COLUMBUS, Ga. (BP)–The Georgia Baptist Convention by an overwhelming majority voted Nov. 15 to sever its 172-year-old relationship with Mercer University.
The vote was based on years of mistrust between the GBC and Mercer and was inflamed by the discovery in October of a student-led gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender organization that had existed since 2002.
The group’s “coming out day” on Oct. 11, sponsored by the Mercer Triangle Symposium, galvanized Georgia Baptists to cast a vote of no confidence in the ongoing relationship.
Just hours prior to the convention’s first session in Columbus, the GBC executive committee went into an executive session and agreed to present a motion to the messengers to sever ties with Mercer, one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the South.
Mercer, the second-largest Baptist-affiliated educational institution in the world with 7,300 students, traces its roots with Georgia Baptists to its 1833 founding by Jesse Mercer in Penfield, Ga. Mercer relocated to its current Macon campus in 1871.
Fred Evers, pastor of Northside Baptist Church in Tifton, represented the GBC executive committee and brought the motion for the convention to separate from Mercer.
The motion included three actions: 1) that the relationship of the Georgia convention and Mercer be discontinued; 2) that the matter be brought before the GBC for approval at the 2006 meeting; 3) and that the GBC executive director and Mercer’s president confer and take action as necessary to provide for an orderly discontinuance of the relationship.
Evers, speaking to the motion, contended that the Georgia convention is no longer compatible with the university in either theology or purpose. He illustrated his case by referring to Godsey’s 1996 book, “When We Talk About God, Let’s Be Honest.” He stated that the book had created a considerable amount of discontent toward Mercer among Georgia Baptists because of its deviation from biblical doctrine and theology.
Evers also cited an identity crisis, stating, “The administration of Mercer often wishes to identify itself with Baptist heritage, but we need our institutions to identify with Georgia Baptists.”
In an effort to appease Georgia Baptists just 72 hours prior to the convention, Mercer President Kirby Godsey released a memorandum in which he stated, “I have been deeply concerned about the problems that have arisen regarding the Mercer Triangle Symposium. In an effort to be sensitive to the concerns of our Baptist constituents, two actions have been taken: (1) The Mercer Triangle Symposium has been disbanded. (2) I have issued a new policy that the President’s Office reserves the right to review and to approve the creation of student organizations.”
Alluding to the Godsey memorandum, Evers commented, “Why change the Mercer Triangle Symposium now? The symposium should have never been allowed on the Mercer Campus in the first place. The problem is that Mercer has created an environment where such a thing can begin and flourish.”
The Tifton pastor said it was particularly troubling that supporters of the symposium’s “Coming Out Day” included faculty and members of Mercer’s department of Christianity.
Evers concluded his remarks by explaining, “We are in a culture war. The world is changing and we need a biblical worldview. What we are attempting to do here has nothing to do with a hatred of homosexuals. God commands us to love all people. The greatest thing we can do for those who are struggling with this difficulty is to proclaim the truth that is only found in Holy Scripture.”
A motion to postpone the matter was made by Mike Ruffin of The Hill Baptist Church of Augusta. When Ruffin’s motion was ruled out of order, Ruffin asked if the motion could be tabled and was told that parliamentary rules would not permit that. Ruffin stated later that he was concerned that the scholarship money provided by the convention would be withheld to the detriment of deserving Georgia Baptist students.
Godsey was invited to the platform and appealed to the messengers to defeat the motion, reminding them that the school and convention had walked together for many years.
The Mercer president reasoned, “We are educating the best and brightest of your young people. The Georgia Baptist Convention invests $3.5 million in the university and all of that goes to educate Georgia Baptist students. We have tripled that amount so that the total amount provided to educate Georgia Baptist students is $11.6 million.”
Godsey continued, “Much has been made of the Mercer Triangle Symposium. When it existed, it showed grace to those who were trapped in that lifestyle. Mercer University has never promoted, advocated or encouraged gay or lesbian behavior. Discussion, yes, but encouragement, never.
“I believe the underlying issue in this matter is governance. For almost 175 years our relationship has been built on cooperation, not governance. I am convinced that the future of Mercer and the Georgia Baptist Convention would be diminished by this action and the unified work of the Kingdom would be diminished by this action.”
Mike Stone, pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in Blackshear, responded to Godsey’s comments, saying, “Actions speak louder than words. All we have heard is a fundraising speech for $3.5 million. It is tragic that Mercer has created the kind of atmosphere where this kind of situation [a homosexual coming out day] can take place.”
Stone added, “Not only am I concerned about the actions and atmosphere, but the authority. This institution has departed from the authority of God’s Word. Certainly, they are free to do that, but not on our nickel.”
Kevin Calhoun, pastor of Hilton Terrace Baptist Church in Columbus and a member of Mercer’s Georgia Baptist advisory committee, urged further dialogue between the GBC and Mercer’s leaders. “I think further communication between Mercer’s leadership and the GBC would result in a clearer understanding of the situation and thus help us to make a more informed decision,” Calhoun said.
GBC Executive Director J. Robert White, in addressing the 1,825 messengers present for the vote, cited issues of incompatibility over the past several decades. He declared that the stated purpose of the Mercer Triangle Symposium was contrary to the values of the convention and specified, “It is time to make this decision.”
Bucky Kennedy, pastor of First Baptist Church in Vidalia, moved for a vote to be taken. Voting by raising their ballots, only a smattering of messengers registered their opposition to the initial step in discontinuing the relationship with Mercer University.
Gerald Harris is editor of The Christian Index, newsjournal of the Georgia Baptist Convention. The full recommendation of the GBC executive committee can be accessed at http://cmp.gabaptist.org/content.asp?PAGE=504.