Southern Baptists Ask Others for Evaluation : Criticism: Their tendency to shun the opinions of outsiders was put aside when they sought the assessment of different denominations. And they got an earful.


Southern Baptists, wondering what others think of them, invited representatives of several denominations to offer their assessments--and got a blunt and peppery earful.

Mostly, Southern Baptists have stayed aloof from the ecumenical movement for Christian unity, its interdenominational organizations and dialogues of mutual edification and criticism.

But that insular tendency to shun voices of others was thrust aside at a session held at a meeting in Nashville, Tenn., of the denomination’s Historical Commission and Historical Society.

“If you do not find a way of altering your image of fighting and feuding, your biblical message will fall on deaf ears,” Father Robert A. Dalton, Roman Catholicism’s longtime observer of Southern Baptists, told them.


He referred to the decade-long conflict between fundamentalists and moderates in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. That fight resurfaces again next month in New Orleans at the annual meeting of Southern Baptists.

(President Bush, who earlier expressed interest in addressing the convention, backed out after learning that both fundamentalists and moderates objected, it was learned this week. The moderate candidate for Southern Baptist president said the speech would have “intruded into the politics” of the meeting, and fundamentalists were recently upset when Bush invited gay-rights advocates to the April 22 White House signing of “hate-crimes” legislation.

(“We have the dubious distinction of making everybody mad,” said Doug Wead, the President’s liaison with religious groups.)

Asked to offer views of that church body, Dalton and representatives of the United Methodist Church and the American Baptist Churches had praise for some qualities but barbs for others.

The Rev. J. Richard Peck of the United Methodists deplored the effect on Southern Baptist seminaries of the denomination’s long, internecine quarrel over whether the Bible is “inerrant"--without error in all fields.

The result, most mainline denominations would agree, is “that Southern Baptists have effectively amputated their academic community’s major reason for being--a marketplace for inquiry,” Peck said.

“It is a place for education, not indoctrination,” he said.

The Rev. George D. Younger of East Orange, N.J., the executive minister of American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, said Northern Baptists see the Southern body as having “sat out” the civil rights movement.

He also noted these other images: “ecclesiastical super-organization,” “mission imperialism,” “theological obscurantism,” “social quietism” and “denominational exclusivism.”

On that last point, however, a Southern Baptist church historian, the Rev. G. Thomas Halbrooks, said at a later session that despite impressions to the contrary the “historic Baptist stance” favored relationships with other churches.

“Others have often perceived Southern Baptists as being isolated sectarians who consider themselves as having no need for relationships with anyone else,” he said.

Some actions have upheld that “negative perspective,” said Halbrooks, president of the denomination’s Historical Society and a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C.

He said the 15-million-member denomination has varied roots, such as the “colonial root” and “Eastern root” supporting cooperation with other denominations. On the other hand, he said, a “frontier root” and “Western root” stressed exclusivity as “the only true church” and joined with the provincial “Southern root” in becoming dominant.

“Southern Baptists may look to their Eastern and colonial roots and there find guideposts that can point the way out of the darkness of their provincialism into the brightness of the broader community of the Christian faith,” he said.

In the earlier comments from other denominations reported by Baptist Press, Dalton, who for a decade has been the Roman Catholic observer at Southern Baptist conventions, said he admires their zeal and music.

But he said the infighting and preoccupation with church membership threaten to obscure larger social issues, while a “lack of ritual” and emphasis on “show rather than substance” may undercut genuine worship.

Dalton, a Cincinnati educator and vice president of Glenmary Home Missioners, who work extensively in the South, said: “What I see in Mr. or Mrs. Average Baptist sometimes saddens me. I see a conversion experience in danger of becoming only a ritual of ‘walking the aisle.’ ”

Peck, manager of periodicals at the United Methodist Publishing House in Nashville, said mainline denominations view Southern Baptists as “dominated by politics and polemics” in controlling their institutions.

He said Southern Baptists tend to be more loyal to their denomination than others, but he said the church is impoverished if only people who agree that Scripture is without error are allowed positions of leadership.

“Mainliners might envy your denomination for its evangelical fervor, its compassion for others around the globe, its fine publications, its healthy budgets and large membership, but they would not trade all these together for freedom of thought,” he said.