Moderate-Fundamentalist Split Flares Anew : Conciliation Doesn’t Last Long at Southern Baptist Convention
It did not take long for the deep divisions among Southern Baptists to reappear at their largest-ever annual meeting this week.
Talk of humility and healing filled the halls of the Dallas Convention Center, and a “peace committee” was approved to recommend ways to end controversy in the 14.3-million-member denomination after the election of a fundamentalist pastor, Charles Stanley, to a second one-year term.
Stanley received 55% of the vote from more than 45,000 messengers, or delegates, over a “moderate” candidate, the Rev. W. Winfred Moore of Amarillo, Tex. The two men later put their arms around each other’s shoulders as Moore accepted a surprise nomination as first vice president. Moore won easily and pledged cooperation with Stanley.
But, midway through the three-day meeting, the enduring conflict in the denomination erupted again over parliamentary disputes between the fundamentalist and moderate wings of the nationwide church body.
‘The crack’s still in the plaster, folks,” said the Rev. Cecil Sherman, a moderate leader from Fort Worth. At a news conference, Sherman compared the peace rhetoric to a poor job of wallpapering.
Sherman charged that the fundamentalists have not tempered their drive for conformity: “Right now, if you don’t get in step (with the fundamentalists), you can’t be a Baptist.”
On the other side, Sam Cathy of Oklahoma City exhorted a gathering of fellow evangelists to take off the kid gloves in dealing with the opponents he called “liberals.”
“We know who they are,” he said. “Let’s get ‘em.”
Stanley said to the evangelists: “I believe we have extended a long, warm hand of cooperation. I don’t know that that’s what we’re receiving.”
The leadership fight in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination is essentially an intra-conservative battle. Southern Baptists as a whole are known as conservative evangelicals, all committed to saving the nation and the world from “unforgiven sin and spiritual lostness,” as one mission board president put it here.
The terms “fundamentalist” and “moderate” indicate contrasting styles--the fundamentalists ever on guard for doctrinal deviations, the moderates emphasizing freedom of conscience for believers.
In a broader sense, however, the fundamentalists’ gradual struggle for control of the Southern Baptist bureaucracy stems from the same kind of unhappiness that the religious right has expressed in other church circles--a resentment of attitudes by liberal teachers and administrators toward them.
Paul Pressler, a Houston appellate court judge, said he and other strategists of the ultraconservative faction were tired of having fundamentalist understanding of Scripture “ridiculed” in seminaries and in other settings.
“We pay the bills, and we get ridiculed,” Pressler said in an interview.
The conflict that broke the temporary calm here occurred during deliberations Wednesday. The convention parliamentarian had invalidated an attempt by moderates to remove the president’s appointive power--a power, moderates say, that four fundamentalist presidents have used for six consecutive years to fill vacancies on the boards of seminaries and church agencies with like-minded lay persons and ministers.
Pastor James Slatton, a moderate from Richmond, Va., proposed an alternate method of selecting members for the Committee on Boards, which nominates trustees who control Southern Baptist agencies and seminaries.
Ruled Out of Order
Stanley ruled the motion out of order, but the messengers rejected his ruling, 12,576 to 11,801, in a momentary show of the moderates’ strength. After Parliamentarian Wayne Allen said at a later session that the bylaws did not permit changes in the nominations, Stanley did not respond to repeated screams of “point of order” from Pastor Bill Sherman of Nashville, brother of Cecil Sherman.
Messengers then voted to accept the committee nominations, 13,123 to 9,581. The voting was marred by several reports of unidentified persons distributing extra ballots outside the convention hall. Convention officials have had that problem before, but they say they have to rely on the integrity of messengers.
Stanley rejected most attempts to raise the committee appointments matter again, but Pastor Ron Sisk of Tiburon, Calif., managed to declare from a floor microphone that the chair itself was out of order.
Stanley, an Atlanta pastor whose televised services are seen on two Christian networks, received more backing from the parliamentarian, then told the convention:
“If we’re going to get God’s business done, we’re going to have to move along.”
Size a Difficulty
David Maddox of Fullerton, who was elected chairman of the Southern Baptist Convention’s executive committee, said he thought the very size of the annual meeting made it difficult for Stanley to please everyone.
“I believe next year we will not have the polarization that we did this time,” said Maddox, a contractor and real estate developer. “That’s an expression of hope, not a prediction.”
At the 1986 meeting in Atlanta, the moderates will not be facing an incumbent fundamentalist president because church rules prohibit Stanley from seeking a third term. Moore has been seen by both sides as a strong potential candidate of the moderates next year, whereas the fundamentalists will have to come up with a new flag bearer.
Neither fundamentalist nor moderate leaders show any sign of giving up the fight.
Despite his anger over Stanley’s handling of the meeting, Cecil Sherman said: “If anger would have taken us out, I would have been gone in Los Angeles (where the 1981 meeting was held). I’ve had experience in losing.”
Russell Dilday, president of Southwestern Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, said fundamentalists hold 10 of 36 seats on the seminary board and that control by fundamentalists might be “two or three years away.”
Dilday said he welcomes an investigation of his school and faculty by the peace committee because fundamentalists have only been able to cite three or four professors who might be “teaching on the edge” of Baptist orthodoxy.
“When we have 400 to 500 teachers in the seminaries, then the charges of liberalism can be seen as a smoke screen for attaining power,” he said in an interview.
Dilday said he was dismayed by Stanley’s victory because “you don’t elect a man who doesn’t love the denomination.”
Stanley’s son is a student at the independent, fundamentalist Dallas Theological Seminary, and Stanley’s church in Atlanta has often contributed to non-Southern Baptist missionary causes.
2 Women Added to Panel
Leaders of the 22-member peace committee, which added two women to the all-male list just before its presentation to the messengers, have pointed optimistically to the fact that it includes leaders from the two warring factions.
“It will give us a chance to speak to each other rather than about each other,” one leader said.
A former convention president, the Rev. H. Franklin Paschall of Nashville, warned: “The worst is yet to come unless we can change the (collision) course.”