Paige Patterson believes in God's miracles. He saw one happen recently, when the young man sitting next to him on a plane asked him about the Bible he was reading.
As president of Southeastern Baptist Seminary and the only declared candidate for the presidency of the Southern Baptist Convention, Patterson said he is constantly looking for opportunities to share his faith. Reading the Bible on the plane usually leads to questions from fellow passengers, he says.The conversation - which happened only because the young man's flight plan was altered by severe weather - ultimately led to his acceptance of Jesus Christ as his personal Savior, making him a candidate for heaven, according to Southern Baptist theology.
Patterson shared the story in wonderful detail recently with employees of the Southern Baptist Convention's Sunday School Board in Nashville, Tenn., using it to illustrate how God works miracles in people's lives. The audience was riveted; a powerful story to be sure.
If Patterson is elected president of the Southern Baptist Convention during the denom-i-na-tion's annual gathering in Salt Lake City June 9-11, he is the man many reporters will look to for comment about the denomination and its beliefs.
Yet for all their persuasive power, his words will ultimately speak for no one but himself - because Southern Baptists believe no one speaks for the denomination as a whole. Individual inspiration through the Bible speaks the word of God to every person, not to one central spokesman.
And it is individual members who determine what Southern Baptist policy will be, not the president of the Convention or the 80-member Executive Committee. That's one reason 10,000 Southern Baptist messengers are coming to Salt Lake City - to elect a new president and decide on a host of procedural and policy issues that will govern how Patterson and other national officers work.
It's a structure that is likely foreign to the 70 percent of Utahns who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They view the president of their church as God's chosen prophet - and spokesman - on Earth and the man who, through no candidacy of his own, speaks definitively for the church in matters of policy and doctrine.
While Southern Baptists govern their church from the grass roots up through the organization, Latter-day Saints get their direction from the top down. (See chart on this page.)
Used to the hierarchical nature of their religion, many LDS Church members find the democratic structure of the Southern Baptist Convention more akin to a political convention.
In many ways, it is.
"When the convention elects a president, it's usually based on a sense of the message they want to send as a Convention," said Tom Elliff, current president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Southern Baptist Church in Del City, Okla.
By his own description, Elliff's role in the Convention (a term used for both the annual meeting and the association of Southern Baptist congregations) is that of a "figurehead, in the sense that he is a president who is a reflection of the concerns of their (messengers') own heart.
"My primary responsibility is communicating those concerns outside the realm of the convention and then encouraging Southern Baptists to stay on track with their priorities.
"There are some things that are basic to the Southern Baptist Convention: our concern for worldwide missions, evangelism and church planting. Those things have always been at the heart of the Southern Baptist Convention. But with each (annual) convention, there are different issues which surface - most a reflection of those basic priorities."
So what type of authority - or priesthood - gives credence to the governance of Southern Baptist affairs?
"No individual or group of individuals within the Southern Baptist Convention exercises what we would call authority over any other individual or local church," Elliff said. "We believe in what we call the priesthood of the believer - that the individual with his Bible and the Holy Spirit as his guide is able to arrive at scriptural and legitimate conclusions.
"The role of any of us who are part of this body is to encourage, edify and build up one another in the faith. There are no such things as `edicts' to which all Southern Baptists are to abide by or that every church must abide by. There is fellowship around doctrine and around mission - that's the critical issue, I think."
Mike Gray, senior pastor at Southeast Baptist Church in Cottonwood Heights, said while he did graduate with a master of divinity degree from Southwest Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, such training "is not a requirement" for any pastor. "Some pastors might not have even a college degree. That's up to the individual church. We believe in the autonomy of the local group. Some churches choose a pastor that has more education, and some don't."
In addition to pastors, Southern Baptist congregations have deacons who serve the church. "Deacon means servant - someone who raises dust in service of the Lord," Gray said. "In Acts 6, it talks about the fact that in the early church there were needs to be taken care of so the staff of apostles and pastors could take care of preaching.
"Deacons came out of that ministry - they were serving the church. We choose out some people that will serve the church and help to meet the needs of the people in fellowship."
Deacons, priesthood and president are familiar words to Latter-day Saints, whose church is based on "the same organization that existed in the primitive church, viz., apostles, prophets, pastors, teachers, evangelists and so forth," according to the LDS Church's Articles of Faith.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was born in 1830 out of a young boy's confusion over the religions of the day. Latter-day Saints believe church founder Joseph Smith asked God which of all the sects was right and received a vision of God the Father and His Son, Jesus Christ - two separate and distinct personages with bodies of flesh and bone - who told him that all religions had become unsound.
Church members recognize that event as the beginning of the "restoration" of the true gospel of Jesus Christ upon the Earth, com-plete with priesthood authority to act in Christ's name and conferred on Joseph Smith personally by his ancient apostles - Peter, James and John. Ever since, church members believe the president of the LDS Church has held the priesthood keys to act as Christ's spokesman in directing his affairs on Earth.
Because the majority of Utahns are Latter-day Saints, they have been the focus of an effort by Southern Baptist Convention leaders to educate those attending the convention about LDS beliefs. And while identical terminology is used in some cases to describe matters of church organization and practice, vastly different meanings are attached to those words for members of each faith.
And while Mormons have a president, priesthood and deacons, they also have apostles and prophets - leadership positions Southern Baptists say they don't need, because the Bible alone is enough.
"Southern Baptists are often referred to as the `people of the book.' We do not have a creed," Elliff said. "We are what we call members of the New Testament church based in the Bible, which we believe is comprised of 66 books; 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in New Testament, beginning with Genesis and ending with Revelation.
"The Bible is inspired, infallible and the inerrant word of God. We believe that it is sufficient for a guide in the faith and practice of every believer. Our common answer to people when they say `What do you believe?' we say, `Let's go to the Bible.' "
Is there any mechanism in the Southern Baptist Convention to get definitive answers regarding doctrine or practice? Only one, Elliff said.
"We believe people are quite capable through their personal relationship with Christ and the leadership of the Holy Spirit within them to read the Bible for themselves, grasp the truths in the scriptures and live them out within their lives."
Tomorrow: Spreading the Good News to North America.
How it works within the LDS Church and the Southern Baptist Convention
Southern Baptist Convention
Congregations - Individual congregations elect messengers to state and national conventions.
State conventions - 39 state conventions work cooperatively under the ...
Southern Baptist convention - The SBC has NO control over state conventions or local congregations.
The SBC meets annually to vote on policies that are binding on national church agencies.
Each state convention has agencies such as hospitals, colleges and children's homes under its jurisdiction.
Church policy is determined by its leaders and implemented by local authorities.
President - Speaks for the church and holds priesthood keys.
Governing bodies of the church:
First Presidency ...
Council of the Twelve ...
Quorums of Seventy - Provide supervision and instruction worldwide. ...
Area Authorities - Oversee implementation of policy. Train loca leaders ...
Stakes - Wards are under their jurisdiction. ...
Wards - Congregations make up wards. Each has own auxiliary organizations.