Baptists Worldwide Plead for Unity

Southern Baptists may create two competing international organizations of Baptists
( [email protected] ) Jan 17, 2004 01:34 PM EST

Southern Baptist Convention leaders announced that they would not reverse or delay their plan to withdraw their denomination from the Baptist World Alliance despite pleas and criticism from their Baptist brethren around the world.

Following the SBC’s Dec. 17 announcement of a possible split from the BWA, Baptist from six continents, including leaders from Indonesia, Australia, South Africa, Chile, Sri Lanka, Romania, Russia and Norway, immediately objected the proposal, and asked the SBC to reconsider the break.

Morris Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee and chair of the study committee that proposed the break, declined to predict if the nine-member committee would reconsider.

"I will raise the matter for discussion in a conference call with the committee within the next two weeks," Chapman said. “The position we have taken makes it very difficult to consider delaying or withdrawing the proposal. "

Should the SBC Executive Committee approve the break in February, it will be presented to the hundreds of delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention in June.

"I need to wait long enough to give opportunity for most of those who are inclined to write to do so, in order that any evaluation the committee may make will be based upon a good cross-section of responders," he said. "… I feel obligated to keep the whole matter as low-key as possible. This means I may have to live with the public criticisms of Southern Baptist leadership until we have something to say that is well thought out before release."

Other Baptist leaders most commonly criticize the SBC leadership for its plan to reallocate its $450,000 annual funds it once gave to the BWA, a century year old group the SBC helped create, to its own parallel group of Baptists. The new worldwide network will gather “conservative evangelical Christians” under the “Empowering Kingdom Growth” SBC initiative. According to Chapman, some of the more conservative Baptist bodies around the world have already expressed interest in the new SBC-led organization, raising the possibility of two competing worldwide organizations of Baptists.

However, Latin America Baptists, a traditionally conservative group that said they consider themselves the "younger brothers of the SBC" because of the evangelistic work of Southern Baptist missionaries, said they want nothing to do with the new organization.

"We take the liberty of pointing out to our older brothers that, not only are we unwilling -- under any circumstances -- to go along with their efforts to create a new, parallel organization to the BWA," the leaders said. "But, furthermore, we categorically reject the possibility."

The Latin leaders also denounced charges of liberalism against BWA, which they called "a Christ-centered and Bible-centered organization."

In the statement proposing the break, SBC study committee member Paige Patterson accused the Baptist World Alliance of "advocating aberrant and dangerous theologies" -- specifically, questioning biblical inerrancy, promoting women as pastors, and downplaying the doctrine of salvation only through Jesus.

"We declare unacceptable the allegation of liberalism made by the committee," said Latin American Baptist leaders in one of the strongest statements.

"We deplore the recommendation of this committee," the statement continued, "and we urge strongly the Executive Committee and the assembly of the SBC to reject this recommendation outright, so that this great organization may remain as a member of the BWA and may continue supporting its funding."

The official statement was signed by seven Latin American leaders from four countries, including Fausto Aguiar de Vasconcelos of Brazil, president of the Union of Baptists in Latin America, and two BWA vice presidents.

The European Baptist Federation, which covers Europe and Middle East, pleaded with the Southern Baptists on behalf of Baptist unity.

"Do we realize how much our witness to the world will be harmed when we try to explain that we are different groups of Baptists who cannot work together?" the European leaders asked. "One of the biggest tragedies of contemporary Christianity is division."

Baptists in Italy said the worldwide Baptist fellowship had been wounded and "enfeebled" by the SBC action, which was "made on the basis of false motivations and pretexts." The union's executive committee blamed the action on "fundamentalism, with its tendency towards intolerance and sectarianism." That tendency "is the antithesis of our own Baptist tradition," which owes much to the influence of Southern Baptist missionaries, the Italians said.

Branko Lovrec, a BWA vice president from Europe and former president of the Baptist Union of Croatia, expressed similar sentiments.

"We are trying to develop Christian relationship with the similar evangelical[s] and other Christians in the specific countries and worldwide, and all of a sudden such news has been like a bomb.… I will devote my time to prayer that God can intervene and settle the matter so that we may not be ashamed before the unbelieving world, who will only rejoice in our separation,” Lovrec said.

The SBC committee’s proposal also accused the BWA of funding “questionable enterprises.” In response, the BWAid committee chair for five years, Robert Ricker, asked the SBC committee to explain the accusation.

"The projects are great needs, handled through Baptist churches, monitored for efficiency and effectiveness," Ricker said in a news release. "Funds are dispersed under careful guidelines with high standards of accountability and with extremely low overhead."

"That any of our Baptist fellowships have unhappiness with BWAid is news to us," Ricker said, "and we are sorry we were not talked to about it, including by the many members of the SBC who have served over the years on our BWAid board and executive committee. Scripture asks us that we go direct, not through national and international mailings."

Several BWA leaders -- including president Billy Kim and General Secretary Denton Lotz – insist the SBC's planned pullout is in response not to BWA's theological stance but its granting of membership to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The CBF, which broke away from the SBC in 1991 after battling similar Southern Baptist charges of liberalism, was admitted to BWA in 2003 after a three-year process and over the objections of Southern Baptist representatives.

"Yet the CBF is not mentioned in the SBC document outlining why they are proposing withdrawal," added Lotz. "Suddenly many accusations are made but CBF is not mentioned. And yet in Rio, SBC leaders came to us and said, 'If they (CBF) are in, we're out!'"

However the committee held that reason for the break was unduly caused by the difference of concerns and objectives.

"The committee members made a decision based upon over five years of appealing in various ways to BWA staff to hear our concerns," Chapman said. "They listened but did not hear. We felt we had no other alternative, lest we become a problem for the organization and its staff, which is something we did not want to happen. As a result, the position we have taken makes it very difficult to consider delaying or withdrawing the proposal."