Features

Swimming upstream

National | Reporter's notebook: As major U.S. denominations have pushed leftward, Baptists have gone the other way

Issue: "Nifty 50 Books," July 1, 2000

The 15.8-million-member Southern Baptist Convention, 41,000 congregations strong, is by far America's largest Protestant denomination. Yet its annual meetings for official business are among the shortest: a little over a day and a half. Regardless, much gets accomplished.

Delegates-"messengers" in Baptist jargon-last month in Orlando overwhelmingly adopted a definitive revision of the SBC statement of faith (WORLD, June 24). Many American denominations have been moving "progressively to the left," Southern Baptist Seminary president Albert Mohler Jr. told a luncheon audience. Most that have "touched their confessions or articles of faith have reduced biblical content, accommodated to the culture, diluted the gospel, and abandoned the total truthfulness of God's word." Not the SBC. It has moved to theological orthodoxy over the past two decades, and in Orlando it positioned its Baptist Faith and Message statement more firmly on the high ground of biblical authority.

The 13,000-plus messengers elected as president James Merritt, pastor since 1985 of 12,000-member First Baptist Church of Snellville in suburban Atlanta. The first baby boomer to hold the post, he succeeds Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., who completed his second one-year term in office. Boomers now hold many of the key positions in the SBC, all but guaranteeing longevity to the conservative resurgence in the denomination.

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Messengers in resolutions affirmed the right to "make Christ known in a pluralistic society" a religious liberty; took a stand against religious persecution in Sudan and China; reaffirmed opposition to abortion and "trafficking" in fetal tissue and body parts; upheld the "fair and equitable use of capital punishment"; condemned sex trafficking and the abuse of women and children; commended radio pop psychologist Laura Schlessinger for her stand against homosexual practice; opposed creeping "New Age globalism" that threatens national sovereignty; and urged government officials to defend the Boy Scouts of America against all efforts to undermine its constitutional freedoms "to define and delimit its own membership and leadership criteria."

The resolution supporting capital punishment said it is "a legitimate form of punishment for those guilty of murder or treasonous acts that result in death." Opponents argued the stand was not consistent with the SBC's pro-life position, and innocent people were being put to death. One invoked the name of Karla Faye Tucker, a convicted murderer who repented of her crime and became a model Christian before her execution in Texas. Nevertheless, the measure passed by a wide margin.

Not all the action took place inside the convention center. Half a block away, a demonstration by homosexual activist Mel White and his SoulForce group was more of a fizzle than a fuss. Far fewer than the promised 2,000 protesters showed up (only about 65); police in a plan carefully choreographed with Mr. White arrested 27 demonstrators for unlawful assembly on a plaza leading to the hall. Also caught in the roundup were four animal-rights demonstrators, including one dressed in a yellow chicken costume. Few convention-goers saw the demonstrations and arrests.

Edward E. Plowman
Edward E. Plowman

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