PFLAG, Baptist Churches & Autonomy

What’s up with local Baptist Associations?  Several seem to have been quite busy in recent weeks, expelling member churches from their ranks.  First, Surry Baptist Association, in Mt. Airy, NC, voted to oust Flat Rock Baptist Church within 16 days of the church calling a woman, Bailey Edwards Nelson, as their pastor.  For those not familiar with Southern Baptist doctrine, calling a female pastor is not only highly discouraged, but it is well likely the only violation of pastoral qualifications (see 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1) that will get a church kicked out of the fold.  Churches who call ill-tempered or greedy pastors or pastors who don’t have control over their own household (all violations of the Scriptural qualifications for elders or pastors) never have to worry about their local fellowship of Baptist churches throwing the book at them.

The Southern Baptist Convention’s confessional statement — the Baptist Faith and Message 2000 — specifically prohibits women from serving as pastors.  The BF&M2000, adopted in 2000 by the messengers to that year’s Annual Meeting of the SBC, is a consensus statement setting forth “certain definite doctrines that Baptists believe, cherish, and with which they have been and are now closely identified” (see Preamble to the BF&M2000).  However, unlike some other religious groups or denominations who have a heirarchical polity, the Southern Baptist Convention is comprised of 45,000 autonomous churches who willingly choose to cooperate together for the sake of missions and ministry.  According to the SBC’s own By-Laws:

While independent and sovereign in its own sphere, the Convention does not claim and will ever attempt to exercise any authority over any other Baptist body, whether church, auxiliary organizations, associations, or convention” (Article IV.  Authority. SBC By-Laws).

What does that mean?  Quite simply, the SBC cannot dictate to a local church (or local Association of churches or a State Convention of churches) what that individual church must believe or practice.  Although local Southern Baptist churches maybe affiliated with the national SBC, a State Baptist Convention, or a local Association, each church remains autonomous, and no other organization (“body”) has power over the local church.  While Southern Baptist churches would not view themselves as independent (like Independent Fundamental Baptist churches), there remains both a freedom to partner with other churches to fulfill the Great Commission and freedom from outside control.  Autonomy, while not a perfect model for “doing church,” is certainly preferable to a centralized authority which demands both theological and methodological conformity through creeds

But, it appears that not everyone shares the belief that autonomy of the local church is a cherished principle worth keeping.  Folks might say that they support local church autonomy, but more and more, we are seeing an erosion of autonomy.  The principle of local church autonomy will not erode all at once, but rather gradually, over time, with direct (and more likely, indirect) assaults on the practical outworkings of autonomy.

One such indirect assault happened in Owensboro, KY in early August, when a local Baptist Association kicked out a church over the issue of homosexuality.  To be clear, Southern Baptist churches “which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior” will be automatically deemed not to be in friendly cooperation with the SBC.  However, unlike the issue of female pastors, a church’s pro-gay stance was such a grave concern (and rightly so) with the churches of the Convention that the By-Laws were amended to make it clear that churches which chose to affirm the gay lifestyle were also choosing not to cooperate with other SBC churches.

While I was highly critical of what I saw as Surry Baptist Association’s “graceless response” to Flat Rock’s call of a female pastor, I would not use the same language to describe the disfellowshipping of Journey Fellowship (f/k/a Seven Hills Baptist Church) from the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association.  Even though the church’s Facebook page had a post which said, “Grace takes it on the chin,” that simply does not seem to be the case.

The recommendation to oust the church was made at a special called business meeting for that purpose.  In addition, the Credentials Committee — which in most local Associations is responsible for bringing recommendations to disfellowship a sister church — brought the recommendation to sever ties with Journey Fellowship.  If an Association is going to take the extraordinary step to remove a church from their fellowship, the process that the Daviess-McLean Baptist Association followed is, on its face, more fair and grace-filled than the truncated process used to oust Flat Rock Baptist Church in Mt. Airy.

However, just because the process was fair does not mean that there are no questions that should be asked regarding why the church was disfellowshipped in the first place.  These questions are not so much directed at the Association’s Biblical stance on homosexuality (with which I would agree), but rather what could be perceived as an indirect assault on local church autonomy.  As the old legal maxim states, “bad cases make bad law.”  The case of Journey Fellowship fits that description.  The Association’s final adjudication of the case involving Journey is one that has some potentially “bad” consequences, particularly where autonomy is concerned.

