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."
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