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First Baptist, Oklahoma City, exits Southern Baptist Convention

OKLAHOMA CITY (BP)–First Baptist Church in Oklahoma City terminated its affiliation with the Southern Baptist Convention by a 300-69 vote Sept. 23.

First Baptist, organized in 1889, was led by the late Herschel Hobbs from 1949-73, a popular pastor-theologian among Southern Baptists.

The church hosted two SBC annual meetings during its 87-year affiliation with the nation’s largest evangelical body.

It also was home to the first five executive directors of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and hosted the state convention annual meetings for a number of years. It has birthed numerous churches, including Capitol Hill, Olivet and Trinity in Oklahoma City and First Southern Baptist Church in Del City.

Anthony Jordan, executive director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, responded to the church action by saying, “Without question I am saddened by the decision of First Baptist Church to leave the SBC. Some of our greatest leaders were from First Baptist Church. First Baptist saw its zenith under Dr. Herschel Hobbs, who was noted for his firm commitment to the Word of God and his love for the SBC. It is beyond comprehension that the church would have ever contemplated such a move under his remarkable leadership.”

Hobbs was the 1962-63 president of the SBC and chairman of the committee that drafted the SBC’s 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement of beliefs.

In its prime, First Baptist’s Sunday school enrollment during Hobbs’ pastorate approached the 3,000 mark.

Current attendance stands at about 350 people according to church staff, while Yvonne York, a spokesperson for a lay organization called the Baptist History and Missions Preservation Association, said attendance is closer to 250.

Last year’s revision of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message statement was the driving force that caused the church to form a denominational relations study committee to consider the church’s response to the new SBC statement of beliefs.

“We felt that Baptist principles were seriously eroded in that new document,” said First Baptist’s current pastor, Jeffry Zurheide. In a news release from the church, Zurheide was quoted as saying the SBC, under its present leadership, is “trying to impose dogma” on Baptist churches. “First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City has always stood for time-honored Baptist beliefs, by which each individual answers directly to God,” Zurheide said.

“What’s more, it’s dogma we don’t agree with,” Zurheide said. “Among other things, the convention’s 2000 Baptist Faith and Message restricts the office of pastor to men only, and requires wives to ‘submit graciously’ to their husbands.” The news release noted that First Baptist began ordaining women as deacons in 1983 and that its board of deacons believes women should not be excluded from the role of pastor.

First Baptist’s denominational relations study committee brought four recommendations to the church:

— that the church reaffirm the principles of the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message.

— that the church end its ties with the Southern Baptist Convention.

— that all tithes and offerings stay within FBC to be directed to local church mission efforts, unless a portion is designated to another entity.

— that the church develop a new paradigm for mission support.

Zurheide, who moved from Connecticut to Oklahoma City three years ago, said the church doesn’t plan to affiliate with any other group for a long while.

Leaving the SBC in no way means the church wants to cut itself off from Oklahoma Baptists, Zurheide said. “In contrast, we want to invigorate our relationship with other Oklahoma Baptists,” he said. “Our church has had a connection with Oklahoma Baptists for a long, long time. It’s not our plan to sever any of those ties.”

The vote to sever ties with the SBC was taken following Sept. 23’s morning worship services, with only those receiving a ballot who presented a membership certificate. A short business meeting was conducted before the balloting to assure that all had a chance to speak.

Of the 69 who voted against pulling out of the SBC, Zurheide said, “We in no way want them to leave.” The pastor added that the church sought to be fair, to put into place a process that had integrity according to its bylaws and according to Christian decency.

Andy Lester, a member of the church’s denominational study committee, said, “It’s not a matter of placing blame on who threw the first stone, but there has been a lot of stone throwing among believers.”

Noting that the majority of the 1,600 other Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma are not jumping ship with the SBC because of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, Lester said there is one difference in First Baptist, Oklahoma City, and most of the other SBC churches in the state.

“Back in 1983, our church made the decision after studying the Scriptures, to ordain women as deacons,” he said. “That decision certainly set our church apart from most of the other Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma. We haven’t had a healthy relationship with the SBC for some time,” he said.

Bill Merrell, vice president for convention relations with the SBC Executive Committee, and a former pastor and director of missions in Oklahoma, issued the following statement in response to the church’s action:

“There is a mutually agreeable voluntarism among churches and the SBC — each church determines for itself what its relationships with other Baptists are to be, and we understand that. First Baptist, Oklahoma City, has an inherent right to do so as it has done.

“Frankly, it is saddening, but not surprising, to learn of the decision of First Baptist, Oklahoma City, to sever ties to the SBC — the process used to ‘study’ denominational partnerships could have been predicted to yield the decision that was made. Perhaps one of the most regrettable features is that the lengthy study did not include any contact (that we know of) with SBC or Executive Committee personnel. It is very easy for distortions to take place in an environment in which all sides of an issue are not explored, and that appears to be the case with the process at First Baptist, Oklahoma City. This does great violence to both the Baptist ideals of the priesthood of believers and soul competence. It appears from the church press release that those leading the study caricatured the Baptist Faith and Message and that the church, at least in part, made decisions based on that mischaracterization.

“Some critics have recklessly claimed the BFM is an extreme, even non-Baptist statement portending ominous changes for Southern Baptists. Baptists have adopted confessions for centuries and this confession will serve as Southern Baptists intend, and as Southern Baptist confessions always have, as ‘a consensus of opinion … for the general instruction and guidance of our own people and others concerning those articles of the Christian faith which are most surely held among us.’ Southern Baptists are certainly not creedal; but neither are they ashamed to publish what they believe the Bible teaches.

“Not every SBC church and certainly not every individual Southern Baptist will necessarily concur with any confession passed by some Baptist body. Each individual church, association and convention is free to adopt the BFM as its own, or some other confession of faith, or none at all. It has always been that way. This is not now nor has it ever been in doubt. Given that freedom, it is unethical and irresponsible for those who elect not to adopt this confession to malign and misrepresent the SBC and the growing number of churches, local associations and state conventions that have adopted it.

“Though it does not gladden us to do so , we bid First Baptist, Oklahoma City, farewell and Godspeed.”

Tom Elliff, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, a former mission of OKC, said of the church’s action: “Fifty years ago they started our church and it was with their encouragement that we placed ‘Southern’ in our name to denote our commitment to Southern Baptist missions and ministries. Over the years First Southern has been grateful to call First Baptist our mother church. We were known as their ‘child’ in those days when the halls of First Baptist, Oklahoma City, were reverberating with great expository preaching and gospel songs. … In former days people would sit by their radios and hear the solidly conservative, biblical preaching of Dr. Herschel Hobbs accompanied by the lilting contralto voice of Jo Ann Shelton.

“I have been saddened as I watched the unfolding of the events of the past few years which have resulted in their decision,” Elliff continued. “Now these events have culminated in the departure of that once-great church from the SBC. Although it is not in our purview to reverse their decision, our hope and prayer is that they will return to their historical doctrine and denominational roots, especially in a time when Southern Baptists are making such great advances on the mission fields of America and the world.”

Baptist Messenger editor John Yeats noted that First Baptist stopped providing Messenger subscriptions to all its members two years ago. “A church that wants to be a cooperating part of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma needs to keep members abreast of what Oklahoma Baptists are doing, and the Baptist Messenger is an essential component of Oklahoma Baptist connectedness. Obviously, limiting information to their members about the great things happening with Oklahoma Baptists and Southern Baptists was part of the methodology precipitating into this precipitous action,” he said.
John Yeats contributed to this article.

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