Baptists lift voting rights of church

Wednesday, October 31, 2001

In an unprecedented move, Missouri Baptists withdrew voting privileges from Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., because the church no longer is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, and put in escrow $2 million allocated in its 2002 budget for five agencies that created self-perpetuating boards.

Tuesday's actions, which gained the required two-thirds majority votes, were the first of their kind by the state convention, which marked the second day of its 167th annual meeting at the Show Me Center. The convention represents the state's largest Protestant denomination.

The Rev. Donny Ford, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Cape Girardeau, said the actions were about preserving Baptist heritage at the state's institutions. "We want to hold onto them as Missouri Baptists," he said.

Others challenged the actions, saying the convention hasn't the authority to direct local churches or agencies that are autonomous.

By forcing the dozen members of the Liberty church to walk to the front of the Show Me Center and hand over their voting ballots, the convention set a standard for defining what is a Missouri Baptist church.

A credentials committee interpreted the convention constitution to say that only churches affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention can be considered in good standing with the Missouri Baptist Convention. Baptist churches generally have authority to make decisions about their affiliations without getting direction or approval from a state or national leader.

Appeal rejected

Members of the Liberty church appealed the action but were rejected. "There was an apathy that we didn't believe this could happen in Missouri," said Doyle Sager, president of Mainstream Missouri Baptists, a group that had been working to find a compromise between conservative and moderate factions. But the convention's move "shrinks the size of the family," he said.

Messengers -- those participants who voted during the business sessions -- talked of distrust and discord, and said they felt as if the convention was stolen from them.

Conservatives want to retain control of the state's Baptist colleges, institutions and agencies, while moderates were willing to let the agencies -- which included a state newspaper, children's home, retreat center and college -- govern themselves by creating their own boards of trustees. Typically, convention messengers have final approval of the boards.

Brewing battle

The fight over power in the convention has been brewing for years and really represents what has happened within the Southern Baptist Convention over the past two decades, said Tim Yarbrough, public relations director.

Sager said the matter might help clarify issues for some churches that might not have withdrawn from the Southern Baptist Convention yet. Despite all the contention, Missouri Baptists aren't ready for a split but might have to find new methods for channeling their money to state agencies or institutions, he said.

In other action Tuesday, the 2,225 convention delegates, or messengers, elected Bob Curtis of Ballwin, Mo., president and approved a $20 million budget. Curtis had been serving as first vice president for the past year.

The meeting concludes this morning with a sermon from the Rev. James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

ljohnston@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 126

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