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NEWS STORY: Baptists ready to make architect of conservative takeover new president

Paige Patterson, one of the architects of a conservative revolt in the Southern Baptist Convention, was nominated for president of the nation's largest Protestant denomination in 1998.

c. 1998 Religion News Service

(RNS) —  Paige Patterson, one of the architects of the conservative resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention, is likely to be elected president of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination at its annual meeting next week (June 9-11).

Such an election would put a symbolic exclamation point at the end of a long but successful campaign begun in the 1970s by Patterson, former associate pastor at the prestigious First Baptist Church in Dallas, and retired Houston judge Paul Pressler to wrest administrative control of the denomination’s boards, agencies and seminaries from moderate Southern Baptists.

Now, with the SBC and its six seminaries firmly in conservative hands, Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., plans to renew and beef up the 15.6 million-member denomination’s evangelistic efforts.

Patterson’s likely election is expected to be a highlight of the three-day meeting in Salt Lake City, which will also focus on Baptists’ evangelism efforts in the predominantly Mormon region and debate on a proposed amendment on the family to the denomination’s statement of faith.

For moderates, Patterson’s anticipated election _ he was without opposition in the week before the meeting _ is just par for the conservative course of recent Southern Baptist history. “Paige has been controlling what happened in Southern Baptist life for 20 years, so being president is not that significant a development,” said the Rev. Welton Gaddy, a key leader of two moderate Baptist groups.

Gaddy is president of the Alliance of Baptists, a moderate group begun in 1986, and a member of the general council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, organized in 1991.

He believes the conservative resurgence peaked in the mid-1980s when leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention allegedly turned off microphones of dissenters in the convention hall during an annual meeting. After that, many moderate Baptists stopped attending the annual conventions.”They were unwelcome strangers there,” Gaddy said.

But Patterson said the annual SBC gathering has always been”a democratic, open town meeting.” “From my standpoint, if he feels excluded now, he should have been walking with me in the ’60s and ’70s,” said Patterson.”They were headed in a very liberal and neo-orthodox direction and they simply disregarded those of us who had different opinions. The mistake they made was they didn’t do their math homework and it turned out there were more people who didn’t want to go that way than who did want to go that way.”

That debate aside, moderates, indeed, have gone their own way, but not all in the same direction.”I think Baptist moderates are acting like Baptists, which means that there is a fairly high level of cooperation on the one hand and individuals pursuing many and diverse agendas on the other hand,” said Gaddy.

In many cases, Baptist congregations include a variety of viewpoints, including those loyal to the leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention and those supporting different moderate groups. Many contribute to the denomination and to one or more moderate causes, Gaddy said.”Many pastors are in the position of knowing that if they forced a vote declaring loyalty to the moderate movement and disengaging from the SBC that they would split their congregations,” he said.

The differences between the SBC and the moderate groups, however, are sharp.

The Alliance of Baptists, for example, supports women in ministry — strongly opposed by the conservative leadership of the SBC — and is working on ecumenical partnerships with liberal groups such as the United Church of Christ.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship has also taken steps to distance itself from the Southern Baptists national organization by endorsing its own chaplains, planning to provide retirement benefits to its ministers and creating alternative ways for people to support missionaries.

“I think it’s the sign that the leadership of CBF is moving on with doing ministry as Baptists without being reactionary to SBC,” Gaddy said.

Jim Hefley, a conservative Baptist book publisher who has written extensively on the controversy, said the moderates have had some success in moving beyond their initial identity as protest movements.

“They have been successful in organizing … some of their people who are the devout people who believe there should be more diversity,” he said.”They have kept some of those people in organized Baptist life whereas they may have gone off to the United Church of Christ and some of the other denominations.”

Baptist theologian Timothy George said the conservative resurgence has helped link SBC leaders with like-minded evangelicals and social and political conservatives.

“That’s put us in touch with .. lots of other evangelical groups that are concerned about the culture,” said George, dean of the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University in Birmingham, Ala.

As proof, he pointed to the selection of this year’s closing speaker, James Dobson, president of Focus on the Family, the Colorado-based conservative advocacy group.

While the denomination’s six seminaries have clearly become mainstays for theological conservatives, battles are still being waged between moderates and conservatives for control of schools affiliated with Baptist state conventions.

“I think that’s where more of the fireworks is going to be … in the state conventions because they in themselves are little Southern Baptist conventions,” Hefley said.”Moderates do have footholds.” Patterson acknowledged the battles at the state level, but he thinks the conservative direction at the national level will remain for the next two decades or more.”There are certainly still individual geographical areas where the struggle goes on but those are isolated,” he said.”… The war’s over and my emphasis on reaching half a million people for Christ (in the United States) and half a million abroad definitely reflects a new day in Southern Baptist life.”

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