaries of the SBC are no longer uncritically promoting the historical-critical methodology and neo-orthodox theology."
___That sentiment was echoed by Paul Pressler, the Houston appeals court judge who worked with Patterson to lead the conservative movement.
___"In 1979, some conservative students were mocked and ridiculed for expressing traditional Christian beliefs in some of their classes in Southern Baptist seminaries," Pressler said. "Today, they are supported and affirmed in so doing. In 1979, some leaders of our public affairs agencies supported abortion, opposed the death penalty and took similarly strong liberal stands on other issues. Our new public affairs leaders have changed these positions."
___Accusations about "liberal" theology being taught in SBC seminaries and Baptist colleges and universities became the rallying cry of the conservative movement, with concerns about the SBC's stance on national moral and political issues following closely behind.
___Through the course of the 15-year controversy, the heads of all SBC seminaries and agencies were replaced with conservatives, either through resignation, retirement or firing. Scores of denominational employees, mainly in the seminaries, were displaced and replaced with individuals who affirmed the conservatives' ideals.
THE CENTRAL ISSUE
___"The central issue that spawned and sustained the movement was the nature of Scripture and its significance for the practice of Christianity as expressed through Southern Baptists," said Chapman, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Wichita Falls and one of nine men who in almost unbroken succession were elected SBC president with the blessing of what early on was dubbed by some the Pressler-Patterson coalition.
___This change clearly has been for the good, Chapman said.
___"Those who predicted the new Southern Baptist Convention leadership would destroy the convention or alter it so radically that it would be unrecognizable have been proven wrong," he asserted. "Southern Baptists are more committed than ever to their historic and bedrock principles, such as the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture, the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as God's only Son and our only Savior, the mandate to evangelize the world in cooperation with fellow believers, the practice and preaching of righteousness, the priesthood of the believer, the autonomy of the local church and the separation of church and state."
___But others see the changes in a much darker light, especially at the seminaries.
___"The dark points are situations such as at Southwestern Seminary, where obscurantist fundamentalists demand professors to sign increasingly rigid doctrinal statements or face dismissal for matters that are secondary and about which Baptists have never agreed," said Joel Gregory, a former preaching professor at the Fort Worth seminary, who later became pastor First Baptist Church of Dallas after publicly endorsing the conservative movement.
___Gregory, who now works for a publishing company in Fort Worth, was referencing Southwestern's requirement that faculty members affirm last summer's addition on family to the Baptist Faith & Message.
___This is set in contrast to what Gregory identified as "bright points" in the movement, "men such as (Jimmy) Draper, who transcend the pettiness and embrace the entire denomination." Draper, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Euless, is generally credited with being the most conciliatory of the string of conservative presidents since 1979. He now heads the denomination's publishing house, LifeWay Christian Resources in Nashville.
___Full-fledged moderates see the changes at the seminaries as only the tip of the iceburg.
___"In 1979, Southern Baptists honored, cherished and practiced historic Baptist principles and practices, such as the authority of Scripture without creeds, the priesthood of all believers, local church autonomy and religious liberty for all," said Currie, director of Texas Baptists Committed. "Today, Southern Baptist leaders and Southern Baptist seminaries do not even believe in these principles, much less preach, teach and practice Baptist principles, except for isolated instances of a professor here and there."
___A few on both sides have read into the situation intentions and repercussions far beyond the SBC.
___From its inception, the conservative movement highlighted concerns about the long-term effects of "creeping liberalism" in the SBC as detrimental to all Christianity.
___Pressler describes this sentiment in his new book, "A Hill On Which to Die," in which he details his encounter with "Northern liberalism" while a student at Exeter and Princeton.
___"Perhaps it was a good thing for me to be exposed to radical liberal theology rather than to have liberalism subtly taught in its incipient form," he writes. "This way I could recognize it for what it was and see how far liberalism would go when its presuppositions were accepted."
___Ultimately, Pressler writes, conservatives "worked together because we believed that the restoration of the Southern Baptist Convention to a position of standing upon the complete trustworthiness of God's word was a hill on which to die. ... We believed that many people who could have been won to Jesus Christ would be eternally lost if liberal theology destroyed the Southern Baptist Convention as a force for evangelism and missions."
___On the other hand, John Baugh, a leading moderate voice and Pressler's nemesis in Houston, sees equally far-reaching ramifications in the conservative agenda. "I am but one of many Baptists who continue to believe the so-called 'conservative resurgence' was no more than the cleverly devised means by which to seize control of the SBC's seminaries, agencies and other assets valued far in excess of $10 billion--as well as its long-established influences--all to be utilized in efforts to achieve fundamentalists' nationwide secular political ambitions."
