Worthy Christian News » Christian » Southern Baptists ending talks with Roman Catholics
April 5, 2001
By Bob Allen
ATLANTA (ABP) -- Southern Baptist leaders have informed the Roman Catholic Church that they are cutting off official conversations between the two groups that have been going off and on for 30 years.
Robert Reccord, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board, notified Catholic officials of the decision with a letter in February.
The Associated Press reported the ending of the talks March 23.
"We're not ecumenists. We're evangelicals committed to sharing the gospel," Southern Baptist dialogue participant Phil Roberts explained in the AP story. Roberts, president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo., until recently handled interfaith relations at NAMB.
Reccord said the talks involving 16 scholars would end next year, after a final discussion and drafting of a report on Baptist and Catholic understandings of soteriology, the doctrine of how souls are saved. The group issued an earlier statement in 1999 noting similarities and differences in ways the two faith groups view the Bible.
While the SBC has historically avoided membership in ecumenical organizations like the National Council of Churches, conversations between Baptist and Catholic leaders have gone on since 1971, when the Home Mission Board took over talks started four years earlier by Wake Forest University.
The talks lapsed for several years in the 1980s after conservatives took over leadership of the SBC from moderates. The Baptist-Catholic conversation, one of 11 official dialogues conducted by the Catholic National Council of Bishops Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, reconvened in 1995. It has been criticized of late, however, by some Baptists who say ecumenical dialogue is inconsistent with the denomination's recent emphasis on doctrinal purity.
The current conversations began after the SBC in 1994 passed a resolution encouraging the Interfaith Witness Department of the Home Mission Board, which since has merged with other agencies to form NAMB, to "pursue ongoing Southern Baptist-Roman Catholic conversation while maintaining our Southern Baptist confession without compromise."
Over time, however, many Southern Baptists "became suspicious" of the Baptist-Catholic dialogue, Roberts told the AP.
A 1999 SBC resolution on Southern Baptists and ecumenism urged caution in such endeavors. It asked denominational boards and agencies to "maintain the historic position of Southern Baptists" as they cooperate with other groups in various enterprises and to avoid "any organizational or long-term relationship which would risk possible compromise of historic distinctives or the unique witness of Southern Baptists to the world."
Last summer, Louisiana pastor Jerry Moser made a motion at the SBC annual meeting asking the Executive Committee to study and make recommendations on expenditure of Cooperative Program funds with groups whose professed beliefs conflict with the "Baptist Faith and Message," the SBC's statement of faith.
The Executive Committee reported in February that its members "continue to review" reports filed earlier on the various SBC agencies' cooperative efforts with other denominations and faith groups.
Officials at NAMB amended their earlier report to the Executive Committee, reportedly after a trustee complained privately that the first version glossed over the agency's relationship with Mission America, an umbrella group in which NAMB participates in evangelism with non-Baptist groups such as Pentecostals.
Moser, a longtime critic of ecumenical entanglements, has also criticized the SBC's LifeWay Christian Resources publishing arm for promoting books by Charles Colson, a leading advocate of forging closer ties between evangelicals and Catholics.
Moser, pastor of Bayou DuLarge Baptist Church in Theriot, La., released a statement saying he and his church "are gratified to hear of this instance where SBC leaders are correcting an obvious inconsistency" with their professed biblical beliefs.
"The Roman Catholic Church has clearly defined such official 'conversations' and 'dialogues' to be steps in a process of ecumenical convergence and eventual visible unity," Moser said. "This is obviously contrary to the historic beliefs of Southern Baptists. Thus, even though we are confident that most Southern Baptist participants did not see these official conversations in this way, we believe that any actual or perceived official theological dialogue between SBC leaders and representatives of the Roman Catholic hierarchy is simply asking for misunderstanding."
Moser was fired as a mission pastor in 1995 after publicly confronting then Home Mission Board President Larry Lewis for endorsing with another SBC agency head a document titled "Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium" at an associational meeting.
Both Lewis and Richard Land, president of the SBC Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, subsequently had their signatures removed from the document, claiming it was widely misunderstood. They have refused, however, appeals by Moser that they "repent" of having participated in drafting of the document, which Moser says contains heresy.
Moser, whose congregation in south Louisiana's bayou country is composed mainly of former Catholics and Episcopalians, says he doesn't mind Southern Baptists working with those groups on social issues such as abortion or pornography, but he objects to theological talks which portray Catholics and Baptists as brothers in Christ.
Moser contends that Catholics and other groups that teach that salvation may be earned by observing the sacraments hold to "another gospel" than the message of salvation by grace through faith preached by Southern Baptists. Mingling too closely with such groups, he argues, undermines his and other churches' efforts "to respectfully share the one gospel of God's grace to our Catholic friends and family members and to work together with them in ways that may not be so easily used to compromise our beliefs."
Timothy George, dean of Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala., and a participant in the Baptist-Catholic conversations, told AP that a small faction of Baptists had "a strong and somewhat strident reaction to this." He admitted, however, that "ecumenism is not a high priority for most Southern Baptists."
Frank Ruff, a priest who serves as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops' liaison to the SBC, said he was saddened by news that the conversations would be ending.
"I'm confident that this whole movement toward Christian reconciliation is not something we dreamed up," Ruff said. "It's something that the Holy Spirit is breathing in the churches. One decision of one group to stop dialogue is not going to be the end of the work of the Spirit."
Reccord said in his letter that termination of the current talks "does not rule out the possibility of future meetings that might be undertaken."
But Baptist Press quoted Rudy Gonzalez, director of NAMB's interfaith evangelism team, as saying that any future conversations that might develop "will have to fit within the parameters of what the North American Mission Board has been charged to do, which is to assist Southern Baptist churches to evangelize North America."
The change comes at a time when other high-profile Southern Baptists have gained attention for statements critical of other faiths.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said recently on CNN's Larry King Show: I believe the Roman Church is a false church and teaches a false gospel. ... Indeed, I believe the pope himself holds a false and unbiblical office."
The International Mission Board has defended the publishing of prayer guides for use in Southern Baptist churches that critics said were insensitive to Jews, Hindus and Muslims.
A leader of a Southern Baptist fellowship of "Messianic" believers recently announced the group was severing ties with the convention because of a public perception that Southern Baptists are intolerant of other faiths. Another leader, however, said the first didn't speak for all members of the Southern Baptist Messianic Fellowship, and that the group plans to reorganize this summer.
-- Mark Wingfield contributed to this story.
Associated Baptist Press. Used with Permission.