A venerable tradition blames Mrs. O'Leary's cow for the Great Chicago fire of 1871. The cow is said to have knocked over a lamp, igniting the fire and setting the city ablaze. Historians of American religion may well look back at the Southern Baptist Convention's revising its confession of faith last year as the starting point for a conflagration of a very different kind.
Within the year, Southern Baptists had experienced a revolt from Texas, the defection of a former president of the United States, a whirlwind of national attention, and near universal apoplexy within the denomination's left wing, now out of power for over two decades.
This year, Southern Baptists will hold their convention in New Orleans, and the denomination would do well to reflect on the past year's controversy. It has revealed the vast distance that separates the convention from its liberal detractors-known as "moderates."
The 2000 convention, meeting in Orlando, enthusiastically received and adopted the revised confession of faith, known as the "Baptist Faith and Message (BF&M)." The revisions clarified critical doctrinal issues, added statements identifying homosexuality and pornography as sinful, rejected racism, opposed abortion, and stipulated that the Bible limits the office of pastor to men.
The response from the denominational left was swift and vitriolic. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF), the organizing center for disaffected moderates, met just a few weeks later and heard speakers call for a "divorce" from the SBC. Though the CBF functions as a denomination, it has refused to announce its departure from the SBC, fearing a loss of churches.
Under acknowledged pressure from its member churches, the CBF's Coordinating Council later adopted an "organizational value" that the 10-year-old group should not fund partnering agencies that "condone, advocate, or affirm homosexual practice." Nevertheless, the statement left the group apparently free to provide scholarships for students at divinity schools openly promoting the homosexual cause. But even this is too much for the CBF's "young leaders" group who have demanded that the CBF rescind its "organizational value" and open itself to full homosexual participation.
The BF&M was thrust into the national media again when former President Jimmy Carter theatrically "resigned" from the SBC, attacking the confession of faith and denouncing SBC leadership. His action received wide attention, even though no individual can either join or resign from the SBC. Mr. Carter had announced years ago that he had shifted his loyalty to the CBF.
The most interesting responses came from the state conventions. Since the SBC is nonhierarchical in structure, the state conventions are autonomous. Nevertheless, most had adopted an older version of the "Baptist Faith and Message." The obvious question was what the state bodies would do with the 2000 confession. The picture is mixed, with more conservative states embracing the statement, while other states either ignored the issue, came to no clear conclusion, or appointed study committees to investigate the matter.
All eyes turned to Texas, the most populous SBC state, where moderate leaders opposed to the SBC's conservative turn were clearly in control of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. BGCT leaders warned the SBC that adoption of the revised BF&M would lead to conflict-especially if the SBC enforced the confession of faith in its seminaries and agencies.
In November, the BGCT moved to defund the SBC seminaries, reallocating those funds to BGCT schools controlled by moderates. But things have not gone as planned. This past month, the BGCT reported that only a small number of BGCT churches have adopted the budget defunding the SBC schools. Most Texas Baptists, it seems, are supportive of the SBC and its return to conservative roots.
Adding insult to injury, a young conservative alternative to the BGCT, known as Southern Baptists of Texas Convention (SBTC), has experienced explosive growth and is now well on its way to becoming one of the larger SBC state conventions.
In retrospect, the SBC's revision of its confession of faith should be seen as the capstone of the conservative resurgence that has transformed the denomination over the past quarter-century. While mainline Protestantism debates the ordination of homosexuals to ministry, the SBC has moved to the right, affirming doctrinal and moral convictions that infuriate the remnants of the convention's left wing-and perplex the larger world of public opinion.
Beyond this, the convention has experienced consistent growth, unprecedented missionary expansion, and a remarkable unity in leadership and vision. Its seminaries are thriving (as well as theologically accountable) and the SBC is attracting a generation of young leaders, pastors, and missionaries.
Messengers to the 2001 SBC meeting in New Orleans are expected to stay the course as the denomination moves forward in the 21st century. The past year was a firestorm that brought more light than heat.