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Theology drift voiced as key issue in rift between NAMB & D.C. Baptists

WASHINGTON (BP)–A drift from historic Christianity by the District of Columbia Baptist Convention, as perceived by two Southern Baptist church leaders there, fuels their support of North American Mission Board requests to the D.C. convention for greater accountability for funding from the Southern Baptist Convention.

The DCBC executive board rejected NAMB’s requests in a March 11 closed meeting, and NAMB leaders have begun the process of reviewing the DCBC response.

A key component of NAMB’s request involved assigning a NAMB missionary responsibility over NAMB ministries in the D.C. convention.

Jim Burcham, pastor of First Baptist Church, Upper Marlboro, Md., who attended the March 11 meeting, told Baptist Press March 13, “In the D.C. area, we live, I believe, in a theological fog. There is a need to take a stand.” Burcham referenced the DCBC executive board-adopted policy to take no stance on the statements of beliefs of the three national bodies to which the D.C. convention relates: the Southern Baptist Convention, the American Baptist Churches and the Progressive National Baptist Convention. Burcham said he believes the DCBC nevertheless could “resolve to take a stand and not remain in theological limbo. I feel that we need to guard against the encroachment of worldviews which are contrary to biblical Christianity. As the old statement goes, If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”

Among various examples of the doctrinal slippage in the D.C. convention, Burcham said, is an editorial in the convention’s Capital Baptist newspaper by editor Bob Maddox.

Maddox, in an eight-paragraph editorial in August 2001 titled, “The Planes We Miss (and Catch),” wrote, “Now, in our own time, gradually we are recognizing the need for inter-denominational cooperation in addressing huge systemic problems in our country and world. The next step is to understand and embrace brothers and sisters across the yawning chasm that divides the religions. Smart we are, and Christian, to recognize that millions of men and women with strange-sounding names are American-born citizens with all the privileges and responsibilities that appertain thereto. They love this country, contribute magnificently to the commonwealth, and want to pass on to their children the blessings of liberty. They simply worship in ways different from ours.

“In these opening days of the 21st century, we simply must do a better job in relating redemptively with people of homosexual orientation,” Maddox continued. “Too long have elements of the church used a highly selective and suspect biblical hermeneutic to relegate capable, committed Christians with a different sexual orientation to the outer limits of religious culture. Pro-slavery and pro-segregation folks of previous centuries used the same methods to sustain those unfortunate views.”

NAMB President Robert E. Reccord, in a March 13 statement to Baptist Press, voiced disappointment that the convention appeared to have rejected NAMB’s proposal. NAMB leaders and trustees will carefully study the DCBC response and relationship, Reccord said. Although the DCBC asked for a formal reply regarding the future of the D.C.-NAMB partnership in 45 days, Reccord said he felt no time constraints considering the DCBC took nearly six months to response to NAMB’s original proposal.

Reccord also noted that NAMB leaders were disappointed that neither their representatives nor news reporters were allowed to attend the closed-door meeting so that they and Southern Baptists could better understand the response.

Jeffrey Haggray, the DCBC executive director/minister, told Baptist Press March 12 that the meeting was closed because, “We felt that the pastors and members of our churches would feel more free to dialogue more openly if they did not have to be concerned with whether they would be quoted or not.”

Some D.C. church members are employees of various Baptist entities, Haggray said, explaining that they should be able to represent their churches apart from their employment. “I felt that the dialogue was enhanced by freedom of speech,” Haggray reflected.

Of the DCBC response to NAMB, Haggray said, “The statement that was adopted by the executive board is a Christlike response to the concerns that have been raised to us by the North American Mission Board. I think that Baptists will find no surprises in what we have said. We have affirmed that our mission and core values are consistent with biblical teaching and of the SBC and NAMB. And we’ve also affirmed the autonomy of the state convention and the local church. We have requested to continue to be in partnership with NAMB.”

Haggray said he was “heartened by the amount of consensus and unanimity” at the meeting, which encompassed “the full spectrum of thought in Baptist life from conservative to moderate to liberal.”

A tense moment occurred, however, when Greg Gilbert, a pastoral assistant at Capitol Hill Baptist Church, made a motion that the DCBC affirm the SBC’s Baptist Faith and Message. The motion was greeted by calls of “No, No!” along with boos and banging on the tables among the 170 church representatives in attendance — and one or two “very loud seconds,” Gilbert recounted.

The motion was ruled out of order by the convention’s president, Carol Wilson, in consultation with Haggray. Gilbert was accorded a later chance to make a motion to amend the meeting’s agenda to allow for his motion, but the motion failed, with only a few votes in support.

