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Ga. Baptists dismiss 2 churches for affirming homosexuality

MACON, Ga. (BP)–Messengers to the Georgia Baptist Convention annual meeting Nov. 16 overwhelmingly voted to “withdraw fellowship” from two Atlanta-area congregations over their policies and practices concerning homosexuality.
The action that drew wide media coverage centered on Oakhurst Baptist Church in Decatur and Virginia-Highland Baptist Church in one of Atlanta’s most popular in-town communities. Both church settings include large numbers of gay and lesbian persons.
It marked the first time the GBC has dismissed a church in its 177-year history. In recent years the state convention in Texas has cut ties with one member congregation and the Southern Baptist Convention has dismissed two North Carolina churches for similar reasons.
The motion to dismiss Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland came from the convention’s executive committee and was preceded by GBC Executive Director J. Robert White’s explanation of how the churches were determined to be out of “harmony and cooperation” with the convention. Last year messengers approved a constitutional change stating that “a cooperating church does not include (one) which knowingly takes, or has taken, any action to affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”
“The greatest act of love,” White said, “is to tell the truth about sin,” while noting that homosexuality “is not the unpardonable sin.” However, he said, “If the church declares that sin is not sin, is not the shedding of Christ’s blood on Calvary in vain?”
White noted that both churches allow for homosexual and lesbian members to hold positions of leadership and that a commitment service for two homosexuals at Virginia-Highland was “out of keeping with who we are as Georgia Baptists.”
Both pastors, Lanny Peters of Oakhurst and Timothy Shirley of Virginia-Highland, addressed the messengers. “Our church has been in dialogue for 20 years about homosexuality,” Peters said, adding that the issue “shouldn’t be dealt with in 10 minutes at this convention.”
Peters moved that “the motion be referred back for a time of dialogue” between convention leaders and his congregation, which he described as lay-led and uninvolved in previous conversations. His motion failed.
Shirley told messengers his congregation did not “retreat to the ‘safe’ suburbs” when faced with “sweeping changes” but “chose to remain and minister with the new mix of residents,” including “a large percentage of folk [who] were gay and lesbian.”
He added that the congregation “has opened its doors to ‘whosoever will’ and invites persons to come ‘just as they are.'”
Prior to the motions, discussions and votes, White strongly encouraged the media to be accurate in representing the convention’s position on homosexuality. A printed release stated that the convention “encourages all Georgia Baptist churches to minister to all people, no matter what their backgrounds are, including homosexuals” and “that Christ’s grace extends to all.”
The release also stated that the vote to “withdraw fellowship” from these two churches was tied directly to the constitutional amendment regarding churches that “affirm, approve or endorse homosexual behavior.”
Both churches had earlier submitted written responses to the executive committee concerning their positions on homosexuals in leadership roles and other related matters. Also, the pastors had conversations about these issues with White and GBC President Gerald Harris, pastor of Eastside Church in Marietta.
“I cannot tell you how much this whole issue grieves me,” said Harris when it came time to consider the motion. Twice he admonished messengers not to applaud, but to pray when arguments were made on behalf of the motion.
“The issue before us is not homosexuality … (or) soul freedom … (or) church autonomy … (but) fidelity to the truth of the Word of God,” said James Merritt, pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville, speaking against Peters’ request that the motion be referred to allow for further dialogue.
James Lamkin, pastor of Atlanta’s Northside Drive Baptist Church who spoke against the motion to remove the Virginia-Highland from fellowship, called the voting results “a forgone conclusion,” which “just feels tacky to me.” He added that “the only thing the vote will reveal is who we are, not who God is.”
Paul Weldon, pastor of Society Hill Baptist Church in Fort Valley, spoke in favor of the motion to dismiss Oakhurst, insisting that on the issue of homosexuality “the Bible is very clear.”
After limited discussions from the floor following each of the motions, messengers ousted Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland from convention fellowship in separate secret ballots by votes of 2,086-262 and 2,111-228, respectively. According to their pastors Oakhurst has an active congregation of about 300 and Virginia-Highland has about 60 active members.
“I was very disappointed today in how it was handled,” Peters told reporters after the votes were tallied. He said the Oakhurst congregation desired further dialogue but sensed from the convention “a fear of having face to face conversations with fellow Christians, Baptists.”
Peters also said he “felt a sense of betrayal” and thought White’s comments prior to the motions were “in favor of the motion” and “should have been ruled out of order.”
White responded by saying he was simply “giving a report” on the process that had been followed leading up to the motions to dismiss the two churches.
Harris told the media he has “a great deal of respect for Rev. Peters and Rev. Shirley” and hopes that the convention’s action “may result in a [future] reconciliation with these two churches.”
Shirley said Virginia-Highland had not contributed to the Georgia Baptist Convention in about seven years and that the vote would have no direct impact on their ministry. “One of the wonderful things about being Baptist is that we are autonomous; we chart our own course,” he said. Shirley said that though the vote seemed to cut off dialogue, he “saw a glimmer of hope in Gerald Harris’ comments” and that he would be open to any future opportunities for discussions.
“We read the Bible and we come down on different sides,” Harris said, adding, “If anybody got any pleasure out of this, they had to be out of the will of God.”
In a separate but related matter, the convention approved a resolution opposing acts of violence toward homosexual persons.

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  • John D. Pierce