Conservatives Tighten Rules on Beliefs : Baptists’ Turn to Right Brings Rift
Historians, sociologists and other scholars are pondering what is likely to happen to the huge Southern Baptist Convention now that it has turned to the right as a result of tightened doctrinal prescriptions.
The denomination may split or fragment if the stricter definitions of belief are heavily applied, some said. But others strongly doubted it, predicting a time of waiting and gradual lessening of strains.
At the moment, some observers said, a calm of sorts has descended over the largest U.S. Protestant denomination, heralding either a gentler climate, or a fiercer storm.
“We have entered a new era,” said the Rev. Herschel Hobbs of Oklahoma City, a veteran middle-road conciliator in the 14.6-million-member denomination and once its president. “We’re going to have to learn to live in a new era. It’s sort of like a child learning to walk.”
However, he predicted an eventual return to the center, counterbalancing a shift to the right finally achieved at a June convention by a fundamentalist wing that won a ninth successive victory needed for denominational control.
Because of the unprecedented “political aspects” of the drawn-out conflict, Hobbs said, the outcome puts the denomination “right of center, but we’re not going to stay there long. We’ll be coming back to the center.”
The succession of defeats for moderates has gradually replaced them with fundamentalist majorities--through presidential appointive powers--among trustees of church agencies and seminaries.
Also, the convention has laid down stiffened criteria of beliefs for institutional employees, insisting that staff and faculties members must affirm that the Bible is without error in “all fields of knowledge.”
Moderates allow for varied interpretations on the basis of the historic Baptist view of the “soul competence” of believers to interpret Scripture as they understand it.
However, the convention directed a “peace committee” to monitor compliance with the new standards.
Baptist theologian Harvey G. Cox of Harvard Divinity School said the denomination, in a manner similar to the Vatican, seeks to impose uniformity and to silence dissent--variously using Bible “inerrancy” or papal authority to do it.
However, the committee said it will not use “policing” tactics.
Church historian Bill Leonard of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the denomination is suffering an “identity crisis” brought on by spreading out of the South into all 50 states.
The influx of people from the North and East has involved people without experience in the convention’s traditions and who do not see the need to do things the way they were done in “the Southern Baptist Zion of the South,” Leonard said.
Church historian E. Glen Hinson, also of the Louisville seminary, said he sees no way to resolve the struggle between the warring sides, and suggested that it would be more Christian if they “got a divorce.”
“If we do not, we will merely continue to violate one another’s conscience and blaspheme Christ and darken whatever light shines in us,” he said, contending that the now-controlling fundamentalists show no signs of sharing power.
However, sociologist Nancy T. Ammerman of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, who has made a three-year study of attitudes on both sides in the conflict, doubted that there will be a breakup if leaders do not further alienate moderates.
She said a survey found only small minorities on either side who said they would even consider leaving.
However, several independent organizations have formed as the conflict has gone on, including a moderate group, the Southern Baptist Alliance, disavowing any political tactics or plans to become a separate denomination.
But the alliance, contending that the denomination’s “historic principles” are at stake, said it will publish separate educational material, since fundamentalists now control the denominational output, and aid mission churches with women pastors, now ruled out denominationally.
“We want to be a voice of conscience,” said the Rev. W. Henry Crouch of Charlotte, N.C., Southern Baptist Alliance president, seeking to “provide a lifeline” for discouraged, disenfranchised moderates to keep them from leaving the denomination.
However, an alliance director, the Rev. James C. Strickland of Cartersville, Ga., added: “We will wait to see what circumstances dictate. We need to cling together for a while and wait to see what happens.”
Said the Rev. Susan Lockwood Wright of Chicago, alliance vice president: “We have to realize we’re in exile. . . . We have to be a faithful remnant.”
Whether a break eventually occurs is “highly unpredictable,” said religion-philosophy professor Joe Barnhart of North Texas State University in Denton, Tex., in a new book, “The Southern Baptist Holy War.”
Historian Leonard predicted that the denomination will not “split into neat halves,” but “it is going to fragment” increasingly as time goes on.