Baptists consider taking legal action

Thursday, November 1, 2001

Missouri Baptists ended their annual meeting Wednesday by setting the stage for legal action that could pit a number of Baptist boards and agencies against the state convention.

Messengers, or voting delegates, also approved a slate of candidates endorsed by a conservative faction in the Missouri Baptist Convention. This year marks the fourth consecutive year candidates endorsed by Project 1000 of the Missouri Baptist Laymen's Association have taken key leadership roles in the convention.

Missouri's Baptist churches represent the state's largest Protestant denomination, with 625,000 members in 1,900 churches. Nearly 2,500 people attended the three-day state meeting at the Show Me Center. Meetings next fall will be held at Springfield, Mo.

Messengers overwhelmingly supported a motion that sought legal counsel to determine if action should be taken against the Missouri Baptist Home, Baptist Foundation, Windermere Baptist Assembly, Missouri Baptist College and Word & Way newspaper, all of which have chosen over the past year to select their own boards of trustees to allow them more independence from the conservative leadership. Messengers already had approved a slate of candidates to serve on the boards of those agencies.

The motion wasn't about collecting damages or taking legal action but determining who controls the agencies, said Monte Shinkle, pastor of Concord Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Mo. He submitted the motion for voter approval.

Many Baptists say they don't want the issue to end in court but no other way to resolve the dispute is apparent. "We're saying they can take action with no consequences if we remove the possibility of any legal action," said Bill Vail of Poplar Bluff, Mo. He said many members of his church were upset by the boards' actions and wouldn't continue to support them monetarily.

Funding in escrow

The state convention already had voted to hold $2 million in escrow accounts until the agencies cooperate with the Missouri Baptist Convention. The money is 10 percent of the state convention's budget for 2002.

"We should seek reconciliation, not lawsuits," said Randy Fullerton, chairman of the trustees at Missouri Baptist College in St. Louis.

During debate Wednesday, messengers spent more time preaching from microphones than speaking to business matters at hand. Some came to admonish the convention for its actions Tuesday when messengers withdrew voting privileges from Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo. Others came to encourage the crowd to re-examine their lives or chastised them for hateful behavior.

But the Rev. James Merritt, pastor of First Baptist Church of Snellville, Ga., came to tell the crowd what Southern Baptists need to do. Merritt serves as president of the Southern Baptist Convention, which will meet in St. Louis in June.

'Share the truth'

The world is decaying, he said, and it is up to Christians to season it with salt.

"I know things are bad economically and from a terrorist standpoint, but think how bad things would be if there were no churches or if there were no Christians or no Bibles or no preachers of the gospel," Merritt said.

Baptists can't continue to conform to culture but must begin transforming the culture, he said. "There is no respect for the church today because we are too much like the world."

Baptists need to be the light that reflects God to the world, he said. "We need to share the truth with a dying world."

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