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Baptists have long cherished the notion of unity in diversity, holding stubbornly to fellowship with others despite significant differences. That’s why so many churches historically aligned with the Southern Baptist Convention, state Baptist conventions, or Baptist associations tend to remain officially on the record books, even when theological rifts grow wide.

Inertia, as we learned in physics class, is a powerful thing. Something that is in motion will remain in motion unless something happens to slow it down.

Something like what happened this past summer, when the Surry Baptist Association, a network of 70 churches in the neighborhood of Mt. Airy, N.C., reduced its membership by one. A group of male pastors took offense when the Flat Rock Baptist Church called a woman, Bailey Edwards Nelson, as pastor. The preachers raised such a ruckus that 80 percent of participants at an associational meeting voted to boot the church out of their association.

Now the association’s numbers are down by three, as First Baptist of Mt. Airy voted Dec. 4 to withdraw from the association, following Piney Grove Baptist in Mt. Airy, which made the same decision Nov. 30. It’s hard to break with so many years of shared history and tradition, but sometimes hard things have to be done.

This action should lead all of us to think about similar relationships. When are they worth holding onto? When is it time to go? For some churches or individuals, it happens over principle: many churches have withdrawn from the SBC or their state conventions, for example, because the adoption of the revised Baptist Faith and Message in 2000 diverged so sharply from historic Baptist beliefs. Others have taken the easier route of cutting back on convention funding while remaining officially in the fold.

For many churches, I suspect the tipping point will be a demonstration of intolerance, such as the Surry Association’s decision to oust a church for calling a woman pastor. It’s one thing to disagree with a member church’s decision: it’s quite another to declare fellowship impossible because of that action.

Once the association displayed exclusivistic intolerance toward one church’s autonomous decision, other churches have a bit more pressure to decide whether they will remain affiliated, knowing that they could also be subject to scrutiny and attack from watchdogs devoted to the new SBC orthodoxy. They may also feel convicted to stand in solidarity with a partner church that had been excluded for being Baptist enough to make its own decisions.

Churches and individuals can often live in some semblance of harmony, even when they hold divergent views, so long as they agree to disagree. When that breaks down, however, and one of the parties becomes hardline enough to say “my way or the highway,” the road less traveled takes on a greater appeal.

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