June 9, 1999

20thPressler writes book chronicling
his role in SBC changes

___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___HOUSTON--In an opening chapter of his new book about leading the conservative movement in the Southern Baptist Convention, Judge Paul Pressler recounts a childhood experience at his family's summer ranch in the Texas Hill Country.
___While listening to a radio preacher speak about the Scripture that "all things work together for good to them that love God," the teenage boy grew annoyed at the preacher's use of the word "all."
___"I thought it was silly for him to emphasize 'all' since so many irrelevant things occur in life," Pressler writes. "As a teenager who always wanted to test everything, I got up out of my chair, walked a few steps over to the hearth of the fireplace, picked up a broom, put it down, returned to my seat, and said to myself, 'Now what difference did that make? Nobody else will ever know whether I picked up that broom or not.'
___But when he looked back at the fireplace, he saw that he had uncovered a stinging scorpion. "It needed to be killed to prevent injury to someone using the house," he recalls. "I got some newspaper, swatted it to death, cleaned up the mess and went to the garbage can to deposit the newspaper I had used."
___When he discovered the ranch foreman already had hauled the trash can away for burning, the young Pressler got some matches and walked down the hill to a barbeque pit where he burned the paper.
___By the time he arrived back at the house, he looked out the window over the kitchen sink and saw that the whole hillside was on fire, apparently lit by a spark from his incineration of the newspaper and scorpion remains. Family members fought the fire for a couple of hours, barely saving two outbuildings from destruction.
___Pressler tells the story to illustrate his childhood curiosity, but readers could see in it a
PAUL PRESSLER poses with President George Bush, Vice President Dan Quayle and White House Chief of Staff John Sununu in 1990, when Pressler declined the president's offer to appoint him director of the Office of Government Ethics.
metaphor for his approach to the perceived threat of encroaching liberalism in the SBC in the 1960s and '70s. Those who admire his leadership of the so-called "conservative resurgence" will see in the story a reminder of Pressler's efficiency and fastidiousness in cleaning up a mess. Those with the opposite viewpoint might say it illustrates the movement's excesses.
___Since he and the conservative movement burst onto the SBC scene 20 years ago, Southern Baptists have developed starkly different perceptions of the appeals court judge who devoted himself to ridding the denomination of liberalism. Some bless him as a hero who saved the SBC from the grip of neo-orthodoxy; others curse him as the instigator of a witch hunt that damaged the convention and many peoples' lives.
___The fire he and others started in Houston in 1979 is perceived by some as a necessary purification to produce a harvest but by others as a reckless blaze that burned everything in its path.
___With publication of this book, Pressler for the first time gives a public record of the conservative movement from his own perspective. The 362-page volume, titled "A Hill On Which to Die," is published by LifeWay Christian Resources.
___The book was needed to set the record straight, Pressler writes, because so many "liberals" have unjustly attacked him and other leaders of the conservative movement. "History might not deal charitably with the conservative movement because so many of those who write history are not sympathetic with our goals and purposes."
___The title, he explains, comes from a frequent comment made by Adrian Rogers, pastor of Bellevue Baptist Church in Memphis, Tenn., and the first in a string of conservatives elected SBC president beginning in 1979.
___"Frequently when we discussed a matter, Adrian Rogers would ask, 'Is this a hill on which to die?' He was inquiring as to whether this really was an important enough issue upon which to expend energy and effort. ...
___"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," he writes. "We were willing to make personal sacrifices because we believed this."
___The book begins by tracing Pressler's family roots in Texas and Baptist life, recounting his family's historic connections to Baylor University, the Baptist General Convention of Texas, Texas politics and Houston's upper class.
___As Pressler tells his story, he also weaves in explanations about his theological observations and encounters that became the roots for his growing concern about the threat of liberalism within the SBC. He tells about going away to school at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire at age 16 and then to Princeton University, two places where he ran into a type of Christianity different from what he had known in South Texas.
