As expected, Southern Baptists at the two-day gathering that ended Wednesday adopted arevised statement of faith that clearly delineates what drafters saymost Southern Baptists already believe: women aren't qualified byScripture to be pastors; homosexuality, abortion and pornography shouldbe opposed; and Jesus Christ paves the only way to salvation.
But Baptists also took a stand on an issue rarely addressed at anannual meeting: capital punishment. In the 1960s, messengers, asdelegates are known, at an annual meeting deleted paragraphs from aresolution condemning the death penalty. At this meeting, theyoverwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting capital punishment.
"Life is sacred," said Richard Land, president of the SouthernBaptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "God himself in Genesis9 said if you take a human being's life you will forfeit your life."
In addition to adopting the revised Baptist Faith and Message, thecore statement of Baptist beliefs, and passing a number of otherresolutions--addressing such topics as evangelism, religiouspersecution and the Boy Scouts--Southern Baptists also elected a newpresident during their meeting at the Orange County Convention Center here.
James Merritt, a Snellville, Ga., pastor, describes himself as thefirst baby-boomer president of the nation's largest Protestantdenomination, with 15.9-million members. Though he followed the call to ministry "kicking andscreaming" because he had originally planned to become a lawyer, Merritteventually rose through Southern Baptist ranks and is the immediate pastchairman of the denomination's Executive Committee.
Merritt, 47, succeeds Paige Patterson, one of the architects of theconservative resurgence that transformed the evangelical churchbody beginning in 1979.
Merritt voiced support for the revised language in the statement offaith, which included racism among a list of social issues Baptistsshould oppose, along with homosexuality, adultery and pornography.
The new language regarding women pastors reads: "While both men andwomen are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor islimited to men as qualified by Scripture."
The Baptist Faith and Message statement is not binding on individualchurches but adherence to it is expected, and it could be used in theprocess of barring churches from local and state associations andconventions as well as the national meeting.
After congratulating Patterson on his work to shape the direction ofthe denomination, Merritt said he would forge ahead and strive to reachout to younger Baptists and minorities to encourage their participationin the denomination's activities. He said he also would try to fosterhealthy churches by urging more Baptist pastors to become activelyinvolved in missions work.
"Baptists have become greater at giving than they have at going," hesaid. "Missions is not just for full-time missionaries. Evangelism isnot just for full-time evangelists."
One of the resolutions passed at this year's meeting affirms thedenomination's "Strategic Cities Initiative" that will focusevangelistic efforts in major urban centers of this country, startingthis year with Chicago and Phoenix.
"We affirm our God-given and constitutionally protected right tomake Christ known in a pluralistic society," reads the resolution, whichalso cited the recent Chicago Declaration on Religious Freedom, adocument with similar language that was signed by scores of U.S.evangelical leaders.
The resolution on religious persecution urged U.S. governmentofficials to "compel the governments in Sudan and the People's Republicof China to stop the various atrocities and ongoing violations ofreligious freedom."
The Boy Scouts resolution addressed matters of religious libertywithin U.S. borders and was prompted by the New Jersey Supreme Courtdecision that the Scouting organization is not private and therefore issubject to non-discrimination statutes that include sexual orientation.
"If this form of judicial imperialism is allowed to stand, it wouldmean that churches and other religious institutions would be threatenedby an overweening government intrusion into their right ofself-governance," the resolution reads.