The 1980’s was a decade of controversy with regard to the church’s relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention. Following are excerpts (edited) from an article written by former Senior Minister Dr. Thomas Graves concerning this relationship and the church’s response.
“In 1979, two conservative Texas Baptists, Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler, announced their intentions to encourage messengers attending meetings of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) to elect officers committed to a fundamentalist agenda affirming biblical inerrancy. In June 1980, the convention adopted a resolution “On Doctrinal Integrity” demanding that SBC institutions assure that all employees affirm the infallibility of Scripture. In September of that year Paul Pressler announced that the fundamentalists “need to go for the jugular – we need to go for the trustees” as they sought total control of the SBC and particularly its seminaries. In 1982 the convention continued its election of fundamentalist leadership and passed resolutions endorsing scientific creationism and calling for a constitutional amendment prohibiting abortion. This marked a dramatic shift in SBC resolutions, which had previously refused to take action on governmental issues. By 1984 the fundamentalist agenda broadened to include the issue of women in ministry.
There were many issues that clearly divided fundamentalist and moderate camps within the SBC, but five were the most prominent. First, was a long-held Baptist tradition of separation of church and state. In stark contrast to the plain language of the Baptist Faith and Message doctrinal statement that “Church and state should be separate,” W. A. Criswell argued, “Separation of church and state is a figment of the imagination of infidels.” Secondly, fundamentalists attacked the basic Baptist principal of local church autonomy. In 1984 the convention passed a resolution related to the ordination of women which called for the restriction of women in the local church to “work other than roles entailing ordination”. The fundamentalists directed local churches as to the gender of persons they can ordain to ministry and have serving as deacons. The third issue was the issue of the priesthood of the believer. W. A. Criswell insisted, “The pastor is the ruler of the church. There is no other thing than that in the Bible.” The fourth issue
was the appreciation for the leadership of women. The history of Southern Baptists is filled with innumerable examples of the sacrificial ministry of women. Our WMU has been the backbone of our convention’s mission education and support. Women in our individual churches supply most of our leadership in Sunday school, mission programs, and church choirs. But in the SBC meeting in Kansas City in 1984 the fundamentalists passed a resolution that belittled women in the worst way. The language of that resolution is foreign to our tradition referring blatantly to the inferiority of women who were “second in creation and first in the Edenic fall.” Women were to be regarded as subordinate persons fitted only for lesser roles of leadership in the church. The fifth issue was the Baptist vision for cooperative missions. The fundamentalist leaders openly attacked cooperative mission efforts with calls for independent missionaries and decreased financial support for the SBC cooperative program.
In 1985 there were 45,519 messengers attended the SBC, Moderate minded Baptists had done an incredibly good job of getting their messengers to the convention, but the fundamentalists did an even better job. Their candidate, Charles Stanley, was reelected president with 55% of the vote. In 1986 there were over 40,000 messengers attending the SBC meeting in Atlanta where another fundamentalist president was elected with 54% of the vote. Following the meeting, Paige Patterson issued a statement indicating that fundamentalists expected their positions concerning abortion, euthanasia, school prayer, and federal budget reductions would be reflected in all future denominational hiring.
In 1987, St. John’s sent ten of its members as messengers for the June meeting of the SBC in San Antonio. It was another large crowd with 32,727 in attendance. It was a raucous meeting where W. A. Criswell berated the non-fundamentalists by saying “you can call them moderates or you can call them liberals, but ‘a skunk by any other name still stinks.’ ” The fundamentalist candidate that year won with just slightly more than 50% of the vote. Most surprisingly a resolution “On the Priesthood of the Believer” was adopted by 55% of the messengers. It read in part, “the doctrine of the priesthood of the believer can be used to justify the undermining of pastoral authority in the local church… That doctrine… in no way contradicts the biblical understanding of the role, responsibility, and authority of the pastor
which is seen in the command…, obey your leaders, and submit to them.” In 1990 the SBC met in New Orleans and again St. John’s sent ten messengers. There was a full complement of laypersons attending and it included Tom and Marie Peacock. Marie’s report to the church following the convention meeting– “These are no longer our people.” With those words St. John’s never again made an effort to involve itself in SBC politics. Cooperative Mission Program. The following year the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship was formed.
As new entities such as the Alliance of Baptists and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship came into being St. John’s made significant changes in its denominational funding. Upon the recommendation of the Denominational Relations Committee, the 1988 budget of St. John’s maintained the same percentage of money, approximately 9% of the total budget, going to mission work. As was done previously, the church sent 64.5% of those funds to support the work of North Carolina Baptists. However, breaking with its practice since the church was founded, St. John’s voted not to send any of the remaining funds to the SBC. Instead, all funds going to national and international mission causes would go directly to projects selected by the church. The desire to sever the church’s ties with the SBC was so strong that some of the church staff withdrew their retirement savings from the SBC’s Relief and Annuity Board and helped to start what became the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Church Benefits Board.
In these ways St. John’s not only disentangled itself from its historic SBC relationships, but it also provided a model for other moderate minded Baptist churches in establishing new denominational alliances. St. John’s can be proud of its thoughtful and independent stance during this time of a religious crisis.”