Haggray became the D.C. convention’s executive director/minister last year after the retirement of longtime exec Jere Allen. He was unavailable for comment March 13 on theology matters voiced by Burcham and another church representative.

NAMB leaders in their October proposal outlined conditions for future partnership with the D.C. convention, which they said had “grown increasingly distant from the Southern Baptist Convention, its positions and priorities.”

A key component of their proposal was NAMB’s provision of an additional missionary with supervisory responsibility over NAMB-funded ministries, which currently includes eight missionaries funded jointly by NAMB and DCBC.

Such functions historically have been the responsibility of the convention’s executive director, but the NAMB proposal stated the new structure was necessary because of theological differences among the convention’s national partners. Concerns were cited over such issues as abortion, homosexuality and women pastors.

While NAMB contributes $475,000 of the DCBC’s $1.5 million budget for 2002, the only other funding from a national convention partner is $45,000 from the American Baptist Churches.

In its proposal NAMB also noted concerns over criticism of the SBC and its leaders by speakers at DCBC events and in the convention’s newsletter, the Capital Baptist. Also, the agency noted a lack of confidence that SBC funding would result in uniquely SBC churches and events, and concerns were expressed about convention promotion of “cultural festivals” that include non-Christian religious organizations.

In their response, the DCBC said that while it remains committed to cooperation with the Southern Baptist Convention, the proposed organizational change “would segregate our program and staff along denominational lines. Supervising all DCBC staff in the historical autonomous way is the most pragmatic and effective way to effect the mission goals and core values with all aligned national bodies.”

The DCBC response said accountability procedures already are in place for administration of NAMB funds and that “collaboration in the current manner should continue.”

Regarding other concerns, the DCBC defended participation in “cultural festivals” as being appropriate forums for interfaith dialogue and Christian witness. The response also denied that invited guests at meeting had denigrated the SBC or its leaders.

On the issue of statements in the Capital Baptist, the response stated that out of sensitivity to NAMB concerns efforts would be made to “provide appropriate disclaimers” when opinions are printed that do not represent official DCBC positions.

“We have in the past, and will to a greater degree in the future, promoted support for and participation in the work of the SBC with which we cooperate,” the response states. “Willful denigration of other Baptists is inconsistent with our mission to promote harmony of feeling and concert of action.”

Burcham told Baptist Press the DCBC stance will prompt First Baptist Church of Upper Marlboro to re-examine its relationship with the D.C. convention, in which the congregation is the second-largest contributor.

“There is an obvious problem in a convention when, during the months of January and February [2002], 72 percent of their churches and missions gave nothing to the DCBC,” Burcham said. “It says to me there is a very serious issue of cooperation. No matter how much they want unity, it says there is not unity of purpose.”

Burcham said the church “has been discontent with the direction of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention for some time,” citing the DCBC’s apparent openness to several churches with ordained women as pastors, the convention’s various interfaith involvements and an uncertain tone regarding homosexuality.

Burcham said he is not opposed to studies of other religious beliefs or dialogue with other faith representatives but is opposed to “alliances” as reflected, for example, in the leader of The Interfaith Alliance being one of the featured speakers during the DCBC annual meeting last year.

Concerning homosexuality, Burcham cited a Capital Baptist news item in July 2001 reporting that one DCBC church, Ravensworth, is “engaging in an in-house survey and discussion about the congregation’s attitude toward welcoming and affirming homosexual persons.”

Burcham questioned the item’s appropriateness for the Capital Baptist and, moreover, wondered, “Why should it even be discussed in a Baptist church?”

Gilbert of Capitol Hill Baptist Church acknowledged that the congregation is not making any contributions to the D.C. convention. Of the apparent DCBC drift from historic Christianity, Gilbert said, “We’re seeing it much more clearly here in D.C., being right beside it all.

“We would not want to give a cent or assent to some of the things they are doing,” Gilbert said, acknowledging, however, that the D.C. convention also has some good programs such as an outreach to the homeless.

The DCBC drift, Gilbert said, is reflected, for example, in the Capital Baptist’s promotion of a November 1999 concert involving “Eight Faith Traditions,” titled, “A Celebration of the Sacred in Song and Dance and Chant.”

“We just don’t want to confuse people about the gospel,” Gilbert said. “In these different interfaith events, the idea is to make small the differences between different religions. As Christians who believe that God has given us one way to himself, and that’s through Jesus Christ, we don’t ever want to give the impression that any religion at all is an equal path to God.

“Participation in these interfaith events can serve very much to confuse people in that way,” Gilbert said.