By Bob Allen
A Cooperative Baptist Fellowship church in Mississippi has been voted out of its local association for being too soft on homosexuality.
The Pine Belt Baptist Association voted Oct. 20 to withdraw fellowship from University Baptist Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., labeling the congregation founded in 1959 near the University of Southern Mississippi as “affirming the homosexual lifestyle.”
Rusty Edwards, senior pastor of University Baptist Church since October 2011, said the church’s policy of accepting all people into membership dates to shortly after the church accepted its first black member in 1971 but gained new attention over the summer when a message on a church billboard proclaimed: “Jesus welcomed everyone. So do we.”
Jim Futral, executive director of the Mississippi Baptist Convention, wrote an editorial in the Baptist Record in September stating that churches which identify as “welcoming and affirming” have “disassociated themselves from the Convention.”
Edwards said after those comments he discovered that the state convention no longer lists University Baptist Church as a “cooperating” church. Inquiring about the omission, Edwards said he was told that because the church’s gifts to the state convention since the 1990s have been designated so that none of the funds are forwarded to the Southern Baptist Convention, they were not counted as “Cooperative Program” receipts and therefore the congregation is technically not a cooperating church.
The Executive Committee of the Pine Belt Baptist Association wrote University Baptist Church Oct. 8 about the congregation being listed as an “affirming” church on the website gaychurch.org.
“The website administrators define the word ‘affirming’ as ‘the church does not view homosexuality in and of itself as a sin,’” the letter said. “The Executive Committee believes that a church considering themselves as ‘affirming’ — according to the definition listed on the aforementioned website — operates with a doctrine that is inconsistent with the Baptist Faith and Message. According to the bylaws of our association (section II. A.), a church practicing doctrine contrary to the Baptist Faith and Message is at risk of being removed from the fellowship of the association, with due process.”
Edwards, past moderator of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Mississippi, said he was aware of the church’s listing on the Affirming Church Directory, compiled by the GALIP Foundation to help people “locate and visit gay-friendly Christian churches around the world,” but he had all but forgotten about it until the issue surfaced a few weeks ago. “It is obvious the associational leaders were looking for something,” Edwards said in an email.
The list includes other congregations aligned with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, an 1,800-church national body that, unlike the Southern Baptist Convention, does not break fellowship with LGBT-affirming congregations.
An Aug. 24 article by a staff member of the Mississippi Christian Action League posed the question of whether the nine churches in the state listed as “dually aligned” with both the Mississippi Baptist Convention and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship ought to be labeled as “not in cooperation” with the MBC.
That came after Edwards and two other CBF pastors signed an open letter urging defeat of the Mississippi Religious Freedom Restoration Act, claiming it would allow private business owners to discriminate against gays.
The Affirming Church Directory clarifies that some of the churches in the listing may “welcome” all people but not “affirm” all lifestyles, meaning for instance that LGBT people may not be involved in leadership.
University Baptist Church said in a statement Oct. 27 that while its open membership policy was “an anomaly among most Baptist churches in the local association and Mississippi State Baptist Convention” in the 1970s, it isn’t the church that has moved.
“Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as a great banquet where all are welcomed,” says a welcome to visitors on the church website. “We hope you get a taste of that when you visit UBC. Old or young, dressed in a suit or sporting your most comfortable blue jeans, a long-time follower of Jesus or new to the faith — whoever you are, however you come, we hope you feel welcomed among us.”
According to the church history page, University Baptist became the first Baptist church in Hattiesburg to integrate its membership, when the congregation voted on June 16, 1971, to accept a student from William Carey University who had grown up in Nigeria. Many families left the church because of the decision.
In 1976 University Baptist licensed its first woman to ministry, and the same year elected its first female deacon. Currently a woman, Duke Divinity School graduate Kat Spangler, serves on staff as associate minister.
“Some 40 years later, churches continue to argue about who should and should not be allowed into the community of faith and are often known for exclusion rather than the radical inclusion of God witnessed to by the life and ministry of Jesus,” the UBC statement said. “While times and groups singled out for exclusion have changed, University Baptist Church’s membership policy and prophetic voice have remained constant. That voice is no longer welcomed among some of our sister Baptist congregations.”
Futral’s Sept. 10 column warned that churches across the country identifying themselves as “welcoming and affirming” are in reality “more than just what may appear to be.”
“I do not know of any of our churches that do not welcome people into their midst,” Futral wrote. “I mean by that they may be drunkards, cheating in business, having an affair, or they may be a homosexual. Few churches lock their doors and kick out anybody that wants to come to worship and to hear the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which in itself is the transforming moment.
“When it comes to affirming, the truth is that some churches not only welcome people but affirm a non-biblical lifestyle. Their position may be better defined as supporting, or even more, promoting a lifestyle that is outside the will of God. Churches that do that are not seeking to follow the teaching of Scripture and are not in friendly cooperation with the mission and the purpose of the Mississippi Baptist Convention. Should the Convention therefore disassociate itself from that church? The reality is that in their stated position of an unbiblical lifestyle, such churches have disassociated themselves from the Convention.”