Messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention could face a rarity when they elect a new president this year in Greensboro, N.C.,–a choice.
No one has officially declared a candidacy to succeed current SBC President Bobby Welch, whose second term ends at the 2006 annual meeting, scheduled June 13-14 at the Greensboro Coliseum, but talk of a potential presidential race is heating up in Internet Weblogs.
After launch of the “conservative resurgence” in 1979, moderate and fundamentalist parties put forth a single candidate, so as not to split the vote in hotly contested elections between factions vying for control of the denomination.
The conservative candidate, rumored to be chosen by a cabal of former presidents and other leaders, generally was unveiled at an annual Bible conference at First Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Fla., in February.
This year, Jerry Vines, a former SBC president and recently retired pastor at the church, reportedly called fellow conservative leaders Paige Patterson, Paul Pressler and Bailey Smith to the stage before announcing the mantle this year had fallen on Johnny Hunt, pastor of First Baptist Church, Woodstock, Ga. A spokesperson for Hunt told EthicsDaily.com he “has not decided” to allow his nomination to move forward.
Moderates disengaged from the SBC power struggle in the early 1990s, but the tradition of consensus candidates continued with only one exception–when Florida pastor Jim Henry ran on his own to win the presidency over Fred Wolfe in 1994.
But sentiment for opening the election process seems to be growing, especially among a younger generation of ministers who weren’t around during the fundamentalist/moderate controversy. An unknown and previously unannounced candidate challenging Welch in 2004 received more than 1,000 votes, or about 20 percent of ballots cast.
The nominating pastor said he had no illusion his candidate would win, but said after nine years of attending SBC annual meetings he was concerned “the convention’s leadership is growing further and further from the grassroots of Southern Baptist life.”
After the vote was tallied, a relieved Welch is said to have quipped: “I got the message Southern Baptists! I hear you loud and clear!”
Tom Ascol, executive director of Founders Ministries, a Calvinist network, blogged recently he believes a second candidate nominated in addition to Hunt could garner a significant percentage of the vote and perhaps even win.
Ascol said what kind of person should be president isn’t the only proper question, but also what kind of process should there be for a person to be nominated as president. He described the current informal group that selects the nominee as “kingmakers.”
While some conservatives believe having more than one candidate breeds disunity and is viewed as disloyalty, Ascol said he believed having two legitimate conservative candidates running for office would “provide an opportunity for healthy dialogue about Southern Baptist life.”
A Hunt candidacy doesn’t sit well with some Calvinists, who view his sermon last summer at the SBC Pastors Conference as an attack on the doctrine of “election,” a view that salvation is only for the “elect,” or those predestined to be saved by God.
“There’s hope for everyone in Jesus,” Hunt said in the sermon. “Everyone. Everyone. Not a select group. Everyone.”
“Someone says, ‘Pastor you believe that you’re the elect?'” he continued. “I sure am. Everybody that gets in is the elect; and he’s elected all of us. I believe everyone can be saved. Anyone can come to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.”
Ascol invited discussion on possible challengers in Greensboro. An early favorite to emerge was Mark Dever, a Calvinist pastor from Washington, D.C. One person even launched a tongue-in-cheek, unofficial “Dever for President” blog. Dever did not respond to a request for comment prior to the deadline for this story.
Some of the blogs criticized Hunt, prompting defense from Ergun Caner, a popular author and dean of Liberty University Theological Seminary, in the form of a taunt: “I BEG of you–PLEASE bring another name to the floor of the SBC. I would be thrilled to watch that person go down in flames.”
But Ascol noted that interest in this year’s convention is already high for Calvinists, who are looking forward to a discussion on Calvinism (first introduced as a “debate”) between seminary presidents Al Mohler and Paige Patterson at the pre-convention SBC Pastors Conference.
Another contingent expected in Greensboro are supporters of Wade Burleson, a member of the International Mission Board whom fellow trustees voted to recommend for removal because of his blogs critical of IMB policies and internal politicking.
While IMB trustee leaders have recently said they plan to ask the board to reverse its earlier motion calling for Burleson to be removed, the episode for some symbolizes larger questions of whether the SBC will allow for principled dissent and whether it will continue to narrow theological parameters, excluding groups like Calvinists and Charismatics from Baptist life.
Burleson blogged recently that he believes the 2006 convention could be the most important in 30 years, listing five possible themes that might by addressed:
–Establishment of a framework for the free exercise of principled dissent;
–Safeguards to prevent the manipulation of the nominating process of the SBC;
–Forbidding undue influence of agencies and institutions of the SBC by other agency heads;
–A resolution that trustees are servants, not directors, of the convention; and
–“The expression of belief that Southern Baptist Convention works best with a broad front door of cooperation.”
Burleson’s name has also been discussed as a possible candidate for president, but he told EthicsDaily.com on Tuesday that he has no interest in the job.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.