A North Carolina Baptist pastor who reportedly led efforts to remove the names of nine members from the church roll because they didn’t support President Bush’s re-election resigned Tuesday night without apologizing.

“For me to remain now would only cause more hurt for me and my family,” Chan Chandler, pastor of East Waynesville Baptist Church, said, quoted by the Associated Press. “I am resigning with gratitude in my heart for all of you, particularly those of you who love me and my family.”

On Sunday, Chandler called reports that nine long-time members were voted out of the church for supporting John Kerry last November a “misunderstanding.”

“No one has ever been voted from the membership of this church due to an individual’s support or lack of support for a political party or candidate,” he said in a statement.

According to an audio tape segment broadcast on ABC News and CNN, Chandler preached a sermon last October endorsing President Bush as the default choice for Christian voters.

“Now, friend, you know and I know abortion is wrong, there’s no way around it,” he said on the tape. “But the question then comes in: in the Baptist church, how do I vote? Let me just say this right now. If you vote for John Kerry this year, you need to repent or resign.”

“You have been holding back God’s church way too long,” he continued. “And I know I may get in trouble for saying that, but just pour it on.”

Chandler, 33, who is pursuing a master’s degree at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, had been pastor of the church for two-and-a-half years. He and the church became the focus of international media after a heated deacons’ meeting-turned church conference on May 2. Nine longstanding members said they were voted out at the meeting by a group of newcomers, because they refused to endorse the pastor’s political views.

In his resignation, Chandler said his “words and actions have been misunderstood and misinterpreted,” according to a report in the Biblical Recorder, but he had “no choice” other than to resign, because he did not want to be the focus of dissension in the church.

He did not mention any politicians by name but said his concern “was to give a voice to those who have no voice, to secure the lives of the pre-born before they leave the safety of their mother’s womb.”

Attorney John Pavey said Chandler was not apologizing for anything and that his support for the anti-abortion movement “apparently was one of the elements behind this.”

Several church members said they agreed with Chandler on abortion and other religious issues, but objected to the pastor making those issues explicitly political

“I think everyone in there agrees with him on the issues,” Carolyn Gaddy told the Associated Press. “Politics was the problem.”

“We didn’t want to be told who to vote for or who we couldn’t vote for,” 26-year member Margaret Biddix said in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Chandler avoided media contact before granting an exclusive interview Tuesday afternoon to Baptist Press. In it, he said he never endorsed any political candidates and all his comments were “issue-oriented.” He admitted to criticizing Sen. John Kerry’s views on abortion and homosexuality, but said he also named two Republicans he said were out of step with the Bible.

He said the church had experienced several months of disharmony, some as the result of his preaching about Christians reflecting biblical values when they vote. But he also noted that the church had baptized about 30 people and was growing under his leadership and speculated some older members who had been in church leadership may have felt threatened.

He said the decision to open the called deacons’ meeting May 3 to the entire church was an attempt to resolve those issues and that what he desired all along was “unity and peace.”

A longtime church member quoted by AP said Chandler and his wife “brought in a lot of young people, but they also brainwashed them.”

A newer member denied she and others who supported Chandler were a “cult” and pledged to “keep going for the Lord.” Asked if she would remain a member of East Waynesville, she said, “I’m not going to serve with the ungodly.”

According to the Biblical Recorder, about 30-35 people gathered with Chandler before he announced his resignation. Several told him they would leave with him and offered their homes as alternate meeting places. Chandler did not indicate whether he planned to accept the offer.

His lawyer said he planned to complete his seminary degree, follow other opportunities and care for his young son with health issues.

Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State said the episode illustrates the dangers of “church-based electioneering.”

“Houses of worship exist to bring people together for worship, not split them apart over partisan politics,” Lynn said in a press release. “I think there is an important lesson here for the whole country. Americans do not expect to be ordered to vote for certain candidates by their religious leaders.”

On Monday AU filed a complaint asking the IRS to investigate whether Chandler violated Section 26 U.S.C. 501 (c) (3) of the U.S. tax code. It states that houses of worship and other non-profits may “not participate in, or intervene in (including the publishing or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office.”

That ban on electioneering would be lifted under a bill pending in Congress. Introduced by Rep. Walter Jones (R-N.C.), H.R. 235 would allow clergy to endorse candidates from the pulpit and still retain a tax exemption of their house of worship.

“Introducing partisan politics into our churches is a terrible idea,” Lynn said. “I hope this incident in North Carolina will cause our members of Congress to reject Rep. Jones’ bill.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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