The politics of punishment

By Rod Benson

Rod outlines the real reason for the Southern Baptist Convention’s recent decision to sever ties with the Baptist World Alliance.

One of the chief architects of the Southern Baptist Convention’s “Conservative Resurgence,” retired Texas appellate judge Paul Pressler.

The Baptist World Alliance (BWA) is a fellowship of 211 Baptist unions and conventions comprising 181,747 Baptist churches and a membership of over 46.8 million baptised believers. The BWA unites Baptists worldwide, leads in evangelism, engages in education and training, responds to people in need and defends human rights around the world.

On 15 June 2004, delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting at Indianapolis, Indiana, voted overwhelmingly to sever ties with the BWA, which they helped start in London, England, in 1905. One of the nine-member all-male SBC Executive attempted to defend the separation on biblical grounds, pointing out that God had separated “light from darkness, night from day, sea from land, sheep from goats.”

The decision by the SBC means that the BWA loses its largest member, a 16-million strong denomination, as well as one of its largest financial contributors. The SBC had been making an annual contribution of up to US$300,000. Morris Chapman, President and Executive Officer of the SBC Executive, said that the money taken from the BWA would be used “to begin to build strong, conservative bridges with partners around the world.”

The main arguments used to buttress the SBC’s position are that the BWA holds ‘aberrant’ theological views, encourages the ordination of women, favours gay marriage, is anti-American and anti-capitalist, and did not follow proper procedures when it admitted the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) into its membership.

Some of these allegations have been echoed by US media agencies, often without checking sources and refusing to allow the BWA to respond. BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz described recommendations made to the SBC Executive in February, which led to the final vote, as “generalizations, guilt by association, statements out of context, and misrepresentation of events.” Responding to the final vote on June 15, Lotz expressed sadness “that the BWA has been defamed and our strongly Biblical and evangelical stance has been irreparably hurt by false innuendos, false accusations, and guilt by association.”

The BWA has clearly and publicly reiterated its beliefs and values in an attempt to avoid further misunderstanding and misinformation.

First, the BWA is not a liberal organisation but strongly affirms the fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith as proclaimed in Holy Scripture which it accepts as the authoritative Word of God. The BWA Executive Committee stated on March 10, “We wish to affirm again for all to know our adherence to the historic doctrines of our faith . and our joyful affirmation of faith in the mediation of Jesus Christ as solely and entirely sufficient for salvation, ‘for there is salvation in no one else’” (Acts 4:12).

Second, the BWA does not promote women as pastors nor does it argue against that practice. It affirms the autonomy of Baptist bodies. It is the prerogative of local churches and their member bodies to make decisions on ordination.

Third, the BWA is not anti-American. The fact that Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the chair of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, addressed the BWA General Council in Durban, South Africa was a testimony to Baptist concern worldwide against racism and the tragedy of apartheid. It is absurd to consider his invitation by South African Baptists as anti-American!

“We are citizens of the Kingdom of God and loyal citizens of our own nations,” Lotz said. “As Baptists who believe in the authority of the Word of God we believe that all of us must be open to the prophetic voice from God as it applies to our nations and to the world! We believe that Baptists should be good and patriotic citizens of their countries, but patriotism must always be limited to and judged by the Bible’s call for ultimate loyalty to Christ who is above all!”

Fourth, the BWA does not support homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, believing it to be incompatible with the teachings of Scripture. The BWA affirms without reservation that marriage is a holy state and only between a man and a woman forever. Further, not one BWA member body affirms, promotes or approves of gay marriage. On the contrary, at the BWA meeting in July 1994 in Uppsala, Sweden, the BWA General Council passed the following resolution confirming that the BWA “proclaims the biblical definition of the family, a permanent, monogamous, heterosexual union, as the original divine plan for family life which must continue to serve as the foundation and ideal for an ordered and effective society.”

Why, then, did the SBC withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance? The answer is clear. It is a case of “sour grapes.”

The SBC vote can be traced back to the July 2002 BWA General Council meetings in Seville, Spain, when the BWA Membership Committee recommended the BWA decide about the admission of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship at its next annual meeting. The CBF is a progressive group of US churches that had left the SBC fold; the BWA declined its application for membership in 2001 because it failed to meet membership requirements.

In 2002 the BWA Membership Committee requested that the CBF show that it was completely separate from the SBC, and that the CBF attempt reconciliation with the SBC. After the CBF fulfilled these two requirements (although reconciliation was spurned by the SBC leadership), the Committee recommended that CBF enter the BWA. In July 2003 in Rio de Janeiro, the BWA General Council voted to accept the CBF.

The SBC first signaled its protest in September 2002 when it voted to withhold $125,000 of its annual appropriation as a first step. Then in December 2003 the SBC Study Committee agreed to recommend that the SBC withdraw both its membership and its remaining money from the BWA effective October 2004. The SBC Executive Committee ratified this recommendation in April 2004, which was then voted on by the Annual Meeting on June 15.

I asked Rev Tony Cupit (a Morling College graduate and former ABMS missionary in PNG who is now Director of Evangelism and Education, and Study and Research, with the BWA) to comment on the SBC withdrawal. He said it was a matter of great regret to Baptists all over the world, and a breach of Christian fellowship that had existed for almost a century.

“I was at meetings with SBC leaders,” he said, “who stated unequivocally that if the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is accepted by the BWA, the SBC would withdraw. An internal dispute within the Baptists of the southern states of America has sadly spilled over into the world body. The BWA tried to act as a minister of reconciliation but the leadership of the SBC refused any overture towards reconciliation and instead produced all sorts of spurious reasons for the withdrawal. Many individual Southern Baptists and congregations remain loyal to the BWA and our prayer is that one day the Southern Baptist Convention will re-apply and rejoin the BWA.”

Despite recent events, the BWA hopes for better days ahead. The Centenary Congress is to be held in Birmingham, England, from 27-31 July 2005; a significant grant for a new evangelistic program, “The World for Christ in Our Generation,” will be announced in late July 2004; and already the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has given generously and sacrificially to support the BWA’s ongoing ministry and mission.


This article was first published in 2004. At the time, Rev Rod Benson was editor of Mosaic, founding Director of the Centre for Christian Ethics at Morling College, Sydney, and a member of the Baptist World Alliance Heritage and Identity Commission. Reprinted with permission from Mosaic 6 (1&2), Autumn/Winter 2004.

Image source: Baptist Press