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Texas churches form committees to study convention affiliation

DALLAS (BP)–It’s a new twist on an old idea — establishing a study committee to decide whether the convictions of denominational entities match up with the local church’s beliefs. In the early 1990s such committees provided a foot in the door for advocates of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and sometimes led to a reduction in Cooperative Program giving to Southern Baptist Convention missions and ministries.

A decade later, most committees tasked to study the denomination in the state of Texas are considering breaking ties with the 116-year old Baptist General Convention of Texas in favor of the upstart Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

Some churches like Westwood Baptist Church of Palestine, Texas, ask their deacons to review extensive documents recounting views expressed by each convention. Pastor Carl Lane had been attending annual meetings of the BGCT for a dozen or more years before sharing his concerns with the deacon body. He passed along clippings he had saved from Baptist Press, reports generated by other churches and other printed materials. What really captivated the deacon body was the debate they heard for themselves on the floor of the BGCT annual meeting last fall in Corpus Christi, Lane said.

“I think the real thing that mattered most was when Bob Dixon [former leader of Texas Baptist Men] made his appeal to not make changes [to the BGCT budget] because of mission support. It was as though that was irrelevant,” Lane said. He remembers one of the deacons saying, “‘We don’t need to see another thing. We’re through.'” They returned to the church ready to recommend an end to affiliation with BGCT, based on a desire to “tie closer to the Southern Baptist Convention and not away from it,” he said.

“We’re not afraid of saying who we are — a Bible-believing people supportive of the Baptist Faith and Message 2000,” Lane said. “We’ve read it and made it available to all our people. So when this came as a recommendation to our deacons in April and was passed along to the church body, it was approved unanimously.”

While a third of BGCT churches customize their giving plan and nearly half specify use of the traditional 67 percent allocation to BGCT causes and 33 percent to SBC missions and ministries, Lane said such flexibility misses the point. “That’s a lot of hooie. The issue was who are we theologically. They will not say they believe in the infallible, inspired Word of God,” Lane contends. “All of the leaders of the convention are supportive of CBF.”

Nineteen of the last 21 officers elected by BGCT messengers have been involved in CBF or a group called Texas Baptists Committed. BGCT Executive Director Charles Wade has been a CBF workgroup leader, steering committee co-chairman and speaker, as well as serving on the Texas Baptists Committed executive committee.

“The SBTC [Southern Baptists of Texas Convention] holds to conservative, biblical theology,” Lane said, “and because of their close association with the SBC and support of it and our mission boards, we’re excited about sending our Cooperative Program dollars through them. … That’s who we’ve been historically. Why should we change?” the pastor questioned, referring to the BGCT decision to allow CBF funds to be designated as Cooperative Program gifts.

More than 800 churches have made a similar decision, with the number affiliating with SBTC doubling since last fall. SBTC leads all state Baptist conventions in the percentage of undesignated Cooperative Program receipts from churches that it sends on to SBC causes, committing 51 percent to the denomination’s missions and ministries around the world.

SBTC does not refer to a church as affiliated until a completed, signed form is received by the convention offices. SBTC’s credentials committee meets several times each year to consider those churches that have recently voted to affiliate and the convention’s executive board formally approves each action.

SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards expressed gratitude for the churches that have chosen SBTC affiliation. “We are grateful to God for the work he has entrusted to our convention. It is our prayer that he will use the gifts and talents of nearly 800 churches to spread the gospel around the world. The Father has called us to do this great work together as he empowers us. All the glory is his,” Richards said of the rapid growth.

In making a decision about affiliation, some churches turn to extensive research published by other congregations that have already opted out of a singular relationship to BGCT. Among the studies cited are those from First Baptist Church of Dallas, Prestonwood Baptist Church of Plano and Lakeland Baptist Church of Lewisville. Through editorials and articles, the BGCT-funded Baptist Standard newsjournal accuses churches that rely upon such research as having succumbed to half-truths and innuendo about the BGCT in making the change in affiliation.

Pastor Kenneth Hodges of First Baptist Church of Winnie, Texas, doesn’t appreciate the attack. “I made my decision based on the facts of what I know to be true,” he said, observing changes in BGCT’s participation in the governance of Baylor, the redefining of Cooperative Program receipts in Texas and the reduction in funds going to the SBC.

Hodges recommended that his church affiliate with SBTC, believing it to be a convention seeking to be involved in missions and evangelism and “to do what God has called us to do and stand on his Word.” He added, “Let’s not debate whether God knew what he said when he said it and try to deny it or haggle with it. We just need to go out and do the job.

“I explained the differences between Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and the Baptist General Convention of Texas and gave every family a copy of the report and told them we’d be voting” on a decision to join SBTC, Hodges recounted. “Based on what that study showed, our people didn’t want to dually align with both conventions. They said you either go all the way or you don’t go.”

