For generations, Southern Baptists used a simply strategy to control any truly dangerous outbreaks of controversy.
No matter how bad things got at the Southern Baptist Convention, a respected patriarch or matriarch could always go to a microphone and propose a surge of prayer, church planting, foreign missions or evangelism. The motion would pass quickly, hot issues would vanish into a committee and everyone would hug and pose for photographs.
Insiders referred to these as "We love God" resolutions. Who could vote "no"?
It's been a long, long time since anyone managed to get one of these to fly. However, former President Jimmy Carter -- a veteran of long-odds diplomacy -- recently convinced a diverse circle of Baptists to sign their names on a declaration of cooperation.
While "unresolved issues" remain, these Baptists expressed a common desire to set aside differences that might prevent a "spiritual awakening in our nation and around the world." They urged believers to share a "common prayer effort in a spirit of Christian love" and to follow St. Paul's call to "Be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you." They pledged to demonstrate mutual respect in "our personal devotions and public acts."
The list of signatories includes major names from both sides of a denominational civil war that began in the late 1970s, while Carter was in the White House. Bitter theological and political fights have continued ever since, in recent years fueled in part by disputes about another Southern Baptist, President Bill Clinton. A group of "moderate" Baptists traveled to the Carter Center in Atlanta last November, while "conservatives" went in February. Carter prepared a consensus document and submitted it to participants for their suggestions.
The Rev. Tom Elliff, the SBC's current conservative president, signed it and so did the Rev. Daniel Vestal, leader of the progressive national network, the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Southern Baptist Sunday School Board President Jimmy Draper signed, as did SBC Executive Committee President Morris Chapman. On the other side are leaders such as the Rev. Jimmy Allen, the last "moderate" SBC president, and Clinton-camp insider James Dunn of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs. One name will cause more raised eyebrows than any other -- the Rev. Paige Patterson of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the creators of the conservative movement that seized the SBC reins in 1979.
The document's final statement pledges: "We will seek other ways to cooperate to achieve common goals, without breaching our Baptist polity or theological integrity, in order that people may come to know Christ as Savior, and so that God may be glorified in ever increasing measure."
Who could vote "no"? Of course, this document may simply mean that some "moderates" recognize that the national battle to control America's largest non-Catholic flock is over and that they have more to gain by negotiating a pledge of civility. Conservative leaders may be ready to put a softer edge on their public image, since they need increasingly independent-minded local churches to support national SBC programs.
It's crucial that this updated version of a "We love God" resolution addresses only two social issues -- pledging united efforts to promote racial reconciliation and to "end religious persecution in all nations and to encourage unfettered religious liberty for all peoples." It avoids references to abortion and sex outside of marriage. It is silent on the issue that has so divided Southern Baptists -- "biblical inerrancy," or the belief that the Bible is without errors of any kind. References to these issues would have torpedoed the project.
Carter told the Associated Baptist Press, the news agency supported by "moderate" Baptists, that it's embarrassing that Southern Baptists have become so infamous because of their arguments.
"I think it hurts our missionary work overseas. I think it hurts our personal testimony," he said. "Even in the early church days there were sharp differences on theological and even organizational matters, but they worked side by side in the name of Jesus. ... I think 95 percent of individual Baptists deplore the differences that have arisen."