Under the convention theme "Love Never Fails" (1 Corinthians 13:8), Southern Baptists will renew next week in Atlanta a sometimes-angry battle for leadership of the largest Protestant denomination in America. A broadly representative Peace Committee recently said the infighting over biblical and denominational loyalties has been marked by "intemperate, inflammatory and unguarded language."
This year's meeting is not likely to be an exception. In discussing reported convention tactics by opposing leaders, a pre-convention newspaper published by ardent conservatives declared: "It's time to put the liberal fanatics in their place."
The focus for an expected 40,000 to 50,000 church "messengers" will be the election Tuesday of a president on the first day of the three-day meeting.
They may elect a fundamentalist-style pastor as president for the eighth straight year--and move that wing closer to gaining control of Southern Baptist agencies from moderates--or pick instead a minister representative of moderates who contend that cooperative missionary efforts suffer when too much attention is paid to differences in biblical interpretation.
"Our hope is that love will be the prevailing atmosphere of the convention," said the Rev. Fred Wolfe of Mobile, Ala., who chairs the convention business committee. "We do have honest differences. But with the convention theme we are saying we can walk together in love."
The 14.4-million-member Southern Baptist Convention is predominantly conservative in its view of the Bible, and both leading candidates for president are regarded as theological conservatives within the Protestant spectrum.
But coinciding with the late 1970s rise of the so-called new religious right in politics, fundamentalist figures in Southern Baptist circles sought to back candidates for the denomination's presidency who decried alleged toleration of liberal views of the Bible, especially those at the large Southern Baptist seminaries. The more moderate conservatives have charged that the fundamentalist leaders mostly want power, and have shown relatively weak loyalty to Southern Baptist mission work.
Tipping the Balance
Advocates of conformity in literalistic biblical interpretation have moved toward tipping the balance of board appointments to the 26 agencies and seminaries ever since the first fundamentalist standard-bearer, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Memphis, Tenn., was elected in 1979.
Unlike his successors (in turn, the Revs. Bailey E. Smith of Del City, Okla.; James T. Draper Jr. of Houston, and Charles Stanley of Atlanta), Rogers declined to serve a customary second term, but he has agreed to serve this time if elected in Atlanta.
Moderates are supporting the Rev. Winfred Moore of Amarillo, Tex., for the second year in a row. Moore was defeated by incumbent Stanley at last year's meeting in Dallas despite a concerted challenge from the moderate camp. Pre-convention interest ran so high then that more than 45,000 messengers registered for the vote--nearly doubling the previous attendance high set in 1978 in Atlanta.
Moore was elected first vice president in a gesture of harmony. The consultative position does not carry much weight, however.
The president each year appoints a 54-member Committee on Committees, which sets in motion a complicated sequence at the heart of the struggle between the "fundamental-conservatives" and the "moderate-conservatives"--terms now used by the official Baptist Press news service.
"According to acknowledged strategy," said Dan Martin of Baptist Press, "the convention can be moved to a more conservative stance by electing fundamental-conservative presidents, who appoint like-minded Committee on Committees members who nominate persons of similar belief to serve on the Committee on Boards. Then, the Committee on Boards nominates fundamental-conservatives to be trustees of the agencies."
'Shocked Out of Apathy'
Lee Roberts, a Georgia investment banker who heads the current Committee on Boards, recently was quoted by Baptist Press at a pastors' meeting that he was "shocked out of my apathy and ignorance" to get involved. "All that is really necessary for the destruction of the Southern Baptist Convention is for good, Bible-believing, God-loving, truth-honoring Southern Baptists in the pew and in the pulpit to stand by and do nothing," Roberts said.
"I believe the false doctrine of liberal theology could well be the death gargle of Christianity in this nation if it goes unchanged," he said.
Moderates sought last year to nominate a substitute slate for the 54-member Committee on Boards, but convention President Stanley ruled that only single substitutions could be considered. The delegates voted to overturn his ruling, 12,576 (51.59%) to 11,801 (48.41%), one of the few "moderate" victories at recent Southern Baptist meetings.