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Who Will Stand Alone When the Circle Leaves Room for 1?

Years ago, before the Baptist battles escalated, a seminary professor described a crucial weakness of fundamentalism: By its nature, fundamentalism opposes. It fights against everything that doesn’t conform to its ideals and principles, which will be narrower tomorrow than they are today. It labels as “enemy” everyone who isn’t subservient to its dictates. It excludes all who will not pronounce its special slogans. Eventually, it stands alone, angry and paranoid.

At the time, the prof’s description seemed esoteric, if not historically quaint. Bright students could take his model and construct interesting essays on the rise and fall of fundamentalist movements, from Landmarkers to two-seed-in-the-Spirit predestinarian Primitive Baptists. Unfortunately, before they progressed very far in their ministries, they began to see the professor’s model enacted in their own Southern Baptist Convention.

Fundamentalist leaders who strove for control of the SBC first said they only wanted “parity”–fair and equitable representation on SBC boards and committees. But after they won SBC presidential elections by slim majorities and through the nominating process controlled those boards and committees, they called for “purity.” That led to a purge of many faithful denominational workers, beginning at a couple of seminaries, but spreading throughout the SBC agencies.

Then they revised the Baptist Faith & Message, which had been drafted as an explanatory, inclusive statement of faith. In 2000, they made it an “instrument of doctrinal accountability.” That’s a fancy term for a creed. They applied it to all who wished to have meaningful participation in the life of the convention.

I’m bringing this up now because of four recent developments that illustrate the logical consequence of the model of fundamentalism the professor prophetically described.

Three of those incidents played out on the pages of this paper Jan. 27: International Mission Board missionaries who wish to continue to serve through the SBC mission board but who have not yet affirmed the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message have begun receiving phone calls from a board vice president, telling them if they don’t sign the affirmation, they cannot return to their fields of service.

The head of chaplaincy for the SBC North American Mission Board was forced to resign because he did not stringently enforce the board’s newly tightened policies on female chaplains and chaplains who have been divorced.

And the editor of the Georgia Baptist paper was forced to retire, in part because he did not “love the SBC enough.”

These are not left-leaning rabble-rousers. They are conservative Baptist Christians who have served within the SBC’s new system for more than a decade. They have worked to accommodate the increasingly rigid requirements of SBC leaders, but that wasn’t sufficient. The tightening circle that defines the new SBC eventually defined them out. Others will follow as that circle shrinks.

The fourth example occurred last week. The SBC Executive Committee voted to create its own international network of “like-minded Christians” to take the place of the Baptist World Alliance, an umbrella organization of 200 Baptist unions and conventions worldwide, representing 45 million baptized Christians in 193,000 congregations.

SBC leaders have been angry with the BWA since last summer, when the BWA General Council opened the door for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship to affiliate with the worldwide organization. The Fellowship is comprised of so-called moderate Baptists–some of whom still consider themselves Southern Baptists, some of whom do not–who were disaffected by the SBC’s increasingly fundamentalist stance.

SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman said the special committee that proposed the new international organization, tentatively called Kingdom Relationships, is “not recommending withdrawal from the BWA at the present time.” He also said the new organization “won’t be a duplication of the BWA.”

However, the SBC Executive Committee voted to pull $125,000 of its $425,000 allocation to the BWA to finance start-up costs for Kingdom Relationships. The balance of that allocation may hinge on whether the BWA admits the Fellowship.

“It’s not our decision to make,” Chapman said. “We do have some options. We’re going to take some steps and see what happens.” That statement isn’t as benign as it sounds, considering the SBC has been providing 23.6 percent of the BWA’s $1.8 million budget, and most of the BWA’s member bodies are comprised of some of the poorest churches on the planet.

(You’ll also be interested to note a particularly ironic statement made by Chapman. Speaking of the Fellowship membership issue and the BWA’s requirement that the young organization stand apart from the SBC, he asked: “If, in fact, you’re going to separate from the Southern Baptist Convention, does that mean from now on you will build your group by starting churches as Southern Baptists did from the very beginning of our existence, rather than continuing to solicit funding and manpower from Southern Baptist churches?” Chapman reportedly said this with a straight face. That’s remarkable, considering the ink was barely dry on materials he mailed soliciting churches affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas to join up with a competing convention in Texas.)

The issue behind the Southern Baptist Convention’s spat with the Baptist World Alliance isn’t whether you like the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or agree with all its participating churches. The issue is whether the SBC should exert its stern will upon a worldwide organization comprised of autonomous Baptist bodies. Has the SBC, in the face of its poor brothers and sisters around the globe, drafted a new Golden Rule: “Them that have the gold makes the rules”?

And if all the other Baptists around the world don’t abide by its rules, each and every time it changes them, will the SBC wind up isolated and alone?

Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. Used by permission.