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.