A representative body authorized to act on behalf of the Southern Baptist Convention between annual meetings voted Feb. 23 to remove a South Carolina church for allowing its pastor to conduct a same-sex wedding.
The SBC Executive Committee, an 83-member “House of Representatives”-type leadership group that manages day-to-day affairs for the nation’s second-largest faith group behind Roman Catholics, determined that Augusta Heights Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., has acted “to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior” and therefore “does not presently meet the definition of a cooperating church” as defined in the SBC constitution.
Previously voted out of the Greenville Baptist Association and South Carolina Baptist Convention, Augusta Heights becomes the six church kicked out of the Southern Baptist Convention over homosexuality and the first involving a marriage cermony performed since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last June that same-sex marriage is legal in all 50 states.
The church’s pastor, Greg Dover, officiated at a same-sex wedding Oct. 10 after getting approval from the deacons. Lay leaders said since the ceremony was not being held at the church – which would require the congregation’s approval — they would not stand in the pastor’s way if he felt it was what God was leading him to do.
Acting on behalf of the convention ad interim, the SBC Executive Committee, said the church’s conduct “amounts to clear evidence of the church’s affirmation and approval of homosexual behavior” and that messengers from the congregation should not be seated at annual meetings of the convention “until such time as the convention determines that the church has unambiguously demonstrated its friendly cooperation with the convention as defined in the convention’ constitution.”
Unlike many denominations, the Southern Baptist Convention does not have authority to defrock ministers, because ordination is done at the level of the local church. The convention can register disapproval, however, by withdrawing fellowship from a congregation for not conforming to doctrine that homosexuality is a sin and has done so five times in the past, the first two in 1992.
After withdrawing fellowship from Pullen Memorial Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C., for voting to “bless” the union of two gay men and Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill, N.C., which licensed a homosexual to the ministry, the Southern Baptist Convention amended its constitution in 1993 to forbid churches “which act to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior.”
In 2009, the convention in session defined “act” by withdrawing fellowship from Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, after an investigation by the Executive Committee found the congregation’s position on homosexuality “not sufficiently unambiguous” for the congregation to be recognized “in friendly cooperation” with the SBC.
In 2014, the Executive Committee determined on behalf of the convention ad interim that New Heart Community Church in La Mirada, Calif., acted “to affirm, approve, or endorse homosexual behavior” when it adopted a “third way” position neither affirming nor condemning homosexuality.
Last year the Executive Committee took similar action against Weatherly Heights Baptist Church in Huntsville, Ala., after investigating media reports about an unpaid staff member who officiated a lesbian couple’s wedding on the first day same-sex marriage was declared legal in Alabama.
Last year First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C., voluntarily withdrew from the South Carolina Baptist Convention after adopting a policy of non-discrimination on basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
After reading media reports about the latest controversy involving Augusta Heights, August Boto, executive vice president and general counsel of the Executive Committee, spoke to Dover by phone in December and followed up with a letter advising that “since the decision by any church to retain a minister that has performed or affirmed a same-sex marriage would be considered tantamount to a decision to separate from the SBC,” the Executive Committee would likely act on whether to expel the church during its Feb. 22-23 meeting in Nashville, Tenn.
Dover responded with a letter admitting that he officiated at a same-sex wedding with the knowledge the church’s deacons, but adding the congregation as a whole “does not have a marriage policy, or any official position or doctrinal statement on issues of homosexuality or same-sex marriage.”
“The people of Augusta Heights have a variety of views and beliefs on these and many other topics,” Dover said. “In keeping with the historical Baptist principle of soul freedom, the church allows and encourages members to read and interpret the Scriptures for themselves, inviting a diversity of belief and thought.”
“Although my action in this particular instance (and our church’s lack of reaction or doctrinal statement) may not be in agreement with the convention’s stance on homosexuality and marriage, Augusta Heights Baptist Church does not wish to end our relationship with the Southern Baptist Convention,” Dover wrote.
While still listed as a cooperating Southern Baptist church, Augusta Height’s most recent contribution to the Cooperative Program unified budget was reported at $750 out of undesignated receipts of $177,133 in 2015.
The congregation is listed as a “partner” church by the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and Dover serves on the CBF Ministries Council. The CBF does not hire employees or missionaries that are openly gay but otherwise leaves decisions about LGBT issues up to the local church.