Reflections on the 2004 SBC annual meeting - Word&Way

Reflections on the 2004 SBC annual meeting

By Bill Webb

Visitors to the 147th annual session of the Southern Baptist Convention showed a diversity of opinion that hasn't particularly characterized conventions in recent years. On more than one occasion, some messengers seemed to bristle at the appearance that convention actions were pretty much cut-and-dried.

Bill WebbElection. It has been a long time since the pre-announced candidate for convention president has been faced with opposition. The nominator of challenger Al Jarrell explained that he decided to nominate the small-church pastor because during the past nine years, he has become concerned that the SBC's leadership is "growing further and further and further away from the grassroots of this great convention."

As expected, the challenger was defeated, but he garnered more than 20 percent of the votes. That suggests that nominator Dennis Conner was not alone in his concerns.

New Orleans Seminary. The tone of the discussion between the convention and one of its entities, New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was more edgy. What the SBC Executive Committee wanted was for the seminary to clean up its charter to guarantee the SBC would be the "sole member," or owner, of the seminary. The seminary has been the only one of 11 SBC entities not to make the change.

Despite appeals from the seminary president and trustees to hold off until the seminary discovered the best way under Louisiana law to make the change, messengers instead followed the strong urging of the Executive Committee and its attorney and "requested" the seminary trustees include sole-member language in a revised charter.

A full one third of voting messengers apparently voted in favor of working with the trustees to find the solution. But they lost.

The reunion. A "conservative resurgence reunion," celebrating the 25th anniversary of the SBC's change of direction featured key architects of the effort, Paige Patterson and Judge Paul Pressler.

Hailed as one of the key heroes in the battle – which newer Southern Baptist Jerry Falwell kidded was a hijacking of the SBC – was the late W.A. Criswell, long-time pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas.

Older Southern Baptists were encouraged to bring young pastors – future SBC leaders – to the reunion as part of an effort to encourage vigilance in the cause of SBC conservatism. But a turnout of about 600 on the eve of a convention that drew 8,500 messengers would seem to suggest that many Southern Baptists would like to move beyond the politics.

Baptist World Alliance. Messengers overwhelmingly agreed with a committee of key Southern Baptist leaders, including Patterson and Pressler, that the time had come to part ways with BWA and to pull the international fellowship's $300,000 budget allocation.

It was interesting that one of the most compelling voices from the convention floor was that of Larry Walker, a messenger from Criswell's church, who urged messengers to support BWA as "a united, worldwide community of Baptists."

The implications of this decision will be felt immediately and for years to come among member bodies. Funding will not be a problem for BWA, but member conventions in countries and among people groups where Southern Baptist missionaries have related well to nationals already are confused.

The action suggests that SBC missionaries should not relate to Baptist bodies that refuse to take the SBC's lead in their own relationship with BWA. Most have every reason to stay with BWA, which forcefully speaks out on behalf of persecuted Baptists and provides aid to those among whom Baptist groups minister.

For its part, BWA is leaving the door open for Southern Baptists to come back. Executive secretary Denton Lotz says Southern Baptists will be welcome when BWA celebrates its centennial a year from now in Birmingham, England.