WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (RNS)--Baptists in Texas are poised to take a significant stepaway from the Southern Baptist Convention next week--one that couldtake some hefty change from the wallet of the nation's largestProtestant denomination.
The proposed reduction in giving of more than $5 million to SouthernBaptist seminaries and other agencies marks the latest--and apotentially pivotal--development in the more than two-decades-oldtheological and political struggle within the 15.8 million-memberdenomination.
When the Baptist General Convention of Texas meets Monday and Tuesday in Corpus Christi, as many as 7,000 delegates are expected to vote on a proposal to decreaseits more than $5 million in funding of six SBC seminaries this year to acap of $1 million next year. The plan also calls for reducing funding ofthe SBC's executive committee and religious liberty agency by close to$1 million.
Under the proposal, more than $17 million still would be allocated to SBCmission and annuity boards.
Moderate leaders of the BGCT--the denomination's largest stateconvention with 2.7 million members--say they are opting to spend moremoney on Texas theological schools, Hispanic ministries and other statemission causes. The move is triggered in part by the approval last Juneof a revised faith statement for the conservative-led denomination bydelegates to the annual SBC meeting.
Charles Wade, executive director of the Texas convention, isparticularly disturbed by a new phrase about "doctrinal accountability"that was added to the preamble of the Baptist Faith and Message.
"Always before we have used confessions of faith as a witness to thewatching world and...as a guide for instruction of our members," saidWade. "But then it says these are `instruments of doctrinalaccountability.' That language we've never seen before and it raises thevery powerful question, `Accountable to whom?'"
Wade and other moderate leaders object to Southern Baptistseminaries requiring their faculty to sign on to the new statement toretain their employment.
"They have made this both in word and in deed a creedal statement,which is different from anything that Baptists have ever faced before,"said Wade, who expects the proposal to reduce funding of the SBC willpass.
In response, SBC President James Merritt says: "It's ridiculous tocall anything like that a creed. Baptists historically and even by theirpolity cannot be a creedal people...We believe in academic freedom.We do not believe in academic autonomy."
Merritt views the Baptist Faith and Message as a "consensusstatement" on Southern Baptist beliefs.
"I see no problem in having anyone who works for the convention andworks for the denomination to agree to support that statement," he said."All freedom has limits. Freedom without limits is anarchy."
Whether the new statement is a creed or not, it has become adividing line in a denomination whose conservative resurgence began in1979 and continues to rile moderates.
"It's really splitting hairs, although they're pretty importanthairs for Baptists," said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion atHartford Seminary in Connecticut.
But the level to which Texas Baptists are taking their oppositionto the SBC's conservative leadership has raised the financial stakes. Inthe recent past, newer conservative-led state conventions have beencreated in Texas and Virginia that send more undesignated funds to theSouthern Baptist Convention while the moderate-led conventions in thosestates have offered local congregations the option of sending money tomoderate groups such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
The proposed arrangement by the Baptist General Convention of Texaswould make the depletion of funds from some SBC entities the predominantplan in the state.
"It's fairly big," said Ammerman, who wrote "Baptist Battles," a1990 analysis of the conservative resurgence, and served on thecooperative fellowship's coordinating council in the early 1990s. "Thereare simply too many churches and too many dollars for it not to have aneffect...What it signifies is the ongoing sorting out of theorganizations that used to be one unified set of organizations and arenow becoming ever more fragmented."
In this election season, Baptists have a campaign of their ownregarding the funding vote, expected to take place Monday afternoon.
Southern Baptist leaders have sent a 12-page document called "TheTruth About the SBC & Texas" to Texas Southern Baptists and opened a Website to encourage Texas Baptists to reject thedefunding proposal.
A moderate organization called Texas Baptists Committed isdistributing nationwide a tape from Wade along with a letter from formerPresident Jimmy Carter describing his recent decision to no longerassociate with the denomination because of an "increasingly rigid SBCcreed."
David Currie, coordinator of Texas Baptists Committed, said someBaptists already had grown uncomfortable with Southern Baptistpositions, including the 1998 amendment to the Baptist Faith and Messagethat said wives should "submit...graciously" to their husbands.