Amid increasing clashes in the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, the head of the SBC opened a conference on Thursday to discuss the Baptist identity and the controversy within.
SBC President Frank Page told a crowd of around 200 at Union University in Jackson, Tenn., that the denomination does not belong to them as he acknowledged factions among Baptists.
"Oftentimes in our convention, we're broken into groups," said Page, according to The Jackson Sun. "This convention does not belong to me or to you. It is a Jesus convention."
Earlier, a leader with the North American Mission Board the American mission arm for the SBC expressed being "heartbroken" about disagreements over theology and worship style among Baptists and that such feuding takes away from the evangelism focus of the denomination.
Bill Curtis, chairman of trustees for the NAMB, said the debates he has been seeing would ultimately mean "missed evangelistic opportunity."
At the second Baptist Identity Conference, Page expressed similar concern and emphasized the need to adopt the selflessness of Christ and the need for more open dialogue at every level of the convention.
Funding priorities for missions has been one topic of debate among Southern Baptists.
One pastor told the local newspaper that missions is a priority, even ahead of his own salary.
"Missions is the lifeblood of the church," said Robert Mcllwain, interim pastor at Highland Park Baptist Church in Lawrenceburg. "I really believe that. I would cut my salary before I would cut missions. ... God was on a mission when He sent Christ."
Page also prioritized missions. "Don't short-change God. When you short-circuit the Great Commission, you're cutting off the favor of God."
The three-day conference, themed "Convention, Cooperation and Controversy," comes at a time when members of the North American Baptist Fellowship are working toward creating a new Baptist voice and improving the negative image that some believe conservative Baptists, mainly Southern Baptists, have painted. The new initiative is spearheaded by former president Jimmy Carter and also includes Bill Clinton's support.
Baptists behind the "New Baptist Covenant" initiative plan to place greater emphasis on compassion works and try to shift the focus from divisive issues to "common commitments" among Baptists, as Carter said. Southern Baptists were not formally invited to take part in the initiative but were said to be welcomed. Carter announced a convocation for the new Baptist voice to be held in January of 2008.