After the service on Sunday, several were interested in knowing what sparked the conflict at First Baptist, Wichita KS . . . that eventually resulted in the church going from 4,300 active members (in the mid-1950’s) to only 100 (by 1961).
It’s an interesting story, and one that I think is very instructive for us as we focus this month on peacemaking.
One of the things Christianity had been struggling with throughout the 19th & 20th centuries was theological liberalism. Most of the debate was centered on a changing view of the Bible. For example, liberals didn’t believe that the miracles in the Bible actually happened, including the Virgin Birth and Resurrection.
Various denominations were perceived as “buying into” this theological liberalism, including the American Baptists Churches USA (ABC/USA). First Baptist Wichita belonged to the ABC and was its most prominent member.
The concern over the ABC seemed to be validated when the denomination officially joined the National Council of Churches (NCC), an ecumenical umbrella group that formed in 1950.
The NCC was perceived as an extremely liberal organization, both theologically and politically. There was evidence of Communist influence. In addition, the NCC took positions against Israel.
First Baptist Wichita
In response, First Baptist Wichita formed a 10-person committee to study the church’s relationship with the denomination. In March, 1960, the committee recommended that the church cease all financial support of the ABC/NCC. The vote was 1,170 to 235. Then, in July, 1960, the church voted to leave the denomination altogether. This vote was 739 to 294.
The minority refused to accept the will of the majority and began conducting a separate worship service in the church’s chapel. The majority believed that the church should worship together and had the doors to the chapel padlocked. The minority responded by worshipping off-site. The minority also filed a lawsuit, claiming that the church building belonged to them (the pro-ABC group).
The District Court sided with the majority, but their decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court, who reversed the decision and “awarded” the building to the minority. At this, the majority left and formed a separate church, located a couple of miles away.
Both sides believed they were acting on principle and the differences did appear irreconcilable. The majority felt they were taking a stand for the Bible, while the minority thought the concern about liberalism was overblown. In addition, the minority was motivated by a sense of loyalty to the denomination and wanted to continue supporting all the good things that the denomination was doing.
In hindsight, both sides violated (ignored) some key biblical commands & principles with respect to peacemaking. Had they not done so, I believe the conflict could have been worked out. We will study these commands & principles in the weeks ahead.