At a time when the Southern Baptist Convention is embracing fundamentalism, growing numbers of independent Baptists are warming to the idea of cooperation. One leader said only time will tell whether the convergence will be an “exclamation point or asterisk in Baptist history.”
Jerry Falwell’s National Liberty Journal recently reported on formation of the International Baptist Network aimed at unifying independent fundamental Baptists around the world. The article said the SBC’s high-profile withdrawal from the Baptist World Alliance last summer “set the stage for a new alliance” between fundamentalist Southern and independent Baptists.
Other articles, however, suggest the emerging network has more to do with fault lines among fundamental independent Baptists than with any alleged “liberal drift” within the BWA.
While National Liberty Journal described a Feb. 9 meeting in Dallas as the network’s first public gathering, the independent Baptist Bible Tribune published several articles last year promoting and reporting on a Sept. 26-27, 2004, meeting in Chattanooga, Tenn., to improve relations among fundamentalist Baptists with similar doctrinal views but historical divisions over various issues.
The Chattanooga meeting, according to the Baptist Bible Tribune, combined national meetings of the Southwide Baptist Fellowship, World Baptist Fellowship and Baptist Bible Fellowship. Participants from the Southern Baptist Convention and General Association of Regular Baptists also attended.
According to one report, former SBC president Jerry Vines identified with the spirit of the meeting by declaring in his sermon, “I was known as the first independent Baptist to be elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
The groundwork for the International Baptist Network began when former Cincinnati pastor John Rawlings for several years invited chairmen of Baptist Bible Fellowships in each state to leadership meetings just prior to the annual midwinter fellowship of Baptist Bible Fellowship International.
In 2003, Rawlings broadened the focus by including leaders from other independent Baptist fellowships to “sit and observe” the proceedings. Many of those leaders met over the next several months to work toward developing a global network of fundamental Baptists united by common doctrine and purpose.
An initial International Baptist Network meeting took place Feb. 10-12, 2004, in Orlando, Fla. Keynote speakers included Paul Pressler, a retired judge from Texas who shared the story of how he and others influenced the Southern Baptist Convention toward a more conservative stance during the 1980s.
“A few of us raised our heads and did something,” Pressler reportedly told the group. “We stopped passing resolutions and elected conservative leadership.” Pressler praised the fundamental independent Baptist movements, which he said “inspired us and influenced us.”
Pressler went on to say Southern Baptists did not belong in the Baptist World Alliance. “Enough is enough,” he said. “We want to fellowship with Baptists who believe the Bible.” (That was before the SBC voted to pull out of the BWA in June, but after an SBC/BWA study committee, of which Presser was a member, had made its recommendations public.)
In his opening address at the February 2004 meeting, a 90-year-old Rawlings, former pastor of Cincinnati’s Landmark Baptist Temple, gave his rationale for assembling independent Baptist leaders.
“I’m determined to finish my course with my sword unsheathed,” Rawlings was quoted as saying. He envisioned an international movement of Baptists conservative in theology and aggressive in evangelism that he predicted would rival if not surpass the Baptist World Alliance.
The Baptist World Alliance is a fellowship of 211 Baptist unions and conventions, uniting Baptists worldwide, leading in world evangelism, responding to people in need and defending human rights.
BWA membership is comprised of more than 47 million baptized believers, representing about 110 million Baptists in more than 200 countries.
That number took a hit last summer with departure of the Southern Baptist Convention, which claims a membership of 16.4 million. With 1.2 million members, the Baptist Bible Fellowship International is the largest grouping of independent Baptists in America.
In all, there are an estimated 10,000 independent Baptist churches in the United States. But not all of them are on board with the new spirit of networking.
Independent Baptists’ more separatist branch, associated with the Sword of the Lord newspaper published in Murfreesboro, Tenn., criticizes some of the other groups for compromise in areas such as dress, contemporary worship, using Bible translations other than the King James Version and for following church-growth methods of Bill Hybels and Rick Warren.
“Worldliness is just as destructive to God’s holy work as doctrinal error,” said a November article in Fundamental Baptist Information Service. “When men yoke together, it is because they are in agreement. ‘Can two walk together, except they be agreed?’ (Amos 3:3). Or it is because of some overriding interest such as money and prestige or even a sincere fervor for evangelism. The latter is the reason that Billy Graham has always given for his great spiritual compromises.”
More traditional fundamental Baptists also warn that despite the “conservative resurgence” in the SBC, strong differences still remain with independent fundamentalists.
“The independent Baptists who are willing to yoke together with Southern Baptist conservatives today ignore the fact that the SBC is a mixed multitude and that its tent is wide enough for theological moderates,” the Fundamental Baptist Information Service article continued.
“SBC conservatives are committed New Evangelicals who are opposed to strict biblical separation. For the past 40 years the independent Baptist movement has been theologically pure as far as modernism goes. To my knowledge there has not been even one independent Baptist preacher or professor who has held to modernistic or neo-orthodox views of the Bible. That will change quickly if we adopt the SBC’s ‘big tent,’ ‘don’t be so strict’ philosophy.”
Supporters of the International Baptist Network, however, say there is a growing recognition that the things uniting Bible-believing, soul-winning Baptists are more important than the things dividing them.
At an organizational meeting in Atlanta on April 24, 2003, founders updated and revised the New Hampshire Confession of 1833 as a foundational document, christening it “The Georgia Baptist Confession.”
Membership is open to pastors, missionaries or any individual who embraces the beliefs expressed in the confessional statement, accepts a mandate to consummate the Great Commission in their lifetime and agrees “to stand uncompromisingly for the Word of God.”
Fundamental doctrines include that the Bible is inerrant and belief in Jesus’ Virgin Birth, substitutionary atonement, physical resurrection and bodily return at the End of the Age.
A three-pronged strategy is to help fundamental Baptist missionaries in every national to develop strategies of evangelism and church planting, to lobby governments “with a view of impacting public policy with the morality of Christianity” and conducting national and international conferences on evangelism and prayer.
Randy Ray, pastor of North Florida Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Fla., is quoted as saying, “The IBN is possible because the SBC has dealt with its liberal left and independent Baptists have dealt with its radical right.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.