___"I considered theological liberalism an infection that was limited to the northeastern part of the country, and I longed to return to the solid, Bible-teaching ministry of Southern Baptists, where I thought everything was right and no problems existed except in some areas of North Carolina."
___Upon returning to Texas, however, Pressler encountered hints of the same theology he had witnessed in full-blown form in the Northeast, he said. This perception surfaced during his search for a home church in Austin while attending the University of Texas law school and then escalated later in Houston when his church declined to take a stand against Ralph Elliott's controversial "Message of Genesis" commentary published by the SBC Sunday School Board.
___The bulk of the book explains Pressler's viewpoints on the 15-year battle for control of the SBC that he and others launched in 1979, as well as the steps that led to the movement's start.
___Among the issues he discusses are:
___bluebull Texas as the last great threat for an SBC split. In a chapter on the future of the SBC, Pressler admits that his own state convention has failed to follow the new direction of the SBC. He laments that the Baptist General Convention of Texas has redefined its Cooperative Program to include causes other than those controlled by SBC conservatives.
___"I worry that the next step will be to end the geographical limitations on membership in the Texas convention so that liberal churches throughout the country can join," he writes. "The BGCT then could change its name, and a new liberal denomination would be established using its assets. What the CBF could not do, the taking of the assets of the BGCT would accomplish. To me this is the last major threat of a meaningful split in the SBC."
___bluebull International Mission Board President Jerry Rankin. Pressler reports that as a trustee of the IMB (then called the Foreign Mission Board) in 1993, he was one of 14 who voted against Rankin's nomination as president, primarily because he was not convinced Rankin would be firm enough theologically and administratively to carry out the wishes of conservative leaders.
___However, Pressler admits his opinion of Rankin has changed entirely. "As time has passed and I have grown to know him and observe his leadership, I am very pleased with Jerry Rankin as president. ... He is doctrinally astute and has been greatly used of God in making necessary fundamental changes both in personnel and in procedures."
___bluebull His ill-fated nomination by President George Bush to serve as president of the Office of Government Ethics. After learning from the White
___House that "a great deal of unkind comment" was registered against him while his nomination was under consideration, Pressler writes, he determined it would be best to decline the nomination. He does not elaborate on the nature of the unkind comments, but blames the secular press and the "liberal movement within the SBC" as co-conspirators.
___bluebull His 1980 comment that conservatives needed to "go for the jugular" in their fight for control. "The use of this metaphor was very unwise, as I would later learn. ... The Baptist newswriters seized on this to make me look like an angry monster."
___Press reports and editorials about this comment "took my quote out of context and made it appear that I was seeking to destroy individuals," he suggests.
___bluebull How moderates and traditionalists could have stopped the conservative movement early on. Pressler notes that the central strategy of the conservatives was to gain control of the presidency and then give their own interpretation to a vague requirement that the president appoint members of the committee on committees "in conference" with the two vice presidents.
___Even though conservatives were elected president from 1979 on, moderates continued to be elected to the vice presidential posts for several years.
___"Had I been planning strategy for the liberals, I would have asked the SBC Executive Committee to define the term while the liberals still had absolute control of the Executive Committee. Had any official definition of conference existed that gave an equal voice to each of the vice presidents along with the president, the conservative movement could have been stopped."
___bluebull The skyboxes at the 1979 Houston convention. In the year the movement launched its plan to gain control of the presidency, Pressler arranged to use several skyboxes in The Summit, where he provided refreshments for messengers during the convention sessions.
___Critics charged these skyboxes were being used for caucuses in a way that is specifically forbidden in the SBC's Constitution. Pressler argues what was going on in the skyboxes was not caucusing, and he wasn't directing anything.
___He obtained use of the skyboxes from executives of the Houston companies that owned them, he writes. "Overlooked in the controversy was the fact that other skyboxes could have been available for any other group for the asking had others wanted them and the owners given permission."___


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