Top Baptists don't always speak for all 'Submission statement' represents view of few

July 12, 1998|By Pam Parry

Every year, I look to summer as a time for vacations, baseball and Fourth of July celebrations. But in recent years, my expectations have been diminished, because frankly, I dread June - the month the Southern Baptist Convention meets to conduct its annual business session. After the convention, I find myself trying desperately to explain to friends and acquaintances alike that I while I'm a Southern Baptist, I'm not one of those Southern Baptists, the ones who've taken over.

For example, I have found myself in the awkward position of trying to explain why the convention denounced Disney last year, calling for a boycott to protest some Disney programs and company polices, including health benefits for same-sex partners of company employees. It's difficult to convince anyone that being a Southern Baptist means sharing God's love when church leaders take positions that paint the entire membership as Mickey Mouse haters and gay-bashers.

And it seems the business of late for the nation's largest Protestant convention is to keep women in their place. Meeting June 9-11 in Salt Lake City, the convention altered a doctrinal statement to include a section on family. That statement called for wives to submit graciously to their husbands. It caused a media furor. And I found myself once again trying to distance myself from the Southern Baptist leadership.

For one thing, it's important to keep certain proportions in mind. First, a handpicked committee of seven drafted the controversial statement. Second, only 8,577 people attended the convention meeting - the lowest turnout in 47 years - while there are 15.9 million Southern Baptists. It's safe to say the so-called submission statement represents the view of a small slice of Southern Baptists. Unfortunately, it's the official slice.

Day after day, supporters of the submission statement appeared on national television explaining the convention's position. They argued that they believe in equality, except in spiritual matters. In this one area, the man is to be the head of the household. But that's like telling African-Americans that they are equal, except they have to ride on the back of the bus because in this one area, whites need to sit at the head of the bus. Partial equality by definition is inequality.

Church leaders argued that their position, while unpopular, is biblical. In Ephesians 5:22-23, the wife is told to submit to her husband. But they focus on this text to the exclusion of the whole chapter. For example, 5:21 calls for a mutual submission between husbands and wives - a relationship that many Southern Baptists would call equal. Instead of placing the husband in an authority role over the wife, this complete view of Scripture sees marriage as a team of equal players. No player-coaches allowed.

Church leaders also argued the inerrancy of the Bible this summer. Inerrancy means that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is accurate in every historical and scientific detail. But when they invoked the word "inerrancy," they reopened unhealed wounds. Wounds created from the nearly 20-year battle for control of the convention. What the general public may not realize is the word "inerrancy" was a clever ruse a handful of fundamentalists devised to seize control of the convention.

If a few men were to persuade Southern Baptists to change course and dump their leaders, they would need a powerful cause to rally the masses. What could be more compelling for a group of Baptists than sticking up for the Bible? It was clever. It worked.

Marching under the banner of inerrancy, they fooled uninformed Southern Baptists into thinking that they needed to purge from their ranks those who don't believe in the Bible. And purge they did. Convention employees were fired without cause. Some were given early-retirement packages. Others were harassed. While still others, such as myself, just slipped away into a new career.

The problem? The issue was not really over the Bible, but over control of the convention's purse strings. As a professional journalist, I covered Southern Baptists for 10 years, and I've never met one who disbelieves the Bible. No Southern Baptist discounts the Bible as an authoritative source. But many take exception to an inerrant view of Scripture.

For example, some Southern Baptists believe certain biblical accounts were meant to be taken symbolically, rather than historically or literally. Others simply don't like the use of the Bible in what's essentially a political-religious war.

If the fight was really over the Bible, who are the church leaders protecting it from? It's been my experience that truth stands on its own and needs no defender.

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