Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Local church autonomy, inclusion, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas
by Bill Jones, TBC executive director

(The following is excerpted from the TBC Update that I delivered to the 2016 Texas Baptists Committed Breakfast at the BGCT Annual Meeting in Waco on Tuesday, November 15.)

Texas Baptists Committed continues to respond when Baptist principles are compromised.

In 2004, my wife and I left a church where we were longtime members. For 17 years, I had brought Baptist principles into Sunday School conversations - priesthood of the believer, soul competency, religious liberty and the strict separation of church and state, local church autonomy - and Southern Baptist leaders' violation of those principles, and got mostly blank stares, an occasional argument, but mostly blank stares. They either didn't understand or just didn't care, or both. The last few years we were there, I challenged the pastor on his violation - from the pulpit - of those principles. It didn't go well.

But I remember how lonely I felt when David Barton's video was shown in a worship service, a pack of lies about our nation's Founding Fathers, turning the principles of both our nation and of Baptists on their head.

I remember how lonely I felt when the pastor brought partisan politics into the pulpit.

I remember how lonely I felt when the pastor announced that - because of a revelation he had received from God - women would no longer be permitted to teach men in Sunday School in our church, and that, if you disagreed with this edict, God would soon prune you from that church.

I remember the loneliness I felt as others accepted and even applauded all of this.

So I responded with understanding and empathy when a longtime faithful TBC supporter contacted me recently to tell me about proposed changes to his church's bylaws and constitution, which will be voted on early next month. Changes motivated by what church leaders perceive to be threats from changes in the culture and the Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage. His church leaders propose to adopt the 1998 Baptist Faith and Message amendment on the Family, which places women in a submissive - and subservient - position in both the church and the home. Moreover, it places final authority for scriptural interpretation in a Leadership Council and requires all members to affirm that they agree with the church's stated doctrinal positions.

In other words, creedalism, which is anathema to the Baptist spirit, the Baptist movement, and our Baptist history.

We hold to these Baptist principles not to be contrary or to protect some personal privilege. We hold to these Baptist principles, because - ever since Thomas Helwys and John Smyth took their band of separatists from England to Amsterdam and, in 1609, formed the first Baptist church - Baptists have believed that it is these principles, which together distinguish us as Baptists, that enable us to be most faithful to the spirit, the teachings, the life of Jesus Christ, and to carry Christ's offer of grace, forgiveness, and love to a hurting world.

This faithful TBC supporter is experiencing the same loneliness that my wife and I experienced for 17 years, a loneliness that is inimical to the Baptist experience, because we have from the beginning been a minority, dissenters in a conforming world. I responded with my support and the feedback that he requested concerning these proposed changes, and I'm praying for him as he goes into what must be a lonely battle to call his church back to being Baptist.

This is what Texas Baptists Committed has been about from the beginning - holding Baptists accountable for being Baptist, holding fast to the convictions that together make us Baptist, and thus enable us to carry Christ to the world, as well as to our own neighborhoods.

There were a lot of actions that could have been the last straw for us at that church where we labored for 17 years, but we persevered through it all. Then one day, when the pastor and I were meeting on another matter, he casually told me that he was talking to New Orleans Seminary about partnering with them in starting a seminary in Russia - BUT the agreement was conditional on New Orleans Seminary dictating to our church which missionary organizations we could and could not partner with. That was the last straw. He was compromising local church autonomy, and I realized that the game was over. Any hope I harbored of moving that church to truly being Baptist was lost. So we left shortly thereafter.

Local church autonomy – a bedrock Baptist principle, a cherished Baptist principle. In Baptist life, each individual believer is a priest, and there is no authority over that person’s soul except Jesus Christ. As our dear friend James Dunn loved to say, “Ain’t nobody but Jesus gonna tell me what to believe!”

Authority flows from the believer to the local church. Baptist polity is that baptized believers make up the local church, and they collectively determine the direction of that church. The pastor takes direction from the people. This Baptist polity recognizes the primacy of the Holy Spirit’s work in each person and the Holy Spirit’s work through the body of believers known as the church. Churches then freely choose to cooperate with denominational bodies, through which they work together to carry out missions activities, benevolent ministries, and educational institutions such as these faithful Texas Baptist schools represented here today.

TBC has always celebrated – and we celebrate today – the ministries that Texas Baptists carry out together through the Baptist General Convention of Texas. The Christian Life Commission (and Gus Reyes is with us today, as well as Ferrell Foster and Kathryn Freeman) – including the Hunger Offering, Ethics and Justice initiatives; then there’s Disaster Relief and Recovery, Buckner International (Albert Reyes is with us today), Christian education, including theological education through our Texas Baptist universities and seminaries.

