Bullies in the Pulpit
As the Southern Baptist Convention steers its flock to the hard Right, some members opt for a more moderate direction.
By Betty Bean
DECEMBER 8, 1997: On the first Sunday of Advent, the altar in the First Fellowship Church meeting room is dressed up with a garland of evergreens, candles, and a Christmas banner. The church, in a storefront in the Ten-Mile Center on Kingston Pike, is a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church, the first in the state.
There's no plush carpet, no pipe organ, no political overtones. Nobody's lifestyle is damned to hell, and nobody is told they "can't" do anything. The preacher, Will Carter, delivers a message built around the question, "What would you do if you could live your life over?"
Carter, who presided over a series of large Southern Baptist churches before he walked away from his pulpit four years ago, is not the kind of Baptist who has made the news lately. Carter's kind of Baptist isn't boycotting Disney, isn't bashing gays, isn't barring women from the ministry, isn't trying to build a 4,000-member megachurch. And Carter's kind of Baptists believe they are the ones holding fast to what Baptists are supposed to be.
In a soft, Alabama-inflected voice, he suggests that most of the congregation should reflect more, risk more, and, finally, make sure to leave something of value behind.
"Pharaoh had a title; Moses had a testimony," he tells the group, urging them to care for others, to dare not to settle for lesser things, to consider their legacy to the world. His audience, seated on folding chairs, is visibly, and audibly, moved.
There is Christmas music and a time for announcements. At the end of the service, he asks them to pray for a friend.
While you may not have heard about Cooperative Baptist Fellowship (CBF) churches like Carter's, they have indeed been causing a stir in Southern Baptist circles. They are one sign of a battle that's being waged over the direction of the nation's largest Protestant denomination (more than 16 million members)an ideological rift between extremely conservative, Fundamentalist leaders and more moderate members of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), the umbrella group that sets policy and makes collective decisions for participating Baptist churches. Not every member is aligned with the fire and brimstone image being promoted by the SBCor the political actions it's taken. Here in Knoxville, a hard-core Southern Baptist town, that battle is especially evident, with a vocal contingent of Moderates who believe they are the ones fighting to preserve Baptist traditions such as individual rights, autonomy of local churches, free speech, and separation of church and state.
November 12, 1997The videotaped preacher prowls and paces, his voice rising from a growly whisper to a leonine roar. In the next frame, the objects of his scorn come into view: gay couples in his-and-his T-shirts on the lanes of Disney World. Again the preacher fills the small screen, enticing a messenger to the Tennessee Baptist Convention in Jackson carrying an "Empowered to Witness" tote bag to stop in front of the Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission booth VCR.
"Tell 'em, Adrian," he says, as the videotape promoting the SBC's Disney boycott showcases Fundamentalist Memphis preacher Adrian Rogers, a former SBC president. The messenger's smile fades when the scene switches back to a "Gay Day" shot.
"I'm probably going to lose my breakfast," he grumbles.
Meanwhile, inside the mammoth sanctuary of the West Jackson Baptist Church, the morning speaker alludes to the growing split between Tennessee fundamentalists and moderates (or, Fundamentalists and Moderates, as they style themselves. No Baptist of any stripe owns up to being liberal, let alone a Liberal. "A liberal Baptist is an oxymoron," one source says.).
"As Tennessee Baptists, we can have a large umbrella as long as we find ourselves under God's direction," says the speaker. "There's no room for two umbrellas; we need to be focused."
After the meeting, a group of women wearing stickers that say TBEWIM peel off from the others and go to lunch. Dixie Petrey, an ordained minister from Knoxville, is among them. They tell Susan Parrish, who has come to pick them up, about the two-umbrellas sermon.
"Oh, fiddle-diddle," says Parrish, who is youth minister and pianist at First Fellowship Church. She is also resource center director for Knoxville-based Friends of New Churches, a national organization funded by the CBF. Friends of New Churches is, by its own description, dedicated to "birthing and nurturing free and faithful Baptist churches." There is no room under the TBC umbrella for either group.
Petrey and Parrish are both daughters of Baptist ministers and graduates of Southern Seminary, the oldest of the six Southern Baptist seminaries. Parrish, too, sports a TBEWIM sticker.
The initials stand for "Tennessee Baptists Encouraging Women in Ministry," another idea for which there is no shelter under the Southern Baptist umbrella.
