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Leaders of the Baptist Medical/Dental Fellowship disputed charges by a former president that the group is moving away from conservatives in the Southern Baptist Convention and toward the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

Dr. Danny Barnhill, a medical doctor from Shreveport, La., resigned as president of the medical/dental group less than a week after taking office, claiming other leaders desired to stop working with Southern Baptists. He cited funding for the BMDF from the Baptist General Convention of Texas and Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists, which he described as two “liberal” groups aligned with the Atlanta-based CBF.

In a statement Friday, however, which the BMDF’s past president said was prepared in response to questions by Baptist Press, leaders said a six-point partnership agreement with the CBF, which prompted Barnhill’s resignation, is nothing new and “does not reflect a desire on the part of the BMDF to move away from the agencies or auxiliaries of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

The Atlanta-based CBF is one of many partner organizations with which the BMDF works, according to the statement. The BMDF “has differences of opinion about elements of belief and practice” with several partner groups, the statement said, but “as long as BMDF is free to operate without compromise of our own convictions, we do not view these differences as a barrier to working together.”

The BMDF has had a formal partnership with the CBF since October 2000, the leaders said. That agreement was renewed at the group’s recent annual meeting for another three years. It was also updated to identify six ministry areas in which the two groups intend to collaborate.

The agreement was signed publicly by BMDF Executive Director James Williams and CBF Coordinator Daniel Vestal, because Vestal was a keynote speaker at a plenary session, according to the statement. The main speaker for an earlier session was Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, they said, and both speeches were well received.

In an e-mail announcing that he was both resigning as president and withdrawing from membership in the BMDF, Barnhill said leaders solicited funds from the BGCT and Mainstream groups to provide salary for the group’s associate executive director while at the same time rejecting closer ties to the SBC.

But BMDF leaders on Friday said neither the staff, executive committee nor membership “has ever rejected an offer of closer partnership with any agency or auxiliary” of the SBC.

The BMDF has never received any financial assistance from the CBF for operating funds, the statement said. The BGCT and Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists have subsidized salary and benefits for Associate Executive Director Fred Loper since he took office in 2002, they said, adding that the commitment was for a three-year descending grant to allow the BMDF to gradually assume the responsibility for the new position. Loper, a former North American Mission Board medical missionary, becomes acting executive director for the BMDF when Williams retires May 1.

The two groups’ only expectation in providing the grant “is that BMDF will continue sharing Christ through healthcare missions in the U.S. and internationally,” the leaders said. “These two groups are independent Baptist organizations, which are not structurally linked to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.”

The leaders said they received Barnhill’s resignation with “great sadness and surprise.” He had been president-elect for a year and a member of the group’s executive committee since 2000, according to the statement.

Barnhill did not respond to an e-mail from EthicsDaily.com requesting further comment on his resignation letter. But he gave an interview to Baptist Press, which quoted him Friday as saying that he was presiding at a BMDF executive committee meeting March 31 when Williams distributed the CBF partnership agreement. Barnhill said as president, he felt he should have seen the document before, and when he asked questions, Williams said he didn’t want to “blow it out of proportion.”

Barnhill told the Southern Baptist news service that the partnership was a “red flag,” like others he had noticed in recent years. “Clearly there was a behind-the-scenes movement within the leadership of BMDF to move it from SBC to CBF, and that was being done without the full knowledge or consent of the membership as a whole or the entire executive committee as a whole,” he said.

Jerry Rankin, president of the SBC International Mission Board, called the BMDF decision to enter into a formal partnership with the CBF “a surprise and disappointment,” given the IMB’s extensive medical network and previous relationship with the medical-dental group.

“The IMB has always been affirming of the volunteer projects and support of BMDF, which have been an encouragement to our medical missionaries,” Rankin said in a statement quoted by Baptist Press. “I am confident that many individual members love the International Mission Board and will continue to work with our missionaries, but I deeply regret this action.”

The BMDF’s past president, Dr. Mary Clawson of Bay Springs, Miss., said in an e-mail that a nominating committee will be named to find a replacement for Barnhill. The executive committee will elect a new president on the membership’s behalf, who will serve until the group meets next year in San Antonio, Texas.

A president-elect will also be nominated and elected to serve in 2005-2006, Clawson said.

The BMDF recently changed its constitution to allow the president to serve two years, Loper told EthicsDaily.com, and Barnhill was the first to be elected to a two-year term. For that reason no president-elect was presented this year. Next year’s president-elect would have served one year alongside Barnhill before taking office in 2006.

Based in Memphis, Tenn., the Baptist Medical/Dental Fellowship is a professional fellowship of Baptist physicians and dentists for the purpose of enhancing their Christian growth, church involvement and support of Christian missions, according to a mission statement on the group’s Web site.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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