GREENSBORO, N.C. (ABP) — How much influence should a local Baptist association have on the decisions of a state convention? That question is at the heart of a controversy some say threatens to split the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
Many moderate Baptists in the state met recently to discuss the future of their participation in the convention after almost a decade of losing officer elections to conservatives.
But the most contentious moments of the two-day meeting came when participants discussed the convention's recent decisions to oust one church and not to fund another. In both instances, opposition from local Baptist associations played a role in the decisions.
Moderate leaders said the 4,000-church state convention surrendered its own autonomy by allowing a local association to determine whether it would provide church-start funds to Providence Baptist Church in Hendersonville.
Organizers of the new church sought funding from the convention and followed the prescribed procedure, said Buddy Corbin, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church, one of six churches that joined efforts to birth Providence. The new church was to be affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina and the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The funding was denied because of objections from the Carolina Baptist Association, which encompasses the geographic area that includes the new church.
Leaders of the Carolina Baptist Association, which is closely aligned with the conservative Southern Baptist Convention, said it would hurt the association if the state convention funded a CBF-affiliated church in its area.
In the case of McGill Baptist Church of Concord, the church was ousted from the state convention after the church baptized two men believed to be gay. The baptism came to light when leaders of the Cabarrus Baptist Association, which included McGill Church, protested the action.
One critic said that decision violated the state convention's own constitution, which says it will not exercise authority over any other Baptist body.
Jim Royston, executive director of the state convention, who appeared on a panel discussing Baptist polity during the recent moderate meeting, said the convention was forced to dismiss the McGill Baptist Church because of publicity surrounding the baptism.
“We won't respond to anything that doesn't become a known public issue,” he said.
Steve Ayers, pastor of McGill Baptist, told Royston the church did not seek publicity but others had made it a public issue.
Ayers asked if Royston could provide a list of questions required for baptismal candidates. “Is it your opinion that any church that has gay members should be thrown out?” he asked.
Royston said he did not ask baptismal candidates about sexual preference when he was a pastor, and never knew whether any were gay.
Jack Glasgow, a pastor from Zebulon, asked if churches should ask new believers if they are homosexual “for fear that a neighbor might shine the light on us?” Royston said churches should not have to do that, but that the convention might have to respond in cases where there is significant local publicity.
“You excommunicated us,” Ayers said, according to the Greensboro News-Record. “We baptized people who came and told us they accepted Jesus Christ as their savior. … Why, Jim, did you throw us out?”
Royston said the decision was painful.
“I agree that we need more dialogue and cleaner guidelines,” said Royston, who added a review of the convention's policies and constitution could follow.
“No one wanted to do what we did,” Royston said. “There is no desire to start a witch hunt.”
Still the state convention prefers to work through associations, he said. “The true issue is that policy and polity get very confused in Baptist life,” he said. “We prefer to work with everyone we can.”
Concerning the decision not to fund Providence Baptist Church, Royston said moderate churches are not being slighted with new-church funds. He estimated that 35 to 40 percent of all new churches funded by the convention were related to moderate churches.
Convention leaders are “in dialogue more fervently than before” about how to assist all churches, he said. “Any church that wants to work with us, we want to respond to,” Royston said. “But we have to live with the larger family.”
Most moderate leaders agree an early exodus of their churches from the North Carolina convention is unlikely, but many of those churches are considering redirecting their funding from the convention to other Baptist causes.
— With reporting by Tony Cartledge and Steve DeVane