___Baugh sees the conservative movement that has captured the SBC as merely the first stage of "fundamentalism's most ambitious political putsch, widespread seizure of the nation's governing bodies."
DIFFERENCES MORE OBVIOUS
___If not agreeing on much else, conservatives and moderates do agree that in the intervening 20 years since the Houston convention, the reality of profound theological difference among Southern Baptists has become glaringly obvious.
___"It is clear there is a broad diversity in theological positions," Draper said. "We are much more conservative as a convention than many of the critics of the recent movement will admit, and we are much more liberal as a convention than we have realized in the past. We are realizing how very difficult it is to adequately cooperate across all lines when these dramatic differences exist."
___"Increasing numbers of moderates are admitting that there are, in fact, major theological differences between moderates and conservatives," added Patterson. "These theological differences become more apparent with every passing year."
___The reconfiguration and partial break-up of the old SBC merely has exposed these rifts, though they existed long before, said Bill Leonard, a Baptist historian who now is dean of the new moderate divinity school at Wake Forest University.
___With its emphasis on cooperation at all costs, "the old Southern Baptist system kept us from serious theological discussion," he said.
___While some see a new willingness to address the reality of these differences, others believe the last 20 years of conflict has strengthened the resolve of some pastors and denominational leaders to paper over the differences in an attempt to keep the peace.
___"The fact is, we are two different denominations, and both fundamentalists and traditional Baptist (moderate) leaders do not want to admit this," said Currie, director of Texas Baptists Committed. "Fundamentalists do not want to admit it because they do not want people to stop funding the SBC. Moderate leaders of state conventions do not want to admit it because they do not want fundamentalists to stop supporting them. Therefore, we seldom say what we mean anymore, and trust has been destroyed."
___Yet even some of those who disagree with the direction the SBC has taken since 1979 see a glimmer of hope in the newfound awareness of diversity in the Baptist family.
___While the controversy shattered trust within the SBC, it created stronger trust and fellowship within smaller subsets of the convention, said Winfred Moore, former pastor of First Baptist Church of Amarillo and an unsuccessful moderate candidate for the SBC presidency in 1985 and 1986. In retirement, Moore now directs the Center for Ministry Effectiveness at Baylor University.
___"More churches today are rethinking their own autonomy and are making more of their own decision about who they are and what they want to be," he said. "More avenues, old ones and new ones, are open in 1999 for doing missions, education and social ministry, and there is a stronger personal commitment and involvement by local church members. More is getting done.
___"As a result of what we have been through... since 1979, there is a new and wonderful sense of personal accountability being born," Moore suggested. "There is a resurgence of the pioneer spirit that desires more to make something grow and flourish than to control something that already is."
___Others see more choppy waters yet ahead as churches, associations and conventions walk through the new Baptist landscape, which still is being shaped by social forces outside Baptist politics.
___"The past is terribly regrettable," said Baugh, "and the future is dangerous."
___Facing these turbulent waters, conservatives believe the Southern Baptist witness to Christianity has been saved, strengthened and sweetened. Moderates believe it has been irreversibly damaged.
___"If the Lord tarries, Southern Baptists are well-positioned to preach the gospel in every nation more aggressively than ever as we enter the new millennium," said Chapman, who cited several specifics.
___"The churches continue to give generously through the Cooperative Program and the regular missions offerings, even though other option are available to them," he said. "Young people in record numbers are enrolling in the six SBC seminaries. Interest in serving on the mission field continues to rise."
___Chapman, Pressler and others cite numerical gains in key statistics when 1999 is compared to 1979.
___Yet moderates point to recent annual losses in some areas, such as baptisms and number of churches.
___"One cause of Southern Baptists not growing is that the name of Christ has been dishonored," said Baugh, a Houston executive and member of Tallowood Baptist Church. "The other result is a diminished interest to hear the gospel. We are seen as a bunch of infighting, hypocritical Baptists."
___Numbers can be cited by both sides to make certain points, admitted Leonard.
___"You have to look underneath that," he said. And what researchers and sociologists see underneath the numbers is that Baptists of all types are struggling with forces beyond their theological and political battles.
___"The promise was if we return to our 'roots,' the convention will be saved," he said. "But the opposite has happened. The convention is coming apart. The promise that inerrancy would stall or prevent demography was never going to hold.
___"That's what we know 20 years later. ... We also know the identity crisis is hitting the conservatives as powerfully as it is the moderates. What it means to be a Baptist is no more certain in the fundamentalist camp than in the moderate camp.
___"In 1999, theology is important for identity but almost irrelevant for organizations," Leonard asserted. "The whole system is coming apart for the moderates and conservatives alike. ... Non-denominational is the word of choice for this generation of Baptists."
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