Aftershocks from past gatherings of the Southern Baptist Convention -- where splits opened between conservatives and moderates -- will likely reverberate next week in St. Louis when the denomination holds its annual meeting.
Two years ago, the convention revised the Baptist Faith and Message, the group's doctrinal statement, to forbid women to serve as pastors and assert that the Bible teaches wives should ''submit graciously'' to their husbands. The denomination's 5,000 foreign missionaries were told to affirm the statement in writing.
Although the vast majority of those missionaries have signed the affirmation, as many as 150 have resisted. And there is talk that a motion will be made at the convention to force the stragglers to sign on -- or move on.
''They have every right not to sign it,'' says the Rev. Jack Graham, pastor of the Prestonwood Baptist Church in suburban Dallas and a nominee for convention president. ''But Southern Baptists also have the right ... not to include them in the task force of world missions. I mean, not everybody's a Southern Baptist; we understand that. There are many other wonderful mission organizations that are sharing the gospel.''
The issue has special significance because commitment to missions is widely perceived as the glue that holds the network of 42,000 autonomous Southern Baptist churches together.
''I will always believe that missions, as much as anything else, is what really distinguishes us from so many other denominations,'' outgoing SBC President James Merritt recently told the Baptist Press.
To fire up conventioneers' missionary fervor, Tuesday's session will feature an address by aid workers Dayna Curry and Heather Mercer, who were imprisoned by the Taliban last year for allegedly proselytizing in Afghanistan. Resolutions inspired by such timely topics as the Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict also are likely to hit the floor.
But missions are expected to be the big focus. And nothing has highlighted the growing rift within the nation's largest Protestant denomination more lately than what some perceive as an attempt by the controlling ''fundamentalists'' to force a creed on missionaries.
''This puts the missionaries into an awkward, a very difficult dilemma,'' says Phil Strickland, an official with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, which has established a $2 million ''transition fund'' for missionaries who refuse to sign the affirmation. ''They are placed between refusing to sign ... or signing a document that they do not really believe in order to stay where they believe God has called them to minister.''
In February, the Rev. Jerry Rankin, president of the SBC's International Mission Board, wrote an open letter in which he warned missionaries that this issue would likely come up at the annual meeting. He said the best way to repel accusations of ''heresy'' was to sign.
''Our board of trustees continues to have confidence in you,'' Rankin wrote. ''However, others have voiced suspicions and questions. ... It is time to put this matter behind us and get on with the task of leading Southern Baptists to be on the mission with God.''
R. Keith Parks, former head of Southern Baptist foreign missions, responded that the heresy was forcing the missionaries to sign.
''Their beliefs have not changed -- the rules have!'' he wrote. ''It has never been clearer that the Fundamentalist leaders have changed the very nature of the Southern Baptist Convention.''
Strickland says his Texas group has been contacted by 150 missionaries who have not signed, and has received direct requests for help from 13. But the Rev. William Merrell, vice president for convention relations and a member of the SBC executive committee, says critics are trying to treat something routine ''as though it were some great inquisitorial issue.''
''My understanding is that, ultimately, the people who say, 'Look, I don't believe that this represents what I believe,' then I suspect that they -- the mission board -- will work with them and help them understand the importance of relocating,'' Merrell says.
The fact that this year's convention is being held in a state where a breakaway Baptist convention recently formed doesn't do much to paint a picture of denominational unity.
In late April, Richard Lionberger, a former board member of the defunct Mainstream Missouri Baptists, was elected president of the new Baptist General Convention of Missouri. Lionberger says the group wants to cooperate with the SBC, although the head of the executive committee has indicated he will recommend against sharing funds with the new convention.
''The focus has gotten to our differences ... and it really has nothing to do with the business of the kingdom of God in our world,'' says Lionberger, pastor of Savannah First Baptist Church. ''It has everything to do with politics, power and influence. And that's sad. It's extremely sad.''
The significance of Graham's nomination for SBC president and those of two other Texans to top convention posts -- including former federal judge Paul Pressler, an architect of the conservative takeover of the SBC, who has been mentioned for first vice president -- was not lost on Lionberger and others. Some see it as a response to the 2000 takeover of the Texas convention by more moderate forces, which prompted the formation of the alternate Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.
''I think it's more than just a coincidence,'' says Randy Fullerton, pastor of the Fee Fee Baptist Church near St. Louis, where the new Missouri convention was launched. ''It looks like an in-your-face thing.''
Texas provides nearly 20 percent of the SBC's more than 16 million members and 13 percent of the funding for denominational agencies. Merrell, the SBC official, says about 1,100 churches have affiliated with the new Texas convention, and that the national convention has grown by nearly 1,000 churches since last year.
''In my opinion, it would be a very, very serious miscalculation or misanalysis to picture the dissidents as seriously fragmenting the work -- the work of the Southern Baptist Convention, I should say,'' he says.
At the convention, Merrell expects to see resolutions on cloning for body parts, homeland security, the growing Israeli-Arab conflict and ''the importance of appropriate scriptural sexual ethics for ministerial leaders'' -- an obvious nod to the burgeoning Catholic scandal.
''We have reaped the whirlwind of the sexual revolution that promised a bright new land of hope and all the rest,'' Merrell says. ''And, in fact, I think we're seeing how dark and sordid and destructive going away from biblical standards really is.''
EDITOR'S NOTE: Allen G. Breed is the AP's Southeast regional writer, based in Raleigh, N.C.
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