FBC Decatur and the GBC: autonomy works both ways

gbc2It is an action that has taken place time and time again, so it shouldn’t be all that surprising to hear of the Georgia Baptist Convention (GBC) considering action against FBC Decatur for calling a woman pastor. Julie Pennington-Russell is undoubtedly the most well-known woman holding a Baptist pastorate, and apparently has been embraced by her new church and they are doing well. I am very glad to hear of this development and wish them the very best.

Several news articles are touting the latest in the saga with the GBC, in that while not receiving FBC money the convention might also “disfellowship” the congregation for their position on women pastors. I’ve just gotten through sorting through one blog  that offers a critique of the convention for having a divisive spirit on this matter. The writer suggests that local churches are autonomous and the GBC ought to respect that and co-exist with congregations who might differ with the vast majority of participating churches on their interpretation of who can fill a Baptist pulpit. 

However, there is another side to the autonomy issue, and that is the reality of the GBC being an autonomous organization as well. Participation is voluntary, congregations may withdraw from fellowship at any time and the convention may also exercise its right to determine who may or may not be a cooperating church. This is no way violates the autonomy of FBC Decatur to call whomever it wishes to do whatever it wants for the sake of the gospel. The congregation has made a decision to call Pennington-Russell and is happy about that, and must recognize the right of the convention to uphold their interpretation of Scripture on this issue.

What is surprising to me is the reaction of some Baptists to this latest in a long line of actions by state conventions to keep their churches in compliance to the BFM 2000. The SBC and most state conventions have already charted their course on the women in ministry issue, and churches who deviate from the norm will find themselves in different Baptist waters. There is nothing else to argue about, especially about the women in ministry issue. The 2000 BFM codified the position of the SBC, and no amount of blogging or protest will change what the GBC will do. It will not change what FBC will do. There will be some emotional fallout over the separation, as has happened in other congregations who parted ways with their conventions. But, both entities will move forward, separately, with the gospel. This reminds me of what happened with Paul and Barnabas in their sharp dispute over John Mark in the book of Acts. Paul and Silas went one way, and Barnabas and Mark the other.

Yes, this upcoming ouster is sad but I don’t see the drama in it within the Baptist landscape. We ought to be used to this by now. This is the natural course of events that was sure to occur when FBC Decatur brought their new pastor on board. The media will get some mileage on this story for a while, but once the GBC acts, things will move on as usual. This isn’t the first time a church will have been ousted from a Baptist convention and it won’t be the last. Baptist churches have been ousted from conventions for other reasons as well, and this tendency might be illustrative of the never ceasing narrowing of parameters that Fundamentalism fosters. Still, it cannot be said that local church autonomy is violated when conventions or associations vote to remove certain congregations for membership.

Those of you who know me might find this conclusion surprising, especially since I do support men and women in leadership positions in the local church, including areas of ordination and vocational ministry. This isn’t about that necessarily, but an understanding that cooperation and partnership can be fractured over an issue like this one. The Baptist distinctives of local church autonomy and primary of Scripture don’t always lead to everyone agreeing on every issue. It is disheartening to have this happen, especially for the people of FBC who have supported the convention for well over a century. FBC Decatur didn’t do anything wrong or deserve this kind of treatment, but that is the way it is in the GBC. Besides, I think FBC will come out better in the long run than the convention.

The sidebar story to this action will be the diminishing importance and influence of state conventions. More and more churches are finding alternative ministry partners and the old “single alignment” formula is losing its prestige. Local congregations are finding ways of doing “hands on” mission and ministry work right in their own community and realizing they don’t necessarily need the Convention to do the work for them. Churches don’t merely send money to send missionaries out anymore; church members are beginning to realize that they themselves are missionaries. I’m reminded of a sign above the door of one church. Members filing out of the worship service would exit and see the sign “you are now entering the mission field.”

Local Baptist congregations are more empowered to act than they used to be, and don’t appear to be as threatened by opposition from the Convention. Some older church members might experience an emotional detachment, but there won’t be much practical impact on the ministry direction of the church.


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