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New American Baptist Association in the Works

American Baptists disagreeing with a May vote by a region to sever ties with American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. over homosexuality are scheduled to meet Sept. 30 in an informational gathering in anticipation of forming a new association maintaining full fellowship with the national denomination next year.

American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest–since renamed Transformation Ministries–formally withdrew from the ABC/USA’s Covenant of Relationships and Agreements May 11 over “deep differences of theological convictions and values.”

Leaders of the association earlier warned they would seek to withhold funds to national offices in Valley Forge, Pa., unless issues involving homosexuality were “biblically dealt with” at the group’s biennial meeting in 2005.

“I am conservative in matters related to human sexuality AND I do not want to be separated from those who differ from me,” ABC/USA General Secretary Roy Medley told delegates in Denver July 1-4, 2005. “So, I want you to hear me clearly tonight: I am STILL traditional in matters of human sexuality AND I do not want to be separated from those who in Christian conscience differ from me on the issue of homosexuality. We have been a family where I have been granted the privilege of living in that paradox. With all my heart that is where I believe I have been called to be, where we have been called to be.”

But some questioned if Medley moved away from that conciliatory tone with a July 17 pastoral letter calling on all American Baptists to “live lives of high moral and ethical responsibility,” including matters of sexuality.

“While not the most important discipleship issue in the New Testament, nor our highest priority of ministry lest we focus on one set of sins above others that afflict us such as racism, greed, sexism and gluttony, nonetheless, sexual concerns increasingly dominate our attention (Romans 1:28),” Medley wrote. “We live in a culture obsessed with sex. We see evidence of sexual abuse every day. We are stunned at the reports of sexual impropriety by persons in caring professions (1 Corinthians 6:18). Many persons have been victims of these abuses. The result is an environment of deep suspicion regarding the sexual integrity of persons in authority. In this context, the matter of homosexual practices continues to divide American Baptists.”

Medley pledged to uphold the “official position” of ABC/USA that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” That statement, from a 1992 General Board resolution, is usually quoted alongside another resolution acknowledging “there exists a variety of understandings throughout our denomination” and encouraging dialogue about human sexuality.

The Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, a group which supports full inclusion of gays and lesbians in Baptist life, dedicated its entire August newsletter to responses to Medley’s recent statement.

“When I read Roy’s letter, I felt the same pain as I did in 1998 when a Baptist pastor who had just learned I was gay said, ‘You’re not welcome in this congregation. Please don’t ever come back,'” wrote Ken Pennings, the group’s executive director.

Conservatives, meanwhile, tended toward skepticism, suggesting Medley’s words would have little meaning unless changes are made to exclude churches that tolerate homosexuality. Current rules allow churches disfellowshipped by one region to petition for membership in another, and thereby remain in good standing with the national convention.

American Baptist Churches of Michigan voted Sept. 9 to remove Woodside Baptist Church in Flint for its decision in May to join the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists. The church, which is also aligned with the United Church of Christ, welcomes members regardless of sexual orientation.

Saturday’s information meeting in Alhambra, Calif., is for churches and individuals in the former American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest desiring to “continue as full partners in the stewardship of ABC mission.”

An organizational meeting for a new association of American Baptist churches in Southern California, Arizona, Southern Nevada and Hawaii is scheduled March 30. The first annual meeting of the new association, which for now goes by the name Association of American Baptists in the Pacific Southwest, will be next May.

One of its leaders, Jose Guerra, pastor of Living Hope Baptist Church in Bakersfield, Calif., was the only member of the board of American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest to vote against a motion last fall to begin steps to sever ties with the ABC/USA.

“Our denomination … has not changed its position about homosexuality and, therefore, I do not see a need for separation,” he wrote in a letter on an association Web site.

“I also voted against withdrawing from the ABC/USA because I do not agree with the idea of requiring uniformity in the matter of interpretation of Scripture, in this case, in the area of human sexuality,” he continued.

Guerra also questioned if there is a hidden agenda beyond homosexuality, noting that leaders in the Pacific Southwest have been active in American Baptist Evangelicals, now called Cornerstone Church Network, a conservative group that since the early 1990s has been seeking reform and “renewal” of the denomination.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.