Homosexuality Debate Drives Wedge Between American Baptists

A conservative regional body within the American Baptist Churches announced last week that it may withdraw from the national denomination over “irreconcilable” differences on homosexuality.

|TOP|The Board of Directors of the Pacific Southwest recommended on Dec. 8 that the regional body of 300 churches end all formal relationships with the 1.3-million-member American Baptist Churches USA.

“The Board of Directors is grieved that the differences between the Region and its national denomination have not been resolved,” a statement from the region read. “The action will place some distance between the ABCPSW and the ABCUSA that will clarify the distinctiveness of these ministries.”

At the heart of the conflict lies what leaders of the Pacific Southwest say is the unwillingness of the national denomination to enforce its official stance on homosexuality. Specifically, they criticised the ABCUSA’s acceptance into membership churches that are open and affirming to the homosexual lifestyle – a practice described as “incompatible with Christian teaching” in the denomination’s own official statement.

Roy Medley, General Secretary of ABCUSA, said he and other American Baptists are “deeply disappointed at the decision” and that they “have done and will continue to do everything we can to maintain unity in the Body of Christ" in a statement released Wednesday.

|AD|This is not the first time Medley has had to defend his denomination from conservative critics. Last year during the highly publicised split between the Southern Baptist Convention and the Baptist World Alliance, a top SBC conservative cited the ABCUSA’s acceptance of gay-friendly churches as one reason why his denomination should withdraw from the international alliance it had helped establish 100 years ago.

But beyond external criticisms, the ABCUSA had faced internal conflicts over the thorny issue for over a decade. Like most other historic mainline denominations, the ABCUSA has worked for years to maintain unity between conservative and liberal factions within.

Stakes were raised when in 1990, a group now known as the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists were allowed to table an exhibit at the denomination’s biennial convention. Since then, pockets of conservatives rallied for the denomination to clearly state its view on homosexuality – an effort that resulted in the 1992 statement on homosexuality.

However, despite the adoption of the statement, the denomination did not clamp down on individual churches with an affirming view of homosexuality. Instead, when such local churches were “dis-fellowshipped” by conservative district (such as four congregations in the Pacific Southwest), the national church allowed them to remain as part of the denomination by aligning with more liberal districts outside their region.

This conflict culminated with the efforts of some conservatives to pass a law to implement the homosexuality resolution. When this failed, they began looking at other options, including the adoption of regional exit strategies.

In the case of the Pacific Southwest, the move to withdraw began three months ago. During a meeting in September, the Board had already decided to “initiate the process to withdraw from the Covenant of Relationships of the ABCUSA” with firm backing from district’s executive minister and president to boot.

The Board’s confirmed recommendation to leave the denomination will now be referred to the churches for vote at a specifically called meeting tentatively set for May 2006. After that meeting, the Board will make its final decision to effectively end all formal relationships with the ABCUSA.

Pauline J. Chang
Christian Today Correspondent