SAN ANTONIO – Southern Baptists concerned about a rightward shift in the denomination claimed a significant victory Wednesday with the passage of a motion centered on Baptist identity. Some conservatives downplayed the vote's importance and called the measure confusing.
In results announced Wednesday morning, "messengers," or delegates, to the denomination's annual meeting voted 58 percent to 42 percent to support a statement calling the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 the sufficient standard for establishing what makes a good Southern Baptist.
Backers of the statement said some conservatives have been setting additional litmus tests, in effect narrowing who is considered a Baptist in good standing. At stake is the direction of the SBC nearly three decades after its "conservative resurgence" purged liberals over the issue of biblical infallibility.
"This would reaffirm the parameters of doctrinal cooperation for our denomination," the Rev. Benjamin Cole of Arlington, Texas, who supported the motion said Tuesday after the vote on the measure was taken.
Another architect of the measure, the Rev. Wade Burleson of Enid, Okla., called the result perhaps the most significant in the last decade at an annual meeting.
Baptists such as Cole and Burleson, pressing their case on blogs, have argued that some SBC conservatives have gone beyond the Baptist Faith and Message, overstepping that document's reach to exclude some Southern Baptists -- most recently, those who worship through the traditional Pentecostal practice of speaking in tongues. Some Baptists denounce the practice, and believe seminaries and other agencies should set standards that prevent the hiring of people who advocate speaking in tongues.
The denomination's International Mission Board has enacted guidelines against allowing future missionaries to use "private prayer language," or to speak in tongues in private.
Burleson acknowledged that the vote still leaves hiring decisions in the hands of the trustees of SBC entities. But he said it could place pressure on those making hiring decisions.
But the Rev. Bill Harrell, chairman of the SBC executive committee, countered that the Baptist Faith and Message "has always been our guide," and trustees will "still be able to answer the questions about whether to hire somebody or not."
"I don't think it will have a lot of significance, and I really don't think it is going to change much," he said.
Malcolm Yarnell, a professor at Southwestern Baptist Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, called the motion confusing and unclear. Yarnell said he interpreted the vote as a vindication of the Baptist Faith and Message as setting the minimal standard for Baptist beliefs, and rejected the argument that it will restrict trustees of Baptist groups from laying down additional rules.
He said most people walking out of the hall after Tuesday's vote were "good conservative pastors" who thought they were affirming the Baptist Faith and Message and reaffirming trustees' discretion in setting standards for hiring people.
"Ultimately, what you've got here is mass confusion," Yarnell said. "I think we have this year to try to discuss this theologically to try to clarify how we're going to respond to this."
He pointed out that another key vote, on the convention's first vice president, could be read as a confidence vote in support of "a clear Baptist identity." Jim Richards, who heads a conservative state Baptist convention in Texas, easily defeated missionary David Rogers, the choice of younger, more centrist Baptists. Richards won with more than two-thirds of the ballots cast.