Wednesday, December 14, 2005
ABC LEADERS EXPRESS REGRET, CONCERN OVER PSW RECOMMENDATION
VALLEY FORGE, PA (ABNS)—American Baptist leaders have responded with profound regret and concern over the recommendation issued on Dec. 8 by the Board of Directors of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest to withdraw that region from the denomination’s Covenant of Relationships.
A regional meeting of its churches to advise the leadership is tentatively scheduled in May 2006. After that meeting, the Board will make its final decision. If approved, the recommended action would effectively remove the region from a formal relationship with the American Baptist Churches in the USA.
“American Baptists are deeply disappointed at the decision of the leadership of the American Baptist Churches of the Pacific Southwest to recommend a break-away from the denomination,” General Secretary Dr. A. Roy Medley said today.
The conflict American Baptists find themselves in is sometimes described as a liberal/conservative division over the issue of homosexuality. In reality, American Baptist statements on human sexuality and marriage have consistently been conservative, evangelical and traditional. We all hold biblical authority as primary for Christian discipleship and church life—but we have always respected dissent in interpretation.
When the proposal was first made to break Covenant, one of the region’s own Board members wrote, “ I voted against withdrawing from the ABCUSA because I do not agree with the idea of requiring uniformity in the matter of interpretation of scripture, in this case, in the area of human sexuality. If there is one principle that drew me to become an American Baptist, it was the belief that each person can read the Bible and form his or her own conclusions without any imposition from others. As Baptists, we agree on a number of central Bible doctrines but still affirm the freedom of each individual to interpret scripture for himself or herself, under the leading of the Holy Spirit.”
Even though Baptist churches have been organized in America from the 1600s until the present, it wasn’t until 1907 that the Northern Baptist Convention, now American Baptist Churches in the USA, was formed. In structuring a national denomination, these Baptists were careful to safeguard the primacy of the local church so that the national body could not usurp the rights and privileges of the local congregation to exercise authority over them. These basic principles were derived from the Bible and represented early Baptist desire to properly reflect the New Testament teaching concerning the nature of the church. The principle of the primacy and autonomy of the local church is reflected in the name—the denomination is not the American Baptist Church—it is the American Baptist Churches.
“Because schism in the church is grievous to our Lord, we have done—and will continue to do—everything we can to maintain the unity of the Body of Christ, which is so clearly taught in scripture,” Medley emphasized.
In order to clearly understand the concerns of the Pacific Southwest, and in the hope of maintaining the desired unity of Christ’s Body, many national and regional officers and staff have devoted extensive energy, time, resources and prayer in continuing dialogue with the region. In addition to previous visits by the President, the General Secretary, and the National Executive Council, Dr. Dale V. Salico, Executive Minister of the Pacific Southwest, has had multiple opportunities to speak to the concerns of the region, including meetings with the Regional Executive Ministers Council, the General Board Executive Committee, and the full General Board—the denomination’s governing body.
One result of these meetings was a decision by the General Executive Council to send a delegation to meet with the appropriate leadership groups of the region. Dr. Alfred Fletcher of the American Baptist Churches of Maine and Dr. Desmond Hoffmeister of the American Baptist Churches of the Rocky Mountains, were appointed and made themselves available for whatever meetings would be most helpful to the region leadership. They spent six hours of discussion with the five-member Executive Committee. There was a meeting of the full Board that followed, to which the two Executive Ministers were not invited.
Fletcher and Hoffmeister, in their meeting with the Executive Committee, expressed the deep care and concern of all mission partners in the denomination toward what, for over 100 years, has been one of the strongest regions in the denomination. They reported: “We made a pastoral and passionate appeal on behalf of the GEC for PSW to remain at the ABCUSA table. We challenged some of their assumptions, were surprised by some of their assertions, and they were surprised by some of the information that we shared. They were encouraged by the fact that we represented all the covenanting partners. Notwithstanding the positive tone of the meeting, we left feeling that it will take a monumental effort to reverse the advanced and propelling momentum of their intended process.”
If the region withdraws, it will assume control of the disbursement of mission money historically given by the churches in support of American Baptist missions. In 2004, that amount was over $2.9 million. At the same time, as the region is distancing itself from the denomination and expressing the intent to formally break covenant, the Pacific Southwest is negotiating ways to continue doing ministry with American Baptists—specifically the pension/benefit and mission boards of the denomination.
In the final analysis, each of the 300 churches in the Pacific Southwest will make its own decision regarding its continuing relationship with ABCUSA. Each church—in the Baptist way of decision making—will have the opportunity to choose for itself.
“Regardless of the region’s decision, there will be a continuing American Baptist presence in southern California,” Medley said. “Every effort will be made to enable and support churches wishing to remain in covenant with us.”
In addition, Medley stated, “The Los Angeles Baptist City Mission Society, one of the most racially and ethnically diverse evangelical mission organizations in the nation, is a cooperating American Baptist region, and has given us assurances through its Executive Minister, Dr. Samuel Chetti, that it will stay at the table.”
In reflecting upon his visit to southern California, Fletcher said, “Hope keeps bringing us back.”
Medley added, “And in that hope we press on.”