2016-06-30

WASHINGTON, Oct. 25 (RNS)--Baptists in Texas are poised to take a significant step away from the Southern Baptist Convention next week--one that could take some hefty change from the wallet of the nation's largest Protestant denomination.

The proposed reduction in giving of more than $5 million to Southern Baptist seminaries and other agencies marks the latest--and a potentially pivotal--development in the more than two-decades-old theological and political struggle within the 15.8 million-member denomination.

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 decrease its more than $5 million in funding of six SBC seminaries this year to a cap of $1 million next year. The plan also calls for reducing funding of the 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 SBC mission and annuity boards.

Moderate leaders of the BGCT--the denomination's largest state convention with 2.7 million members--say they are opting to spend more money on Texas theological schools, Hispanic ministries and other state mission causes. The move is triggered in part by the approval last June of a revised faith statement for the conservative-led denomination by delegates to the annual SBC meeting.

Charles Wade, executive director of the Texas convention, is particularly 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 the watching world and...as a guide for instruction of our members," said Wade. "But then it says these are `instruments of doctrinal accountability.' That language we've never seen before and it raises the very powerful question, `Accountable to whom?'"

Wade and other moderate leaders object to Southern Baptist seminaries requiring their faculty to sign on to the new statement to retain 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 will pass.

In response, SBC President James Merritt says: "It's ridiculous to call anything like that a creed. Baptists historically and even by their polity 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 "consensus statement" on Southern Baptist beliefs.

"I see no problem in having anyone who works for the convention and works 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 a dividing line in a denomination whose conservative resurgence began in 1979 and continues to rile moderates.

"It's really splitting hairs, although they're pretty important hairs for Baptists," said Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut.

But the level to which Texas Baptists are taking their opposition to the SBC's conservative leadership has raised the financial stakes. In the recent past, newer conservative-led state conventions have been created in Texas and Virginia that send more undesignated funds to the Southern Baptist Convention while the moderate-led conventions in those states have offered local congregations the option of sending money to moderate groups such as the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The proposed arrangement by the Baptist General Convention of Texas would make the depletion of funds from some SBC entities the predominant plan in the state.

"It's fairly big," said Ammerman, who wrote "Baptist Battles," a 1990 analysis of the conservative resurgence, and served on the cooperative fellowship's coordinating council in the early 1990s. "There are simply too many churches and too many dollars for it not to have an effect...What it signifies is the ongoing sorting out of the organizations that used to be one unified set of organizations and are now becoming ever more fragmented."

In this election season, Baptists have a campaign of their own regarding the funding vote, expected to take place Monday afternoon.

Southern Baptist leaders have sent a 12-page document called "The Truth About the SBC & Texas" to Texas Southern Baptists and opened a Web site to encourage Texas Baptists to reject the defunding proposal.

A moderate organization called Texas Baptists Committed is distributing nationwide a tape from Wade along with a letter from former President Jimmy Carter describing his recent decision to no longer associate with the denomination because of an "increasingly rigid SBC creed."

David Currie, coordinator of Texas Baptists Committed, said some Baptists already had grown uncomfortable with Southern Baptist positions, including the 1998 amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message that said wives should "submit...graciously" to their husbands.

"This is not just a political argument," he said. "It's a question here of how the Baptists best fulfill their role in the kingdom of God. Southern Baptists today are viewed as mean and judgmental and we want Baptists to be viewed as people of love and compassion and grace."

Southern Baptist leaders, for their part, believe Texas Baptists are leaving a historic cooperation behind to put their interests first.

"They're saying, `We're not going to support the theological direction of the Southern Baptist Convention,'" said SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman. "And so they've designed the plan whereby they'll support Texas students."

Merritt, the denominational president, said SBC leaders are "sad" but not worried about the potential turn of events in the denomination.

"We do have some very fundamental convictional differences," he said. "I'm not necessarily asking them to give up theirs. We're certainly not going to give up ours."

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