Leaders meeting Friday and Saturday in Atlanta denied that American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. condones homosexuality, but said the denomination lacks authority to dictate theology to local churches.

“We grieve and are profoundly saddened by the decision of the board of directors of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest ‘to initiate the process to withdraw from the Covenant of Relationships,'” the executive committee of the ABC/USA said in a statement. “This decision will separate the region from the American Baptist family and our mission if the region completes its action.”

Leaders of the ABC/PSW voted Sept. 8 to deliver on an ultimatum to end ties with the national body unless issues related to homosexuality were “biblically dealt with” at the denomination’s recent biennial convention. The region includes about 300 churches in southern California, southern Nevada, Arizona, Hawaii and Baja, Mexico.

Another region, the West Virginia Baptist Convention, is expected to consider similar action when it meets next month.

Responding to the Pacific Southwest action, General Board leaders expressed concern over “serious implications” of the vote.

“Contrary to published reports,” they said, the ABC/USA does have policy statements related to homosexuality. They include a 1984 statement affirming marriage as between a man and woman, a 1992 resolution declaring homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching” and reaffirmation of previous statements in 1998.

While all of those statements remain in effect, the executive committee said, “The General Board … does not set policy for local congregations on theological or other issues.”

“We are not hierarchical or Episcopal, because we are a denominational family related by a series of voluntary covenantal relationships among autonomous congregations to partner together in mission,” the statement continued.

“Nothing in our structure allows us to dictate theological interpretations. That authority rests solely with local congregations and individual American Baptists. We are not and do not seek to be a legislative body, since we respect the autonomy and primacy of the local church.”

Conservatives in the Pacific Southwest and elsewhere charge that the 1992 General Board resolution on homosexuality hasn’t been implemented as policy. They are seeking to close a loophole that allows a church kicked out of a region over homosexuality to remain American Baptist by joining another region and claim that churches belonging to the pro-gay Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists are over-represented in denominational leadership.

A group called American Baptist Evangelicals is planning a “Summons to Lead” conference this weekend to explore alternatives to denominational programs.

The General Board executive committee, meanwhile, planned to send letters to PSW churches explaining they will remain affiliated with the national body if the region severs ties, unless they vote as a congregation to disaffiliate. American Baptist leaders will also set up meetings to inform churches how they can continue to participate in the national body and determine future regional affiliations. They also will work with entity boards to explore full ramifications and consequences of the PSW board’s decision to withdraw, such as the impact on retirement and insurance plans.

Meanwhile, a Southern Baptist Convention leader criticized last year for declaring American Baptists lax on homosexuality as a rationale for severing ties with the Baptist World Alliance, said his comment may have hastened the ABC/USA split.

“We can no longer afford in this particular day, when the press for gay marriage is on, to be in alliance with denominations that support in any form or fashion gay marriage,” Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary said, speaking in support of a 2004 study committee recommendation to leave the BWA. “What you give your money and name to, you give tacit approval to.”

ABC/USA General Secretary Roy Medley called Patterson’s statement “outrageous.”

“This parting of the ways was already underway when I said what I did at the SBC,” Patterson said in a Friday story in Baptist Press. “However, our statements did have the effect of establishing what many outside of the ABCUSA were unaware of and may, therefore, have hastened the departure.”

Jay Wolfe, chairman of West Virginia Baptists for Biblical Truth, credited Southern Baptists with doing “the right thing” by separating from the BWA.

“When I heard the statement from Paige Patterson about the BWA last year, and the ABC being pointed out as the example of churches where homosexuality had become a problem and where liberalism was an issue, I was surprised,” Wolfe said. “I thought we had the issue settled. But we began to investigate the matter and found that the problem still existed and no one was doing anything about it.”

Ken Pennings, executive director of the Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists, said he feared the PSW decision would give gays and lesbians one more reason not to come to church and to avoid people who label themselves a Christian.

“I regret that our sisters and brothers have chosen to make the issue of sexual orientation a reason to break fellowship with a denomination that has a long and proud history of mission and ministry in the world,” Pennings said in a column. “The PSW is making this the watershed issue and by doing so are cutting themselves off from the very things that make people respect religious institutions–like doing justice and compassion.”

The ABC/USA’s National Executive Council, which includes Medley and other employed leaders, expressed regret at the Pacific Southwest vote.

“Our denomination has been blessed by the historic commitment by our regions to interdependent dialog and action for mission in the name of Christ,” the leaders said. “We grieve when partners in ministry move away from that covenantal relationship.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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