NEW YORK — The missionary-apostle Paul advised that it's a shame for Christians to bring lawsuits against one another. But Jesus said that if anyone sues you, give him more than he asks.
Both those differing Scriptural counsels have been cited in a tangled, keenly emotional conflict rumbling through the nation's biggest Protestant body, the Southern Baptists.
For the first time in the 116-year history of the denomination, it is being sued by some dedicated members, charging its top officials with betraying its time-honored principle of democratic governance.
As in most issues arising in that Bible-centered denomination, admonitions get offered from the book.
In this instance, two lawsuits have challenged rulings by the denomination's president, the Rev. Charles Stanley, at its 1985 convention, nullifying a majority vote and holding protests out of order.
A gracious and devout couple, Robert and Julia Crowder of Birmingham, Ala., who brought one of the lawsuits, have come under attack from some Baptists elsewhere--four Baptist associations and two congregations.
Those groups took official actions assailing the Crowders' course on the basis of Paul's advice that Christians should not go to court against one another, but should settle disputes among themselves.
"The point is," says the Crowders' pastor, the Rev. Robert Bailey of Birmingham's Southside Baptist Church, "that they did their utmost to get the wrong that was done settled in the church, but were ignored."
Fears for Equality
Now, if the violation remains uncorrected there, or by the courts, he says, it will "in essence set a precedent that will destroy our whole polity" of equal voices in majority rule.
But Bailey added in a telephone interview that he feared that the Crowders were being "lined up to be crucified" by opponents who "proof-text a point" in Scripture without regarding the overall content.
The Crowders, in an open letter to the critics, said they "totally subscribe" to Paul's advice in 1st Corinthians: 1-8, and had tried for nearly five months to get the problem settled within the church, but without avail.
They said the denomination's executive committee "refused to deal with the violation of the bylaws."
In rejecting the Crowders' complaint last fall, the committee upheld procedures at the 1985 convention, saying "whatever mistakes might have occurred" already were past history.
Crowder, 75, a Baptist deacon and retired industrial developer, said he was "heartbroken" that the church executives "failed to face up to their duty and responsibility."
Only afterward did the Crowders proceed with their lawsuit, which they and another layman filed in federal district court in Atlanta. Later, a similar suit was filed in county court by five lay people from five states.
Behind the conflict were parliamentary actions by denominational president Stanley, overruling a ballot vote by the Dallas convention that it could substitute its own slate for nominees he had made to a key committee.
That powerful committee, accepted after he ruled substitutions impossible, picks trustees to boards that run 20 denominational agencies and institutions.
A declaratory court judgment is possible for the denomination's 1986 convention in mid-June. Church officials have asked dismissal on technical grounds--that the court cannot interfere with internal church matters.
The Crowders, replying to the Baptist groups criticizing the filing of the lawsuit, said it "is indeed a tragedy," and added:
"Unfortunately, if the inappropriate and illegal actions which occurred in Dallas are not corrected, a greater tragedy will take place: The Southern Baptist Convention will be ruled by the whim of the person who holds the gavel and those who advise him.
"The history of the world is replete with tyranny of well-meaning religious groups. . . . Tragically, during the 1985 convention the will of the majority was ignored and tyranny was the result.
'Tyranny in Dallas'
" . . . Julia and I feel we have no choice but to encounter the disapproval of those who have not personally heard or seen the tyranny that transpired in Dallas."
Concerning the Scripture-linked attack on the Crowders, R. G. Puckett, editor of the state Baptist paper, the Biblical Recorder, noted editorially that Scripture can also be quoted on the other side.
He says that Jesus, in Matthew 5:40, "enjoins that the one being sued is to yield, giving not only what the courts may award, but more than that.
"In other words . . . Charles Stanley is instructed by the words of Jesus to give not only the coat but the cloak as well."