NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–A faction within one of the more prominent churches in the Southern Baptist Convention, Nashville’s Two Rivers Baptist, is seeking to oust Pastor Jerry Sutton over a series of allegations. However, Sutton says he is praying for reconciliation.
Sutton is a former SBC first vice president who finished third in the presidential election last year. He’s also a former president of the Pastors’ Conference and the author of “The Baptist Reformation,” a history of the SBC’s Conservative Resurgence.
The group has launched a website and is seeking to gather enough signatures — which must be at least 10 percent of the membership — to hold a church meeting to vote on whether to remove Sutton, the Tennessean reported Aug. 15. A two-thirds vote would be required, church members told the newspaper. The Associated Press has also reported on the conflict.
“Is reconciliation possible? Sure it is,” Sutton told Baptist Press. “My prayer every day is, ‘Lord, would you help me to know how to relate to people rightly?’ … When you give your life to Jesus Christ, you lose forever the right to decide who you will and will not love.'”
Peggy Lewis, a church member who is part of the dissident group, would not say how many signatures already are on the petition. The group has 12 leaders and hundreds of supporters, she told the Tennessean.
“It breaks my heart because I love the church,” Lewis said of the controversy, according to the newspaper. “I pray for him every day.”
Sutton said he’s not questioning the group’s motivation.
“They love the church, and I know that for the most part their motive is to protect the church,” he said. “… But going to the press has hurt the reputation of the church. Now, is it damaged irreparably? Of course not. But there’s no biblical reason to take church conflict to the public.”
The church had a meeting in July where the allegations were addressed.
The website the group launched has crashed and still was down Wednesday afternoon. However, it previously had listed eight concerns: “steady decline in membership,” “lack of accountability in finances,” “poor stewardship of God’s people,” “authoritarian style church management,” “rapid turnover rate of church staff in the past 10 years,” “lavish lifestyle and receptions,” “questionable allegations,” “serious communication issues.”
Some of the specific allegations have been made public. For instance, one involves a wedding reception for Sutton’s daughter allegedly paid for by the church. Sutton, though, told BP the church paid for only half of the food, and only because staff members felt it was important to invite everyone in the church. Staff members wanted to help deflate the cost because of the large, open invitation list, Sutton said, adding that the budget and finance committee approved it.
“The consensus was, ‘You’re the pastor, you don’t have a choice [who to invite]’,” Sutton said. “The follow-up question [by staff] was, ‘What can we do to make that work?'”
Once the reception’s financing became controversial, Sutton said, a church member voluntarily reimbursed the church for the costs.
The petition drive to remove Sutton began in July, the Tennessean said, after Sutton and other church leaders asked that church trustee Frank Harris be removed from membership. Although a majority voted for removal, some members called the vote invalid because church protocol for such votes wasn’t followed. Harris had been critical of Sutton and questioned some of the expenditures. Sutton and other leaders said Harris had been divisive.
“Anyone who voiced opposition to leadership was alienated and lost any ministries they may have had in the church,” Harris told AP. He also said he believes the church has gone from a “people-led church to a staff-run church.”
Said Hutchings, “[The vote on Harris] was a tough decision. There has to be submission and authority. It’s OK to have disagreements. But Frank started taking his disagreements to and causing division in the [church] body.”
The church has two services: a traditional one and a more contemporary one. Members of the group seeking Sutton’s removal tend to be “older, long-term members” and attend the traditional service, the Tennessean reported.
Sutton said membership has “never been higher,” although “attendance is off a little bit.” The 2006 Annual Church Profile showed that Two Rivers had 6,829 members and an average of 1,573 primary worship service attendance. It also had 137 baptisms that year.
“Those are issues we’re dealing with,” he said of attendance. “We know that because of the demographics in the city, we’re having to change some of our ministries. And I suspect that some of the change is part of what is driving the conflict, quite honestly. The contemporary service is at the top of the list.”
The contemporary service is moving from the church’s chapel to the larger worship center this Sunday, he added.
“Our guess is that within a year it will be running somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 people,” he said. “The fact that it’s not a traditional blended service I’m sure is a frustration for some people.”
Regarding the financial allegations, Sutton said the church undergoes an external audit each year and “always gets a clean bill of health.”
Two Rivers has been in the national headlines three times in recent years for its hosting of Christian conservative rallies. Last October it hosted a pre-election “Stand for the Family” rally sponsored by Focus on the Family Action where James Dobson, Richard Land and other leaders spoke. In 2005 it hosted “Justice Sunday II,” a rally highlighting court rulings on such issues as abortion and Ten Commandments displays. Dobson also spoke at the event, which was held three weeks before the confirmation hearing of now-Supreme Court Justice John Roberts. Also, in 2005, “Hardball with Chris Matthews” hosted a program at the church focusing on religion’s role in politics.
Sutton said an official statement will be posted on the church’s website later Wednesday at www.tworivers.org. The list of concerns by the dissident group can be viewed online www.trbcinfo.com.
Michael Foust is assistant editor of Baptist Press