In May, that changed.
The red brick, white-columned church is still there. On Sunday mornings, traffic still backs up in its parking lots. There are even simultaneous services at the 11 o'clock worship hour--one traditional for the middle-aged and older adults who are the backbone of Buckhead, one contemporary for people in their 20s moving in.
But Wieuca Road Baptist Church is no longer Southern Baptist. In May, the church voted to sever ties with the Southern Baptist Convention that had been its official denominational identity since its founding in the 1950s. It is now solely aligned with the alternative Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
This week, Wieuca members are in charge of local arrangements for the annual assembly of the Fellowship, which gets under way tonight at the Georgia World Congress Center. The gathering will be a 10th anniversary celebration featuring the Fellowship's most famous supporter, former President Jimmy Carter.
Founded in Atlanta as a protest movement within the Southern Baptist Convention, the Fellowship has drawn the money and resources from some of metro Atlanta's prominent Baptist churches, including John's Creek in Alpharetta, First Baptist in Decatur and Second-Ponce de Leon in Atlanta.
The organization has its roots in a struggle for control of the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant body, that began in 1979 and ended with the surrender of the moderate faction to the conservatives in 1990. Following the Southern Baptist Convention that year, the defeated troops met at the Inforum and laid the groundwork for what, the next year, became the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In the ensuing decade, the two groups have grown further apart.
Issues that led to the split included biblical interpretation and the role of women.
Robert Parham, executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics, follows his teenage daughter's lead and divides Baptists into two groups--those who don't mind wearing mouse ears and those who do.
In 1997, 12,000 cheering, applauding Southern Baptists linked the Disney Co. and its subsidiaries with sin and Satan, complaining about promotion of homosexuality in television shows and paganism in cartoon features. They voted to boycott. In 2000, when the Southern Baptist Convention and the Fellowship had back-to-back annual meetings in Orlando, Fellowship leaders made much of Disney's proximity, poking fun at their boycotting brethren.
Although Fellowship leaders hesitated to completely cut the apron strings, the mother church had no qualms about disowning the dissident child. In 1994, as the Fellowship was establishing the structure of its Atlanta headquarters and still channeling money to some Southern Baptist agencies, the Southern Baptist Convention voted in Orlando to reject any funds that came through the Fellowship.
Then, at the 2000 Orlando meeting, Southern Baptists adopted a new confession of faith, the Baptist Faith and Message, that laid out the principles of the Convention. It specified that women cannot be pastors of Southern Baptist churches and required a belief in biblical literalism--both premises rejected by the Fellowship.
Southern Baptist leaders claimed the new statement shored up the faith. Fellowship leaders said it took away the freedom of individual believers and the autonomy of local churches to interpret Scripture for themselves.
The new Baptist Faith and Message "differentiated the Southern Baptist Convention from the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship," said Walter Shurden, Callaway professor of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon. "We really are two different groups of Baptists. The Southern Baptist Convention wants the world to know that. I think we ought to be clear about it. We ought to let the world know we're not Southern Baptists."
Although most of its leaders refuse to refer to it as a denomination, the Fellowship has the infrastructure to go with the beliefs it espouses.
With a proposed annual budget of $18 million, it sends out its own fleet of missionaries and works with theology schools (including Candler School of Theology at Emory University and McAfee School of Theology at Mercer in Atlanta), a news service (Associated Baptist Press) and a publisher (Smyth and Helwys). It is recognized by the Pentagon as a credentialing agency for military chaplains. The 1,800 churches that support it would place it in the top 30 of American Christian groups, with more congregations than the Brethren, the Salvation Army and the Presbyterian Church in America.
At 10, the Fellowship is figuring out who it is and where it's going.