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North Carolina church at center of national controversy over politics & church discipline

WAYNESVILLE, N.C. (BP)–A North Carolina Southern Baptist church is at the center of a national controversy over whether several of its members were ousted because of their political beliefs and habits.

According to the Asheville Citizen-Times newspaper, nine members of East Waynesville Baptist Church — four men and five women — allege they were removed from the church because they disagreed with the pastor over politics. Eight of the group reportedly are Democrats; one claims to be Republican.

A business meeting is scheduled to take place May 10 at the church to address the situation. The pastor, Chan Chandler, released a statement Sunday, May 8, denying that politics was involved.

“The goal of East Waynesville Baptist Church is to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and dying world,” the statement, printed in the Citizen-Times, read. “This church fellowships openly with all who embrace the authority and application of the Bible regardless of political affiliation, including current members who align themselves with both major political parties, as well as those who affiliate with no political party.

“No one has ever been voted from the membership of this church due to an individual’s support or lack of support for a political party or candidate. All matters of the church are internal in nature and are resolved accordingly.”

The story has captured the attention of the national media. A headline at USAToday.com read: “Democrats voted out of church because of their politics, members say.”

The nine claim that during a meeting held May 2, they were voted out of the church. The nine attended the church’s May 8 service, which had about 70 members in attendance.

One of the reportedly ousted members, Edith Nichols, said the sermon May 8 “was the first sermon I’ve heard since October that politics wasn’t mentioned,” according to the Citizen-Times.

Chandler, who was unavailable for comment to Baptist Press May 9, told WLOS-TV that “the actions were not politically motivated” and called the entire process a “great misunderstanding.”

“I’m glad you’re here today. I can honestly say that,” he said at the church service May 8, according to the Citizen-Times. “We’re here to worship. I hope that’s what you’re here for.”

Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, said he does not know if the media account has been correct but that he would be opposed to disciplining someone for how they vote.

“I don’t know the particulars of the situation, but I certainly acknowledge the right of each local autonomous congregation to decide the requirements for membership in their church,” Land told BP. “However, I would also add that the right to determine membership does not always mean that it is exercised in a correct fashion. I believe it would never — never — be appropriate or acceptable for a local Baptist church to decide membership based upon how a person votes.

“I believe that preachers and pastors have a responsibility and an obligation to preach what the Bible says about moral, social public policy issues and to encourage people to vote, and when they vote, to vote their values, their beliefs and their convictions. But the decision about the candidate must remain part of the individual responsibility of the priesthood of all believers. A person’s casting of a ballot should never be a cause for church discipline.”

Even if a person voted against a constitutional marriage amendment — similar to what will be on the ballot in at least four states next year — it would not be cause for church discipline, Land said.

“They need to be at church more than anybody else to hear why they need to change their mind,” Land said of a person voting against a marriage amendment. “If you remove them from membership then you’ve lost the opportunity to share with them and to help them understand that they need to strongly support traditional marriage.”

But Land said there are clear biblical examples of when church discipline is warranted.

“If a person is living in a homosexual lifestyle, then they are going against the clear teachings of Scripture and they should be disciplined in order to keep the witness of the church pure and hopefully to help them understand the gravity of their situation with the Lord,” he said. “But there’s a massive difference between living a lifestyle — either in homosexuality or adultery or the drug culture — that is clearly contradictory to Scripture and exercising a voting decision that may be erroneous or poor judgment. But erroneous and poor judgment should never lead to being removed from church membership.”
With reporting by Art Toalston.

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  • Michael Foust