From a quick perusal of Journey Fellowship’s website (here), there is no question that this church is on a journey that most Southern Baptists, including me, would label theologically liberal.  There are moderate Baptist churches that abound, but Journey ain’t one of them!  Two links on their website’s Home Page — one to the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists and the other to what’s known as Believe Out Loud — would strongly indicate that Journey fully accepts the gay, lesbian, and transgendered lifestyles as fully compatible with Christianity.  In fact, the Believe Out Loud campaign states:

We are a Million Strong. We believe Jesus’ message compels us to welcome all, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. Show the world that you can be Christian AND believe in LGBT equality. Join the movement to unite a million Christians for LGBT equality in the church and beyond.

There is absolutely nothing on Journey’s website to indicate that this church believes the same Biblical doctrines that the vast majority of churches in the Daviess-McClean Baptist Association believe.  In fact, there is clear and convincing evidence — from the website alone — to strongly conclude that Journey is acting  “to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”  That basis — and that basis alone — should have been more than sufficient for the Credentials Committee to recommend the disfellowshipping of Journey.

What is slightly perplexing to me is the reason that the Association gave for bringing the recommendation to disfellowship Journey.  The church had been allowing a local chapter of PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) to use the church’s facilities to hold a once-a-month meeting.  For those unfamiliar with PFLAG (their website here), this is an organization that clearly and unequivocally “affirms, approves, and endorses” the homosexual lifestyle.  There is no ambiguity in what PFLAG represents.  This organization’s mission and values are diametrically opposed to what the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists would consider Biblically sound and orthodox.

Perhaps this was the final straw in a long-strained relationship between Journey and the Association.  However, why use the church’s refusal to kick-out PFLAG as the sole (or main) reason for bringing a recommendation to disfellowship this obviously unorthodox church as was reported:

The Daviess-McLean Baptist Association met in special session to vote on the recommendation to expel the Owensboro congregation, formerly known as Seven Hills Baptist Church, for permitting a chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays to meet on the premises once a month.  Leaders in the association said the church’s refusal to ask PFLAG to meet elsewhere implied acceptance of homosexuality, which the majority of the association views as sinful. (emphasis added)

Why rely on an “implied acceptance” of homosexuality when you have overt, clear affirmation and acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle standing right in front of you?  Is the Association really saying that they would not have recommended to disfellowship Journey if only the church would have told PFLAG that the group was no longer welcome to use the church’s facilities?  That seems quite preposterous.  There was no need to even talk about the church’s use of the facilities by PFLAG.  It was simply unnecessary.

But, because the Association apparently saw the church’s refusal to have PFLAG meet elsewhere as some type of “implied acceptance” of homosexuality, the Association actually embarked on a slippery slope of eroding autonomy, whether they realized it or not.  Oh, the case of Journey Fellowship may have been decided correctly (for the record, I think it was), but the rationale for deciding the case was muddled, making a potentially bad precedent.

What is that potentially bad precedent?  For an Association now to tell a church who can and cannot use their facilities.  If a group is approved, no problem.  However, if a group finds itself disfavored by the majority of churches in the Association, then any church who allows the disfavored group to use the church’s facilities — even if the church does not fully endorse all that the group stands for — could risk the ire of the Association.

The call in the case of Journey Fellowship perhaps is an easy one to make.  Others will not be so cut and dry.  Granted, this is a small slip down the slope, but a slippery slope always starts somewhere.  Just some food for thought in the always interesting world of autonomous Southern Baptist churches.




5 comments for “PFLAG, Baptist Churches & Autonomy

  1. August 23, 2011 at 8:40 AM


    Leave it to a lawyer to say, “I agree with the decision, but…!” Just kidding :^)

    I agree we may be much too quick to make our decisions–whether congregations or associations–on issues which affect so many relationships on so many levels. God give us patience as we move forward together.

