International Baptist leaders expressed shock and dismay at plans by Southern Baptist Convention leaders to drop out of the Baptist World Alliance.
A nine-member committee studying SBC/BWA ties announced Friday it was recommending that the denomination withdraw from membership in the worldwide fellowship organization and stop funding the BWA effective next October. The move, which would cost the Washington-based BWA $300,000 a year, is being taken because of a “leftward drift” among BWA membership, the study committee said.
The head of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship said the move sends a message that Southern Baptists don’t want to have anything to do with the rest of the world’s Baptists.
“The announcement that the Southern Baptist Convention intends to defund and withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance marks a tragic and sad development in the Baptist family,” CBF Coordinator Daniel Vestal said in a statement.
“The SBC has basically said they don’t want to have anything to do with the rest of the Baptists in the world,” Vestal added in an interview with EthicsDaily.com. “They separated themselves not only from some Baptists in the United States but from Baptists all around the world.”
Theo Angelov, general secretary of the European Baptist Federation, said the attempt to break relations appears to be over “ideology rather than Christian doctrine.”
“Our feeling is that we still need each other and that we should continue to love one another,” Angelov said in a statement. “Any attempt to break this relationship and to separate brothers and sisters in Christ should not prevail over the Christian love that must exist between one another.”
David Coffey, general secretary of the Baptist Union of Great Britain, said the SBC recommendation is “based on a false understanding of Baptist faith and practice.”
“In their concern to defend the truth of the gospel, the SBC study committee has failed to safeguard the primacy of freedom of conscience and have consequently delivered a victory for ideology over theology,” Coffey said.
Coffey said the life of British Baptist churches has been “enriched” by partnerships with Southern Baptist pastors and churches and he hopes such partnerships will continue.
Angelov said the Baptist World Alliance was the main voice for human rights and religious freedom when believers in Eastern Europe suffered under Communist regimes and that Southern Baptists were a part of building a “New Europe” after World War II and the fall of communism. “The best relations have blossomed between churches in Europe and the United States over the past 13 years,” he said.
Angelov expressed “full sympathy and support” for BWA leadership of President Billy Kim and General Secretary Denton Lotz “in their strong attempt to bring all Baptists across the world together. We believe that the future of the Baptist movement is in working together rather than separation from one another.”
Vestal said he believes a decision last summer by the BWA to consider a membership application from the CBF played a role in the SBC leaders’ decision to cut ties, but the most significant factor is that SBC leadership “fails to understand that being a Baptist means allowing differences but still finding ways to cooperate.”
“I think the most telling statement was they can’t tolerate any differences with Baptists globally, and they expect everyone else to conform to them,” Vestal said.
Vestal said in his prepared statement: “For almost a hundred years the BWA has been the one place where Baptist Christians from every part of the world could find fellowship and give mutual support to one another. This decision devalues the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love. Surely the heart of our Savior must be broken.”
A leader of another BWA member body in the United States expressed regret over “the further fragmentation of Baptist life and its impact on the global witness of the Christian church.”
“This action wounds not just Baptists but the church universal,” said Roy Medley, general secretary of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.
Medley accused individuals pushing for the decision of characterizing the BWA unfairly. “As American Baptists we remain fully committed to the vision of the Baptist World Alliance as the gathering place for Baptists worldwide for mutual support, learning and mission,” he said.
A Baptist ethicist said “a creeping xenophobia now prevails among Southern Baptist fundamentalists.”
Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics commented on references in the SBC report noting an “anti-American tone” at BWA meetings, the prominence of “Europeans” and charges that numerous participants “rudely treated” a Southern Baptist pastor and criticized the SBC International Mission Board.
“All told, the implication here is that Europeans and people of color have not shown the white SBC leaders the reverence they think they deserve based on their racial and national superiority,” Parham said. “The decision represents more evidence that Baptist fundamentalists are retreating to a 19th century castle of racial and cultural homogeneity.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.