For the first time in 35 years, Southern Baptists amended their Baptist Faith and Message Statement, a non-binding but important theological frame of reference for the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Added was a 270-word statement on the family that defines marriage as "the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime" and explains biblical standards that apply. It upholds the equality of the marriage partners before God and spells out how they are to relate to each other, including a clause that attracted wide press attention: "A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband...."
The statement was overwhelmingly approved in a show-of-hands vote by the some 8,500 "messengers" (delegates) from 36 states to the 151st annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention, held June 9-11 in Salt Lake City. They rejected attempts to broaden the definition of a family and to reword the clause to say "both husband and wife are to submit graciously to each other." (Quizzed by reporters in Washington, both President Clinton and Vice President Gore, who are Southern Baptists, said they disagreed with the submission clause.)
"It doesn't take a scholar to be able to interpret what is clearly laid out in God's blueprint for the family," Mary Mohler, a homemaker whose husband Al is president of Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville, told reporters. "'Submit' is not a negative word. It may be a politically incorrect word. It may not be a popular word. But it is a biblically correct word, and that is what counts."
The messengers elected Paige Patterson, 55, the lone candidate for SBC president, by acclamation. He is president of Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C. His election came on the 20th anniversary of the conservative initiative to take the reins of power in the SBC. President of Criswell College in Dallas at the time, he and Judge Paul Pressler of Houston were the chief strategists behind the initiative. The method was simple: Elect strong like-minded theological conservatives as president.
Although the SBC presidency is largely an honorary post, normally lasting only two one-year terms, it has a key power lever. The president appoints the powerful Committee on Committees, which nominates members of the governing boards of SBC agencies and institutions, including its seminaries. Memphis pastor Adrian Rogers was the first president to serve under the initiative, and the rest is history. Today, theological/social conservatives head virtually all SBC agencies and institutions. The drift toward theological liberalism in SBC seminaries has been reversed, a historical phenomenon. The so-called moderate faction stopped fielding presidential candidates in 1990.
The SBC's place in the conservative evangelical mainstream was also symbolized by the appearance of evangelical broadcaster James Dobson, a Nazarene, as a keynote speaker. Mr. Dobson was interrupted by applause repeatedly during his analysis of American culture and what needs to be done. "Too many churches have responded with apathy and accommodation to the evils of the culture," he asserted. When President Clinton two years ago vetoed a bill outlawing some forms of late-term abortion, "there should have been a million phone calls and 150,000 people walking the streets," he said. "The church has been AWOL."
"The church should not be endorsing political candidates or involved in political parties," he added. "But church leaders should be using their influence to defend righteousness in the future."
In resolutions, messengers opposed training and assigning females to military combat service, calling it "a foolish social experiment." They also called for an end to funding of "anti-Christian bigotry" through the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting Service. Another resolution condemned an executive order by Mr. Clinton prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in the federal civilian work force. An amendment calling on Mr. Clinton's home church in Little Rock, Ark., to consider disciplinary action against him was narrowly defeated.