On the surface, it looks like power politics, but inerrancy of Scripture and related issues are at the heart of a major rift in America's largest Protestant denomination, the 15.8-million-member Southern Baptist Convention.
The SBC is under attack by the "moderate" leadership of its largest state affiliate, the 2.7-million-member Baptist General Convention of Texas. The BGCT annual convention will vote at the end of this month in Corpus Christi, Texas, on proposals to cut contributions to five of the six SBC seminaries (by $4.2 million, leaving them with less than $1 million from the BGCT), the SBC Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (by $365,000, to $0), and the SBC headquarters operation in Nashville, Tenn. (by $736,000, to $10,000). Funds for the SBC foreign and home mission boards remain intact in the proposed $52 million BGCT budget.
The defunding proposals were approved late last month by about a three-fourths majority of the BGCT's 200-member Executive Board. The board acted after hearing a theological education committee's report. It complained of a "lack of diversity" at SBC seminaries and alleged some moderate faculty members had been forced out.
"It is tragic that the BGCT is willfully cutting the life support going to thousands of God-called ministers of the gospel training in our seminaries," Southern Baptist Seminary president R. Albert Mohler said following the BGCT board's vote.
About 12,000 students are enrolled in the six SBC-owned seminaries, including some 4,000 at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Ft. Worth. Under the seminary defunding proposal, money will be allocated on the basis of the number of Texas students enrolled, but the students must have been members of a BGCT-supporting church for at least two years. Even Southwestern, which enrolls about 1,400 of the estimated 1,600 Texas students attending SBC seminaries, will see its funding chopped from $1.5 million to about $875,000 next year.
The board-approved plan calls for redirecting $4.2 million to Truett Seminary at Baylor University in Waco (247 students), Logsdon School of Theology at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene (82 students), and a Hispanic Baptist school in San Antonio (about 200 students). Faculty at Truett and Logsdon do not have the same biblical standards as teachers at the SBC seminaries.
Now that the BGCT has fired its shot, will the SBC shoot back? SBC chief executive Morris Chapman warned the SBC may be "compelled" to appeal directly to churches in the state for support. If that happens, the BGCT budget could take a big hit. Already, more than 400 of the some 5,000 BGCT churches have joined a new Southern Baptists of Texas Convention loyal to the SBC; they include large churches like First, Dallas; First, Eulass; Prestonwood, Plano; and others.
(Southern Baptists over many decades have worked out a system of pooled giving known as the Cooperative Program. Most SBC congregations give a portion of their income to the state affiliate, and the affiliate in turn remits a large portion to the national denomination and its agencies and institutions.)
Ever since conservatives took power in the SBC (a move that began in 1979), BGCT leaders have sniped at them. They said seminary administrators who reined in liberals were running roughshod over faculty and academic freedom. They lambasted Richard Land and the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission he heads for championing conservative causes.
More recently, they protested vigorously the adoption of revisions to the historic Baptist Faith and Message statement at the SBC annual meeting in Orlando in June. The statement is the closest thing to a creed that Southern Baptists have. Approved by a wide margin, the revisions strengthened the position of biblical authority (the Bible "is" rather than "is the record of" God's revelation).
The document is not binding on churches or members, but it is on seminary teachers and administrators. And that galls the BGCT establishment.