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A small-town Baptist church fight snowballed into an international news story after deacons fired an 81-year-old woman as a Sunday school teacher, purportedly because of her gender.

After receiving a letter from First Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y., that cited a Bible passage forbidding women from teaching or holding authority over men as the basis for her Aug. 9 dismissal, Mary Lambert told her story to a local television station Aug. 15.

ABC News carried the story Aug. 21, prompting pack coverage by CNN, Fox News and Reuters. An Associated Press report appeared in major U.S. newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Miami Herald and Chicago Sun-Times.

The story made news as far away from the upstate community of 30,000 residents–located about 30 miles from the Canadian border–to Germany, Australia and China. It even appeared on an international Muslim site, Islam Online, headquartered in Qatar.

The church’s pastor, Tim LeBouf, who is also a member of Watertown’s city council, didn’t talk to the media at first. After meeting with church leaders, however, both LeBouf and the church’s diaconate released statements Aug. 19 acknowledging the Bible wasn’t the only reason behind the rift.

Church leaders said they didn’t go into full detail in their letter to Lambert, because they didn’t want to risk being sued for slander. They expressed regret that she went to the media with what should have remained an internal church matter. They declined to specify what the other problems were, appealing to “Christian courtesy.” LaBouf said his views against women teaching men wouldn’t affect his role as a civic leader, because such teachings “end at the church door.”

Lambert, a member at First Baptist for nearly 60 years and a teacher for 54, is a past church moderator. She chaired the pulpit committee that called LeBouf as pastor a little more than two years ago. Since then attendance has grown from fewer than 40 to more than 150, and offerings have nearly tripled.

But some of the long-time members disapprove of LaBouf’s leadership. In a May 7 article in the Watertown Daily Times, Lambert and others said they felt deceived by LaBouf, whom they believed to be a moderate but after arriving at the church began imposing his fundamentalist views.

Grievances included elimination of Bible reading by church members during Sunday worship, absence of the Lord’s Prayer–which the pastor called “vain repetition”–and removal of crosses and other religious imagery that the church’s new leadership deemed iconolatry. They hired an attorney to seek options, including having him fired.

LaBouf countered the older members were just resisting change. Lambert and two other long-time deacons were removed from the board about two months ago, under a pretext of non-attendance, leaving new members in control. The letter informing Lambert of her removal as a teacher was signed by the pastor’s wife.

Ugly church splits aren’t uncommon in denominations that vest authority for all decision making in democratic processes of the local church, like American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A., the group to which FirstBaptistChurch in Watertown relates. Such strident views against women in ministry are rare in a mainline denomination like ABC/USA, but more common in the fundamentalist South.

Bruce Prescott of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists said such practices have been common in the breakaway Southern Baptists of Texas Convention and have been a “recurring phenomenon for more than a quarter century among fundamentalist-minded Southern Baptists across the country.”

While mainstream Baptists do not interpret the Bible so literally or legalistically concerning women in ministry, Prescott said, “We do affirm the congregational autonomy that preserves the right of each local church to appoint its own officers and teachers.”

Prescott knows well that congregational polity can leave even moderate churches vulnerable to takeover by a fundamentalist faction. The church where he is a former member, First Baptist Church in Norman, Okla., was a charter member and strong financial supporter of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. Several members were key leaders in the moderate group, which formed in 1991 over disagreement with fundamentalist leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention.

After longtime pastor Lavonn Brown, a former CBF moderator, retired, a pulpit committee recommended another pastor sympathetic to the CBF. That pastor didn’t stay long, however, leaving in a dispute over worship styles.

The next search committee didn’t include any CBF supporters. The new committee recommended a pastor from a non-Southern Baptist background early in 2004. (That pastor, Mike Fleischmann, subsequently left to become lead pastor of Riverview Evangelical Free Church in Bonsall, Calif., in May 2006.)

Moderates withdrew from FBC Norman, eventually forming a new congregation, NorthHaven Church, and calling Brown as interim pastor.

FBC Norman isn’t the only seemingly strong CBF church that turned out to be only a pastor away from defection. When Craig Sherouse, an amiable pro-CBF pastor, left LakesideBaptistChurch in Lakeland, Fla., after 13 years to become pastor of FirstBaptistChurch in Griffin, Ga., warfare broke out between moderates and conservatives.

After a majority voted to no longer allow church members to designate their offerings to CBF, a number of families left to establish the CBF-affiliated Lakeland Fellowship in the spring of 2004. They included Pat and Carolyn Anderson, who helped form the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Florida. The Andersons were co-coordinators of the state chapter until Pat began traveling to promote global missions for national CBF. Carolyn Anderson plans to retire as coordinator Jan. 1.

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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