PROVIDENCE, R.I., July 20--Given all the debates over sexuality that have consumed so many of this country's Protestant denominations during the last two decades, people may easily get the impression that Christians everywhere are caught up in the same kinds of debates.

But in truth, says the Rev. Denton Lotz, issues such as blessing couples in homosexual relationships don't even make it onto the radar screens of most Christians living outside the West.

And even the ordination of women, something now seen as routine by most American Protestants, turns out, he says, to still be a rare practice in Africa and Asia, except in certain "progressive" groups.

Lotz is in a position to know. For the last dozen years, he's traveled the world as general secretary of the Baptist World Alliance, representing a community of 100 million Baptists in 163,000 Baptist churches scattered among 200 countries, and is widely viewed as one of the leading voices in the Baptist world. Evangelist Billy Graham's daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, is his sister-in-law.

A native of New York and a former missionary in Eastern and Central Europe, as well as a former professor of missions and homiletics at the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland, the 61-year-old clergyman came to Rhode Island recently to preach at the 100th anniversary celebration of Cranston's Phillips Memorial Baptist Church.

"America always likes to bring up the question of ordination of women because we have a strong feminist thing," Lotz said in an interview after the worship service. "But that's not a critical issue for the Third World. There, the critical issue is the question of religious freedom, the question of poverty, prejudice, human rights, and creating a just society. It's the question of tribal conflict, like the one between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda.

The people there just want to know if they are going to have bread for tomorrow and whether they can get a job or whether they are going to be persecuted by the majority religion."

Lotz says that in some places, such as Russia and Ukraine, life has gotten better for Baptists during the last 10 years, with a new vigor arising out of people's hunger for spirituality after 75 years of Soviet communism.

While the Baptists there are now free of oppressive restrictions that prevented them from spreading their Gospel message, they still sometimes run into conflicts with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has successfully lobbied for laws restricting outside religious groups.

Fortunately, Lotz says, the new laws affect them only tangentially, since the laws give legitimacy to churches, such as the Baptists, that have been in Russia for more than 15 years, and because most of the Baptist clergy in Russia are native-born and thus have no need of entry visas.

In Ukraine, he says, the news is also encouraging, with the number of Baptist churches doubling from 1,000 to 2,000 in just 10 years time.

But that's not to say things are fine everywhere, Lotz observes. In places such Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, the Baptist World Alliance has been setting up programs of reconciliation in an attempt to answer religious conflicts fueled by nationalism. He noted that two years ago, a missionary and his two sons were killed in India when Hindu fundamentalists set fire to their van, and just last month 15 Baptist churches were burned to the ground.

"Of course, we suffer very much from the lack of religious freedom in countries like Pakistan and Egypt, where sharia [Islamic law] is brought in so that if a Muslim becomes a Christian he is deemed to have blasphemed Allah and therefore can be killed. We're concerned that there have been more Christians killed during the last century than at any time in world history."

How will it all play out? Lotz says he takes hope in the new spirit of understanding among the world's Christian bodies, as evidenced by the ecumenical dialogues and conversations that Baptists have had with Lutherans, Reformed, Orthodox, Mennonite, and Roman Catholic Christians.

Lotz met with Pope John Paul II last year and has had conversations with the Vatican about what Baptists and Catholics have in common. Though the two continue to be separated by their ecclesiologies--with Baptists placing their emphasis on the local congregation and Catholics looking to the authority of the pope and bishops--there is now a sense, says Lotz, that Catholics and Baptists have much more in common than the antagonisms of the 19th and early 20th centuries would indicate.

"As Christians we believe that, in Jesus Christ, God has become one with us, Immanuel," he said. "Therefore, we're involved in evangelism all over the world, not only as Baptists but as Catholics and Protestants, to spread the good news that there's hope, and that there's a God out there who loves me and is concerned about me, and who wants those who follow Him to be concerned about His family and about justice and peace and so on.

"I think Pope John Paul has been very good on emphasizing those issues while remaining very Christocentric, and that's why Baptists feel very close to him. He emphasizes Christ as Savior and the centrality of faith."

It may well be that Lotz's biggest challenge these days is within the Baptist fold, trying to help keep Baptists in the United States in conversation with one another. Baptists in the United States, he said, cover a wide spectrum, from President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore on one end, and Sens. Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond on the other.

Not counting children, there are an estimated 60 million Baptists in the United States, a quarter of them claiming membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, the country's largest Protestant denomination.

As most church observers know, the SBC has followed an increasingly conservative course during the last two decades, and this year proved no exception, when its delegates, or "messengers," approved a resolution last month opposing making women "senior pastors" of congregations (without opposing the ordination of women outright), on the theory that the New Testament assigns the leadership role to men.

Asked if the stance put the Southern Baptists out of step with other Baptists, Lotz said it all depends on location. Certainly, he said, in the United States, most of the other major Baptist bodies, including the four leading black Baptist denominations, recognize women's ordination and the placing of women in the pulpit. Yet it is also true, he said, that even in those denominations that endorse the practice, a great many congregations resist having a woman pastor.

Elsewhere, he said, the situation is mixed, with British Baptists, along with Baptists in Denmark, Sweden, Italy, and Germany taking a progressive stance, while Baptists in Poland, living under the influence of Catholicism, and Baptists in Russia, influenced by Orthodoxy, are more conservative.

"In other places it's more culture. For example in Africa and Asia, where men dominate society, you don't find many churches ordaining women, though there are a few progressive Baptist units that would."

Lotz said the World Baptist Alliance doesn't take a position on the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of moderate Baptist churches within the SBC who are unhappy with their denomination's leadership and direction.

"We do not get involved in the internal disputes of a country. That's something every country and every national body has to deal with. If they ask for a national reconciliation team, that's one thing. We would be pleased to send one. But as for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the question is have they broken with the Southern Baptists, or are they a dissident movement within the Southern Baptists. You have to be an independent movement before you can be a member."

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