The pastor of a North Carolina Baptist church says he took down an anti-Muslim sign that made national headlines after four Southern Baptist Convention officials called to say the message might put missionaries overseas in danger.
Creighton Lovelace, pastor of Danieltown Baptist Church in Forest City, N.C., told the Charlotte Observer that about 20 members of his church voted to remove the sign reading “The Koran needs to be flushed” after hearing from SBC leaders.
Lovelace declined to name the leaders, telling EthicsDaily.com that one of the four callers told him he might be endangered if identified.
Lovelace, who has been pastor of the small church for 13 months, issued a statement saying his intent in posting the message was to “affirm and exalt” the Bible and not to insult people of other faiths.
He said he was unaware when he placed the sign that devoted Muslims view the Quran with more reverence than many Christians in the United States view the Bible. “Now I realize how offensive this is to them, and after praying about it, I have chosen to remove the sign,” he said. “I apologize for posting that message and deeply regret that it has offended so many in the Muslim community.”
The Council on American-Islamic Relations applauded the apology and suggested that American churches and mosques hold Muslim-Christian dialogues on Jesus, who is revered by both faiths.
“We thank Pastor Lovelace for his apology and hope this incident will serve to improve relations between Christians and Muslims in North Carolina and throughout America,” said CAIR Executive Director Nihad Awad.
Lovelace’s sign apparently referred to a retracted Newsweek article reporting alleged desecration of the Quran by interrogators at the Guantanamo prison in Cuba. The White House blamed the story for rioting that killed at least 15 people in Afghanistan.
The head of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee issued a statement disavowing disrespect for the Quran.
Southern Baptist officials reacted differently three years ago, when a former convention president drew similar criticism for declaring the Muslim prophet Muhammad a “demon-possessed pedophile.”
Jerry Vines, who recently announced his retirement as pastor of First Baptist Church of Jacksonville, Fla., never backed down from his comment at the 2002 SBC Pastors Conference, despite criticism in the media and political fallout including President Bush distancing himself from the statement.
Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations decried the statement as “hate-filled and bigoted” language and called for “a clear statement from the top leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Instead, Southern Baptist leaders voiced support for Vines. In December 2002, in the midst of the controversy, the Council of Seminary Presidents presented Vines with their first-ever “Certificate of Honor,” praising him as an “example to the pastors of the Southern Baptist Convention.”
Defending Vines on “60 Minutes” in October 2002, fellow Southern Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell labeled Muhammad a “terrorist.” The statement provoked protests in Islamic states, including rioting in India blamed for at least 10 deaths.
Falwell later apologized for the remark, but SBC leaders continued to defend Vines, even after two dozen Southern Baptist missionaries circulated an unsigned letter in January 2003 warning that negative statements about Islam not only hurt evangelism but might also endanger missionaries’ lives.
In March 2003, eight months after the Pastors Conference, “NBC Nightly News” headlined a story about Vines’ anti-Muslim comments as “preaching hate.”
The Florida Baptist Witness called the broadcast “a cheap shot against Baptists” and said the real agenda was to silence Christians who believe Jesus is the only way to salvation.
SBC president Jack Graham said it was “not only poor journalism but a disingenuous attempt to slander one of our finest pulpiteers and pastors.”
Richard Land of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission termed it a “despicable example of yellow journalism.”
Al Mohler of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary said, “NBC owes the Christian gospel—and Dr. Jerry Vines—an apology.”
Vines brought up the NBC report in his next SBC Pastors Conference address in June 2003.
“I’m going to give all of you media what you came for, and I’m going to say it slowly, so even Tom Brokaw can get it. All religions are not the same. All religions are not equally true. There is no other name under heaven given among men whereby we must be saved except the name of Jesus,” Vines said, earning a standing ovation from preachers gathered in Phoenix.
Vines refused to meet with Muslim leaders in North Florida to discuss his 2002 comments, saying as a busy pastor of a 25,000-member church he had no time for dialogue or media interviews.
Vines said his remarks came from Unveiling Islam–a book written by two former Muslim brothers who converted to Christianity—and the Hadith, a source about Islam and Muhammad.
“If I have misread this information, I would be glad for Muslim scholars to explain their own documents to us all,” Vines said, quoted in the Florida Times-Union.
Author Emir Caner told reporters in 2002, “It’s simply a matter of quoting [Islamic] sources.”
“The comments in question cannot be considered bigotry when they come from Islamic writings,” his brother, Ergun Caner, added.
Ergun Caner, at the time a professor at Criswell College, declined to second-guess Vines’ choice of words in 2002.
“I’m not going to question what God gives Jerry Vines to say,” Caner said in Baptist Press. “I am the last man to ever redact Jerry Vines’ sermon style. Criswell College has the Jerry Vines Institute for Expository Preaching. He is 20 times more brilliant than I. I find it funny people would think I would play Monday morning quarterback.”
Now the newly named dean at Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University theological seminary, Caner more recently told the Associated Press that he never said Muhammad was a pedophile or possessed by demons, asserting that his comments were misquoted by a preacher.
In his statement to the press, Danieltown Baptist Pastor Lovelace said: “I firmly believe that the Bible is God’s Word–that it is indeed the only divine written revelation from God. I also firmly believe that Jesus Christ is the only means of salvation available to mankind.
“Today, I believe these truths more than ever before.”
Lovelace said he remains committed to “proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ” and renewed his commitment to “proclaiming that message in the true spirit of Christ’s love.”
Lovelace had earlier refused to remove the sign, saying just because it provoked anger was no reason for him to keep his beliefs silent. Last Wednesday, he told the Charlotte newspaper that the church might consider withdrawing from the Southern Baptist Convention to prevent repercussions to missionaries or overseas workers.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.