Seventy percent of the churches affiliated with SBTC have chosen to make that their only relationship to a state convention, with the remainder dually affiliating with SBTC and BGCT. One of the dually affiliated churches is First Baptist Church of Lake Jackson. Members voted recently to redirect the 16.5 percent of undesignated budget receipts going to the Cooperative Program through BGCT, reducing the state convention’s portion to 3 percent, sending 7 percent directly to the SBC and 3 percent to SBTC. The remaining 3.5 percent will be used, during the current year only, for a new church startup.

The Lake Jackson study noted basic differences between the BGCT and the SBC, concluding that the SBC “more nearly reflects the beliefs of most First Baptist Church members.” By giving even a reduced amount to BGCT, the committee recommendation still honored support for particular BGCT agencies. In seeking affiliation with SBTC, the church affirmed the new convention’s mission statements and doctrinal perspective based on the Baptist Faith and Message.

Sagamore Hill Baptist Church in Fort Worth turned to the report by First Baptist of Dallas, in addition to other studies, in making a decision to switch to SBTC. The FBC report includes a front-page disclaimer, stating, “It is the responsibility of each church to do their own research in regards to their statement of doctrine, cooperation, and association.” Issued from the office of church administrator Jim Ward, the introduction states, “It is the intention of First Baptist Dallas to make this report available to aid in this research, but in no way influence or sway opinion.”

Sagamore Hill’s pastor, Dan Gregg, said the decision by BGCT messengers to defund SBC seminaries “cinched it for our people.” He encourages discussion in churches making such a decision. In a “town meeting” type of gathering, Sagamore Hill members shared their opinions and then voted to affiliate with SBTC.

Having pastored for 12 years in Virginia prior to coming to Texas, Gregg said, “Some of the same things that BGCT is doing here is what the Baptist General Association of Virginia did there. They’re just setting things up here.” He insisted, “Anytime you’re really not willing to stand up for the infallible, inerrant Word of God and you’re afraid of even using those words or coming close to that, it’s the first step off the straight and narrow. It may be a small one, but it begins an escalation and eventually a quick spiral downward in compromising with Scripture.”

BGCT officials insist that a church can continue to send Cooperative Program gifts in the manner previously used, with 67 percent allocated for BGCT ministries and 33 percent sent to the SBC. “That would be fine if it were all about money,” Gregg said. “That’s not the issue. It goes back to Scripture,” he said. “I know there are some strong people in the BGCT, but when it comes to the leadership the guys at the top aren’t willing to stand up and take notice.”

Gregg said he expected Sagamore Hill members to prefer dual affiliation because of their support of many BGCT ministries. “But our people said it’s either all or none. They don’t want to be a part of it if they’re not going to stand up for conservative, biblical views.” Gregg said he is hopeful that the church can continue to work with Texas Baptist Men if the organization allows participation by SBTC churches.

The report by Lakeland Baptist Church of Lewisville compares the differences between the 1963 and 2000 versions of the Baptist Faith and Message, concluding that the more recent revision better represents the views of its members. Noting that the church “sees no theological discrepancy between the 1963 and the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message,” a resolution adopted by members late last year urged “rejection of all doctrine that questions the absolute authority of the Holy Scriptures.” The resolution also opposed actions that “disrupt the spirit of the Cooperative Program of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

At Central Baptist Church of Bryan, when members heard from SBTC’s Jim Richards “it seemed to remove a lot of the tire-slashing” perceptions created about the new convention, said pastor Chris Osborne. After the deacons affirmed a recommendation to seek affiliation with SBTC, a 45-minute presentation to the 1,200 people attending a Sunday night service resulted in overwhelming approval — as only two people objected.

The church has a long history of close ties to BGCT, with two of its former pastors, James Landes and Bob Polk, later assuming leadership roles at the state convention. And yet, the redefinition by the BGCT of Cooperative Program funds raised questions for the pastor and church. “We thought it was a dishonest statement,” he said. “The Cooperative Program has by definition been everyone cooperating together to give to one entity. They said if you give anywhere it was CP funding. That’s dishonest.”

Further redefinition of the Cooperative Program budget of BGCT has been proposed by a BGCT missions study committee. A report of the BGCT committee released May 3 recommended reducing the amount of Cooperative Program money sent to NAMB by $1.28 million. However, SBC Executive Committee Vice President David Hankins explained that keeping $1.2 million from the entire SBC Allocation Budget which funds most of the SBC ministries means $600,000 which ordinarily would be sent to the International Mission Board will remain at the BGCT, Hankins noted. The SBC will have to decide whether and how to reallocate its budget to correct the inequities caused by the unilateral violation of historic Cooperative Program practices, Hankins said.

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter