HAPEVILLE, Ga. (BP)–An attempt to expel from the Atlanta Baptist Association two churches that affirm homosexuality came up short after messengers to the 93rd annual meeting of the association failed to reach a two-thirds majority.
As a result, Oakhurst Baptist Church and Virginia-Highland Baptist Church will remain affiliated with the 143 congregations and missions of the association. However, both churches could face future disciplinary action from the association after messengers voted to send the issue back to the ABA’s membership committee for disciplinary review.
Still, that may not be enough for a number of conservative Baptist churches that have already announced their intentions of pulling out of the association.
The expulsion vote came immediately following a successful effort by Mount Vernon Baptist Church pastor Sam Boyd to amend the association’s bylaws. The new amendment noted “an affiliated church does not include a church which knowingly takes, or has taken, any action to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”
That amendment passed with 300 votes, five more than were needed for a two-thirds majority. However, the vote came following a heated discussion concerning whether to conduct the vote by secret ballot. Ultimately, supporters of the amendment obtained a public vote on the issue.
“It kind of makes you wonder why the people who don’t support the amendment are afraid to stand up and let people see their faces,” said Paul Hampton, pastor of North Clarendon Baptist Church.
For more than three hours, association messengers discussed and debated the issues surrounding the involvement of the two churches that affirm homosexuality. John Wyatt, moderator of the meeting and pastor of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship-affiliated First Baptist Church, Tucker, Ga., called the meeting historic.
“This is a very important, very historic moment that has to do with the future of our association,” said Wyatt, who favored a secret vote on the pro-homosexual churches.
Immediately following the passage of the amendment, Boyd asked for a vote to expel the two congregations. That vote failed, prompting another round of bickering about the voting process.
Boyd announced to the 600-plus messengers gathered at First Baptist Church, Hapeville, that his congregation would be pulling out of the association and joining a new fellowship. As he invited other churches to join him, he was shouted down by several messengers seated in the audience.
So far, 19 congregations affiliated with the Atlanta Baptist Association have discussed leaving. Rehoboth Baptist Church, a congregation of more than 6,000 members, has already announced its intention to leave the ABA.
For traditional, conservative Southern Baptists, the decision not to oust the two pro-homosexual churches prompted reactions of shock and disbelief.
“Our Georgia Baptist forefathers are rolling over in their graves,” said Gray Lambert, a messenger from Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. “Whoever would have thought that we would be associated with homosexuals?
“We need a spiritual revival in the Atlanta Baptist Association,” he said. “But this is terribly sad. We should pray for the leaders of this association.”
Lambert’s wife, Marie, agreed. “We are taught to love the homosexuals but are we supposed to accept their lifestyle?” she asked. “You want to love everyone, but I sure don’t think we should let them influence our children.”
Other messengers disputed the claims by Oakhurst church members that their congregation does not condone homosexuality.
“If you take up collections for Gay Pride Day in your church, then that is condoning,” said Ian Madge, a messenger from Northwest Baptist Church. “What’s next? Maybe we could have adulterers pride day or thieves pride day.
“I can’t believe these Christian people voted against this motion,” Lambert said.
Following the vote, Wyatt urged messengers to remain peaceful.
“We are a family of the Lord,” Wyatt said. “We have differed on the vote, but let us be together in spirit. I don’t see us as a group of adversaries.”
Boyd told Baptist Press his congregation can no longer affiliate with Baptists who affirm homosexuality.
“There is a much greater divide here and I’m afraid this would have been the first of many issues,” Boyd said. “We are ready to go.”
Chris Copeland, associate pastor of Oakhurst Baptist Church, told Baptist Press he was surprised that the association changed its bylaws but refused to expel the congregation.
“My hunch is it’s easier to expel someone when you don’t have to look at them in the face,” Copeland said.
While Copeland said his Baptist church has not performed a same-sex union, he said it is not out of the question.
“I think our church would probably be open to the possibility of having same-sex unions,” he said.
For some traditionally conservative Baptists, that’s all the more reason to leave the association. “There is a militant effort by those who proclaim this lifestyle to force it upon the rest of us,” Lambert said. “Dare we call ourselves Baptists if we do?”
Chris Graham, pastor of the CBF-affiliated Church of the Savior, came to the defense of the two pro-homosexual churches. “Virginia-Highland and Oakhurst have borne the brunt of this issue,” he said. “But they aren’t the only churches that have gay Christians. There is not some sinister movement coming from California. The question we have to ask is, Will we as a local association have the courage to do what the SBC and the CBF will not do?”
Joel Harrison, lead missionary for the association, told Baptist Press the association has not made contingency plans for a financial loss from churches leaving the organization.
“It’s too early to tell how many churches will leave,” he said.