Farewell to arms

National | Liberalism defeated, SBC messengers enjoy their harmony

Issue: "Hong Kong," June 28, 1997

DALLAS--If there is any doctrine that all Baptists would agree on, it's the priesthood of the individual believer. Pack 12,000 autonomous believer-priests into a single convention hall, and what do you get? A surprisingly peaceful meeting. The blood-letting in the Southern Baptist Convention ended in 1990, the last year that so-called moderates challenged for the presidency of America's largest Protestant denomination. This year's convention in Dallas-the SBC's 140th-was a virtual love feast for doctrinal orthodoxy and denominational unity. The 12,000 attendees who flocked to Dallas didn't come to fight but to celebrate-in a restrained Baptist fashion, of course. Not that the convention was entirely free of controversy. The vote to urge 15 million Southern Baptists to "refrain from patronizing" Disney (see sidebar) elicited outrage from both journalists and homosexual-rights groups. Filmmaker Steve Lipscomb called a press conference to express shock and outrage over the SBC's policies against ordaining women (and more immediately to promote his film on the travails of women in Southern Baptist seminaries), but fewer than a dozen reporters showed up. While Mr. Lipscomb tried to assure the media that "Jesus was a feminist" and that the SBC's Resolutions Committee is nothing but a Protestant version of the College of Cardinals, the walls of the room shook as 12,000 people in the adjoining convention hall sang "How Great Thou Art." The symbolism was apt: Liberal voices within the SBC are being drowned out by newly confident conservatives who see worship and watchfulness as inextricably linked. That watchfulness was evidenced by the 56 resolutions submitted for consideration by the convention. One of those, a five-paragraph Resolution on Bible Translation, passed on the final morning of the convention without a single dissenting comment. The resolution urged all publishers to "continue to use time-honored, historic principles of biblical translation and refrain from any deviation to seek to accommodate contemporary cultural pressures" including, among other things, "so-called gender inclusive language." The only comment on the resolution came from a Florida pastor who wanted to give it some teeth, urging an amendment requiring "the agencies, boards, and publications of the Southern Baptist Convention to refrain from using such translations." The amendment passed easily. Five minutes later, the importance of holding the SBC's far-flung agencies to a strict standard of biblical accuracy became evident. In a report from the American Bible Society, Fred Allen noted with pride that the agency is currently recording the New Testament on cassette in an effort to reach inner-city youths, in particular. The translation being committed to tape is the Contemporary English Version, Thomas Nelson's gender-inclusive effort. The convention contributed $268,000 to this and other projects of the American Bible Society last year. But for all their significance, such resolutions aren't really the focus of the convention nowadays. "The whole convention is like a revival service," says Glynn Little, a Houston pastor who has been attending national conventions since 1971. "There's not a divisive spirit like there was before." Mr. Little recognizes that the lack of divisiveness results from a lack of liberals, who are scarce in Dallas. "[The liberals] pulled out when they lost by their rules. We won fair and square," he says as he unpacks a cooler for lunch on the nearly abandoned convention floor. He doesn't miss the liberals (or moderates as they prefer to be called), but he does think they've made a mistake by staying home. "As long as they were in leadership, we followed them. We came, voted our convictions, and left, a lot of times knowing that we'd lost. But we kept coming." Now that the battles are over, Mr. Little and others like him keep coming-but not primarily to vote on things like Disney boycotts and biblical translation. Carl Simmons, a pastor from Knoxville, Tenn., believes "most of the guys come for the fellowship and the preaching. We enjoy getting to see our preacher buddies that we haven't seen since school." Indeed, the convention often looks like a seminary reunion on a grand scale. Messengers frequently greet each other not by shaking hands, but by hugging. ("Let me hug your neck" seems to be the Southern equivalent of the more distant "How've you been?") Most pastors come with their wives, who may or may not be voting messengers, and many also bring children. In the dining room overlooking downtown Dallas, they gather at long tables with gingham-checked plastic tablecloths to swap stories and compare notes. Such unanimity of opinion is almost inconceivable to old-timers who remember the rowdy conventions of the 1970s and '80s. Perhaps no one is enjoying the peace more than Paul Pressler, a retired state judge from Houston who did as much as anyone to open the can of doctrinal worms that eventually led to the conservative takeover. Mr. Pressler dates his activism to the mid-1970s, when he realized that the same kind of liberalism he had encountered as a student at Princeton was being taught at Baylor, the Baptists' flagship university. "Our own young people were being hurt very badly by our Baptist colleges," he recalls. After examining the textbooks used by five of his students at Baylor, "I promised the Lord that I wouldn't wait any longer to get involved." The key to success, Mr. Pressler believes, was the SBC's unique ecclesiology. No church, regardless of its size, may send more than 10 messengers to the national convention. This meant that a small-town church with 200 members could have as much voting clout as a big-city church of 5,000. Mr. Pressler realized that if he could mobilize these smaller, more conservative churches, he could easily muster the votes to oust the liberal elites who controlled the denomination. "The premise that I started on in 1978 was that 95 percent of Southern Baptist people were Bible-believing conservatives. I still hold to that. The trouble was that the 5 percent were running the convention." To wake the slumbering giant, Mr. Pressler turned to his opponents' own writings. "We didn't stand up and say 'So and so is a liberal.' We stood up and said, 'So and so said this. Is this what you want taught in your colleges?' They couldn't say we were attacking them; we were just reading what they had published." The tactic worked. Twenty years after realizing that Baptist higher education had succumbed to liberalism, Paul Pressler watched from the convention floor as the presidents of the SBC's six seminaries signed a first-ever covenant with the denomination to maintain "theological integrity and biblical fidelity." Specifically, each president affirmed his school's commitment to "the authority, inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of the Bible." It was the defining moment of the 140th convention, and a moment that Mr. Pressler hopes will continue to define the denomination for at least a generation. "All six of our seminary presidents are now solid conservatives. Almost all of our faculty are solidly conservative. They will educate our young people coming out of school as to what the problem was and why not to repeat it. So I feel very good about the future." If all the neck-hugging after the signing ceremony is any indication, 12,000 people here in Dallas agree. Liberal Baptists can still claim to be priests, but the conservatives have effectively barred them from the temple.

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