ORLANDO, Fla., June 15 (RNS)--The Southern Baptist Convention, with the conservative resurgence that wrested control of the denomination now more than two decades old, shored up its traditional reputation during its annual meeting this past week--and even took it a big step further.

As expected, Southern Baptists at the two-day gathering that ended Wednesday adopted a revised statement of faith that clearly delineates what drafters say most Southern Baptists already believe: women aren't qualified by Scripture to be pastors; homosexuality, abortion and pornography should be opposed; and Jesus Christ paves the only way to salvation.

But Baptists also took a stand on an issue rarely addressed at an annual meeting: capital punishment. In the 1960s, messengers, as delegates are known, at an annual meeting deleted paragraphs from a resolution condemning the death penalty. At this meeting, they overwhelmingly passed a resolution supporting capital punishment.

"Life is sacred," said Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. "God himself in Genesis 9 said if you take a human being's life you will forfeit your life."

In addition to adopting the revised Baptist Faith and Message, the core statement of Baptist beliefs, and passing a number of other resolutions--addressing such topics as evangelism, religious persecution and the Boy Scouts--Southern Baptists also elected a new president during their meeting at the Orange County Convention Center here.

James Merritt, a Snellville, Ga., pastor, describes himself as the first baby-boomer president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination, with 15.9-million members. Though he followed the call to ministry "kicking and screaming" because he had originally planned to become a lawyer, Merritt eventually rose through Southern Baptist ranks and is the immediate past chairman of the denomination's Executive Committee.

Merritt, 47, succeeds Paige Patterson, one of the architects of the conservative resurgence that transformed the evangelical church body beginning in 1979.

Merritt voiced support for the revised language in the statement of faith, which included racism among a list of social issues Baptists should oppose, along with homosexuality, adultery and pornography.

The new language regarding women pastors reads: "While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture."

The Baptist Faith and Message statement is not binding on individual churches but adherence to it is expected, and it could be used in the process of barring churches from local and state associations and conventions as well as the national meeting.

While protesters outside the convention center criticized Baptist stances against homosexuality and women pastors, Baptists inside never brought up those issues during a discussion of the faith statement that lasted for more than an hour. Instead, they debated its theological points concerning the pre-eminence of Jesus in relationship to the Bible before passing it overwhelmingly.

After congratulating Patterson on his work to shape the direction of the denomination, Merritt said he would forge ahead and strive to reach out to younger Baptists and minorities to encourage their participation in the denomination's activities. He said he also would try to foster healthy churches by urging more Baptist pastors to become actively involved in missions work.

"Baptists have become greater at giving than they have at going," he said. "Missions is not just for full-time missionaries. Evangelism is not just for full-time evangelists."

One of the resolutions passed at this year's meeting affirms the denomination's "Strategic Cities Initiative" that will focus evangelistic efforts in major urban centers of this country, starting this year with Chicago and Phoenix.

"We affirm our God-given and constitutionally protected right to make Christ known in a pluralistic society," reads the resolution, which also cited the recent Chicago Declaration on Religious Freedom, a document with similar language that was signed by scores of U.S. evangelical leaders.

The resolution on religious persecution urged U.S. government officials to "compel the governments in Sudan and the People's Republic of China to stop the various atrocities and ongoing violations of religious freedom."

The Boy Scouts resolution addressed matters of religious liberty within U.S. borders and was prompted by the New Jersey Supreme Court decision that the Scouting organization is not private and therefore is subject to non-discrimination statutes that include sexual orientation.

"If this form of judicial imperialism is allowed to stand, it would mean that churches and other religious institutions would be threatened by an overweening government intrusion into their right of self-governance," the resolution reads.

Baptists also adopted resolutions condemning the sexual trafficking of women and children; warning of "the threat of New Age globalism;" opposing the sale of human fetal tissue; and retaining the traditional use of B.C. and A.D. rather than the newer publishing practice of B.C.E. (before the common era) and C.E. (common era). B.C. stands for "before Christ" and A.D. for "anno Domini," or the year of the Lord.

"This practice is the result of the secularization, anti-supernaturalism, religious pluralism, and political correctness pervasive in our society," the resolution about calendar dating reads.

In other business:

  • Southern Baptists passed a motion calling on the denomination's new president to send a letter to controversial talk-show host "Dr. Laura" Schlessinger "commending her for her courageous stand in opposition to homosexuality."
  • Southern Baptist teens displayed posters outside the convention center marked with their signatures and the words of the "True Love Waits" commitment to sexual abstinence. The posters attached to stakes were placed around a circular patch of grass outside an entrance to the convention center.
  • In sum, this week's Southern Baptist Convention meeting was all about tightening the reigns on the denomination held firmly by conservatives. The question now is, will more rank-and-file moderates leave the SBC?

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