As many as 2,000 American Baptists are expected to meet this weekend in Denver under a cloud of controversy
At least three regions have threatened to leave or stop donations to the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. unless the denomination moves toward ousting churches that tolerate homosexuality.
The ABC/USA General Board on Tuesday held a first reading on a petition from the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky, which would forbid churches dismissed from a region for membership in the pro-gay Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists from remaining American Baptist by joining another region.
The petition also seeks to add to a document entitled “We Are American Baptists” a description as people “who submit to the teaching of Scripture that God’s design for sexual intimacy places it within the context of marriage between one man and one woman, and acknowledge that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with biblical teaching.”
A counter proposal by the American Baptist Churches of Rochester/Genesee Region would set up an appeal process for dismissed cooperating churches, but it did not receive enough signatures to be considered in June. Supporters hope to have the required 200 signatures from five regions in time for a first reading in November.
Thirteen years after a General Board resolution declared “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” American Baptists continue to debate the issue.
A resolution passed May 23 by the American Baptists in Michigan regional board accused the denomination of sending an “inconsistent and confusing message” on homosexuality, and called for dissolving the General Board and office of the general secretary and moving to a decentralized polity.
Directors of American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest on May 12 warned in a resolution they would withhold contributions to the national office in Valley Forge, Pa., “if issues regarding homosexuality are not biblically dealt with” by the end of the biennial meeting July 1-4.
A reported 64 churches have signed a resolution by “West Virginia Baptist Churches for Biblical Truth” pledging to withhold financial support unless all ABC/USA churches “affirming homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle for clergy or laity” are removed.
The controversy has helped American Baptist Evangelicals, a conservative renewal group, grow from fewer than 100 churches to more than 530 in five years, according to a report in the Christian Century.
Meanwhile, some of the 54 churches comprising membership of the 12-year-old Association of Welcoming & Affirming Baptists are becoming battle weary. Some are attracted to the Alliance of Baptists, a National Council of Churches member body of mostly former Southern Baptists, AWAB interim director Daniel Pryfogle told the Century.
Last November ABC/USA General Secretary Roy Medley said he “agonize[d] over the fact that many people feel a split is inevitable.”
“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,” Medley said. “Factions arise and groups work to outmaneuver one another so that the body becomes politicized and its missional focus lost.”
This week, Medley told members of the General Board much time has been spent since November in consulting with groups seeking to bring petitions or actions concerning bylaws and standing rules.
Despite the distraction over homosexuality, Medley said in American Baptist News Service, the denomination has grown in baptisms and new church starts. “Mission is still Job One,” he said.
While some regions are pressuring the denomination to deny membership to gay-friendly congregations, a leadership group called the Ministers Council has mounted the “Jerusalem Council Project,” a series of gatherings around the country to discuss differences over the issue of homosexuality.
The ABC/USA biennial opens Friday afternoon and continues through Sunday at the Colorado Convention Center in Denver.
A new AWAB newsletter reports the hiring of a permanent executive, Ken Pennings, an ordained American Baptist minister from Wisconsin. “In these times of turmoil, opportunity and discernment, we believe Ken has been prepared for just such a time as this to nurture and grow the ministry of AWAB,” said David Gregg, chair of the AWAB council.
AWAB plans to hold an annual retreat in Boulder, Colo., after the biennial concludes.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.