NASHVILLE -- In a rare setback, a conservative faction failed in its attempt to fire the director of the Southern Baptist Christian Life Commission, an action that some observers said would have ruptured the denomination.
The Rev. N. Larry Baker, whose position on abortion as Christian Life Commission director was too liberal for many trustees, survived the strong opposition. When a motion to dismiss him failed Tuesday by virtue of a 15-15 tie, trustee Rudy Yakym of South Bend, Ind., a leader in the bid to oust Baker, said, "God had his hand on Larry Baker to come here all along."
After the tense six-hour meeting, Yakym said: "I'm naive enough a Christian to believe that. As difficult as it is to understand, God's will has been accomplished."
Baker, 49, listened silently for hours as conservatives and moderates debated his fate and haggled over procedure. He said he was very relieved after "being on the high wire," and added, "Now that it's over, I'm going to work with every commissioner to move forward with the work of this agency and will continue to tackle abortion with an intensity unheard of before."
Conservatives believe the Christian Life Commission should condemn abortion in all cases except when a pregnancy endangers the life of the mother. Before Baker's election in January, he said he condemns abortion but would allow further exceptions, such as in cases of rape, incest and "perhaps in a case where traumatic or severe deformity to the fetus is involved."
Earlier in the Tuesday meeting, Baker defended his six-month record as director, saying that more had been done at the agency to combat abortion through conferences and literature this year than in its previous 40-year history.
Failure to remove Baker nine months after trustees elected him 16 to 13 represented a rare setback for the conservative movement in the nation's largest Protestant denomination. Conservatives have maintained a steady march toward control of denominational agencies in the past nine years.
Since Baker's election in January, conservatives on his 31-member board have been vocal about their dissatisfaction with his stance on abortion, as well as his opposition to capital punishment and support for women's ordination. Enjoying a clear majority on the board this year, conservatives had individually hinted, but never confirmed, that a motion to fire Baker would surface at the trustees' annual meeting here.
It emerged Tuesday when the Rev. Joe Atchison of Rogers, Ark., called for Baker's immediate dismissal and requested the commission to appoint an interim director.
"This is unfortunate, but the unfortunate action was taken in January," said the Rev. Hal Lane of Eutawville, S.C., a Baker opponent who faulted the search committee for excluding conservatives and producing a candidate who was unsympathetic to the conservative majority.
"I do not feel responsible for it," Lane said of the controversy. "The responsibility lies with the search committee that did not listen to us."
"The attitude here is not Christian," responded Richard Elkins of Albuquerque, who was dismayed at the dismissal motion. "I find this action to be totally non-Baptist. It's a political test."
The Rev. George Strickland of Pinckneyville, Ill., who called himself a fundamentalist who supported Baker, warned that firing him would generate damaging acrimony in a 14.5 million-member denomination that is trying to hold off a bitter rift between the two factions.
"I don't think you know what kind of thing you'll unleash out in the field if you fire this man," Strickland said. He also pleaded with trustees to see the Christian Life Commission as more than a "one-issue" agency.
The organization produces literature for Southern Baptists on Christian citizenship and social issues such as pornography, hunger and gambling, as well as abortion.