Tennessee Baptist leader says goodbye

A longtime pastor says decades of infighting between Southern Baptists have made the denomination irrelevant to most Americans.

By Bob Allen

A past president of the Tennessee Baptist Convention who served on numerous key committees over the years is saying goodbye to attendance at annual meetings, explaining the organization has become so theologically narrow that it is no longer relevant.

Leonard Markham, pastor of First Baptist Church in Fairfield Glade, Tenn., described his reasons for walking away from Tennessee Baptist life in a 3,500-word open letter. A native Tennessean and pastor in his home state since 1975, Markham said the statewide Southern Baptist Convention affiliate is a different fellowship than the one he joined in the 1980s.

Former president of the Tennessee Baptist executive board who served on numerous committees ranging from long-range planning to executive-director search, Markham said he has long felt the convention’s priorities were drifting from cooperative missions and evangelism to doctrinal conformity.

The final straw came during this year’s annual meeting when a friend of his, also a product of Tennessee Baptists, was denied re-election to the executive board because he disagreed with a portion of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message that says the Bible prohibits women from being pastors.

Reflecting on his years of service, Markham said he does not recall anyone ever being excluded from serving on a committee or board in Tennessee Baptist life for having reservations about either the conservative faith statement approved by the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000 or a more moderate version adopted in 1963.

“Whatever happened to such cherished Baptist principles as soul competency, priesthood of the believer, the autonomy of the local church, separation of church and state and religious liberty?” he asked.

In their place, Markham said a situation has developed in which individuals nominated to leadership roles are coached in mental gymnastics and semantics about how to disingenuously answer “yes” to questions about doctrines they don’t really believe.

Markham said some employees of the convention, its agencies and faculties of Baptist colleges, if asked, could not say they agree with every article of the 2000 Baptist Faith and Message, but continue to serve in spite of it.

“Is the convention prepared to investigate all of these people to ensure that everyone adheres point-by-point to the 2000 BFMS?” he asked. “How far is the TBC willing to take this new criteria for serving in the TBC or one of our agencies or institutions?”

Markham noted that 1992, the year he was elected president of the state convention, set a record attendance of 2,280 messengers from 808 churches. That compares to 926 messengers from 419 churches at this November’s gathering, reported by the Baptist and Reflector as “the lowest messenger count in decades."

Comparing those numbers, Markham said, “I can only come to this conclusion: Our denomination is becoming irrelevant for most of the people in America.”

Markham, elected as TBC president in 1992 over then-Nashville pastor Jerry Sutton by a vote of 882-719, has avoided labels in denominational politics dividing Tennessee Baptists and preached unity. He tried unsuccessfully to broker peace between convention leaders and trustees of Belmont University, who eventually settled a lawsuit ending ties in 2007.

Markham’s most recent service was as a trustee of Carson Newman College, a position he resigned in 2011 due to the imminent death of his father and a building program/relocation at his church.

He said he decided to go public with his decision, because in the past “I have been more than a little disappointed in some of my friends” for walking away from the convention without calling or writing a letter to explain why.

“I will always remember with fondness the Tennessee Baptist Convention as she once was,” Markham said. “I will try to forget what the Tennessee Baptist Convention has become as a denomination.”

“I have written this letter to tell you goodbye,” he concluded. “In the past I have valued our relationship, but I believe this is an extremely detrimental position for the TBC to take. I cannot support such a monumental stance that so adversely impacts a multitude of God’s children.”