METRO OKC's INDEPENDENT WEEKLY VOL. XXVI NO.29 JULY 14, 2004
NEWS RELIGION (Page 14)
Coercive to conscience?
Southern Baptists just passed a resolution to support the Federal Marriage Amendment. Meanwhile, the Mainstream Baptists support separation of church and state. Their chapter leader contends that the function of Baptist citizens is not to force a biblical agenda on America.
by Greg Horton
In June of this year, messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual conference in Indianapolis passed a resolution calling for ratification of the Federal Marriage Amendment.
Dr. Bruce Prescott, Executive Director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, thinks it’s another step away from historic Baptist distinctives and toward attempted control of the hearts and minds of America’s 16.2 million Southern Baptists.
“Mainstream Baptists would not be enthusiastic about trying to legislate morals, especially matters of personal morality,” Dr. Prescott said. “We’re much more concerned about showing God’s love and grace to everyone instead of singling out a certain group of people for disapproval.”
Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists was formed in 1997 to combat the conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Its membership is primarily composed of moderate Baptists and members of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, the first organization to split from the SBC after the takeover.
The conservatives surged to power in 1980, thanks in part to a “get out the vote” movement orchestrated by Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler that brought more than 13,000 messengers to the annual conference in St. Louis in 1980. Bailey Smith was elected president of the convention with 51.67 percent of the vote.
Instrumental in the takeover has been the Baptist Faith and Message, a statement of faith that outlines Southern Baptist beliefs. The standard tactic has been to insist that professors, administrators, missionaries, and chaplains “sign off” on the beliefs dictated in the Baptist Faith and Message. Failure to do so has resulted in termination of employment, or removal of financial support in the case of missionaries.
The Baptist Faith and Message was amended in 1998 and again in 2000 to include language that Mainstream Baptists feel is much more conservative.
“Baptists have historically been non-creedal people,” Dr. Prescott said. “The Baptist Faith and Message is a creed. It infringes on the freedom of conscience of the believer.”
The call for ratification of the Federal Marriage Amendment has the same effect in Dr. Prescott’s mind.
“You can’t tell another Baptist how to vote,” Dr. Prescott said. “The separation of church and state is the Baptist legacy to the world. The first treatise on religious liberty was written by Thomas Helwys, a Baptist.”
Dr. Anthony Jordan, the Executive Director of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma (BGCO), has a different view of Baptist life and the Federal Marriage Amendment.
“The founding of our nation was based on a Judeo-Christian ethic,” Dr. Jordan said. “The need for a marriage amendment is due to homosexual activists pressing an agenda and a handful of judges legislating, not interpreting the law. We are trying to protect what is the historic understanding of marriage.”
Ratifying a federal amendment to ban gay marriage would seem to be coercive to conscience by definition, but Dr. Jordan disagrees.
“Baptists have always allowed people to come to Scripture according to their conscience, but we have also called them to obedience to Scripture. The BGCO is committed to biblical principles.”
Dr. Prescott contends that the function of Baptist citizens is not to force a biblical agenda on the rest of the country.
“Baptists used to believe the Gospel could hold its own in a marketplace of free ideas. Now they want a monopoly on the marketplace for the Gospel. We should be laying the groundwork for the ‘foolishness of preaching.’”
Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists has been committed to the idea of separation of church and state since its founding, so much so that many of its members are also active members of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.
Dr. Jordan agrees that Baptists are historic supporters of the separation of church and state. There is a caveat attached though.
“You can’t eradicate the Judeo-Christian ethic at the heart of our nation’s foundation,” he said.
Whether or not there is a Judeo-Christian ethic at the heart of America’s foundation has been a matter for scholarly debate. However, the question for Baptists is how they intend to maintain it non-coercively if the majority of Americans want to move away from it.
The BGCO and the Mainstream Baptists have competing visions of Baptist life and how that life is lived as an American citizen.
“The Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists represent a very small minority of Baptists in Oklahoma,” Dr. Jordan said.
Dr. Prescott admits that is the case, but said, “We don’t have faith in numbers, and we’re not a smaller minority than Baptists were in American life 400 years ago.”
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”
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