A few days later, newly-elected TBC president Doug Sager, pastor of First Baptist Church-Concord in Farragut, appeared on Channel 10's Inside Tennessee Sunday talk show, and said his church doesn't even ordain women as deacons, citing I Timothy 3: 2 (King James Version): "A bishop must then be blameless, the husband of one wife..."
Since Sager is a believer in the Fundamentalist "inerrancy doctrine"which holds that Adam and Eve were real, historical people living in a brand-new world that God created in seven days, that Noah loaded a mated pair of every species of animal onto the ark, that every word in the Bible is literally true and not allegorythis is authority to conclude, for example, that evolution should not be taught in public schools and that God doesn't want women to be preachers. Even though Bible scholars say much has been lost in translation. Sager cracks a gay-bashing joke by adding that..."I've seen a few that would qualify as that [husband of one wife], but I'm not sure I'd want to ordain them to be deacons..."
Sager's election sends a signal that the state's Baptist-supported schools may soon undergo a new round of Fundamentalist scrutiny. On the same day Sager was making his TV appearance, The Nashville Tennessean published a page-one story by religion editor Ray Waddle predicting that "Baptist conservatives want to put their stamp on the state's three Baptist universities...Conservatives are clear what they want, and they're getting more assertive about asking for it. They want a bigger say in state Baptist life. They want their world view taught in Tennessee schools that get Baptist money..."
Sager didn't do anything to counter that prediction when he said he wants to see the TBC "move closer to the SBC," which has already purged its six seminaries of incorrect thinkers.
He singled out the CBF as "...Liberals among us...who don't like the conservative bent [of the TBC]." He said these liberals are particularly chafed by requirements that university faculty accept the inerrancy doctrine and points out that only 64 of some 3,000 Tennessee Baptist churches are affiliated with the CBF.
"There has been an inordinate number of those folks that have found their way into key positions..."
And he hinted at action to come:
"If I'm AT&T, I don't hire MCI."
Dr. Carolyn Blevins, who teaches church history and Old Testament at Carson-Newman College, says the Baptist college has successfully weathered attempts "to turn us into a Bible college" thanks to a charter that defines the school as a liberal arts institution. She is concerned about women students who hope to pursue religious vocations, but are having opportunities foreclosed to them by the new Fundamentalism.
"One of my students wants to be a missionary but knows that the rule is that women should not be ordained. She can't abide by that, but she very much feels called..."
"I hold two very strong opinions on that," Dr. Blevins says. "We as Christians believe the message is urgent and the need is great, and I can't imagine why we wouldn't want every possible voice to participate...'Go ye therefore' is given to all Christians.
"My second response is that when I am judged some day, I would rather be judged for encouraging the wrong person than to be judged for hindering the person God has sent."
The TBC controversy is a reflection of the larger battle already waged on the national level for the soul of the SBC. Tennessee Baptists (more than 1 million members) are following the SBC lead, with Sager's election demonstrating that Fundamentalist control has solidified.
Hollie Miller of Sevier Heights Baptist Church in South Knoxville was elected first vice president of the TBC. He was nominated by Jerry Sutton, a Nashville preacher who is a leader in the state Fundamentalist movement. In September, Sutton mailed a letter to pastors all over the state urging them to send a full slate of messengers to the Convention to combat the influence of the CBF, which, he said, "controls" the state Convention "because so many cooperating Tennessee Baptists tend to sit on the proverbial fence and do nothing." His get-out-the-vote campaign brought a near-record 2,155 messengers to the Convention.
Will Carter, a Baptist pastor for 38 years, stayed home the week Sager was elected. Carter evidently is one of those "very fine folks," of whom Sager speaks; MCI to Sager's AT&T. Carter and his flock don't feel a lot of kinship with the TBC as it marches implacably rightward. He says he doesn't even feel particularly welcomeso much so, that he also heads up Friends of New Churches, which has helped "plant" almost 100 new "free and faithful" Baptist congregations across the country
"They [the leaders of the TBC] believe in alignment only with the SBC," Carter says. "There is a move to say that if you're not a Southern Baptist, you can't be a part of TBC. We are part of the TBC; we contribute moneynot as much as they would likeand this keeps us [the church staff] open for annuity and retirement benefits. But sooner or later, we'll be out. I call it shunning. A lot of our [CBF] churches are shunned. We are nonentities. CBF, they say, is not a threat, but they sure treat us like one."
