Atlanta Baptist Association affirms homosexual-friendly congregations

ATLANTA (BP)--Messengers in a Jan. 30 special called meeting of the Atlanta Baptist Association voted overwhelmingly to defeat a motion to dismiss two homosexual-friendly churches from membership and fellowship in the association.

The two churches, Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland, were expelled from the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1999 for "affirming and approving and endorsing homosexual behavior."

The Atlanta association's 253-164 secret-ballot vote to maintain membership and affiliation with the two churches was the result of a nearly yearlong dialogue between the congregations and the association's membership team. Observers at the Jan. 30 meeting noted that the session was conducted with civility and moderated with respect for both sides of the issue.

A motion was made at the March 20, 2000, annual meeting of the association to remove Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland from the 153-congregation association of Southern Baptist churches.

The team decided that "as an association of churches we do not support or condone homosexual activity, but neither can we support the motion to dismiss two churches with a great history of Christian ministry. Our recommendation is that while we do not support or condone homosexual activity we do not affirm the motion to dismiss the churches, and that we pray for the reconciliation of thought and practice in the churches, which will strengthen the bond among us." The association's membership ranges from Atlanta's First Baptist Church to Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church.

A news release issued by the association called the vote a "defining moment for the Atlanta Baptist Association."

"In affirming their continued membership in the association, the association does not condone or support homosexuality. It affirms the longstanding Baptist polity of local church autonomy," the news release stated.

James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville, said he was shocked to hear about the association's action.

"It is a sad commentary on the Atlanta Baptist Association," Merritt told Baptist Press. "They have failed to do their spiritual and moral duty."

Merritt said churches within the association may have "to take a strong look to see if they want to be a part of that kind of association," he said.

Merritt also was critical of the association's use of church autonomy.

"If this [homosexuality] doesn't disqualify you from membership in the association, what would?" he asked. "Can a church practice open adultery, polygamy, desecration of the Lord's Supper and be a part of the Atlanta Baptist Association?

"If you tell your members that you can be anything and do anything and hide behind the smokescreen of local autonomy, then you've just emptied your association of all meaning," Merritt said.

Timothy Shirley, senior pastor of Virginia-Highland Baptist Church, told Baptist Press the vote by the association was an affirmation of their ministry.

"I believe the decision was certainly an affirmation of what we are trying to do here," Shirley said.

Merritt agreed with Shirley noting, "The Atlanta association cannot have it both ways. I think a little leaven, leavens the whole lump."

Shirley said the inner-city church is affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, two breakaway groups from the Southern Baptist Convention and its conservative biblical direction. And while Virginia-Highland is listed in an official Southern Baptist database, he said the church ended its active affiliation with the SBC in 1992.

The church openly accepts homosexuals as deacons and Sunday school teachers; performs same-sex unions; and recognizes the orientation of homosexuals rather than the lifestyle of homosexuals.

"It is our belief at this church that homosexuality is a not lifestyle or behavior," he said. "That indicates someone who can choose what they are. We view it as who you are born as. It is an orientation."

Shirley said the vote to retain fellowship is the first step in outright support of homosexuality within Atlanta's Southern Baptist churches.

"We are a long way from being there, but we consider this to be a journey," Shirley said. "I think that when more discoveries are made, the church as a whole will be much more accepting of homosexuals."

Joel Harrison, executive director of the Atlanta Baptist Association, told Baptist Press he doesn't expect its stance on homosexuality to change and called any statements by Shirley premature.

Harrison was quick to point out that the vote was not held out of political motivations.

"We are not against the Southern Baptist Convention, nor are we against the Georgia Baptist Convention," Shirley told Baptist Press. "The votes, motions and responses dealt strictly with the Atlanta Baptist Association context in which we are located. It was not a vote to say to any other group, `We'll show you.'"

Robert White, executive director of the GBC, said he was saddened by the decision.

"The issue that concerns me is that it sends a signal not only to Atlanta and Georgia, but to the nation, that a group of Baptist churches in Atlanta has moved to affirm homosexuality," White said. "This sends a terrible signal."

White said the homosexual agenda is seeking victory wherever it can be found and "they got it at the Atlanta Baptist Association meeting."

Harrison said questions had been raised about the length of the study and why it took so long to reach a decision. "The one thing our bylaws say is that we have to attempt reconciliation with our churches," he said. "That doesn't happen in one meeting. Our team took its job seriously."

Harrison acknowledged that the Baptist polity of church autonomy needs to be studied.

"Our membership requirements are based on the 1963 Baptist Faith and Message and it doesn't say anything about homosexuality," Harrison said. "Many in this process have sided with that."

However, the association's administrative leadership team plans to meet in two weeks to begin the process of studying the issue of autonomy. "Our study will answer the question of how far is too far and what is out of bounds for churches that affiliate with the association," he said.

Shirley, too, said church autonomy should have boundaries. "I wouldn't doubt that we should have boundaries," he said. "But I do think we can find common ground at the foot of the cross."

White, however, said that isn't the issue at all.

"The crisis I see is that if you take the position of local church autonomy as more important than dealing with the problem of sin, then it creates a very dangerous situation for the church," White said. "Then you have churches that will make their own decisions about whether or not something is a sin."

Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland first drew national attention to their support of homosexuality during the Nov. 16, 1999, Georgia Baptist Convention when messengers voted overwhelmingly to "withdraw fellowship" from the congregations over their policies and practices concerning homosexuality.

It marked the first time the GBC had dismissed a church in its 177-year history. In 1992, the SBC changed its constitution to prohibit churches that condone or affirm homosexuality. In recent years the state convention in Texas has cut ties with one member congregation and, earlier, the North Carolina convention cut ties with two congregations over the issue.


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