A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee has joined 60 other Baptist leaders in publicly opposing the SBC North American Mission Board’s legal argument against Will McRaney.
Morris Chapman, a former SBC president and president of the Executive Committee from 1992 to 2010, is among the signers of an amicus brief filed with the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals Nov. 7. That brief declares NAMB’s argument about why it should not be held liable for defaming McRaney is based on a “profound misunderstanding of Baptist polity” and “perversely undermines religious liberty in the guise of safeguarding it.”
Chapman is joined in the brief by an assortment of past and present Baptist leaders who identify with an array of political positions within the SBC. Other notable signers include Georgia pastor Mike Stone, a former chairman of the Executive Committee and a key figure in the most conservative wing of the SBC; David L. Thompson, former NAMB trustee chairman; and entrepreneur Rod Martin, a leader in the Conservative Baptist Network and former member of the SBC Executive Committee.
McRaney, former executive director of the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware, contends NAMB and its president, Kevin Ezell, defamed him by demanding the state convention fire him or lose $1 million in funding, and also by demanding other Baptist groups not hire McRaney for consulting or speaking engagements.
According to sworn court testimony, McRaney was targeted because he refused to go along with controversial changes in NAMB’s national church-planting strategy, previously done in partnership with state conventions.
Throughout the nearly seven years of legal wrangling over this case, NAMB and Ezell have claimed secular courts should not intervene in this matter because it is an internal working of a religious body and therefore exempted by the so-called “Ecclesial Doctrine.” McRaney contends that doctrine doesn’t apply because he was not an employee of NAMB and his firing therefore was not the internal working of a single religious body.
The brief holds out its 62 signers as “experts on Baptist polity” because of their long association with and work among Southern Baptists. These signers are “firmly committed to the protection of religious liberty,” it adds.
There is no single “Baptist Church,” the brief explains.
“Unquestionably, secular courts may not interfere with a church or religious institution’s internal dispute about church government, faith and doctrine,” the brief states. “The First Amendment’s Religion Clauses ‘protect the right of churches and other religious institutions to decide matters of faith and doctrine without government intrusion.’
“This freedom includes ‘internal management decisions that are essential to the institution’s central mission,’ like ‘the selection of the individuals who play certain key roles.’ Relying on these principles, … the district court dismissed Plaintiff-Appellant Will McRaney’s lawsuit … on the theory that it would require the court to decide internal matters of ‘the Baptist Church.’”
While those signing the brief “say ‘amen’ to robust judicial commitment to stay out of internal church disputes about governance, faith, and doctrine, … this is not such a case,” the brief declares.
It is an “indisputably flawed premise” that NAMB and the Maryland-Delaware convention are parts of a single religious institution and that McRaney was a minister or leader of “the church,” it continues. “That is wrong. And it infringes religious liberty.”
“There is no such thing as ‘the Baptist Church’ or ‘the Southern Baptist Church.’ Rather, each local Baptist church is autonomous.”
Southern Baptists do not operate like the Roman Catholic Church, the Episcopal Church, the the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or the Presbyterian Church in America, the signers contend. “In those denominations, individual local churches are part of and under the authority of a single institution, the Church, exercised by a hierarchy of bishops or (for Presbyterians) a General Assembly. … Baptists are different. There is no such thing as ‘the Baptist Church’ or ‘the Southern Baptist Church.’ Rather, each local Baptist church is autonomous.”
Individual Baptist churches “voluntarily partner together in state and regional associations or conventions of Baptist churches,” the brief states, adding the SBC’s governing documents “acknowledge that it has no authority over local Baptist churches or over state or regional associations and conventions of local Baptist churches.”
All this means a dispute between McRaney and NAMB is not an “internal” dispute of “the Baptist Church,” the brief states.
NAMB, as an entity of the SBC, “has no authority to govern or control the employees, faith or doctrine of BCMD, an independent state convention,” the brief continues.
To say otherwise “threatens religious liberty in at least two ways,” the brief states.
“First, it deprives Baptist pastors and convention leaders of access to civil legal protection that is available to secular persons in like circumstances. …
“Second, in improperly abstaining, the district court violated religious liberty by judicially declaring Baptist polity to be something other than what Baptists say that it is. The First Amendment guarantees that Baptists get ‘to decide for themselves, free from state interference, matters of church government as well as those of faith and doctrine,’” a quote from a 2020 U.S. Supreme Court case titled Our Lady of Guadalupe Sch. v. Morrissey-Berru.
“The district court violated religious liberty by judicially declaring Baptist polity to be something other than what Baptists say that it is.”
