During June 14-16, an expected 40,000 Southern Baptists will gather in San Antonio, Texas, for their annual conference. It promises to be a real showdown.
For a decade, the nation's largest Protestant denomination has been embroiled in bitter and painful controversy. There isn't even agreement about what the turmoil and division are really about. What some see as an attempted takeover by political and theological fundamentalists, others see as a needed purge of so-called liberals.
How much of it is political? Is the conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) the largest case study of the campaign by New Right politicians to penetrate and take over the nation's evangelical churches? How much of it is theological? Is the SBC the most visible example of resurgent fundamentalism seeking to roll back the inroads of alleged liberalism? How much of it is the clash of powerful personalities? Are the entrenched egos and agendas of powerful men deepening the divisions?
These are the questions underlying this year's pivotal SBC annual convention. At stake is the future of the denomination, with all its members, tradition, and money -- all of which are substantial. Can the divisive issues be resolved without a tragic split? Is any broad consensus or accommodation still possible, or is the time past for that?
The rest of the churches and the nation have been aware of the SBC conflict but often without much real understanding of the history and the issues involved, much less of their wider significance. The mainstream media, characteristically, have most often ignored, oversimplified, or caricatured the questions at stake. Even in Baptist circles, the fundamental issues have often suffered a lack of thorough analysis due to the obvious reality of how the Baptist press itself is so caught up in the family quarrel.