The head of American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. told delegates at the group's biennial meeting that differences over homosexuality should not be allowed to split the 1.4-million-member body.
Responding to ultimatums by some regions threatening to leave the ABC/USA unless it bans churches that welcome and affirm gays, leaders also issued a resolution reaffirming the "association principle," which allows churches to affiliate in various ways.
"The issue of homosexuality has brought us as a denomination to a crossroad in our life together," ABC/USA General Secretary Roy Medley told delegates in Denver Friday.
"One road will lead to separation," Medley said. "The other path will lead us to shared ministry and mission in all the theological and ethnic richness that has come to make us the unique denomination we are."
Medley, former executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, said when he was being considered for the job as American Baptists' chief executive officer three-and-a-half years ago he was asked, "Where do you stand on the issue of homosexuality?"
His answer, he said, was, "I am conservative in matters related to human sexuality AND I do not want to be separated from those who differ from me."
Medley reiterated that he is "still traditional" in his views on human sexuality but also still doesn't want to be separated from others "who in Christian conscience differ from me on the issue of homosexuality."
He called it a "paradox" which has made American Baptists unique in U.S. Protestant and Baptist life.
"No other Baptist body has been as committed and successful as ABC in bridging the paradoxes of race and ethnicity, of male/female, of conservative/liberal, of evangelical/ecumenical, of Free Will and Calvinist, of charismatics and traditionalists," Medley said.
"Living with paradox is difficult," he said. "The proof is that there are Baptist groups far more monochromatic in color than we are and Baptist groups far more homogenous in theology than we are. What has distinguished us as a special gift and task from God is being a living laboratory for the work of reconciliation in the midst of difficult paradoxes. God has uniquely gifted and called us to this difficult but sacred work of reconciliation, of walking with one another in the midst of deep differences."
A "Statement of Concern" adopted Sunday noted that divisions among American Baptists "have become more of an issue than the ministry to which Christ calls us."
"Some regional associations have shifted their focus from shared ministry to shared theology," the statement continued. "As a result, our energies are focused on the internal dynamics of our life together rather than our larger call to ministry in the world."
The shift, according to the statement, "has diminished our primary mission of evangelism, discipleship and social transformation."
The statement called on American Baptists to "acknowledge that relationships have been broken" and "seek reconciliation and mutual forgiveness."
It reaffirmed "the historic Baptist principle of voluntary association that allows local churches to join together in common mission and ministry" and encouraged judicatories "to cooperate with churches by allowing a variety of ways to work together."
The statement also called on American Baptists to "recognize the diversity that exists within our American Baptist family and celebrate the many and varied ways that we cooperate in service to God" and to "continue to join together in a variety of relationships that demonstrate our witness that the body of Christ is made up of many different members, that not all members are alike, and that each member is necessary for the healthy functioning of the church."
Opponents of homosexuality in the ABC/USA have been increasingly vocal about what some view as a mixed message on issues like gay ordination and same-sex marriage. In 1991 the denomination passed a resolution affirming "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching." The following year, however, the General Board came back with another resolution acknowledging "there exists a variety of understandings" about homosexuality and encouraging dialogue about human sexuality.
Currently at issue is membership in the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a group of churches, organizations and individuals who welcome and affirm "all persons without regard to sexual orientation or gender identity" and support "full inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons within Baptist communities of faith."
Three regions have threatened to leave or stop donations to the denomination unless it takes steps to remove churches belonging to AWAB.
A Southern Baptist Convention leader suggested the movement parallels the "conservative resurgence" which reshaped the SBC over the last 20 years.
"Liberals fear the rise of a conservative movement within the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A.," Southern Seminary President Al Mohler wrote in a Weblog June 22, commenting on a Christian Century article reporting tensions within the denomination.
"The issue that has ignited recent developments is homosexuality, specifically the growing acceptance of homosexuality within some ABC/USA circles," Mohler wrote, accusing members of AWAB of "defiance" of the 1991 statement on homosexuality.
But Medley, who in the past has said the vast majority of American Baptist churches do not condone homosexuality, said the real change is the growing number of American Baptists who would make such issues a litmus test.
"A question one often hears in the current controversy is, 'Aren't we putting Baptist principles above biblical authority?'" Medley said. "No, Baptist principles are thoroughly grounded in Scripture. Those who raise this question misunderstand our mothers and fathers in the faith who, in setting forth what we today call Baptist distinctives, drew them forth from the study of Scripture and understood them to thoroughly represent Scripture. As Baptists, our tradition is immersed in Scripture, centered in Christ."
Similarly, Medley said, "Some today set the principle of soul liberty against the principle of biblical authority." But, he continued, "Baptists have never understood it thus. Our deep commitment to soul liberty is because it is essential to biblical authority in our lives."
Through "soul liberty," he said, Baptists "recognize that no one else can answer for us--neither priest, nor preacher, nor creeds or councils" and also "honor the primacy of every soul's encounter with the living God."
"This is the very heart of what it means to be a Baptist Christian and what the priesthood of all believers means," Medley said. "That is why American Baptists grant the majority the right to say, 'This is what we believe' and also protect the right to speak a minority point of view. "
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Previous related story:American Baptists Grapple With Homosexuality