CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (ABP) — The Missouri Baptist Convention voted Oct. 31 to oust 19 congregations — some of which have been part of the group since its beginning — because of their affiliations with moderate Baptist groups.
The move is likely the largest exclusion of congregations from a United States Baptist body in recent history.
During its 172nd annual meeting in Cape Girardeau, the convention voted to refuse to seat messengers from any of the congregations at the meeting or future meetings. The convention has a single-alignment requirement that prohibits churches from belonging to other Baptist organizations.
The vote came without recorded dissent. Only one of the congregations — most of which had been warned about the move to oust them ahead of time — sent messengers to the meeting.
But as far as many of the targeted congregations are concerned, the move signifies little more than the formal end to a long-running divorce proceeding.
“It's really hard for them to break up with us when we've already broken up with them,” said Brian Ford, pastor of Little Bonne Femme Baptist Church in Columbia. “We had basically cut ties, financially, a long time ago.”
Ford's congregation — the second-oldest Baptist church west of the Mississippi River — was founded in 1819 and is named for a nearby creek. It was in Little Bonne Femme's building in 1835 that Baptists from around Missouri constituted the forerunner organization to the Missouri convention.
Ford said the fact that his church was among those excluded was symptomatic of a convention that had forgotten its roots. “This is the historic church where the MBC was birthed out of. The convention was created by the churches for the churches, not the reverse,” he said.
The convention has been roiled for years by bitter dissent between moderates and fundamentalists, who solidified their control of the body's leadership in 2001. Since then, many moderate churches have either officially left or severely limited their support for the convention.
At last year's annual meeting, messengers voted to broaden a part of the Missouri convention's rules that were unique among state conventions that relate to the national Southern Baptist Convention.
The provision, the original version of which dated to 1919, requires Missouri Baptist churches to be uniquely aligned with the SBC in their denominational affiliation. Messengers expanded the provision to also ban alignment by churches with para-denominational groups, such as the moderate Cooperative Baptist Fellowship or the Baptist General Convention of Missouri. Moderate leaders in the state formed the BGCM in response to conservatives' takeover of the older convention.
Part of the change involved establishing a permanent Missouri Baptist Convention Credentials Committee that would be able to investigate challenges to a church's standing year-round. Previously, the committee only existed during the annual meeting.
That committee notified 18 of the churches by certified mail prior to the convention that it would recommend unseating of any messengers they might send. It added a 19th congregation to the list just prior to the convention meeting.
Besides Little Bonne Femme, the churches disaffiliated with the convention are: Chandler Baptist Church in Liberty; Cornerstone Baptist Church in Columbia; Cornerstone Baptist Church in Lee's Summit; Grace Point Baptist Church in Kansas City; Heartland Baptist Fellowship in Marshfield; Olive Branch Baptist Church in Sedalia; Rock Falls Baptist in Orrick; Third Baptist Church in St. Louis; University Heights Baptist Church in Springfield; Winnwood Baptist Church in Kansas City; and the First Baptist churches of Cape Girardeau, Hamilton, Independence, Jefferson City, Lee's Summit, Savannah, Smithville and Sweet Springs.
Each church's messengers will be excluded until “their congregation takes the appropriate and necessary action to demonstrate a desire 'to cooperate with the Missouri Baptist Convention in her program of single alignment with the Southern Baptist Convention,'” the convention's action stated.
Third Baptist of St. Louis was the only congregation among the group to send a messenger to the meeting. The convention allowed pastor Warren Hoffman to address messengers before he left. He said his church would continue to pray for the MBC and asked that the convention would continue to hold the historic congregation in its prayers.
“We have tried to be aboveboard with our process,” he said prior to the convention meeting. “We realize that we are in non-compliance.”
But, he added, the church historically has related to multiple Baptist groups. It contributes to the SBC, the American Baptist Churches and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
Third Baptist members disagreed with the move in 1915 that abolished the Missouri Plan, a means by which churches could contribute through the Missouri Baptist Convention to both the American (Northern) and Southern Baptist conventions, and they disagreed in 1919 when messengers approved aligning solely with the SBC.
“We see ourselves as one of the agents to bridge the gap between groups,” Hoffman said.
Several of the other churches affected already had stopped any sort of cooperation with the Missouri convention.
“The truth of the matter is we haven't sent any messengers to the Missouri Baptist Convention since 2001, and we actually voted to stop supporting the MBC in 2002,” said Dick Lionberger, pastor of First Baptist of Savannah. His church is aligned with the moderate BGCM.
Lionberger said that, after the convention passed its broadened interpretation of the single-alignment provision, he wrote the MBC executive director a letter informing him that First Baptist, Savannah, was no longer affiliated. “I wrote a letter to David Clippard that just said, 'We want you all to know, according to the action you've taken, we no longer qualify, so you can just quit sending us mail,'” Lionberger said.
But even leaders at some of the affected churches that continued to provide financial support to the convention said the move wasn't unexpected — or entirely unwelcome.
“It's sort of like, it's time,” said Doyle Sager, pastor of First Baptist, Jefferson City. “We've been sort of divorcing for a long time, and in some ways it's good that it's taken so long, because it's given our congregation a long time to accept reality.”
Sager's church — located just two blocks from the convention headquarters building — was, for much of its history, the spiritual home to the convention's top staffers. He said at least one remaining high-level MBC employee who has belonged to First Baptist for decades has been instructed by superiors to move his membership to a different congregation.
Several years ago, First Baptist of Jefferson City arranged its accounting procedures to allow members to continue giving through the MBC as well as CBF and other giving plans. Sager said that, in the first three quarters of 2006, members of his church designated about $2,000 in gifts to Missouri Baptist Convention missions work. He said it was only 3.2 percent of the congregation's total missions giving for that period.
It is unclear whether the MBC will continue to include those churches in its membership or baptism statistics, or to accept gifts from those churches. Rick Seaton, chairman of the convention's credentials committee and pastor of First Baptist Church of Kahoka, declined comment on the situation Oct. 26. He cited a committee policy of commenting exclusively to one media outlet — the convention's in-house newspaper.
Ford, the Little Bonne Femme pastor, said being officially booted from the convention that it helped found would affect his church's ministry little, Ford added.
“We were founded before the Missouri Baptist Convention or the Southern Baptist Convention were ever born,” he said. “We've done ministry in God's kingdom since before then, and we will continue to be the presence of Christ…and partner with whatever Christian group we want to.”
— This story updates and replaces one released by ABP Oct. 27.