As members of the National Association of Evangelicals gathered in Dallas this week for their annual meeting, the abrupt departure of the National Religious Broadcasters from their ranks a few weeks ago was sure to be a lively topic in corridor talk, if not on the floor.
The 81-member NRB board last month voted unanimously in a closed session at the NRB's annual convention in the same city to cut its ties to the NAE. Few among the record-breaking 5,550 convention attendees knew of the pending action in advance, and the board didn't announce afterward what it had done. The public learned of the action only after word leaked to a Fort Worth newspaper reporter. "We didn't want to make a big issue of it; we just wanted to move on quietly," NRB president Brandt Gustavson told WORLD.
Mr. Gustavson and NRB spokesman Karl Stoll blamed the rupture mainly on two actions at the NAE annual meeting in Arlington, Va., a year ago: a decision to allow denominations that belong to the National Council of Churches (NCC) to hold membership also in the NAE, and a change in the NAE bylaws that appeared to give the NAE greater control over its five affiliates, including the NRB.
A closer look, however, suggests a comedy of errors, misunderstandings, and a lack of communication at the top had more to do with the breakup than anything else. Part of the problem involves the NAE's structural history, little known by most current NAE and NRB members. The NRB was born in 1944 as the broadcast commission of the NAE. Over time, the commission grew, and it was changed to "affiliate" status, with its own governing board.
The NAE had five "affiliates" at the time of its meeting last year and one "subsidiary." Their special status reflected their early days as integral components of the NAE; they automatically had a presence on the NAE board. (The other category is "member," which includes 51 denominations and hundreds of individual congregations, parachurch ministries, and educational institutions. NAE members must subscribe to the NAE statement of faith; little more is required, although the process for denominational applicants can be complex.)
To safeguard theological integrity, the NAE from the outset required "affiliates" to submit any proposed constitutional and bylaws changes to the NAE board for approval. For reasons more related to money and power, a "subsidiary" corporation would nominate members for its governing board, but the NAE board elected them. Nominees had to be NAE members.
Over the years, the NRB affiliate became less involved at the governance level of the NAE; the lack of interest at the top kept the NRB members out of the NAE loop. As Mr. Gustavson explained to WORLD: "We grew apart. A lot has changed."
Ironically, as it turned out, NAE president Kevin Mannoia had dusted off the NAE's old bylaws standards and concluded, among other things, that the NAE had no business vetting the overall constitution and bylaws of its affiliates. He proposed, and the NAE board's bylaws committee accepted, a change that would narrow the NAE executive committee's review of any revisions of an affiliate's governing documents to just "matters of theology and values." The purpose of the review was "to ensure continuing harmony with the NAE" theologically.
When the proposed change was presented at last year's NAE meeting for ratification, it sailed through without comment from anyone at the meeting. To Mr. Mannoia, it represented a loosening of the NAE's control of the affiliates. But to give teeth to the review, the requirement that such revisions be "approved" by the NAE executive committee was left in place. The emphasis, Mr. Mannoia told WORLD, was on theological integrity, not control.
Most NRB board members had not known of the longstanding NAE "approval" rule before; they interpreted the NAE action as a power grab. To make matters worse, some members mistakenly thought the NAE's signing off on board members of a subsidiary also applied to affiliates. For others, the NAE's decision to lift the ban on membership by NCC members was a sign that the NAE was going soft on liberalism. (The NAE argues it was a move to strengthen the hands of renewalists in the mainline denominations.)
For many months, NAE officials were unaware of the rumblings in the NRB. Mr. Gustavson acknowledges that although he "tried" to meet with Mr. Mannoia earlier, he didn't sit down with him and break the news until December. By then, it was too late to clear up misunderstandings or seek alternatives. When the NRB action became known last month, some NAE officials protested the veiled accusation that the NAE was off course doctrinally. Several suggested such arguments were "red herrings" meant to fend off questions about the NRB's own seeming disinclination to be held theologically accountable.
Mr. Mannoia, however, took a conciliatory approach. He told WORLD he hopes that after the dust has settled, the NRB will see its way clear to rejoin the NAE as a "member" organization.