American Baptist regional executive directors have called on member churches to put a halt to ordaining homosexuals and blessing same-sex unions in a plea aimed at bridging differences that many fear could split the 1.5 million-member denomination.
The Regional Executive Ministers Council of American Baptist Churches in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />U.S.A. on Nov. 20 approved a “pastoral letter” pledging to voluntarily refrain from recommending or approving practicing homosexuals for ministry positions and conducting or participating in marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. The leaders asked all American Baptists to do the same.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
American Baptist News Service reported the action Dec. 2.
The executive ministers also called for a moratorium on “stereotypical statements” about gays and lesbians, “homophobic” behavior, making “uninformed assumptions” about homosexuals and participating in public demonstrations either for or against gays.
They further called for an end to threats of withdrawal of resources or fellowship over the issue of homosexuality.
“The controversy over homosexuality has consumed our agenda, our discussion time and our energy; yet the controversy still threatens to break us apart as American Baptists,” the open letter said.
While most American Baptists believe homosexuality is not supported by Scripture, the leaders said, the denomination’s tradition of local-church governance allows individuals and congregations to dissent from majority views.
The executive ministers said they offered the statement, adopted 20-3 with three members abstaining, “out of a sincere desire to both preserve unity within our American Baptist fellowship and to promote faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Larry Bethune, pastor of University Baptist Church in Austin, Texas–one of 51 congregations comprising the gay-friendly Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists–criticized the apparent compromise as weighted in favor of those who reject gays and lesbians.
“While I appreciate their concern to bring peace to the ABC/USA over a difficult and divisive issue,” Bethune said of the executive ministers’ action, “I regret their attempt to do so by adopting a policy of discrimination and exclusion towards loyal and faithful members of the ABC/USA who happen to be gay.”
Bethune’s formerly Southern Baptist church was removed from the Baptist General Convention of Texas in 1998 for welcoming homosexuals. The Austin church, which joined American Baptists in the 1990s and also belongs to the Alliance of Baptists, quit the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in 2001 after the Atlanta-based CBF made a policy decision not to fund organizations that affirm or condone homosexual practices.
“I cannot imagine our churches accepting such a policy regarding race or gender in the days when those issues were controversial in some churches,” Bethune said of the American Baptist executives’ letter. Bethune also said he would have welcomed a clear statement on soul freedom and local-church autonomy and that it was wise for some of the ministers to disagree with the majority.
“We will never have peace in our denomination if a few self-appointed ‘bishops’ are allowed to dictate orthodoxy to our churches and our people,” he said in a statement to EthicsDaily.com.
The council for leaders of American Baptists’ 34 state and regional jurisdictions isn’t the only group attempting to deal with dissension over homosexuality.
The ABC/USA Ministers Council has begun a series of discussions labeled the Jerusalem Council Project prompted by a call to deny membership on the fellowship-and-resource group to a lesbian pastor who married under a law allowing gay couples to wed in Massachusetts.
Meanwhile, 61 churches have signed on to a November resolution by a conservative group calling itself West Virginia Baptists for Biblical Truth pledging to withhold contributions until congregations that “affirm homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle” are removed from American Baptist life, according to a Web site.
Should that not occur by next June, the resolution states, the signers intend to petition the West Virginia Baptist Convention to sever membership with the national denomination.
Roy Medley, general secretary of American Baptist Churches, U.S.A., recently shared concern over the debate in a report to church leaders.
“I have heard and read very strong opinions expressed on the issue of homosexuality,” Medley wrote. “I know that a large number of people feel very strongly and passionately that the practice of homosexuality is inconsistent with Scripture. I have also heard the anguish and pained cries of those who are gay and Baptist and struggle, and I know that each side feels that the takes are high.
“As we grapple with the question of homosexuality, especially as feelings rise to a fever-pitch, I worry because I see a tendency to shift from discernment to power moves. Factions arise and groups work to outmaneuver one another so that the body becomes politicized and its missional focus lost.”
“I agonize over the fact that many feel a split is inevitable–that we will cease to be a bridge people,” Medley continued. “And I wonder what effect that split will have on a society which already views the church with cynicism and casts back upon us with sneers, ‘See how they love one another!’ And I worry that red or blue will trump one in Christ.”
Medley urged American Baptists to seek reconciliation and “be a bridge people in a world of wall builders.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.