    It does not seem to me though your dubbing Surrey Association’s formal action to Flat Rock’s decision to call a woman pastor as a “graceless response” was, shall we say, *patiently* decided. I’m not convinced they acted gracelessly albeit they acted hurriedly. Supposing for a moment, the association boldly holds to the BF&M2K, what positive benefit would a longer period of time accomplished that a shorter failed?

    Assuming Flat Rock knew the association’s adoption of the BF&M2K, one could rightly ask why it went ahead and called a female pastor in the face of such knowledge. Understand: they could do so because they are autonomous. But why would they without inquiring into the matter with the association to understand the repercussions of such an action on their part? Perhaps they did so inquire. If they did inquire, then Surrey’s action is not so hurried after all–not to mention “graceless”–since one may presume conversations took place not only prior to Surrey’s action, but also prior to Flat Rock’s call of a female pastor.

    On the other hand, if they didn’t inquire with the association prior to calling a female pastor, why would Surrey’s action be seen as “graceless” and, at least by implication, making Flat Rock the victim? At minimum, it seems one would not be unreasonable to assume if Flat Rock offered no interest in probing the matter with its association–especially if we assume Flat Rock knew the association’s stance with the BF&M2K–then Flat Rock did not care what the association thought or did one way or another. If this is so, I do not see how Surrey’s action, which is in perfect harmony with their adherence to the BF&M2K, can be viewed as “graceless” even if it was decided quickly.

    Though I cannot believe it won’t inevitably “hit” my own association, I can say, I do not look forward to the day it does. These issues are excruciating. No one wins. We all lose.

    Grace, my brother. You ever bring sober reflection to the issues you address.

    With that, I am…

    • August 23, 2011 at 12:03 PM


      Every now and then, my inner lawyer comes out 🙂 In the case of Flat Rock and Surry, I don’t think I would use “victim” language to even describe the church. You are entirely correct that that outcome — while hurriedly done — was inevitable. I think that the perception — and perhaps even the reality — is that the process itself was carried out in such a way that some (including me) would view it as graceless. I know that this is somewhat subjective as others have not come to the same conclusion. These are “no-win” situations, so why not do everything in a way that does not looked rushed or where “due process” appears to be lacking? To me, it just makes more sense — and has both an appearance and a reality of abundant grace — to proceed to disfellowship a church with a “regular” process similar to the Association in Kentucky. If and when this issue hits other Associations, I think it would be incumbent on the churches of the Association to move as expeditiously as possible while still showing grace. Of course, what is and what is not grace-filled could be in the eye of the beholder 🙂 Thanks for the comment and sharing this morning. Have a great day and God bless,


  2. August 23, 2011 at 8:46 AM

    The Preamble to the 2000 version of the Baptist Faith and Message, some of which you quoted above, also says”

    (3) “That any group of Baptists, large or small, have the inherent right to draw up for themselves and publish to the world a confession of their faith whenever they may think it advisable to do so.”

    Which means that a local church can publish their own statement of faith which does not include the prohibition of women in the role of pastor.

    I am in the curious position of not believing women should be pastors .. and that may be more feeling than believing, but I do believe that an SBC church should have the right to call a woman as a pastor, should they so choose.

    And there is absolutely no comparison with the matter of homosexuality.

    • August 23, 2011 at 12:09 PM


      Hope you are doing well. I certainly am not comparing calling a woman pastor with the issue of homosexuality. I hope that my post did not come across that way because that was not my intent. I think your additional quote brings into question the tricky issue of confessions vs. creeds. The BF&M2000 is not supposed to be a creed, but it can and has been used (certainly at the entity level) more as a creed than as a confession. I tend to agree with your “feeling” about women pastors and SBC churches. I’ve never been confronted with that situation in any Association where I have served, but I am inclined to not disfellowship a church solely for the reason of calling a female pastor. There maybe other doctrinal issues, in addition to calling a female pastor, that would lead me to vote to disfellowship a church with a female pastor, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. God bless and have a great day,


  3. Tom Parker
    August 24, 2011 at 10:17 AM


    I just do not see how anyone can look at all the facts about the SBA and not call their actions graceless. If a woman pastor had not been involved there is no way they would have acted this quickly. The whole process was flawed.

    For me it is that mean streak of the CR that some folks still operate out of, particularly as it relates to women pastors.

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