Originally created 09/12/98

Old Baptist church grappling with leaving Southern Baptist Convention



RALEIGH -- No ardent feminist by any stretch, Zua Moore reared three children with her husband Jack, and every Sunday they attended First Baptist Church on Capitol Square in downtown Raleigh.

But when reminded of the new Southern Baptist Convention resolution urging women to "submit graciously" to their husbands, Mrs. Moore, 76, said after services one Sunday, "I don't like it."

"I've been married to him for 54 years, and I've never bowed down to him," she said, pointing to her husband. "... Women should be on equal footing with men."

Mrs. Moore's feelings reflect those of hundreds of the downtown church's members, who soon may rebel against the resolution the convention passed in June.

The 1,350 members -- many of them Raleigh's civic and business leaders -- are debating whether to formally end the church's century-old relationship with the national convention. A vote could come later this month.

First Baptist leaders, like others in more progressive Southern Baptist churches, blame the convention's fundamentalist leadership for violating Baptist principles of freedom and local autonomy while interpreting the Bible.

"We are standing for a heritage that is being destroyed by the new SBC," says the Rev. Daniel Day, First Baptist's senior pastor. " ... Some of us feel the new SBC is parting from the tradition of many, many decades."

Scores of Southern Baptist churches already have broken ties with the SBC, but the departure of an old "First" congregation in a large city could prompt other churches to sever their ties, at least one Baptist observer says.

"It is historic," said Bill Leonard, dean of Wake Forest University Divinity School in Winston-Salem. "It's another sign that the Southern Baptist system is being reshaped and realigning and coming apart."

The Baptist faith is about as common as tobacco and barbecue in North Carolina. More than 1.2 million of North Carolina's 7.4 million residents profess to be Southern Baptist.

And First Baptist, organized in 1812, is as Baptist as they come, with Sunday school at 9:45 a.m. and bells in the Gothic-style steeple that call members to worship at 10:50 sharp.

Members arrive in dresses and ties, many carrying Bibles inside the sanctuary. At the close of the service, there's an altar call for new members and converts who want to profess Jesus as their savior.

There's a Baptist Men's group and the Women's Missionary Union. There are ministries for toddlers and seniors, the poor and singles. There's Baptist youth basketball, a day-care center and the annual Fourth of July picnic.

"If we seem very traditional, then so be it," Day said.

Yet First Baptist is among a growing minority of the convention's 24,000 congregations at odds with fundamentalists, who first took national leadership positions in 1979. They say fundamentalists have undercut the system by all but ordering mission groups and seminaries to follow lockstep with conservative theology.

Fundamentalists say the Bible is the literal word of God, while moderates like many at First Baptist say Scripture passages such as the creation story are subject to interpretation.

The fundamentalists "want everyone else to do what they say," said Roy Williams, 78, a member and a Monday afternoon volunteer at the church library. "But there are some things in the Bible that contradict themselves."

Raleigh's First Baptist has not sent church money to the denomination and has skipped annual conventions for years. First Baptist also began earmarking money for the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, formed in 1990 in response to the fundamentalist takeover.

The "submission" resolution was the last straw for many at First Baptist, where the first female deacons were ordained in 1870. While many conservative churches frown on women pastors and leaders, half of First Baptist's 48-member deacon board is female.

"I thought it was ludicrous," the Rev. Susan Kimball, an assistant pastor at First Baptist since 1989, said of the resolution.

The SBC does affirm women, contends the Rev. Paige Patterson, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the resolution is in line with Scripture. He said he would be disappointed if First Baptist leaves.

"All we did was quote the Bible," said Patterson. "If they have trouble with the Bible, then that's something we need to know."

Meetings in August to discuss formally severing SBC ties were constructive, members say, with only a few people hesitant about the move.

"We've discussed it in many different ways; maybe we've talked it to death," said former deacon Mabel Claire Maddrey, 91. "But when it comes to severing a relationship with something that is as old and as entrenched in our hearts, it takes a lot to do it."

Mrs. Maddrey remembers one time when she felt subordinated by a Baptist for being a woman. It was the mid-1920s, and she was speaking at a northeastern North Carolina church on behalf of Meredith College, where she was a student.

"I went up to the pulpit to speak and the pastor there said that I should not be in the pulpit," Maddrey recalled. "I just stepped down one step but remained in the pulpit and continued speaking."

Day, whose last pastorate was in the college town of Columbia, Mo., sees the beginning of an era when more Baptists committed to freedom of conscience will shed historic ties.

"It's never easy to be one of the first to do anything," he said, "but I am persuaded that in the next decade, there will be thousands of other traditional Southern Baptist churches that are going to be forced to deal with the same exact issue of disassociation."