NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Following the approval of a large majority of its churches, the board of the American Baptist Churches Pacific Southwest region voted unanimously May 11 to withdraw from its covenant relationship with its parent denomination. The board’s action makes final the separation of the 300-church region from the American Baptist Churches (USA) in Valley Forge, Pa.
The decision comes after eight months of discussion and a vote on the part of the region’s churches in late April to recommend that the board withdraw over the refusal of the ABC (USA) to deal with the acceptance of churches with lax policies on homosexuality in the denomination.
“The overwhelming response of delegates from the churches was a mandate in the minds of the members of the Board of Directors,” Dale Salico, executive minister for the region, said in a statement after the vote May 11. “We had asked the churches to enter a period of spiritual discernment on our relationship with the ABC (USA), and to come to the April 29 meeting prepared either to confirm or to correct the discernment of the Region Board. An overwhelming majority of the delegates voted in favor of withdrawal from the Covenant of Relationship.”
Theological differences between the Pacific Southwest region and the national denomination have made “close cooperation” between the two difficult for many years, according to the statement from the board. Many of the denomination’s self-governing regions, such as the Evergreen Association in Washington and the Rochester-Genesee region in New York, openly accept churches disassociated from other regions because they accept unrepentant homosexuals as members. The denomination’s general board has refused to discipline the regions who accept such churches, citing Baptist freedom and local church autonomy as reasons.
The Pacific Southwest region may not be the last region to break with the 1.5-million member parent denomination. American Baptists in West Virginia narrowly rejected a proposal to withdraw from the ABC (USA) at their meeting last year. The Indiana-Kentucky region has also proposed a change in the denomination’s bylaws that will not allow churches to transfer to another region when removed over the issue of homosexuality. Homosexuality-friendly regions oppose the new bylaw and have petitioned to reject the proposed change.
The withdrawal of the Pacific Southwest region, with its churches in California, Hawaii, Nevada and Arizona, touched off a wave of responses from leaders of the ABC (USA). Roy Medley, general secretary of the denomination, said in a statement that “God’s heart is broken when sisters and brothers in Christ divide over matters of scriptural interpretation.”
“This parting of the ways will not diminish our passion, commitment and undaunted spirit to move forward in mission and ministry,” Medley said.
Tony Campolo, a well-known American Baptist speaker and a professor of sociology at Eastern University, said he also was disappointed. “The decision hurts some of the finest missionary work in today’s world. More important, it runs counter to the prayer of Christ that we might all be one people,” Campolo said.
Judy Allbee, executive minister of the American Baptist churches in Connecticut, said “it is a sad day for the cause of Jesus Christ when one part of the body cannot tolerate being with the rest of the body.” She said the decision of the Pacific Southwest region was the result of the region’s belief that it was in sole possession of the truth.
Problems in American Baptist life surfaced more than a decade ago when a group calling itself the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists (AWAB) appeared. The group supports the appointment of openly homosexual ministers and the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle in Baptist circles.
AWAB President Ken Perkins said his organization has no official position on the split between the Pacific Southwest region and the ABC (USA), but that he believed homosexuality should not be a dividing issue. “I believe it is possible to maintain unity in the ABC without doctrinal agreement over homosexuality,” Perkins said.
Perkins said he did not know what other regions might do in response to the withdrawal of the Pacific Southwest region, but his response reveals the growing number of American Baptist regions that welcome churches open to the acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle.
“I’m extraordinarily grateful for regions like Evergreen, Rochester-Genesee, Wisconsin, Metropolitan New York, Metro Chicago, Massachusetts and the Philadelphia Association which are known for their extravagant welcome of all into the family of God. I hope other regions may eventually move in the same direction,” Perkins said.
A statement from the Roger Williams Fellowship, an American Baptist group self-described as a “grassroots organization advocating for Baptist principles,” said it lamented the withdrawal of the Pacific Southwest region. Their regret, they noted, was “tempered by a repudiation” of the Pacific Southwest region’s demand that the denomination enforce its 1992 position statement on homosexuality.
The fellowship also said that the Pacific Southwest region had articulated a “fundamentally flawed vision” of the Baptist tradition and American Baptist life. “We affirm that God alone is sovereign over the individual conscience, and that each local church has the responsibility to determine God’s calling for that community’s time and mission.”
But the members of the Pacific Southwest region’s board insist that they made the right decision by following the teachings of Scripture on homosexuality in the church. Brian Scrivens, president of the Pacific Southwest region, wrote in a letter to American Baptist churches in his region last year that the issues with the national denomination stem from differences over biblical authority and accountability. He said in the letter that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”
In a statement issued after the May 11 vote, Scrivens said the decision to withdraw was “made without animosity or malice.” He said the now separated churches of the region “will continue to pray for God’s blessing on the ABC (USA), its leadership, agencies and congregations.”
The ABC (USA) is a longtime member of the Baptist World Alliance (BWA), a global Baptist fellowship. The Southern Baptist Convention withdrew from the BWA last year, in part, after the organization refused to address the issue of the acceptance of homosexuality in the American Baptist churches. Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary President Paige Patterson, then a member of the SBC’s BWA study committee, said Southern Baptists could “no longer afford to be aligned in any way” with any group that condones the practice of homosexuality in churches.
Patterson’s statement about the ABC (USA) was described by Medley, general secretary of the denomination, as “completely outrageous” and only a pretense for withdrawal from the BWA.