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A group of conservative Baptists has issued a statement warning that “narrowing of cooperation through exclusionary theological and political agendas” seriously threatens the unity and mission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“It is time for Southern Baptists to work with anybody we can where we can, and to stop fighting where we don’t have to,” Benjamin Cole, a convener of a May 2-3 closed-door meeting in Memphis, Tenn., said Thursday in an e-mail.

But Cole, pastor of Southern Baptists of Texas-affiliated Parkview Baptist Church in Arlington, Texas, said the Memphis Declaration is not a repudiation of the “conservative resurgence” launched three decades ago by SBC leaders Paige Patterson and Paul Pressler.

“If this statement is a repudiation, it is a repudiation of what some SBC leaders have done with that movement, not of its original spirit and motivating vision,” Cole said.

The declaration, issued by a group of 31 Baptist conservatives invited to the meeting in Memphis, repents of “triumphalism” and “narcissism” about Southern Baptist ministries, an “arrogant” spirit that undermines cooperation with other Bible-believing evangelicals and of turning “a blind eye to wickedness in our convention,” such as slander and character assassination.

But it stops short of calling for turning back the clock on reforms during the 1980s and early 1990s that systematically removed “moderates” from SBC leadership, who in turn became the core membership of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed in 1991.

“I believe the conservative resurgence reclaimed the Bible for the SBC,” Wade Burleson, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Enid, Okla., told EthicsDaily.com. A participant in the Memphis gathering, Burleson said the statement is rather “a repudiation of an unchristian spirit.”

“If the spirit of the Memphis Declaration were present in the SBC, conservative, Bible-believing Christians would not feel the need to leave the SBC,” Burleson said. “People who deny the authority and inspiration of the Word of God, and those who refuse to base what they believe on the Word of God, not only have a right to leave the convention, but they should leave–with us
being gracious to them as they leave.”

“But if people love God’s Word and simply interpret the Bible differently,” he said, “then there is room in the SBC for us all.”

Though in his 40s, Burleson came to symbolize growing dissent among younger Baptist ministers when he came under fire for writing a Web log that criticized restrictive polices of the International Mission Board, of which he is a trustee, and argued for more inclusive leadership on SBC boards and agencies.

Cole, in a paper he read to the Memphis group and made public on Thursday, identified four “Golden Calves” that he said “weaken and compromise our obedience to the Great Commission:

–“Denominational narcissism,” demonstrated by “retrospective pep rallies for past victories,” Cole said, “must be replaced by sincere humility and a prospective emphasis on field of harvest.”

“A boastful victor is as distasteful to Southern Baptists as a sore loser is,” he said.

–“Ecclesiological isolationism,” Cole said, prompts some Southern Baptists to act as if they have a corner on church planting and believe cooperating with other “Great Commission” Christians is a compromise of Baptist doctrine and polity.

“I believe Southern Baptists are cooperative and flexible and diverse on matters of church polity,” Cole said. “The sad reality is that a fifth column has arisen in our missionary enterprise that seeks to repaint a discredited trail of blood all the way from Fort Worth to Burkino Faso.”

The reference is to Landmarkism, a doctrine developed in the 19th century that views Baptists as the only true churches and emphasizes strict observance of the Lord’s Supper and baptism. Many Landmarkers believe that churches Baptist in doctrine but not in name have existed in unbroken succession since the time of Christ.

“Like a ghoul in the night, this narrow, Fundamentalist, ecclesiological perversion has revived in our day to scare little children and rattle its rusty sword in the shadows,” Cole said. “If we do not bring these narrowing trends to a stop, Southern Baptists will never reemerge as one body with diverse parts committed to one Lord, one faith and one baptism.”

–“Missiological unilateralism,” or a “go-it-alone” strategy in missions, “must be ripped out of our Southern Baptist ground root and branch.”

“Southern Baptist missionaries must be free to plant churches and disciple converts with other Christian missionaries who share our emphasis on gospel proclamation,” Cole said. “Ecumenism is not the answer. Neither is a strategy of missions that dilutes our Baptist distinctives so as to render them unrecognizable. But a broad, cooperative evangelicalism can sustain our missionary mandate.”

–“Nepotism, cronyism and favoritism” should be abandoned in selection of denominational leaders, Cole said. During recent years, he said, there have been instances of three members of one family all serving on key committees and boards and of individual churches having 10 to 15 members with places at the table.

“This kind of closed system is a slap in the face to the nearly 50,000 churches and missions that faithfully support the Cooperative Program and pray for the work and witness of the Southern Baptist Convention,” he said.

The signers of the declaration said they were speaking only for themselves and not calling for any official response, but they pledged “continue this dialogue by inviting others in our respective spheres of influence to participate with us by seeking to renew our commitment to denominational accountability, institutional openness, moral and ethical integrity and properly prioritized Kingdom efforts.”

Asked how the spirit of the declaration might have applied to a decision two years ago by the Southern Baptist Convention to withdraw from membership in the Baptist World Alliance, Burleson told EthicsDaily.com that was an example where he was guilty of “inattentiveness” to convention governance and trustee accountability, the last of eight points covered in the Memphis Declaration.

Paige Patterson, a member of the SBC study committee that recommended the BWA withdrawal and a co-founder of the “conservative resurgence,” told EthicsDaily.com he did not “have sufficient information” to comment on the Memphis statement.

The declaration is posted on two blogs, here and here, which include sections for comment.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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