A prominent Southern Baptist church in Nashville, Tenn., narrowly voted to retain 71 members in what would have been one of the largest church-member expulsions in recent history of the Baptist faith.

A total of 1,000 votes were counted in a referendum on membership for members of Two Rivers Baptist Church who sued the church last September for access to church financial records. Members voted 663-337 to support a motion to dismiss the plaintiffs, four votes shy of a two-thirds majority required by church bylaws.

Sunday’s final vote came after a deadline for the dissident members to repent of “deliberate and sinful actions” against the congregation and Pastor Jerry Sutton.

The plaintiffs questioned spending such as the church paying for an overseas trip for Sutton and a wedding reception for his daughter. They said they are also concerned about a decrease in attendance and Sutton’s authoritarian leadership style. They said the pastor of 21 years has in effect taken over the church, violating the Baptist doctrine of governance by the congregation.

A judge threw out most of the civil case, saying secular courts lack jurisdiction over self-governance of a religious body, but said laws governing non-profits do allow members access to financial records. The plaintiffs said their case was bolstered after a tip by a church staff member led to discovery of financial records tossed into a trash dumpster in early March.

A leader of the plaintiffs’ group said records he believes the church never wanted anyone to see raised additional questions about improper spending. They reportedly included tickets to an Atlanta Braves baseball game, a sport-fishing outing in North Carolina and handwritten notes that a church staff member was to be paid in cash.

Key to the narrow vote against removing the members may have been a ruling by deacon chairman Carlos Cobos to include the votes of the 71 plaintiffs. In a Thursday-night meeting, Sutton said he believed the accused members did not have a right to vote and sent a message that he intended to “sue your pants off” if he prevailed.

Sutton, a former candidate for president of the Southern Baptist Convention, survived a confidence vote last year to retain him as pastor 1,051-286.

The group feuding with Sutton started a Web site countering allegations they are a small group of disgruntled members and to provide an alternative viewpoint to the problems at Two Rivers as portrayed in official church statements and the media.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicDaily.com.

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