S.C. church's stance on homosexuality challenged

GREENVILLE, S.C. (BP) -- The South Carolina Baptist Convention has asked a Greenville church to either reverse its decision to open marriage ceremonies, church membership and ordination to homosexuals or withdraw from the state convention.

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First Baptist Church, whose pastor in 1845 was elected the Southern Baptist Convention's first president, voted to cease cooperation with the SBC in 1999, according to the church's website. But South Carolina's Baptist Courier newsjournal reported First Baptist still cooperates with the state convention but not with the local Greenville Baptist Association. The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship is listed among the church's "affiliations" on its website.

Meanwhile, a Southern Baptist seminary president has argued the church's position on homosexuality illustrates the result of Baptist moderates' rejection of inerrancy decades ago and the trajectory of the CBF -- an organization founded by moderates in 1991 when it became evident conservatives would gain control of the SBC.

First Baptist voted in May to adopt a "consensus statement" declaring, "In all facets of the life and ministry of our church, including but not limited to membership, baptism, ordination, marriage, teaching and committee/organizational leadership, First Baptist Greenville will not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity."

Upon learning of First Baptist's newly-adopted policy regarding homosexuality, the SCBC sent the church a letter requesting withdrawal from the convention or reversal of the policy and an affirmation of the Baptist Faith and Message's definition of marriage as "the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime." The convention asked First Baptist to respond to its request by Sept. 10.

The Baptist Courier reported First Baptist likely "has no intention of recanting its position," which may trigger a motion to withdraw fellowship from the congregation at the SCBC's annual meeting in the fall.

Richard Harris, interim SCBC executive director-treasurer, said, "We cannot accept, approve or condone those kind of beliefs. Our stance is clearly stated in the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. We cannot walk in agreement with a church that accepts those beliefs," the Baptist Courier reported.

SCBC President Tommy Kelly said, according to the Courier, "While Southern Baptists embrace such principles as local church autonomy and the priesthood of individual believers, these principles should never trump biblical authority. According to Matthew 19:4-5, marriage is between one man and one woman within a covenant relationship. As SCBC president, I do not support the decision endorsed by Greenville [First Baptist] to marry, ordain and allow transgendered or homosexual people to serve in church leadership. It is in direct opposition to biblical precedent and standard."

First Baptist pastor Jim Dant wrote in the church's newsletter that not all members agree with the congregation's nondiscrimination policy. But he said First Baptist will remain united amid its diversity of opinions.

In adopting the consensus statement, "we made no decision regarding the issue of homosexuality -- members hold different convictions," Dant wrote. "We did make a statement on what it means to be church -- diverse and respectful of God's unique work in the life of every member, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity."

R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said the church's claim not to have made a decision on homosexuality "is theologically, biblically, morally and even logically incoherent. The church certainly did make a decision regarding homosexuality."

Mohler wrote in a blog post that SBC moderates' refusal to affirm the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy in the late 20th century set the stage for actions like that of First Baptist years later.

"Once a church or denomination is untethered from the inerrancy of the Bible," Mohler wrote, "there is no brake on the relativizing effects of cultural pressure."

Though many first-generation CBF leaders regarded homosexual behavior as immoral, "the CBF is now set on a collision course with its own rising generation of leaders," Mohler wrote.

A policy adopted in 2000 by the CBF Coordinating Council states, "As Baptist Christians, we believe that the foundation of a Christian sexual ethic is faithfulness in marriage between a man and a woman and celibacy in singleness.... Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not allow for the expenditure of funds for organizations or causes that condone, advocate or affirm homosexual practice. Neither does this CBF organizational value allow for the purposeful hiring of a staff person or the sending of a missionary who is a practicing homosexual." This policy is posted on the CBF's website as the fellowship's current statement regarding homosexuality.

The CBF's Organizational Policy on Homosexual Behavior Related to Personnel and Funding additionally states, "The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship does not issue 'official' positions on homosexuality or other social issues, for to do so lies outside the CBF's stated mission." The policy goes on to affirm "the freedom and right of every Christian to interpret and apply Scripture under the leadership of the Holy Spirit" as well as local churches' freedom "to determine their membership and leadership" and "to ordain whomever they perceive as gifted for ministry."

According to analyses in Baptist Global News, a moderate Baptist news organization, the CBF is struggling financially and numerically in part because of a failure to reach young adults -- despite its "new generation of more liberal leaders" referenced by Mohler.

Chris Robertson, minister of students and outreach at Towne View Baptist Church in Kennesaw, Ga., wrote, "I affiliate with CBF, but I've never been to a CBF church with hundreds of young adults. To be completely honest, I've never been to a CBF church with more than 25 young adults."

Robertson theorized that failure to reach young adults may stem from failure to communicate "a clear message that both implicates and demands something of us and from us."

Marv Knox, editor of the Baptist General Convention of Texas' Baptist Standard, wrote, "CBF is struggling to maintain the interest of a critical mass of congregations. And funding its plethora of partner ministries is formidable in an era when churches mirror our highly customizable, pick-and-choose culture."

Since 2012-13, the CBF's missions and ministry budget has held steady at $12.4 million. In 2011-12, the budget was $12.3 million, down from $14.5 million the previous year.

The CBF's claim to have 1,800 partner churches has been questioned for years by conservatives because the fellowship includes in that count churches that forward designated contributions from at least one member but do not support the CBF as a congregation, according to Baptist Press reports.

David Roach is chief national correspondent for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service.
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