Other signers of the amicus brief include: Randy Adams, executive director of the Northwest Baptist Convention; Steve Ballew, executive director of the Baptist Convention of New Mexico; Bill Barker, pastor of Wolffork Baptist Church, Rabun Gap, Ga; Alex Barrett, pastor of Ridgeview Church, Fontana, Calif.; John Batts, pastor of Clear Creek Baptist Church, Silverdale, Wash., and a trustee of the SBC Executive Committee; Bryan Bernard, lead pastor of Redemption Church, Corvallis, Ore.; Jim Brunk, pastor of Cookson Baptist Church, Cookson, Okla.; Joel Breidenbaugh, pastor of Gospel Centered Church, Apopka, Fla.; Harold B. Bullock, former senior pastor of Hope Church in Fort Worth, Texas; Terry M. Buster Sr., pastor of First Baptist Church, Phil Campbell, Ala; Jared Byrns, pastor of Central Baptist Church in Lawton, Okla.; Travis Cardwell, lead pastor of University Park Baptist Church in Houston; Ken Cavey, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Ellicott City, Md.; Jason Cole, pastor of First Baptist Church in Simsboro, La.; Bruce M. Conley, director of missions for Blue Ridge Baptist Association in Boonsboro, Md.; Randy Covington, executive director of Alaska Baptist Resource Network; Rock Dearfield, pastor of Second Baptist Church in Ashland, Ky.; Steve Dennis, pastor of First Baptist Church in Checotah, Okla.; William G. Dowdy Jr., pastor of Magnolia Baptist Church in Laurel, Miss.; Bob Farmer, senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church in Rogue River, Ore.; C.W. Faulkner, pastor of First Baptist Church in Wolfforth, Texas; Joe Flegal, former director of evangelism and church health, Northwest Baptist Convention; Michael Freeman, lead pastor of Valley Christian Fellowship, Longview, Wash.; Russell Fuller, former professor of Old Testament, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; Seth Gatchell, pastor of Pacific Church of Irvine, Calif.; Warren Gilpin, pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Norman Park, Ga.; Bobby Gilstrap, former state convention leader; Ron F. Hale, former member, SBC Executive Committee and former NAMB missionary; Adrian W. Hall, former evangelism director, Northwest Baptist Convention; Thomas Hardy, pastor of Peninsula Baptist Church, Portland, Ore.; Jeff Hessinger, senior pastor, First Baptist Church, Thompson Falls, Mt.; S. Grant Hignight, associational mission strategist, Mercer and Thomas County Baptist Associations, Thomasville, Ga.; James Bo Holland, pastor, Living Hope Baptist Church, Tulsa, Okla., and former church planting director for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma; Donna Jefferys, former executive assistant and office manager, Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware; Dale Jenkins, pastor, Airway Heights Baptist Church, Airway Heights, Wash., and former trustee of the SBC Executive Committee; Thad King, pastor, Pierpoint Church, Huntington Beach, Calif; Chris Kruger, pastor, Dayspring Baptist Church, Chehalis, Wash.; Randy Lanthripe, executive director, 17:6 Church Network and pastor, Church in the Valley, Ontario, Calif.; David Leavell, transitional revitalization pastor, Southwest Baptist Church, Bainbridge, Ga.; Daniel A. Lee, pastor, Bethel Baptist Church, Greenville, S.C.; Tom Melzoni, senior vice president, Horizons Stewardship and former senior executive pastor at First Baptist Church of Dallas; Gus Nelson, lawyer and ordained Baptist preacher; Dan Panter, pastor, McKenzie Road Baptist Church, Olympia, Wash.; Rick Patrick, pastor, First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, Ala.; Dennis Phelps, pastor, Coronado Baptist Church, Hot Springs Village, Ark.; Michael Poff, senior pastor, Cornerstone Baptist Church, Warrenton, Va.; David H. Rhoades, senior pastor, Broadview Baptist Church, Lubbock, Texas; Lewis Richerson, pastor, Woodlawn Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, La.; David B. Roberts, pastor, Emmanuel Baptist Church, Midland, Mich.; Robert D. Rodgers, retired vice president, SBC Executive Committee; William Schmautz, pastor, East Valley Baptist Church, Spokane Valley, Wash.; Clint E. Scott, senior pastor, Hilltop Baptist Church, Green River, Wy.; Jeffery Stading, pastor, Friendship Baptist Church, Hudson, N.C.; Keith Stell, senior pastor, New Georgia Baptist, Villa Rica, Ga.; Ben Trigsted, pastor, First Baptist Church, Castle Rock, Wash.; Bevan Unrau, senior pastor, Seabreeze Church, Huntington Beach, Calif,.; Steve Wolverton, pastor, Canton Baptist Church, Baltimore, Md.; Tim Yarbrough, former editor, Arkansas Baptist News.