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ABCUSA leaders call for unity; conservative leader fears denomination’s next step will be to align with ‘similar’ CBF

VALLEY FORGE, Pa. (BP)–The General Board Executive Committee of the American Baptist Churches USA expressed grief and sadness Sept. 19 at the planned departure from the denomination of 300 conservative churches in its Pacific Southwest Region.

In a statement issued following a two-day meeting in Atlanta, the denomination’s Executive Committee called for unity and said a decision by the California-based Pacific Southwest Region will “separate the region from the American Baptist family and our mission if the region completes its action.”

The region voted Sept. 8 to recommend its churches stop sending money to the denomination’s national headquarters by Dec. 31 and sever fellowship over of the refusal of the General Board to address the issue of homosexuality and the development of several homosexuality-friendly associations in the ABCUSA. The General Board claims that it is powerless to effect changes in the “theological interpretations” of its member churches.

“The General Board … does not set policy for local congregations on theological or other issues. We are not hierarchical or Episcopal because we are a denominational family related by a series of voluntary covenantal relationships among autonomous congregations to partner together in mission,” the statement said. The board also cited its respect for the “autonomy and primacy of the local church.”

But not all leaders in American Baptist life agree that the issue is one of local church autonomy. The Pacific Southwest Region said in a statement Sept. 14 that, while the failure of the ABCUSA to implement its resolution on homosexuality was the catalyst for conflict, deeper problems exist in the denomination over the issues of “biblical authority and accountability.”

Bill Nicoson, executive director of American Baptist Evangelicals (ABE), a California-based conservative group, said the denomination’s leadership should disavow unbiblical theology “as soon as it knows about it.” He cited the leadership’s unwillingness to yield to biblical authority on the issue of homosexuality and a long track record of ignoring sin.

“They are living in a paradox; they call it a paradox. A prime example of that is Tony Campolo, one of the best-known American Baptists, who said at our biennial convention in Denver that he and his wife disagree over the manner in which the church should deal with this issue, but that their disagreement was no reason to get divorced. There is nothing mentioned as to the unbiblical nature of it; there is only a pragmatic response to it,” Nicoson said.

Nicoson said poor leadership in the denomination and a church hierarchy that expects to be served by the churches has rendered the ABCUSA useless. “I really see a bureaucratic system that cannot move and cannot make decisions,” he said. But he and other conservatives in the denomination are quick to point out that they have tried to move the denomination’s leadership to action.

“Our goal has always been to reform our denomination, to influence it and change it. We have always called our leadership to adhere to biblical standards and to lead. We have always wanted to persuade them,” Nicoson said.

Not everyone agrees that conservative leaders are merely persuading the General Board to lead. Critics such as Susan Johnson, pastor of Chicago’s Hyde Park Union Church and a former member of the ABCUSA General Board, have charged that ABE and other conservative groups are attempting to take over the denomination.

But Nicoson and the 560 conservative American Baptist churches voluntarily affiliated with ABE reject the charge. “Who would want to take over the Titanic?” he asked. “Our denomination is not healthy and I just don’t see a future for it.”

The national leadership of the ABCUSA, however, disagrees with that assessment, and with the charge that it has failed to address the issue of homosexuality and its compatibility with the Christian life. In the statement issued by the General Board Executive Committee, the ABCUSA explained its position:

“Contrary to published reports, ABCUSA does have policy statements and resolutions related to homosexuality. Our Family Life Policy Statement (1984) states, ‘We affirm that God intends marriage to be a monogamous, life-long, one-flesh union of a woman and a man. … We affirm God’s blessing and active presence in marriage relationships….’ In 1992 the General Board adopted this statement: ‘We affirm that the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.’ In 1993 the General Board called for continuing dialogue on issues of human sexuality. In June 1998 the General Board reaffirmed the prior actions and rewrote the ‘We are American Baptists’ statement to more strongly affirm the importance of biblical authority. All of these policy statements and resolutions remain in effect.”

The statement, however, did not reference the Evergreen Association, a homosexuality-friendly group of American Baptist churches, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) or the transference of homosexuality-affirming church affiliations from conservative regions to regions where homosexuality in the church is not opposed, such as the Rochester/Genesee Region of New York. The regional transfers were conducted with the blessing and approval of the General Board.

Nicoson said the statement proves the denomination has lost touch with its laity, and as a result he feels it best to break with the denomination’s headquarters. And so he supports the action of the Pacific Southwest Region. “I don’t want to spend any more time and any more dollars trying to reform something that is irreparable,” he said.

Jay Wolfe, chairman of West Virginia Baptists for Biblical Truth, anticipates the departure from the ABCUSA of his state’s conservative churches in the near future. He told Baptist Press that the denomination’s leadership continues “to spin a very confusing and tangled web in trying to explain their position as it relates to those who profess Christianity while living a sinful lifestyle of homosexuality.”

Wolfe said the General Board’s opinion on its role in leadership is contradicted by the group’s standing rules. “On one hand they say, ‘We are not and do not seek to be a legislative body,” while on the other hand their own standing rules (definition define the General Board’s function as the ‘legislative body of the ABCUSA.’

“The fact is that even a clown club has rules. To take their logic to a laughable extreme, then a local church could be promoting temple prostitution and still be allowed to remain a part of the ABC,” Wolfe said. “We believe it is time to stand on God’s Word and not on man’s rules.”

Wolfe said that ABCUSA leaders appear to be adopting the position of liberal regions that favor the acceptance of homosexuality as a practice approved in the Christian life. He cited as an example a June 2005 letter from New York Baptists to the General Board that said, “… in a broken and contentious world, Jesus calls us to be one not in doctrine but in Spirit.”

A plan for conservatives assuming leadership in the denomination would take up to 10 years, Nicoson said. He pointed to the example of the Southern Baptist Convention, saying that American Baptist leaders will not stand on biblical authority as had SBC leaders.

“Our leadership won’t lead. Yours will,” Nicoson told Baptist Press. “Southern Baptist leaders will write letters, encourage changes and take on initiatives. If you are a true leader, an evangelical leader, you can call up pastors and say, ‘You guys really ought to do something about this.’”

ABE, according to Nicoson, stands ready to assist American Baptist churches that wish to withdraw from the denomination but may face financial hardships and legal battles in doing so. The national headquarters owns some of the church properties, he said.

Should the ABCUSA lose a significant portion of its churches over the issue of homosexuality, Nicoson said he could not predict how the denomination will survive. But he expressed some concern that the ABCUSA might find a ready alliance with moderate Baptists.

“My biggest fear is that the ABCUSA will align with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The survival of the denomination may only happen by their merger with it. There are so many similarities with them, down the road I believe they may come together,” Nicoson said.

CBF national coordinator Daniel Vestal would not comment to Baptist Press on the relationship of the ABCUSA and the CBF.

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  • Gregory Tomlin