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BWA officials, Europeans also ‘culpable’ for SBC-BWA schism

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–The Southern Baptist Convention’s impending separation from the Baptist World Alliance could have been avoided, according to a letter circulated by the vice chairman of the BWA’s membership committee.

The SBC should not be faulted alone for a possible parting of the ways between it and the BWA, wrote Albert W. Wardin, a retired college history professor who has served on the BWA membership committee since 1995.

Wardin noted that there are others contributing to the current rift, including:

— The administrative staff of the BWA. Though not mentioned by name in Wardin’s letter, Denton Lotz leads the BWA in his position as general secretary.

— The BWA membership committee.

— Various Baptist officials from Europe.

— The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a breakaway movement from the SBC which, in seeking BWA membership, sparked the SBC review of its BWA membership.

“If there had been more Christian charity and sensitivity on all sides, the division would not have occurred,” Wardin wrote in his letter, dated Feb. 20. “But alas, everyone held tenaciously to his or her preconceived positions and biases. All are guilty for the break.”

Wardin described himself as a BWA supporter who is “particularly sensitive to the need for inter-Baptist cooperation worldwide” in his letter. He is a member of First Baptist Church in Nashville, Tenn.; professor emeritus of history at Belmont University in Nashville, where he taught 26 years; author or editor of various historical works, including the 1995 “Baptists Around the World: A Comprehensive Handbook”; and a former president of the Southern Baptist Historical Society. Wardin also was asked by a BWA committee to write a chapter for the alliance’s upcoming centennial history.

In including European Baptist officials as part of the controversy, Wardin wrote: “… one of the vice-presidents of the BWA and a member of the Membership Committee told me that if the CBF were not accepted [into BWA membership], then the Baptist unions of Europe would withdraw!”

At another point in his 650-word letter, Wardin noted that the BWA membership committee “was particularly influenced by individuals from Western Europe who had no sympathy for the SBC leadership and its concerns and were more ideologically in tune with the CBF.”

Wardin, in an interview, said he did not include specific names in his letter in order to focus on the concerns he was raising rather than personalities.

Wardin told Baptist Press that various Western European Baptists are “antagonistic toward what they would consider to be ‘fundamentalist’ positions,” which, he stated, SBC leaders would regard as “conservative evangelical” views. Western European Baptists tend to be “more in line with the CBF,” an organization that broke away from the SBC over such issues.

Differences in missions strategy and cooperation are among factors Wardin cited as fueling the long-standing adverse posture toward the SBC by Western European Baptist leaders. These BWA members also make an issue of the SBC’s de-funding of the Baptist Theological Seminary in Ruschlikon, Switzerland (now the International Baptist Seminary Prague, Czech Republic), in the early 1990s.

Concerning the other parties in the dispute:

— Southern Baptist Convention: Wardin wrote that “it has been most unfortunate for the SBC leadership to brand the BWA as an organization on the path of theological deviation.” Acknowledging that “one might find isolated incidents,” Wardin cited the assessment of John Briggs, director of the Baptist History and Heritage Centre at Regents Park College in Oxford, that the BWA, as Wardin put it, “is more conservative and has a more limited theological range today than it had in 1905” when it began in London, with the SBC among its founding members.

— The administrative staff of the BWA: Wardin noted in his letter that BWA officials also were “culpable” for the SBC-BWA schism by not intervening into deliberations by the BWA membership committee that were problematic “on constitutional grounds and longstanding policy.”

The BWA membership committee, Wardin noted, “is a committee created by the administration of the BWA.”

Neither the BWA constitution nor bylaws mention a membership committee; thus, there are no established BWA policies for the number of members on the committee, the criteria for committee membership, or the scope and manner of committee deliberations.

The size of the BWA membership committee fluctuates from year to year. At Baptist Press’ request, Wardin counted 16 members on the committee in 2000; 20 in 2001; 22 in 2002; and 20 in 2003.

A request for comment telephoned Feb. 27 to the BWA offices in Falls Church, Va., was not returned.

— The BWA membership committee: In addition to it being “particularly influenced by individuals from Western Europe who had no sympathy for the SBC leadership and its concerns,” Wardin noted that the membership committee “broke its own rule of not recommending membership of any Baptist body if there was objection from a member already in the Alliance.” (Such an objection was being raised by the SBC regarding the recommendation to accept CBF for such reasons as the CBF’s attempts to carve out a de facto funding channel through Baptist churches.)

Wardin told Baptist Press that, although the membership committee lacked written guidelines for its deliberations, it had “a working policy … a working understanding” for how it was to handle disagreements between existent BWA members and groups seeking BWA membership. He noted, for instance, that a new Baptist group from Cuba was not granted BWA membership until the matter was squared with two BWA-affiliated conventions in Cuba, a position that Lotz had endorsed.

A particular difficulty with the CBF’s application for BWA membership, Wardin told Baptist Press, was that the CBF did not have such key characteristics of Baptist conventions or unions as a formal constitutional relationship with its affiliated churches, a doctrinal statement and a total count of its members. (The CBF lacks an official membership count, but promotional materials tout a figure that includes churches that may have forwarded a contribution by a single member in that congregation. Thus, a church does not get to say if it wants to be listed as a member.)

— The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship: In achieving BWA membership last year, Wardin wrote, “The CBF got the recognition it sought from the BWA, but at what a cost.” (In 2000, the CBF voted to seek BWA membership, in the words of one CBF leader, to become “a recognized player among Baptists in the world.”)

Wardin cited a former SBC seminary president, Duke K. McCall, who is “critical of the SBC position” but who had counseled the CBF, as Wardin put it, “to delay its application since the division would ‘be a nasty divorce, and like all nasty divorces, the children are going to suffer.’ Although the SBC will develop its own international ties, Baptists around the world will suffer the consequences.”

Wardin, in his letter, also commented on the BWA General Council’s acceptance of the CBF for membership in July 2003.

The General Council “exhibited also its feelings toward the SBC,” Wardin wrote, noting, “In spite of the protestation today of love for the SBC, a number of the General Council representatives have been critical of the current theological stance of the SBC leadership and its unilateral actions. As has been noted, numbers of the BWA look upon the SBC as many in Western Europe today look upon the USA as too big and powerful and too often acting only on its own.”

Wardin issued his letter three days after the SBC Executive Committee’s Feb. 17 vote recommending that the SBC leave the BWA — a recommendation to be voted on during the SBC’s June 15-16 annual meeting in Indianapolis.

A nine-member study committee, reactivated after the BWA membership committee voted in 2002 to recommend the CBF for membership for the following year, framed the SBC recommendation.

In December 2003, the SBC study committee, in the first of two reports, focused on theological concerns involving the BWA and did not mention the CBF application. In its report to the Executive Committee in February, the committee acknowledged the CBF issue by stating, “One soaked by a rain need not blame the last raindrop. We strongly affirm the right of the BWA to determine its own membership and affiliations. It is the very right we now recommend that our Convention exercise. The decision of the BWA to include the CBF merely served as a confirmation that we must, as a Convention, allow the world to see us without having to look through a BWA lens — a lens which, for us, has become too cloudy.”
The full text of Wardin’s letter can be viewed at the SBC’s “Baptist2Baptist” forum at www.baptist2baptist.net.