After arguing about homosexuality for more than a decade, American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. now appears headed toward schism.
Directors of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest voted Sept. 8 to begin steps to sever ties with the national body and cease financial support effective Dec. 31.
On Friday, another group announced plans to ask the West Virginia Baptist Convention to vote next month on withdrawal from the ABC/USA, citing disagreement with the "practice and affirmation of homosexuality among some American Baptist clergy."
In another development, a group of self-styled "evangelical" American Baptists is meeting next week to strengthen an alternative network committed to "solid, compassionate, intelligent orthodoxy," including opposition to homosexuality.
The nation's 19th-largest denomination with 1.4 million members, the ABC/USA is on record as declaring the practice of homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching." But some conservatives complain that the General Board resolution adopted in October 1992 has never been implemented as policy. They cite a rule that allows churches kicked out of one region over the issue to remain in good standing with the national body by applying for membership in another region.
A petition by the American Baptist Churches of Indiana and Kentucky to revoke the membership-appeal provision and add opposition to homosexuality to official documents received a first reading by the General Board in June, but supporters viewed a procedural vote to not act on it immediately as a defeat.
Another setback for anti-gay American Baptists came last month, when the senate of the ABC/USA Ministers Council rejected a bylaw proposal to refuse seating to homosexuals. It was prompted by a lesbian senator's marriage to her spouse last year under a Massachusetts law allowing same-sex couples to wed.
American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest leaders warned in May they would withhold contributions to national offices in Valley Forge, Pa., unless issues regarding homosexuality were "biblically dealt with" at this year's biennial meeting.
Another 65 churches have joined "West Virginia Baptist Churches for Biblical Truth," signing a resolution promising to withhold financial support until "compromises are rectified" with regard to homosexuality.
Speaking to delegates at the July 1-4 biennial in Denver, ABC/USA General Secretary Roy Medley said the issue of homosexuality had brought American Baptists "to a crossroad in our life together."
"One road will lead to separation," Medley said. "The other path will lead us to shared ministry and mission in all the theological and ethnic richness that has come to make us the unique denomination we are."
Medley, former executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey, said he is "conservative in matters related to human sexuality" but does "not want to be separated from those who differ from me."
But in a vote communicated by letter Sept. 12, the board of directors of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest resolved to initiate a process to withdraw from the ABC/USA's Covenant of Relationships and from a budget covenant effective Dec. 31.
After "cordial yet direct conversations" with Medley, leaders of the region "determined that the time has come to create distance between the ABC/PSW and the ABC/USA so that both may move ahead in the mission God has given them without continual conflict," Dale Salico, the region's executive minister, said in a letter.
If churches approve the board's recommendation, Salico said, the region would cease to be a member of the ABC/USA and would lose representation on the General Board and program boards of the denomination.
Individual churches could remain members of the ABC/USA and continue to support American Baptist missionaries. Salico said the executive director of the Ministers and Missionaries Benefit Board assured him that pastors in the region will continue to be eligible to participate in the denomination's retirement and insurance programs.
Top executives of American Baptist entities expressed "deep regret" over the proposed withdrawal in a statement Wednesday.
In West Virginia, meanwhile, the West Virginia Baptists for Biblical Truth gave notice they would submit an amendment to the West Virginia Baptist Convention constitution to remove the WVBC from association with the ABC/USA. The 460-church convention, American Baptists' largest regional body, meets next month in Clarksburg.
"West Virginia Baptists have been fighting the homosexuality issue within the church since 1991, and the acceptance of it by the ABC/USA leadership has only gotten worse," Jay Wolfe, chairman of the conservative group, said in a press release. "It is time to stand on God's word and break fellowship with those who condone flagrant sin in the church."
After failing to force the ABC/USA to adopt a strong stand against homosexuality, American Baptist Evangelicals, a group started a decade ago to bring "renewal" to the denomination, invited churches to a Sept. 23-24 "Summons to Lead" conference at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lombard, Ill.
"The ABC/USA biennial has left us with difficult choices," wrote Bill Nicoson, the group's executive director.
Frustrated with what they perceived as unwillingness by the denomination to address the issue of homosexuality, about 70 church leaders last year formed a Great Commission Network for congregations "committed to biblical integrity and ministry excellence," according to another article.
"Theological essentials" for the group include a statement on human sexuality. It declares God's intent to be the "faithful, lifelong heterosexual union for married persons and committed celibate behavior for unmarried persons" and describes all other sexual practices as "sinful and destructive."
While homosexuality has received much attention in recent months, founders of the movement say they are equally concerned about what they view as a lack of evangelism in churches and on the mission field and a denominational organization in decline.
"The Great Commission Network will be a movement of American Baptist mission agencies and congregations committed to accomplishing the Great Commission and embrace a common commitment to share the gospel of Jesus Christ based on a historically orthodox belief in the integrity and authority of the Bible," a descriptive article said. "The mission of the network will be to resource congregations to fulfill the Great Commission with excellence in culturally relevant ways in order to change their communities and advance God's Kingdom throughout the world."
One planner said the group is not trying to start another denomination but rather is committed to "doing what our denomination should have been doing for years but has not."
Critics say the alternative group will siphon funds away from the ABC/USA and accuse it of trying to take over denominational assets.
"We have no desire to take over the Titanic," Nicoson said, quoted in the Christian Century.
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.
Previous related articles:
American Baptist Head Urges Unity Amid Controversy
American Baptists Grapple With Homosexuality