The Mobile Baptist Association voted to withdraw fellowship from Hillcrest Baptist Church because the congregation hired a female associate pastor. The association has the 2000 Baptist Faith & Message as its doctrinal standard, and the BFM indicates that the office of pastor is limited to men. Messengers of their annual meeting interpreted this document to mean that any woman serving in an ordained compacity would bring her church expulsion.

It’s true that the association had the authority to make this decision. I’ve mentioned before that automony not only applies to churches but other circles of fellowship in the denominational hierarchy. We have seen the Missouri Baptist Convention take on a similar position with 24 churches in their state who are affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. These churches have been warned that their membership with the convention is in jeapordy. Their status will be determined at the annual meeting next month.

In the Mobile situation, however, the association not only used the BFM as their doctrinal standard but went beyond its intended usage. It’s one thing to expel a church for calling a woman as pastor, but this is not the case here. Hillcrest called a woman to serve as an Associate Pastor. No doubt her ordination played a factor in this decision, but I think the association’s usage of the BFM in this manner is pretty lame. Other associations around the nation have churches with women who are serving on ministerial staff and seem to have an amiable relationship with them. Again, I know that autonomy carries with it the privilege to determine your own members but kicking out Hillcrest for this reason doesn’t make sense. She wasn’t the senior pastor, and I don’t think the BFM was intended for this kind of situation. Apparently, there were messengers in the Mobile associational meeting who recognized this discrepency but were outvoted 204-44.

Hillcrest’s pastor, Dudley Wilson, has right perspective on the issue. “Frankly, we don’t have a quarrel with them,” he said. Wilson went on to say that his church didn’t recognize the association’s right to tell them what to do. He also acknowledged that the association had the same kind of autonomy in determining its own member churches (10/24/06 Associated Baptist Press). Hillcrest’s calling Ellen Guice Sims to the ministerial staff had more to do with her gifts and abilities than trying to upset the area churches by calling a female staff member. Evidently, the association did not see it that way and the vote reflected that sentiment. On the plus side, their annual meeting was carried out in a Christlike spirit with all sides given the right to speak. Hillcrest did not contest the decision, and will be better off without sending their money to an association who doesn’t want them.

We’re going to see more and more of this sort of exclusion occur as churches determine their mission and ministry is more important that allegiance to a local fellowship of churches. I’m also convinced that the days of churches affiliating with others simply because they are geographically close is numbered. More local congregations are choosing to partner with churches and parachurch organizations who are theologically and philosophically in concert with them. Time and distance are not the barriers that they once were, and it is more important for churches to work with organizations whose values are similar to their own. So, I doubt if Hillcrest will lose any sleep over this recent decision. Actually, the association did them a favor by kicking them out. The church can devote their time and talents to other ministry partners knowing they weren’t the ones who broke off fellowship.

It does make me wonder, though, about the importance of associations who are choosing to define doctrinal parameters more narrowly than the Bible does. In this case, it is interpreted more narrowly than the BFM! I didn’t think this was possible. I can’t see how having a woman on staff endangers the ministry of the association. Besides, fewer than 250 people actually showed up at the annual meeting to vote on the matter anyway. With all the churches in the Mobile area, you would think that there would be more folks interested enough to show up. What you have here is just over 200 individuals determining the will for an entire association of churches. Yes, decisions are made by the people who show up. Still, associations ought to focus on maintaining fellowship, promoting missions, and educating local churches to reach people for Jesus Christ. I can’t see how doctrinal uniformity around the 2000 BFM has any practical application for churches. Most of the area church members didn’t bother showing up at Dauphin Way for the annual meeting anyway.

Local churches are doing their own things in the 21st century, and a new paradigm for ministry is emerging. Booting this church out isn’t the insult that it might have been a few years ago. It’s really a pat on the back for a congregation whose loyalty to the Word of God is greater than an association’s interpretation of it.