ATLANTA (BP)–A group of dissident Southern Baptists with ties to the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship have formed a “Network of Mainstream Baptists” to prevent churches and state conventions from following the conservative renewal of the Southern Baptist Convention over the past two decades.
The moderates’ April 25-26 meeting in Atlanta was first reported May 2 by Associated Baptist Press, a news service financed in part by the CBF. More than 100 representatives from 15 states participated in the “mainstream Baptist consultation.”
A key strategy to advancing the group’s moderate theology is to “boldly and unapologetically enlist our universities to partner with us to expose students to Baptist principles and vision,” declared Keith Bruce, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas’ Christian Education Coordinating Board, according to the ABP report.
“We have no desire to create a massive organization,” said John Baugh, a Houston businessman and leader of the mainstream movement, ABP reported. “We could never clean up the SBC, so why waste our time and effort?”
The new network was outlined by Bob Stephenson, a deacon from First Baptist Church, Norman, Okla., a church with ties to the CBF.
David Currie, executive director of the moderate Texas Baptists Committed, charged that, “Fundamentalism is a perversion of the gospel. It’s not about the kingdom of God — about grace and freedom.”
Currie’s remarks drew a sharp response from leaders within the Southern Baptist Convention.
“It’s the same cast, another [John] Baugh-financed effort to control the Southern Baptist Convention, and they are about as mainstream as a small creek is to the Mississippi River,” said Paige Patterson, president of the SBC and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina. “They have a moderate agenda and that’s not where most Baptists are. I question the integrity of their name. They even admit they are promoting their moderate views.”
Despite their moderate viewpoints, Patterson said that “as a Baptist I love freedom and they are free to do whatever they want.”
However, with freedom comes responsibility, Patterson added, noting, “I would hope they had the integrity necessary to tell people where they actually stand theologically.”
James Merritt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville, and a nominee for the SBC presidency, questioned the participants’ use of the word, “fundamentalist.”
“I don’t understand what they mean by that,” Merritt told Baptist Press. “If they mean it’s someone who believes the Bible is the Word of God, that Jesus was born of a virgin, that Jesus died on a cross and was literally raised from the dead, then quite frankly, I believe that Baptists are guilty of being fundamentalists.”
Merritt said those beliefs are the hallmarks of truly traditional, mainstream Southern Baptists. “We’ve not left home,” Merritt said in reference to Baptists’ theological roots. “We’ve stayed home.”
Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee, said, “Mainstream as a description ordinarily refers to the broad flow of a river. It seems clear that the mainstream for Southern Baptists is made up of the 40,000-plus churches who are doctrinally sound, passionately evangelistic, sacrificially missionary, and who exhibit an abiding spirit of interdependence and cooperation. These are the hallmarks for all Southern Baptists who make up the mainstream.
“Those who display such a spirit,” Chapman said of Southern Baptists, “are giving at unparalleled levels, starting new churches in record numbers and sending our sons and daughters to a desperately needy world on an unprecedented scale. God bless the mainstream — may it grow broader, deeper, and more powerful everywhere it flows.”
Currie told Baptist Press he stands by his statements about fundamentalism. “To me, fundamentalism is focused on power and control. It is very similar to Phariseeism in the New Testament. It chokes out grace,” Currie said. “It is anti in its approach, instead of positive.”
“I have no problem with anyone going to any group and telling the truth,” Merritt said. “My only concern would be they don’t misrepresent who we are or what we believe. Speaking for myself, if believing the Bible is God’s Word, believing in the deity of Christ and the world needs to hear the gospel is a crime, then I’m a criminal.”
Currie said he was not referring to the fundamentals of the faith, only the movement of fundamentalism.
“I’m talking about the movement. That’s the perversion,” Currie said. “I don’t think God wants fundamentalism to be the dominant Baptist perspective in the 21st century. I think it will kill Baptists out.”
Jack Graham, pastor of the Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, said the Atlanta meeting represents a continuing pattern with disgruntled moderate Baptists.
“What we are hearing is the same tired, old cliches, the same monotonous accusations, the whining and kind of complaining that doesn’t build churches, much less organizations that are effective in fulfilling the Great Commission,” Graham told Baptist Press. “Real Baptists are more interested in advancing the gospel and promoting the truth than fighting old religious wars.”
However, moderates attending the Atlanta meeting suggested intensifying their battle in the state Baptist conventions and networking with the 48 colleges affiliated with the state conventions as well as Baptist Student Ministries and Baptist Student Unions.
Patterson stressed that Baptist parents should be concerned about wherever their children attend school. “I believe it is incumbent on parents to know what that school believes, stands for, and the kind of religious instruction they are receiving,” Patterson said. “From that point it’s important. Any parent should be greatly concerned and extremely knowledgeable.”
“Any school that carries the word Baptist in its title should stand for what truly traditional mainstream Baptists believe,” Patterson added.
Said Graham, “Our college students are smart enough to know the difference between truth and error. Baptist students across America will respond to the inerrant Scriptures and the call of the SBC to fulfill the call of Jesus Christ.
“Southern Baptists can win that battle for the minds and hearts of the students,” Graham continued. “Students are going to be challenged not by moderate theology, but by theology committed to evangelism and building churches.”