American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. has changed its standing rules to accommodate churches of the former Pacific Southwest region that want to remain American Baptist despite their region’s vote to leave the national denomination over homosexuality.
Members of the ABC/USA General Board last weekend amended standing rules to allow churches not in fellowship with a region to remain in a “covenanting relationship” with the national body for up to two years.
American Baptists traditionally have not allowed churches to be a member of the national body unless they also belong to a region. But churches dismissed from one region may petition to join another.
The rule is behind American Baptists’ ongoing division over homosexuality. A handful of congregations that belong to the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, which supports full inclusion of gays and lesbians in church life, including ordination, have been dismissed from conservative regions but remained in good standing with the national body by joining another region.
In 2003 the ABC/USA recognized its 35th region, the Evergreen Association of American Baptist Churches, a group of progressive churches mostly in the Seattle area that felt disenfranchised over issues including homosexuality from the more conservative and larger American Baptist Churches of the Northwest.
While the General Board passed a 1992 resolution saying “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” it has refused to enforce it out of respect for autonomy of the local church and the right of individual Christians to interpret the Bible under guidance of the Holy Spirit. A separate resolution recognized “a variety of understandings” exists on issues of human sexuality throughout the denomination and encouraged dialogue on issues including homosexuality.
Directors of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest voted May 11 to withdraw from the Covenant of Relationships of the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., a contract of relationships between American Baptist regions and the national boards of the ABC/USA, over irreconcilable “differences of theological convictions and values.”
Associate General Secretary Jeff Woods said in American Baptist News Service it is not yet known how many of the former PSW’s 272 churches may decide to keep their current national affiliation. Just over half of those churches took part in an April referendum that preceded the May vote by the directors to withdraw.
Woods said a new Association of American Baptists in the Pacific Southwest is contemplated, with an informational meeting this fall and a formal organizational meeting next spring.
The split becomes official Nov. 1, but the former Pacific-Southwest region has already changed its name to Transformation Ministries.
ABC/USA General Secretary Roy Medley told General Board members that discussions with the region’s leaders as recently as two weeks ago have been conducted “in a spirit of not wanting to do each other any harm, in seeking to bless one another even in separation.” National and regional officers are engaged in working out details of the separation, including such matters as disposition of property and status of pastors, he said.
In another action, earlier in its five-day meeting, the General Board affirmed a short-term plan to address, over the next 24 months, the situation created by a continuing decline in giving by churches to the fund that supports the denomination’s national structure. The General Executive Council of ABC/USA is studying longer-term “adaptive changes” in structure and operations.
One short-term change will be to go to one General Board meeting a year, instead of the present two, although an abbreviated meeting still will be held this November.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.