Thursday, May 31, 2012

Lee Porter, Wayne Ward, and a generation of Baptists caught up in the "Controversy"

This month has seen the death of two faithful Baptist leaders.

On May 17, Lee Porter, a retired editor at LifeWay Christian Resources who served as recording secretary of the Southern Baptist Convention for 25 years, died at 83.

On May 23, Wayne Ward, theology professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville for over 40 years, died at 90 after suffering a stroke.

There's an intriguing thread that runs through Bob Allen's articles for Associated Baptist Press on the lives and careers of these two men.

Allen writes that Porter, as SBC recording secretary in 1979,
"launched an investigation into voter irregularities after conservative standard bearer Adrian Rogers' stunning first-ballot victory over five other candidates to win 51.36 percent of the vote. His investigation found unprecedented political activity but no major voter fraud, yet discovered double registration, churches that exceeded their allowed number and messengers who registered but were not elected by their churches."
As a result of Porter's findings, Allen continues, "Convention leaders took measures to reform the election process including requiring a registration card or written confirmation for messengers to register and closer scrutiny of how many messengers that churches were entitled to send."

Allen writes of Ward that he "spoke at the funerals of many colleagues with whom he served in the decades leading up to the controversy beginning in the 1970s, commonly known as the 'conservative resurgence.'"

The "thread" between the stories of these two men is a thin one, but a significant one.

They are members of a generation of Baptist leaders who were in their prime during the years of the SBC Controversy, referred to as the "conservative resurgence" by one side and the "Fundamentalist takeover" by the other. Members of that generation had friends on both sides of the Controversy. They were called upon to take a stand. Some who disagreed with the takeover architects ultimately broke with them completely, either by choice or by force. (See Exiled: Voices of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy War, edited by Carl L. Kell.) Some stayed and tried to work with them. I found Porter's story especially compelling, because he continued to work with the leadership but - through his position as recording secretary - held their feet to the ethical fire.

Recently, I read a well-meaning op-ed column written by a young seminary student who wrote of her dismay at the continuing split among Baptists. She lamented that Baptists separated "over theological differences."

I appreciate her lament, but I have to say that her understanding is inaccurate. The split was never over theological differences. There were many who were - and are today - willing and ready to worship, serve, and work with other Baptists with whom we have "theological differences." Some call us "moderates." But, more accurately, we are Cooperative Baptists and, for the past 20 years, many of us have worked together as part of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, which meets this year in Fort Worth from June 20-23. Yes, even we differ among ourselves over some theological issues and scriptural interpretations, but we continue to cooperate on those matters that unify us.

No, Fundamentalists and Moderates didn't separate over theological differences. We separated because those who sought and gained power in the SBC refused to fellowship with, or share leadership with, those who differed with them on a few specified points - some theological and some semantical. This resulted in broken fellowship within churches, among friends, and throughout the community of Baptists.

And it was unnecessary. Baptists have ALWAYS had theological differences. That's part of what makes us Baptist! You know, things like soul competency, priesthood of the believer, religious liberty for all people - treasured Baptist principles, all of which are tied up in the concept of freedom, the freedom that Christ embodied. He promised to send us the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is perfect, but we're not, so we understand inspiration differently, we interpret scripture differently, and we think differently. But we should be able to work together to further the cause of Christ.

The deaths - and lives - of Lee Porter and Wayne Ward should remind us of what unifies us - our faith in the risen Christ. Christ never asked his disciples to agree on everything, but he did say that his disciples would be known by our love for one another (John 13:35). We seem to have the same problem that occasionally plagued the original twelve while Jesus was speaking to them - we fall asleep when we should be listening!

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