c. 1996 Religion News Service
UNDATED _ The Rev. Jerry Falwell, a longtime independent Baptist preacher, announced this week he has become a Southern Baptist.
Falwell said the decision to align his 22,000-member Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va., with the Southern Baptist Convention was influenced by the recent creation of a second, more conservative Southern Baptist state association in Virginia.”While we have no intention of discontinuing our support to our missionaries who are affiliated with many different fellowships and faith mission boards, we fully intend to take our permanent stand with the national and Virginia Bible-believing conservatives who have rescued the Southern Baptist Convention from theological liberalism,”Falwell said in a statement Thursday (Oct. 24).
Falwell, 63, founded his church in 1956 and has been its pastor ever since. The founder of the now-defunct Moral Majority, Falwell also presides over the”Old Time Gospel Hour,”a weekly television broadcast that features portions of his Sunday church services.
Over the years, he has swapped pulpits with Southern Baptist pastors and made appearances at Southern Baptist meetings. More recently, Falwell, founder and chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, named Jerry Vines, a former Southern Baptist president from Jacksonville, Fla., chairman of the university’s board of trustees. Other prominent Southern Baptist leaders now serve as trustees.
But when the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia formed last month, Falwell decided to show his support for them with a monthly donation that officially puts him in”friendly cooperation”with the largest Protestant denomination in the country. Most Southern Baptist churches are affiliated with the denomination through state conventions.
Falwell’s move comes as no surprise to Baptist historian Walter Shurden of Baptist-affiliated Mercer University in Macon, Ga.”As fundamentalists gained control of the Southern Baptist Convention, they were more in tune with the fundamentalism of Jerry Falwell than they were with traditional Southern Baptist values,”Shurden said.”Anyone who is surprised that Jerry Falwell is becoming a Southern Baptist has not been watching the Southern Baptist Convention since 1979.” It was in 1979 that conservatives, who believe that the Bible is the literal and inerrant word of God, began their takeover of the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moderate Southern Baptists, who believe portions of the Bible are open to interpretation, found themselves increasingly unwelcome in the denomination’s national leadership and seminaries.
That ongoing theological battle was a factor in the formation on Sept. 16 of the Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia. The unprecedented action allowed conservative Southern Baptists to split from the moderate-dominated Baptist General Association of Virginia, creating two state conventions.
Falwell’s decision to become a Southern Baptist sets all kinds of scenarios in motion:
He and members of his church can now be delegates to the annual meetings of the denomination and vote on nominees to Southern Baptist boards and agencies. Their move could influence other independent Baptists to cooperate with the Southern Baptist Convention. And Falwell _ or anyone else in his church _ could be nominated as president of the 15.6-million member denomination.
Shurden said it is likely that Falwell could someday be elected as president of the denomination.”I think without question in time that would happen,”predicted Shurden.”The Southern Baptist leadership is already extremely Falwellian … When the Southern Baptist Convention took its sharp turn to the right, they parked in Jerry Falwell’s parking lot.” But Bill Merrell, spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention executive committee, said thoughts of such a possibility are”very premature.” The Rev. Doyle Chauncey, executive director of the new conservative group of Virginia Southern Baptists said he suspects Falwell’s interest is more due to theological agreement than an interest in assuming the top ranks of the denomination.”I wouldn’t preclude that, but knowing Dr. Falwell and his interests in his own school and church, I doubt that you’d see him take much of a public role in the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention,”said Chauncey.
Southern Baptist Convention officials say they welcome Falwell along with”all evangelical, Bible-believing Baptist churches.” Herb Hollinger, a denominational spokesman, said there has been an increased interest in the denomination by independent churches since the conservative resurgence.”In the last 15 years, there has been a renewed interest from some independent Bible churches whoâÂ?¦feel likeâÂ?¦their doctrine, their beliefs are more closely aligned to SBC beliefs,”he said.
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Falwell continues also to be affiliated with the Baptist Bible Fellowship International, an informal grouping of independent Baptist churches. Churches affiliated with the fellowship support its colleges and its more than 800 missionaries, who work in 98 countries.
Loren McAlister, the fellowship’s associate mission director, doesn’t see Falwell’s action having any immediate effect on his group.”When you’re a fellowship and not a denomination, then every church is free to make choices like that for themselves,”he said.”He’s just (pastor of) one of 4,000 churches that support our missionaries.” But the Rev. Jim Wolfcale, executive pastor of the independent Atlantic Shores Baptist Church in Virginia Beach, Va., says some independent churches could follow Falwell’s lead in aligning with Southern Baptists.”I know that Dr. Falwell has a tremendous influence and those churches who respect him, I can’t help but think they may think about it,”he said.
However, Wolfcale said there are other churches who would”draw further away”from Falwell because of his decision.
As for his own congregation, Wolfcale said,”I don’t think that … Thomas Road joining the SBC will affect our relationship with them in any way.” Churches in”friendly cooperation”with the Southern Baptist Convention must give financial contributions to the denomination, but there is no minimum requirement. Once money is given, the church can send one delegate, or messenger, to the annual meeting.
Congregations can send additional delegates for every 250 members or each $250 given to the denomination, up to a maximum of 10 delegates.
Chauncey, of the conservative Baptist Virginia group, said Falwell’s renewed interest in Southern Baptists has developed since the start of the denomination’s conservative resurgence.”He pretty much had written us off as being liberals up to that point,”Chauncey said of Falwell.”We’re excited about him becoming a Southern Baptist because theologically and socially we tend to see eye-to-eye on the issues.”
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