Like some other mainstream Protestant denominations, the 1.5-million-member American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. has been brought to the brink of schism by division over homosexuality. In narrow votes, its General Board, meeting last month in Des Moines, rejected the appeals of four pro-homosexual northern California churches that had been "disfellowshipped" in 1996 by an ABC regional unit. Barring legal or last-minute jurisdictional challenges, their expulsion from the ABC takes effect next week.
A fifth dismissed church, First Baptist of Granville, Ohio, escaped the ax by a vote of 79 to 73 before lunch. The other four votes were taken after lunch amid more vigorous debate.
The action to oust the four churches ran counter to the strong recommendation of ABC General Secretary Daniel E. Weiss and his executive committee at ABC headquarters in Valley Forge. At the denomination's biennial convention, which immediately followed the Board's meeting, Mr. Weiss declared to the some 3,000 attendees: "There is no place for thought police among us." He said the dismissals raised basic questions about the autonomy of local churches and the right of individual interpretation of the Bible.
But if the appeals had been sustained, a large majority of the hundreds of ABC churches in California likely would have begun severing ties to the national denomination, John Eby told WORLD. He is head of American Baptist Evangelicals, based in suburban Pittsburgh. Others predicted large numbers of defections elsewhere, too, including perhaps the entire West Virginia Region. (To help quell earlier unrest, the Board in 1992 adopted a position declaring homosexual practice to be inconsistent with Christian teaching.)
The ABC's grassroots constituency is largely conservative, and evangelicals man most of the largest pulpits in the more than 6,000 ABC churches (a notable exception: Riverside Church in New York). However, liberals have had a disproportionate presence in positions of power for decades, and a steady stream of liberal pulpit prospects flows annually from most of the ABC's nine affiliated seminaries (Eastern in Philadelphia and Northern in suburban Chicago are the most conservative). Churches increasingly are calling ministers trained in other schools.
At the biennial meeting, members and supporters of the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists protested the Board's decision. (About 30 churches belong to the group, founded in 1992.) The demonstrators sang and picketed outside. About 200 marched inside the arena during a hymn at the closing service, carrying banners, ribbons, and four crosses symbolizing the four ousted churches. Then they quietly left or returned to their seats, to delayed, scattered applause.
Late last month, Chicago clergywoman-lawyer Susan B.W. Johnson, a General Board member who voted with the losing side, began circulating an "urgent" open letter. She claimed the Board had violated ABC rules and could be subject to legal action. She urged any regional board that disagreed with the General Board to seek "adjudication," an internal legal process that would allow the Executive Committee to overrule the Board.
The troubles in northern California began in the early 1990s when the four Bay-area churches became more activist in homosexual causes. For example, congregants joined Gay and Lesbian marches, carrying banners that proclaimed their identity as American Baptist churches. They also joined the Welcoming and Affirming group. One of the churches lobbied unsuccessfully to ordain an open homosexual.
Under pressure from conservative pastors, leaders of the American Baptist Churches of the West, one of the ABC's 34 regional units, urged the churches to stop such activities. (ABC/West encompasses about 225 churches with nearly 50,000 members in northern California and Nevada.) But for three years, the activist churches resisted efforts to rein them in.
Finally, in March 1996 the ABC/West board voted overwhelmingly to dismiss the four: First Baptist of Berkeley (the once large church now has a Sunday morning attendance of between 30 and 50), Lakeshore Avenue Baptist of Oakland, San Leandro Community Church (between 50 and 60 attend regularly), and the tiny New Community of Faith in San Jose (which is dually aligned with the homosexual-affirming United Church of Christ). Grounds: The churches had repeatedly rejected the "mutual counsel and correction" of their partner congregations in the region, a violation of one of the core conditions of membership.
The late Robert Rasmussen, ABC/West executive minister at the time, cited precedents for such discipline in Baptist polity, then explained: "Persons and churches in our free land have the freedom to state and follow their belief systems. No governmental or ecclesiastical authority can take that freedom from them, but it is their freedom of autonomous decision-making that is affirmed, not their freedom to impose on partner churches the burdens that their unilateral actions cause."