With his silvery hair and soft Southern voice, Carter doesn't look or sound like a heretic. In fact, he is Baptist to his bones, having felt the call to preach when he was still in high school.
"Being raised in the South, Southern Baptist churches were kind of a state churchI thought I knew everything then..."
He graduated from Southern Seminary in 1961 and accepted the call to a church in Phoenix City, Alabama, where he served during the toughest years of the civil rights struggle. He led his church to open its doors to people of all races and was appointed to the school board. He moved on to a big church in Jacksonville, Florida and then back to Birmingham.
In 1985, he came to West Knoxville Baptist Church, where he served until 1993 when, at the age of 58, "I came to the place when I had had it with the SBC, and I just resigned. I think I'm alive today because of it. We'd been in that war since '79..."
In 1991, Carter and some like-minded pastors tried to prevent the firing of the editors of the Baptist Press in Nashville by the SBC executive committee "...because they would not print the company line..."
He found himself locked out of the closed meeting while armed security stood guard.
"We just tried to organize and keep what we felt was valuable in life. We got beat. We were losing something that was very precious...I had to get some relief. And fortunately, miraculously, there was First Fellowship. Friends of New Churches followed that, and I'm as busy as I ever was. You just have to say it's the Lord. I call it that leap of faiththe Lord has provided me all I needed, not all I wantedI went to a third of the salary..."
He argues that it is his kind who are preserving fundamental Baptist principles.
"I was called dumb, told 'You're too close to retirement.' But if I'd stayed, I don't think I'd have lived. I just got tired of it...I didn't see there was any future in the SBC, the way I wanted to be Baptist..."
And what, in Carter's estimation, is a real Baptist?
"A real Baptist will back up and say 'That's fine, but don't expect me to believe that. God gives me the right to go to Scripture the same as you.' I pastored Baptist churches for 38 years, but not everybody under that roof thought alike...I didn't see Jesus say 'Let's go boycott Six Flags Over Rome,' and the Roman Empire was in terrible shape. He said 'Let's just go love them and win them,' one-by-one-by-one, if you have to."
A true Baptist believes in separation of church and state, Carter says.
"This bunch is against Baptist history and tradition. It makes me feel like kind of a stepchild. Somewhere down this line, I came home one day and my bags were packed and outside the door and I wasn't welcome anymore..."
Unlike Carter, David Hull, pastor of First Baptist Church, did attend the TBC gathering. Hull, a Moderate, has not broken with the SBC. Hull says Baptist life in American has always consisted of at least two major "streams."
"There have always been Baptists more concerned with education, the mind, reverence, and thoughtfulness. There have always been Baptists who have had more of a heart religionmore evangelistic, energetic...
"But the difference today is, whereas for a number of years, those two streams were held in a delicate balance, in 1979, the balance was changed. Now, the Fundamentalist group has the control. That led to the formation of the CBFpeople who are tired of the fighting and want to be involved in missions. Now what is happening within our state convention is, we're starting to see some of that tension bubbling up. That's just been
a part of our Baptist history since we got started..."
Dixie Petrey: daughter of a seminary president, granddaughter of a Baptist minister, mother to five, grandmother to five more. She knew when she was 7 "that I wanted to follow Jesus."
"When I was at junior high camp, I gave my life to full-time Christian service. In Baptist life, as I understood it, if a person seeks to follow Christ, everyone is a minister."
She married, had a family, then went back to college to prepare herself to teach elementary school, which she did for a time. She also helped invent the Playmobile, which was an old Volkswagen bus that she and a friend scrounged up money to equip. Co-sponsored by First Baptist and Second Presbyterian Churches and the Community Action Committee, the two women put their childrens' toys in the van and, every Monday, headed to the inner city.
"We had field trips once a month. The kids got to sit on airplanes, ride horses. Some of the children held a crayon for the first time, saw a children's book for first time. We had the Playmobile going into areas where it had never been before."
Playmobile lasted for years, until the coming of public kindergarten, and was so successful that CAC offered Petrey a job as a program coordinator in 1979. She worked with the consumer education program and helped found Community Leadership, a forerunner of Leadership Knoxville. Other projects included the Nutrition Project, Emergency Food Helpers, and more good causes than there is room here to list.
