Tennessee Baptists gear up
for struggle over trustees
By Robert Marus
Associated Baptist Press
KINGSPORT, Tenn. (ABP)— Tennessee Baptists are gearing up for a conflict most Southern Baptist state conventions settled a decade ago. Many of the state’s moderates say they feel it is no longer worth fighting.
Nonetheless, Baptists on both sides of the issues are making plans to show up in force during the Tennessee Baptist Convention annual meeting, scheduled Nov. 13-14 in Kingsport.
At stake is the election of trustees who will control convention institutions, including moderate-led Carson-Newman College.
|Fundamentalists hope to give the convention president greater power to appoint members of the convention’s committee on committees and may challenge some nominees because they don’t affirm the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message.|
Fundamentalists hope to give the convention president—an office presently occupied by one of their own—greater power to appoint members of the convention’s powerful committee on committees.
They also may challenge some nominees to open positions on the convention’s various boards and committees because they don’t affirm the controversial 2000 Baptist Faith & Message statement.
At last year’s convention meeting in suburban Memphis, fundamentalists pushed through a statement endorsing the confession. They also passed a new rule requiring nominating committees to ask proposed nominees whether they affirm the document and to publish the answers as part of a report.
The report, which convention policies require to be published several weeks prior to the meeting, reveals 17 nominees for this year’s convention declined to endorse the confession.
Marvin Cameron, pastor of First Baptist Church in Kingsport, said he is concerned fundamentalists will use those answers to institute “a litmus test” for trustee and committee positions in Tennessee Baptist life.
“If that is true, then that is new, and it’s … an unwelcome day in Tennessee Baptist life for me, because we’ve never had litmus tests applied to persons who were going to serve Tennessee Baptists,” he said.
“The only question asked of potential leaders in Tennessee Baptist life in the past was, ‘Do you love the Lord, and will you help accomplish the Lord’s work in Tennessee?’” Cameron said.
Kevin Shrum, pastor of Inglewood Baptist Church in Nashville, said he doesn’t see what the big deal is about asking whether nominees affirm the confession.
“The issue at hand is, the convention voted to utilize the latest (Baptist Faith & Message) document for people to declare how they stood on that issue,” said Shrum, president of the fundamentalist group Concerned Tennessee Baptists.
“And it passed by an overwhelming majority, and so I don’t know that people are raising individual issues so much as they are a general fidelity to the things that Baptists have held dear and the things that a majority of Southern Baptists and Tennessee Baptists have voted to affirm. …
“Now, the convention cannot dictate to any church who they call, who they employ or any of that. That is a local, autonomous issue. What I think that is being looked for is: Can you affirm this, and if you can’t, why not? And there may be some question from the body as a convention as to whether they want that person to serve or not.”
Shrum insisted his group does not plan to offer an alternate slate of nominees on the convention floor to replace those who do not affirm the document. His group will not offer a motion requiring convention to affirm the document, he said.
However, he cautioned, he could not predict what other conservatives and individual members of Con-cerned Tennessee Baptists might attempt during the meeting’s business sessions.
Unlike many other state Baptist bodies, the convention presidency in Tennessee holds little appointive power. While fundamentalist takeovers of the Southern Baptist Convention and other state conventions quickly trickled down to board and agency trustees, several victories by conservatives in Tennessee Baptist Convention officer elections in recent years have not had the same effect.
Concerned Tennessee Baptists leaders long have complained that their state’s system—with the committee on boards and committee on committees nominating each other—has caused inbreeding in convention leadership. They claim it creates a system where moderate churches are disproportionately represented.
“What has happened is, it has given the appearance that the leadership—trustees, committee persons—have ended up coming from a small number of churches,” Shrum said.
But moderate leaders counter that the existing system actually creates better representation.
“I think, unlike other states, allowing the committees to do their work gives a broader representation of the state,” said Gene Wilder, pastor of First Baptist Church in Jefferson City, Tenn.
“I don’t think it attempts to exclude anyone. I do think allowing the president power to make nominees gives that office more control than it ought to have, regardless of whether the office is held by a moderate or a fundamentalist. It tends to foster special-interest nominations, whereas if you’re dealing with a nominee from a full committee, it tends to be better balanced.”
Wilder’s congregation is home to many faculty and administrators at nearby Carson-Newman College, a Tennessee Baptist school that has been a sticking point in the arguments between fundamentalists and moderates.
Wilder said his church intends to send its full complement of 10 messengers to the Kingsport meeting.
Convention leaders also noted Tennessee Baptist Convention rules require the committee on boards to consult with agency administrators for suggestions when filling open slots.
Concerned Tennessee Baptists has endorsed a full slate of officer candidates, including Nashville-area pastor Tom McCoy for president.
But Brent Beasley, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Memphis, said his church will not make any effort to send messengers to the state’s opposite corner to fight old battles.
“I—and I think I can speak for most of the people at Second—have really disengaged from these types of Baptist political conflicts,” he wrote.
“It’s not that the issues are not important, and I do understand and respect those moderates who are trying to protect important TBC institutions. But I feel like we at Second have worked so hard over the years to come to terms with our theological and denominational identity as a more progressive-minded kind of Baptist church. …
“Our church rejected the BF&M 2000 seven years ago, and it almost feels like going backward to get back into all that again.”