In fact, as I’ve published the TBC Weekly Baptist Roundup e-newsletter for the past 5-1/2 years, one of the greatest privileges for me has been the opportunity to highlight all of the good work being done through the BGCT.

That’s why it grieves us to have to now shift to our role as watchdog and call BGCT leadership to account for what we at Texas Baptists Committed consider a violation of that cherished Baptist principle of local church autonomy.

All of you know by now that BGCT Executive Director David Hardage has asked both First Baptist Church, Austin, and my home church – Wilshire Baptist Church, Dallas – to leave the BGCT fellowship over, as the Baptist Standard headline put it, “the gay issue.” I’ve discussed this issue over the past 2 years with both David Hardage and Associate Executive Director Steve Vernon (who is with us today), and know their stand on this issue, so David’s letter did not come as a complete surprise to me.

Before I go on, I want to be very clear on one thing – David Hardage and Steve Vernon are friends of mine, and friends of Texas Baptists Committed, and our discussions on this issue – even where I have disagreed with them – have been collegial and respectful. Even where we disagree, I respect that their position comes from their desire to be faithful to scripture, and I hope and believe they respect the same on my part.

And I don’t want to minimize the difficulty of the position in which David Hardage, Steve Vernon, and the Executive Board find themselves. The BGCT is losing churches to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention – which, by the way, has since its beginning lied about the BGCT’s stance on this matter. So I understand and sympathize with the BGCT leadership’s sensitivity on this issue. The BGCT has been hammered hard for a stance it has never taken. So I respect, sympathize with, and appreciate their efforts to keep churches in the BGCT fold, not just for the convention’s sake, but because churches that leave for the SBTC almost inevitably wind up disillusioned and often find their fellowship destroyed and their witness for Christ a thing of the past. The BGCT is by far a better home for churches than the SBTC.

The crux of our disagreement is not where we stand on scripture regarding homosexual behavior; debating theology is not the role of Texas Baptists Committed. Standing for Baptist principles, however, IS TBC’s role. Our disagreement is over the need that BGCT leadership perceives to divide the BGCT fellowship – asking churches to leave – over this issue. Over the past few years, I’ve discussed what scripture has to say about homosexual behavior with numerous moderate Texas Baptist pastors. I’ve had several express adamantly to me that scripture calls it a sin; and I’ve had just as many express just as adamantly to me that it does not. I’ve heard persuasive arguments from both sides.

What I know is that churches all over Texas – well beyond Wilshire and First Austin – are struggling to minister to the gay people among their congregations and their communities. David Hardage acknowledged this to me in our first discussion of the matter; in fact, when I said that urban churches especially are having to deal with this, David volunteered that rural churches are as well. And different churches are finding different paths to carry out such ministry. Some, like First Austin and Wilshire, have chosen to include all people – regardless of sexual orientation – in what they call ‘the full life’ of their church. Other churches have chosen a different path.

I contend – on behalf of Texas Baptists Committed – that BGCT leadership is violating local church autonomy. Now some will say, ‘well, we’re not telling them what to do.’ But neither did the Fundamentalists who took over the Southern Baptist Convention force any churches to do anything – they just threatened loss of fellowship. In fighting the Fundamentalists’ attempt in the 1990s to take control of the BGCT, we called such threats a violation of local church autonomy. On that basis, Texas Baptists Committed – led by David Currie – fought to keep the Baptist General Convention of Texas free from Fundamentalist control. Yet now BGCT leadership is taking a similar path. Where does it stop?

TBC is not asking the BGCT to change its historic position that scripture calls homosexual behavior sinful. I’m well aware that the BGCT’s position reflects that of the vast majority of BGCT churches, and I respect their right to hold that position. In turn, however, if the BGCT is going to continue to call itself Baptist, we expect it to respect the right of its cooperating churches to disagree. That’s what makes us Baptist – we disagree, we dissent on those matters that are not central to our faith, and where we stand theologically on this issue is not central to our faith and should not determine whether we can faithfully cooperate with each other in sharing Christ with a hurting world.

There are churches and pastors in the BGCT who strongly affirm the BGCT’s stance on the sinfulness of homosexual behavior but who also oppose the disfellowshipping of those who disagree with them. They recognize that churches like Wilshire and First Austin are in agreement with them on the main things that the BGCT has always been about – missions, evangelism, ministries of compassion, educating students, training ministers . . . and they don’t want to lose such churches and all they bring to this fellowship of Texas Baptist churches. As I told David Hardage last year, Baptist churches all over Texas are struggling to find their own path to ministering to the gay people in their congregations and communities, and the current hard-line policy provides them no room to do that.

I love the Baptist General Convention of Texas; Texas Baptists Committed loves the Baptist General Convention of Texas. That’s why we call it to be true to its name: Baptist.

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