News Articles

Calif. churches to break ties with ABCUSA over homosexuality; SBC’s break from BWA ‘the right thing,’ ABC conservative says

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–American Baptist churches in Southern California and the Southwest declared their intention to break formally from their national denomination by Dec. 31, and a second group in West Virginia likely will do the same next month.

Both groups cite the unwillingness of the American Baptist Churches (USA) to enforce the denomination’s official stance against homosexuality, pointing to their denomination’s acceptance of openly gay and “affirming” churches for membership, as the reason for their actions.

Leaders of the Pacific Southwest Region, composed of some 300 churches, said in a statement Sept. 12 that the denomination’s national leadership had been unresponsive to repeated calls from conservative churches to implement a 1992 resolution which declared that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” Brian Scrivens, president of the region’s executive board, said in a letter posted on the group’s Web site.

Scrivens said representatives from the Southwest Pacific Region and the national Executive Council, including General Secretary Roy Medley, met Sept. 9, but that their differences over the denomination’s stance on homosexuality had not been resolved.

“After the meetings the Board of Directors concluded that the theological convictions and values of the ABCUSA and the ABCPSW were irreconcilable, and that it was in the best interest of both for the ABCPSW to withdraw from its present standing in the denomination,” Scrivens said in the letter.

The national Executive Council in Valley Forge, Pa., expressed “deep regret” over the region’s action in a statement issued Sept. 14. “Our denomination has been blessed by the historic commitment by our regions to interdependent dialog and action for mission in the name of Christ. We grieve when partners in ministry move away from that covenantal relationship.”

The Executive Council also reaffirmed its “commitment to the Christ-centered biblical principles that have guided our communal life as a denomination since its beginning.” At issue, however, are the claims of the Pacific Southwest Region’s leaders that biblical principles have been ignored as groups such as the Wisconsin-based Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, composed largely of homosexual or “affirming” members, have been allowed to participate in denominational life.

Dale Salico, executive minister of the Pacific Southwest Region, wrote in a position paper on the region’s Web site that, despite the national denomination’s statement that homosexuality and Christianity are incompatible, “this policy has received very little implementation.”

“Publicly outspoken homosexuals continue to serve in leadership positions within American Baptist Regions, organizations, institutions, committees, commissions and other positions of leadership. Within many Regions the ordination of practicing homosexuals is endorsed. This has led many people inside and outside the ABC to conclude that this denomination has adopted positions advocated by homosexual activists,” Salico wrote.

Members of 65 American Baptist Churches aligned with the conservative West Virginia Baptists for Biblical Truth (WVBBT) will also decide at their convention next month whether or not they will withdraw from the ABCUSA, Jay Wolfe, chairman of the group, said in a news release Sept. 14. Wolfe said it was time for the churches to break with the national denomination since it condoned “flagrant sin in the church.”

Wolfe told Baptist Press that the issue of homosexuality has been a problem in the ABCUSA for more than 14 years. He said he and others raised concerns in the early 1990s when a group known as American Baptists Concerned, now the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB), manned an exhibit at the denomination’s biennial convention. He and others responded with repeated calls to have the denomination declare that homosexuality is incompatible with Christianity, an effort that resulted in the 1992 statement on homosexuality.

But conflict over homosexuality in the ABCUSA did not cease, Wolfe said. He said one church in Ohio and four in California, dis-fellowshipped by conservative churches for affirming homosexuality as an acceptable lifestyle, found fellowship with the Rochester/Genesee Region of New York — a move allowed after the General Board changed its bylaws to allow the congregations to seek fellowship outside of their region.

“We are pleased to know that our Christian brothers and sisters on the Left Coast are the first to do the right thing and stand on God’s Word,” Wolfe said of the Pacific Southwest Region. But his group is also taking a stand. In a letter to about 460 Baptist churches in West Virginia Sept. 9, WVBBT indicated that denominational leadership had ignored their concerns and refused to deal with the issue of homosexuality.

“Rather than modeling support of the 1992 resolution on homosexuality, the ABC/USA leaders are either voting or appointing individuals to fill important positions within the denomination who are either openly homosexual or members of AWAB churches,” WVBBT wrote.

The ABCUSA’s acceptance of gay-friendly churches was cited as one reason the Southern Baptist Convention decided to withdraw from the Baptist World Alliance, of which the ABCUSA is a member. Paige Patterson, president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a member of the SBC’s BWA study committee, said that the ABCUSA’s refusal to address the issue of homosexuality in its churches was evidence of the growing liberalism of parties that belonged to the BWA.

Patterson said the departure of conservative American Baptist churches from their national denomination was already in the making when the recommendation to withdraw from the BWA was brought before messengers at the SBC.

“This parting of the ways was already underway when I said what I did at the SBC. However, our statements did have the effect of establishing what many outside of the ABCUSA were unaware of and may, therefore, have hastened the departure,” he said. “Critics of the SBC decision to leave the BWA in light of the ABCUSA and other similar reasons will hopefully take note of this and reassess their criticisms so as to see that this was not a ‘silly mistake.’”

BWA General Secretary Denton Lotz defended the ABCUSA following the statement of the SBC’s BWA study committee in 2004, saying that the report would “hurt and shock” the denomination. Medley at the time indicated that a 1984 statement from the denomination about the family spoke clearly about its stance on homosexuality.

However, little has been done in the ABCUSA about groups such as the Evergreen Baptist Association in the Pacific Northwest, a group that accepts openly gay members. That inaction has resulted in the departure of the conservative churches in the Pacific Southwest Region, according to conservative leaders.

“For over two decades the ABCUSA has vacillated on the issue of homosexuality, seeking to retain in its membership both those advocating a ‘welcoming and affirming’ position and those holding to the position of classical Christianity on human sexuality issues,” Salico wrote. “The result of this vacillation has been the continued decline and stagnation of the ABCUSA, which at the present time has brought us perilously close to schism.”

Lotz was not immediately available for comment, but BWA Communications Coordinator Wendy Ryan said the BWA’s position on homosexuality is clear. Lotz, she said, recently told the Baptist World Congress that Christians must “stand up for a holy life, opposing pre-marital and extramarital sex, pornography and homosexual behavior.”

When asked by Baptist Press if the current situation with the American Baptist Churches (USA) would cause the BWA to re-evaluate the manner in which member bodies are accepted, Ryan said that “when our BWA leadership reflects on what is happening, you’ll know.”

Patterson said he hoped the BWA would “display integrity and inform its constituent bodies of what has happened and why.” In the meantime, he encouraged prayer for American Baptists in the Pacific Southwest Region and elsewhere.

“This is a sorrowful moment for these courageous brethren. Southern Baptists should pray for them for God’s comfort and guidance and we should lend every encouragement possible,” Patterson said.

Wolfe said 15 to 18 of the ABCUSA’s 35 regions may be contemplating a move away from the denomination. He also said he is grateful for the support of Southern Baptists and the denomination’s willingness to stand for truth.

“When I heard the statement from Paige Patterson about the BWA last year, and the ABC being pointed out as the example of churches where homosexuality had become a problem and where liberalism was an issue, I was surprised. I thought we had the issue settled. But we began to investigate the matter and found that the problem still existed and no one was doing anything about it,” Wolfe said.

“Because the Southern Baptists did the right thing and dis-fellowshipped us by withdrawing from the BWA, because Southern Baptists were faithful in doing that, it got our attention and was a catalyst for change.”

    About the Author

  • Gregory Tomlin