'Inclusive' Ala. church may be disfellowshipped
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (BP) -- The officers of an Alabama Baptist association have recommended that the association's executive board withdraw fellowship from a church whose leaders have given their pastor freedom to perform same-sex weddings.
The Madison Baptist Association in Huntsville said in a written statement released to Baptist Press that Weatherly Heights Baptist Church, also in Huntsville, is in violation of a section in the association's bylaws that defines marriage as "a union between one man and one woman."
Associational officers met with representatives of the congregation Feb. 17, prompted by media reports that Weatherly Heights' volunteer, unpaid minister to the community, Ellin Jimmerson, intended to perform a same-sex wedding. The meeting led to a recommendation by the officers that the association's executive board withdraw fellowship from Weatherly Heights at the board's March 5 meeting.
Weatherly Heights -- which describes itself on its website as "an inclusive, discovering fellowship" -- confirmed to BP Feb. 10 that Jimmerson had performed at least one same-sex wedding.
According to the Madison Association's statement, "As the meeting between leaders progressed it became evident that there would be no agreement on this issue concerning same sex marriage, and that the Association's Constitution & By-Laws, with relation to this issue, would not be adhered to. Thus, the General Officers of the Madison Baptist Association are making a recommendation to the Executive Board that Weatherly Heights Baptist Church be dismissed from membership in the Madison Baptist Association."
The Madison Association's bylaws state, "Marriage is a union between one man and one woman, following biblical principles ... God sanctions only the union in marriage of a man to a woman." The association's constitution defines "the latest revision adopted by the Southern Baptist Convention" of the Baptist Faith and Message as the "Biblical doctrines which churches of this body hold in common."
The BF&M defines marriage as "the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime" and states that Christians should oppose "all forms of sexual immorality, including adultery, homosexuality, and pornography."
Weatherly Heights Pastor David Freeman called the meeting with Madison Association officers "cordial" and said in written comments to BP, "MBA representatives determined that my beliefs about homosexuality and same sex marriage fall outside the positions adopted in the association's bylaws."
Freeman added, "If our church is dismissed, I will be saddened. My Baptist roots run deep. My tent is big enough to include people who disagree with me on these issues. I hope their tent will be big enough to include me. If we are dismissed by the MBA, we have options for mission and ministry engagement with other Baptist bodies."
In an email to the Weatherly Heights congregation following his meeting with associational leaders, Freeman speculated that the church will be disfellowshipped.
"I emphasized that our church has not formed a position on these matters," Freeman wrote regarding homosexuality, according to WHNT news in Huntsville. "Members of our church are free to form their own positions. My positions are mine alone."
Freeman argued in a 2013 sermon that "adult, loving, monogamous, same-sex relationships are not condemned in the Bible," according to a printed version of the sermon on the church's website. Freeman wrote in the Feb. 10 edition of Weatherly Heights' newsletter that the congregation's leaders had given him "the freedom to officiate a same sex marriage."
In related news, Freeman told BP that he has also "had a cordial conversation with [Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions Executive Director] Rick Lance." The Alabama Baptist Convention has not taken any official action related to Weatherly Heights.
Lance told BP in a written statement, "We have full confidence in the leadership of the Madison Baptist Association, and we are assured that they are handling this situation in the proper Biblical way. Our position is that any church that allows staff members to perform marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples has demonstrated that they are no longer in like-minded fellowship and friendly cooperation with Alabama Baptists and Southern Baptists.
"We have publicly stated that this position, concerning the Biblical definition of marriage between one man and one woman, is a non-negotiable basic belief among the overwhelming majority of Southern Baptists," Lance said.
The SBC has not taken action related to Weatherly Heights either. However, SBC Executive Committee Executive Vice President D. August Boto told BP regarding the Huntsville congregation, "Although such cases are rare, when they have happened, it has usually been the case that the various bodies in Southern Baptist life -- including the association, state convention and SBC -- have viewed the facts similarly and have taken similar courses of action. This is because most Southern Baptists generally do not differ on the authority of Scripture."
Boto added, "In such cases, when the national convention has examined the facts, it has considered the collective view of the entire church body more determinative than the view of any individual member, including the pastor."
Article III of the SBC Constitution states, "Among churches not in cooperation with the Convention are churches which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior."