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Talk of Southern Baptist split grows. But moderates are loath to cut ties to assets that conservatives control

The rift that splits America's largest Protestant denomination - the 14.7 million-member Southern Baptists - is reaching the collection plate. Moderate leaders are agonizing over how to support Baptist causes financially without following the fundamentalist program.

In a three-day meeting ending this weekend, the moderate Southern Baptist Alliance put off creating a separate trust fund. But sentiment among the 700 leaders at the Nashville meeting ran 95 percent in favor of diverting money from fundamentalist control.

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In 10 years of fundamentalist control, moderates have been steadily shaken out of Southern Baptist committees, mission boards, and seminaries.

Talk of splitting away from Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) has grown more serious this summer.

Moderate leaders, however, do not consider that option realistic. The SBC holds about $2.1 billion in assets - including six seminary campuses - that moderate Baptists are loath to leave to fundamentalists.

The rift among Southern Baptists centers on the issue of inerrancy, or the literal, historical infallibility of the Bible. The fundamentalists are conservative in their inerrantist theology and in their social and political views. Many moderates are, too, but they insist on the traditional independence of each Bible-believing Baptist to interpret scripture for himself.

In practical terms, the Southern Baptist struggle pits the older, most established churches and institutions rooted in the Eastern seaboard states against conservatives in both small rural churches and the new megachurches of the inland South and Southwest.

The conservatives, after winning the SBC presidency in June for the 10th year running (though by a narrow margin), are making their mark on Baptist life.

The Foreign Mission Board is shifting emphasis somewhat from its medical, educational, and agricultural work to more direct evangelism. Its goal is that 70 percent of its missionary personnel spend at least half their time in direct evangelism.

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Ordained women pastors no longer receive the supplementary pay men receive early in their careers.

Conservative trustees ousted the president of Southeastern Seminary last year. Conservatives now dominate the boards of five of the six seminaries.

The SBC cut funds to the Baptist Joint Committee, a lobbying group sponsored by several Baptist denominations.

Some Southern Baptist congregations are already going their own way.

Knollwood Baptist Church in Winston-Salem, N.C., for example, is diverting its traditional SBC donations directly to certain national agencies. Part of its usual mission support is earmarked for foreign medical work. Its seminary support goes directly to student scholarships, not to the administrations. Other funds go to the Baptist Joint Commission and a group supporting Southern Baptist women in the ministry.

Other churches are considering following Knollwood's example, including the largest contributing churches in North Carolina.

``There's just a lot of anguish going into this decision,'' says Robert Caldwell, chairman of the board of deacons of First Baptist Church in Greensboro. The church gives about $250,000 a year to the missionary programs and another $250,000 to state and national agencies.

``I've been a Southern Baptist pastor for 30 years,'' says Tom Austin of Knollwood. ``I`m not anxious to leave. But neither am I anxious to be treated as a red-headed stepchild.''

But he concedes that moderate pastors are far more uncomfortable with the direction of their denomination than their congregations are.

``This congregation would be more ready to leave [the Southern Baptist fold] than 90 percent,'' he says, but that move is at least four or five years away, if ever. ``Most see this as a preachers' fight.''

One irony is that moderate churches tend to fund the SBC much more heavily than the megachurches that produce the conservative leaders. Knollwood sends 12 percent of its collection on the state and national programs, Caldwell's Greensboro church 35 percent. The Jacksonville, Fla., church, whose pastor, Jerry Vines, is the current SBC president, contributes about 2.7 percent of its budget.

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