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Georgia church could face ouster from state over homosexual stance

ATLANTA (BP)–Oakhurst Baptist Church, Decatur, Ga. will become the first congregation removed from the fellowship of the Georgia Baptist Convention in its 177-year history if messengers to the annual meeting Nov.15-16 in Macon approve a recommendation adopted by the convention’s executive committee during its Sept. 14 meeting.
With just one audible dissent, the committee voted to recommend withdrawal from fellowship with the 86-year-old congregation known for its extensive social ministries in a racially and economically diverse community. Such a move would apparently be an unprecedented action according to several people familiar with Baptist history.
“I find no place where the state convention has excluded a church,” said Charles O. Walker of Jasper who has written extensively on Baptists in Georgia. However, he recalled occasions when Baptist associations made similar decisions based on such issues as “the Free Will controversy” in the 1830s.
The vote on Oakhurst was the anticipated result of a constitutional amendment, approved by messengers to the 1998 annual meeting in Columbus, stating that membership for “a cooperating church does not include (one) which knowingly takes, or has taken, any action to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”
That action provided a process whereby concerns would come to the GBC executive director for exploration and recommendation. Two churches, Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland in Atlanta, received inquiries from J. Robert White, executive director, and Gerald Harris, state convention president and pastor of Marietta’s Eastside Baptist Church.
White told committee members that a written response from the Virginia-Highland church was expected in October and that a report will be made at the next executive committee meeting scheduled prior to the GBC annual meeting in Macon.
In recommending the removal of the Oakhurst congregation Harris expressed brokenheartedness and compared the action to “sending a child away from home.” However, Harris said while he admired much about Oakhurst’s ministries, their position on homosexuality was “clearly outside the parameters established by our Convention.”
Following a meeting Harris and White held with Lanny Peters, pastor of Oakhurst, the congregation formed a committee to draft a lengthy written response that was adopted unanimously. During the executive committee meeting, White read the document that details the church’s history of ministry to refugees, addicts, homeless people and those with disabilities and their “struggle with questions of who is to be included around the Lord’s table.”
The statement affirmed that while members of the congregation have different opinions about homosexuality, and “have wrestled with the question of human sexuality…as one of the most difficult and volatile issues Christians face,” Oakhurst is “a welcoming and affirming place in which lesbian and gay Christians are embraced as full members of our congregation.”
The document adopted in church conference last June also states the church covenant was adapted in 1997 to read “…We reject any status in this fellowship in terms of church office, possessions, education, race, age, gender, sexual orientation, mental ability, physical ability, or other distinctions.”
White said while most Baptists could agree with much of that statement, “We cannot accept homosexuality as normative.” He added the “Georgia Baptist Convention clearly didn’t reject ministry to the homosexual” in their actions.
When questioned about the final result, White said, “It is very difficult to come up with what one might consider appropriate verbiage…about ‘disfellowship.’” However, he said a positive vote in November would mean Oakhurst could not send voting messengers to annual convention meetings and that mission gifts from the congregation would no longer be accepted.
When contacted following the meeting, Peters said he was not surprised by the vote but was disappointed to see an apparent end to the church’s long relationship with the convention.
“We’ve been a Georgia Baptist Convention church since 1913,” said Peters, noting records indicate a special offering for state missions was received at the organizational meeting.
Peters said his conversations and correspondence with convention leaders “were all very positive” in tone, but his complaint was that this single issue, “that we have looked at and taken seriously,” would be the only one addressed.
Peters said the Oakhurst congregation would be in disagreement, however, with the position adopted by the convention in that, “We believe homosexuality is an orientation more than a lifestyle.”
He said while church members “are not as one” on the issue of homosexuality they would be “united on local churches’ rights to decide matters of faith without intrusion from outside and (the) belief on inclusiveness of all people.”
Executive committee member James Faircloth of Ashburn commended convention leaders for their method of handling the controversial action. He compared their approach to using a scalpel in surgery rather than a hatchet.
In a separate but related matter, the committee approved $30,000 to establish a counseling program for sexual addiction through the Verdery Center for Pastoral Care of the Georgia Baptist Health Care System.