Leadership Battle May Draw Record Crowd to Baptist Parley
With a leadership struggle among Southern Baptists intensifying dramatically, record numbers of voting “messengers” are expected in Dallas next week for the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.
If registration comes anywhere close to the predicted 30,000 messengers at the Dallas Convention Center, it will exceed by 7,000 people the gathering seven years ago in Atlanta.
The increased interest this year focuses on Tuesday’s election of the president for the 14.3-million-member denomination.
Custom would normally favor the reelection, for a second one-year term, of incumbent Charles F. Stanley, an Atlanta pastor who carries the banner of biblical fundamentalists. That group has had a succession of presidents since 1979 who have decried an alleged “liberalism” in seminaries and some Southern Baptist agencies.
By reelecting an ultraconservative president each year, the fundamentalists hope to use the office’s appointive powers to fill vacancies on the boards of seminaries and agencies with ministers and lay people for whom the primary issue is the unstinting affirmation of a literally interpreted Bible.
However, an opposition candidate, the Rev. W. Winfred Moore of San Antonio, will be nominated by so-called “moderates” (biblical conservatives by most standards), who say the searching examination of biblical loyalties creates discord and harms evangelistic cooperation.
Joking about his candidacy as a “moderate,” Moore has told interviewers that he has been characterized as “a little to the right of the Ayatollah (Khomeini of Iran)” and that he used to think Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater was a liberal.
Trust in fellow believers--and not adherence to creeds--would alleviate the continuing crisis in the Southern Baptist Convention, said Moore, president of the Texas Southern Baptists. “I don’t agree with everything the dearest friends I have believe, but it never occurred to me (that they) disbelieved the Bible or don’t believe it is God’s inspired word,” Moore said.
Stanley said there are areas where the churches can live with diversity. Nevertheless, he said, “I believe our attitude toward the Scripture will determine how God blesses us. When other denominations have departed from the authentic word of God, there has been a diminishing of God’s blessings on them.”
Area of Bitter Fighting
The annual meeting, which runs Tuesday through Thursday after a day of auxiliary meetings, this year takes place in a region where some of the bitterest Southern Baptist fighting has occurred lately.
One of the chief strategists for fundamentalist forces is Paige Patterson, president of the Criswell Center for Biblical Studies in Dallas.
Patterson said last February that talk of a “split” in the denomination was entirely premature, but he repeated the suggestions made in the last year that some large, ardently conservative churches might withhold or put strings on their contributions to Southern Baptist agencies for missions and other services if Stanley is defeated for president this year.
The Dallas minister has called the Southern Baptist Convention a “growing bureaucracy” that has become “increasingly insensitive” to the beliefs of most members. Most members believe in the “inerrancy” (historical reliability) of the Bible, “but only two professors at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary believe that.”
Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky., the oldest Southern Baptist theological training ground, and Southwestern Seminary of Fort Worth, Tex., the largest in the denomination and in the country, have come in for particular criticism from fundamentalists.
Southwestern President Russell H. Dilday Jr., in a debate with Convention President Stanley, a Southwestern graduate, said the issue is not theological but political. Dilday said “the takeover effort” by ultraconservatives is the real issue--"who will control our institutions and agencies.”
His View of Liberals
In his mid-April debate with Dilday, Stanley did not accuse Southwestern of harboring “liberals,” whom he characterized as any professor who does not believe the first 11 chapters of Genesis is “historical fact.” But one of those at the debate was Stanley’s son, Andy, who is a student at fundamentalist Dallas Theological Seminary, not affiliated with the Southern Baptists. The younger Stanley asked Dilday how he could deny there is a “liberal encroachment” at Southwestern.
Southern Baptists have usually discouraged taking sides before the annual meeting, but this year has been different.
Pastor W. A. Criswell of the 25,000-member First Baptist Church of Dallas mailed letters to 36,000 ministers last month urging them to back Stanley, who he called “God’s prophet, preaching the gospel of salvation to uncounted thousands (on television) every week.”
Earlier, R. Keith Parks, the president of the denomination’s Foreign Missions Board, speaking as an individual, urged election of convention officers who support both the Bible and the Southern Baptists’ cooperative missions. Parks later said that meant he opposed the reelection of Stanley, whom he has criticized because of his church’s heavy support of non-Southern Baptist causes and independent missionaries.
The growing strength of fundamentalists in the Southern Baptist Convention has coincided, a recent study has shown, with a major shift in political allegiance by Southern Baptist pastors from Democratic to Republican, according to political scientist James L. Guth of Furman University in Greenville, S.C.
Moving to GOP
“The increase is much more dramatic among Southern Baptist ministers” than among the rest of the white electorate in the South, Guth said. In a 1980-81 survey, Guth said 29% of the Southern Baptists called themselves Republican, but by 1984, another survey showed 66% of the clergy had moved into the Republican camp.
Guth said the Republican Party’s attention to social issues important to the ministers was a factor in the change. Also, he said, “the rift inside the Southern Baptist Convention is, for the first time, forcing ministers to choose sides.”
The Southern Baptist struggle is also seen as part of the Religious Right’s cause. Public support has been expressed for Stanley by independent Baptist Jerry Falwell, founder-president of the Moral Majority, and Christian Broadcasting Network executive Pat Robertson, a charismatic Protestant. Stanley was a vice president of Moral Majority in 1980 and, like Falwell and Robertson, is a television broadcaster on the board of the National Religious Broadcasters.
Appeals for peace and reconciliation are frequently made. California Pastor Jess Moody of Van Nuys First Baptist Church, claiming that Southern Baptists are seen by outsiders as a massive but divisive body, called for a prayerful end to “continued name calling, fellowship breaches and weekly salvos.” Moody, a trustee of Southern Theological Seminary, urged support for both Stanley and the heads of all denominational institutions.
A broader, more formal attempt at reconciliation is being proposed by presidents of state conventions to establish a 15-member committee to study the crisis, no matter who wins the election for president.