The Southern Baptist Convention voted yesterday to pull out of the Baptist World Alliance, accusing the worldwide organization of a drift toward liberalism that included growing tolerance of homosexuality, support for women in the clergy and "anti-American" pronouncements.
The Baptist World Alliance, which has a 20-member staff at its headquarters in Falls Church, is a loose, voluntary confederation of 211 Baptist groups with more than 46 million members around the globe.
Because the alliance has no legislative or judicial power over its member churches, the pullout is far less consequential than the threatened schism over homosexuality in the Episcopal Church. But experts said it symbolizes an increasing polarization among Baptists, who historically have eschewed hierarchy and lived with enormous diversity in beliefs and practices.
"What you have now is a solidification, a hardening of the arteries," said the Rev. Walter B. Shurden, director of the Center for Baptist Studies at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.
The loss of 16.3 million Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, will strip the global Baptist organization of about a third of its members and 20 percent of its $2 million annual budget. But its general secretary, the Rev. Denton Lotz, said, "I'm not concerned about the money, I'm concerned about unity. . . . anytime division occurs in the church, it hurts our weaker brothers and sisters overseas."
Formed in 1905, the Baptist World Alliance provides one of the few tenuous links between Baptist groups internationally. It has served as a collective voice for religious freedom in authoritarian countries, coordinated disaster relief efforts and encouraged missionaries. But the overwhelming vote by a show of hands at the Southern Baptists' annual convention in Indianapolis also followed years of rising tensions.
While some Southern Baptists have accused the world alliance of liberalism, some alliance members have accused the Southern Baptists of fundamentalism. The tensions came to a head last July, when the alliance admitted the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, a group of former Southern Baptists who oppose the convention's conservative bent.
"Right after that, the Southern Baptist leadership said, 'If they're in, we're out,' " Lotz said. "Then they began to talk about us being liberal, saying we had aberrant theology, we were anti-American, anti-capitalist, all that."
Lotz said the charge of anti-Americanism resulted from his visits to Cuba in 1988 and 2002, which he said were aimed at persuading Fidel Castro to allow the importation of Bibles and to grant more freedom to churches.
The Rev. Paige Patterson, president of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, told yesterday's meeting that the alliance also contains "gay-friendly" churches that support same-sex marriage. "What you give your money and name to, you give tacit approval to," he said.
President Bush spoke to the gathering in Indianapolis yesterday via video link and reiterated his support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. It was the third year in a row that Bush has spoken to the Southern Baptists, and he urged them to lobby Congress to pass the amendment.