Along the way, she was divorced and remarried. In 1990, her husband, A.D. Petrey, decided to retire.
"He said, 'Dixie, if you could do whatever you wanted, what would you do?'"
That opened the door. Dixie told him she wanted to go to seminary.
"Jesus really treated women as if they were somebody...For example, he spent time teaching Mary and Martha when they couldn't go to schoola girl couldn't go to school then...When Jesus walked with his disciples, he talked to the Samaritan woman. She was the first person he told that he was the Messiah. She asked him intelligent questions, and he told her important things...Men preachers will talk and laugh about how she had many husbands. But it is also a fact that she told her friends about Jesus, and they came to see him. She was the first missionary who brought people to Jesus.
"And all four gospels say that Jesus asked Mary Magdalene to tell the disciples that he was still alive. There is nothing in the stories that we have of Jesus that I can find that show that he does anything but raise the status of all people to a higher level, especially those who are rejected. Time after time, he treated them as equal human beings."
She enrolled in Southern Seminary in 1992, when she was 56 years old.
"At first, it was a joy to be in classto have time to learn, to read, to write papers about subjects of interest to meI had to pinch myself and say 'Am I really here?'"
In June of '93, Dixie was called to pastor a church in Indiana, and one of her services is recorded in Battle for the Minds.
"People would say to me, 'You women shouldn't be pastors,' But I was seeing people whose lives were being changed."
Her second year, she was elected president of the student body, a position she held when the Fundamentalists took control and the administration changed. The institution became embroiled in controversy.
"No longer were women invited to speak, and many times I would sit in chapel and hear language that grew exclusive, story illustrations that did not promote the equality of men and women. We are told men and women are created in God's image...
"The Scripture doesn't say guys, you have dominion, and women, you multiply...When any one of God's creatures is put down or belittled, God weeps."
Today, Petrey is a chaplain at Shannondale Retirement Center, where she serves communion, marries, baptizes, and buries people. She belongs to a group of East Tennessee Baptist women serving in ministry.
"But will I ever be able to lead a church in my denomination? Only God knows."
To me, it is purely an issue of freedom," says Parrish. "Don't dictate to me how I should or shouldn't think. And don't tell me that God calls only a certain kind of man When the SBC started tightening down, there was a group of us that went 'unh-unh,'" she says, alluding to the beginnings of the CBF.
Like Petrey, Parrish's father and grandfather were Baptist ministers.
"We're both third generation, except we're the females of it," Parrish says.
And if she had been born male?
"I would hope I would still be in the ministry. But it would have happened so easily...especially coming out of Alabama. There's a ready opportunity for preachers' boys."
And like Carter, she is an Alabamian.
"One of the things my parents taught me is that you do whatever God calls you to do. I watched them take stands on racial issues that were not always popular in Alabama. I learned that taking a stand can sometimes cost you. As a child, I said 'I will never, ever work for a church.'"
In college, Parrish changed her mind and majored in church recreation. There, she met her husband Rodney, who was studying to be a minister of music. They married and worked together at a church in Birmingham.
"I was serving as a staff person, leading in worshipit never occurred to me that this was something I wasn't supposed to do...After four or five months, the church required Rodney be ordained and gave him legal credentials...I thought, 'That was interesting. They didn't require mine,' and I wrote it off to 'If it ever becomes hindrance, I'll do it.' I was doing everything he was..."
The Parrishes were both accepted into Southern Seminary, and both were recommended by the church.
During her years at Southern, Parrish saw friends being charged with the sin of liberalism and unchristian teaching.
"Professors were having to defend themselves right and left. It was just a really difficult time. But it was also a time when the students became entrenched in this idea of holding on to those freedoms that were what it meant to be Baptist."
In 1984 Parrish attended the SBC where a resolution against the ordination of women was presented.
"That was the first time it really hit home that someone wasn't going to let me do what God had told me to do..."
Since graduation, in the main, Parrish has worked as a youth minister. At First Fellowship, her flock consists of a talkative bunch of alternative kids with whom she has an easy rapport. She serves as finance coordinator of Baptist Women in Ministry.
"I just kept doing what it was that God called me to do. It has led me to Friends of New Churches."
Unlike Petrey, Parrish says she's run out of patience with Southern Baptists.
"I choose to give my energy to something positive rather than revive something that's on its deathbed," she says. "Dixie still has hope. I do not."
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