updated 6/12/2007 3:27:46 PM ET 2007-06-12T19:27:46

Southern Baptist Convention president Frank Page said Tuesday the denomination needs to set aside internal differences and be both “right and relevant” to revive languishing membership trends.

Page’s words came as moderates took their first steps to slow down conservative attempts to more narrowly define what it means to be a Baptist.

A South Carolina pastor, Page spoke Tuesday morning to thousands of “messengers,” or delegates, at the opening of the annual meeting of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. The SBC has about 16.3 million members.

“When we speak the truth without love, it leads to a cold-hearted legalism that our world has come to say is the caricature of the Christian, and I reject that,” Page said. At the same time, Page said, another danger exists in “a cold-hearted liberalism.”

“God wants balance,” he said. “He wants us to speak the truth in love.”

‘Not the only game in town’
Page described the denomination as being at a crossroads where it is “not the only game in town.” He called for a renewed focus on the joy of Christianity and a passion for “reaching the lost,” rather than infighting and finding faults with others.

Earlier Tuesday, moderates succeeded in getting on the agenda an issue that could become the defining debate of the meeting. A motion was submitted to adopt an SBC executive committee report that would, in effect, make it more difficult to set litmus tests for Baptist identity beyond a roadmap called the Baptist Faith and Message 2000.

“This will help our entities know our boundaries and help them not make laws unto themselves,” said the Rev. Rick Garner, an Ohio pastor who introduced the motion, which was set for debate Tuesday night. “The greatest thing at stake here is to allow our convention to stop narrowing the parameters of exclusion and get back to kingdom-building and inclusion.”

At stake is the direction of the Southern Baptist Convention nearly three decades after its “conservative resurgence” purged liberals over the issue of biblical infallibility.

Split over speaking in tongues
The latest controversy centers on speaking in tongues, a Pentecostal practice that is spreading across denominational lines. Some on the Southern Baptist right denounce the practice and believe seminaries and other agencies should set standards preventing the hiring of people who advocate speaking in tongues.

Their opponents argue the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 sets no such standard, and point to a study by the denomination’s research arm that showed that 50 percent of Southern Baptist pastors believe the Holy Spirit can work through speaking in tongues.

In a speech from the podium, Morris Chapman, president of the executive committee, suggested that convention-affiliated groups should be required to seek permission before adopting practices with the force of doctrine beyond Baptist Faith and Message boundaries.

“We must come together in one spirit over the core beliefs that we hold in common,” Chapman said. “... We must not make every doctrinal issue a crusade or a political football.”

Abuse database?
Also Tuesday, the Rev. Wade Burleson of Enid, Okla., proposed a feasibility study into developing a national database of Southern Baptist ministers who have been “credibly accused of, personally confessed to, or legally been convicted of sexual harassment or abuse.”

Some Baptists believe a database would be redundant to background checks most churches already carry out, and also wonder how an accusation will be deemed credible. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, which has been passing out leaflets outside the convention center, supports forming an independent review board to make that determination.

Bill Leonard, dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School in North Carolina and longtime observer of Southern Baptist life, said the convention is in a precarious position because if it acknowledges an oversight role on curbing abuse, it exposes itself to lawsuits.

“I think that’s the whole issue,” said Leonard, a critic of the convention’s conservative leadership. “All you have to do is look at the Catholic Church and the bankrupt dioceses to see that’s the fear.”

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