(I posed a question to them) that’s been puzzling me since November. “What’s the difference,” I asked, “between the GBC’s decision not to receive our money and a formal ‘withdrawal of fellowship’ from our church?” The response was a watershed moment for me. They replied: “As it stands now, even though we won’t accept your money, FBC Decatur is eligible to receive help from the Georgia Baptist Convention. We can still provide materials and services for your church such as the training of Sunday School or Vacation Bible School leaders, or help with evangelism and things like that. If we withdraw fellowship then you wouldn’t be eligible to receive those services.”
Not sure I’d heard correctly, I pressed a little. “Do you mean that if I called you up one day and said – ‘The Spirit is doing something amazing at First Baptist Decatur! Waves of men, women and teenagers are responding to God and are being baptized and we could use some additional help in giving them a good foundation. Could you send a team over to meet with our folks?” – are you telling me that the GBC wouldn’t want to help us with that?” To his credit, Robert rushed to assure me that he would be willing to come over and help us “personally – just not as a representative of the GBC.”
When I read Julie's article two quick things came to my mind:
(1). Robert White, the Executive Director of the GBC, ought to at least consider resigning if the Georgia Baptist Convention, the Convention that he leads, votes to disfellowship from FBC, Decatur. Why should he consider resigning if this happens? Simply because his own conscience would be violated. Any Executive Director of who lives by principle, and would personally assist a Southern Baptist Church in need would, for principles sake, seek to stop, speak out against, or work to prevent a motion to disfellowship from that self-same church. Dr. White's admission that he himself would personally assist FBC Decatur in their time of need is commendable. If he doesn't live out his personal principles as he leads the Georgia Baptist Convention then he is drawing a salary for convenience's sake and not one based on integrity. Since I am sure Dr. White is a person of integrity, his resignation if this motion to disfellowship is passed would cause Southern Baptists to admire his courage of conviction and might possibly knock some sense in all of us.
(2). Denominational leaders expressing "concern" over what some in the Convention think about sister Southern Baptist churches, to the point of allowing a motion to "disfellowship" from those sister churches, is a very dangerous precedent that leads to an even more slippery slope. Where will it stop? What if some of us are "concerned" about other churches in the Southern Baptist Convention that have "male" leadership? Do our denominational leaders bear a responsiblity to step in to help churches facing financial issues, problems that may force banks to foreclose on those churches? What if those problems are due to "poor" leadership of the male lead pastor? Do our Baptist Conventions have the duty to "disfellowship" or "discipline" those churches that allow autocratic, authoritarian male pastors to run amock, causing all kinds of problems in the church? Are we genuinely concerned about our churches, or are we playing gender games?
The Bizarre Nature of SBC Disfellowship
I do not know Julie Pennington-Russell. I have never met her. But, before I wrote this post I spent a couple of hours getting to know her. I read this Atlanta Magazine Article about her. I listened to two of her sermons. I read where one conservative pastor said Julie handled "the attention and displeasure with grace and aplomb. I scanned the last six newsletters of First Baptist Church, Decatur, and learned several things about FBC under Julie's leadership.
(1). Many are coming to faith in Christ at FBC Decatur, even choosing to write their testimonies of faith in Christ on the church's website for all to see. The testimonies of those whose lives have been delivered from various addictions are quite gripping.
(2). First Baptist Church, Decatur's financial giving increased by three percent in 2008 over 2007, even though the last quarter of 2008 was one of the worst economic quarters in last 70 years.
(3). I read where a member of FBC Decatur, a man who has been a part of FBC for over five decades, said, "I have never been more excited about being involved in a congregation. More than 60 members joined last year. While most churches inside the Atlanta perimeter are struggling, new converts are being baptized and people are giving generously to support innovative ministries to reach out into this diverse community at FBC Decatur."
(4). The two sermons I listened to by Julie Pennington-Russell were expositional in nature, illustrative in narrative, and delivered succinctly, warmly and with a genuine desire for listeners to be transformed by Jesus. It was as conservative a message doctrinally as I have heard, and frankly, far less serendipitous and shallow as I have heard from some of her male Southern Baptist counterparts. It was refreshing to actually hear the Bible being taught.
(5). By all measures, missional, evangelical, financial, and biblical, FBC Decatur is a church worthy of our fellowship. Regardless of your feelings on the "lead" pastor being a female, you and I are not members of the church, and nobody is forcing us to be members. We are simply called to fellowship.
The idea that the Executive Director of Georgia could personally be involved with FBC Decatur in terms of fellowship, but NOT as a representative of the Georgia Baptist Convention, makes me wonder if somehow, someway, we Southern Baptists have forgotten that the Convention is composed of PERSONS, the root word of personally, personhood, etc . . . I would like to know one reason why, though we may disagree with a church calling a woman "lead" pastor, we should formally disfellowship from such a church? I may be concerned for that a church, but why disfellowship? What if I have concerns for a church pastored by a male who may be exhibiting decisions or character that don't reflect "the biblical qualifications" for a pastor? Will the Convention listen to my concerns and go warn that pastor that "some" in the Convention might make a formal motion we disfellowship from the church he pastors? What if that church is being run into the ground financially, will the Convention see fit to "disfellowship" from that church?
Let me illustrate the inconsistencies that arise when Georgia Southern Baptists make it known they wish to "disfellowship" from FBC Decatur.
(Update: Edited, January 29, 2009). In the original post I gave an illustration of a Southern Baptist Church that is pastored by a man that has displayed to me personally, and to others that have served on his staff, character qualities that are opposite of those qualities that qualify a man to be pastor. For example, anger instead of gentleness (patience), selfishishness instead of self-control, finanicial chaos instead of managing financial affairs well, etc . . . My reason for comparing this pastor with Julie Pennington-Russell was simple: Why would the Southern Baptist Convention move to disfellowship a church who called a pastor that didn't meet one of the qualifications of pastor as some interpret it (maleness), while we do nothing about disfellowshipping from a church that has called a pastor that doesn't meet other much clearer qualities of a pastor as listed in I Timothy 3:1-9? Let's not be so inconsistent. Let's either meddle in the affairs of EVERY church that has a pastor that is not qualified (in our minds) and "disfellowship" every church that calls a pastor unqualified (biblically) to pastor, or let's not meddle AT ALL as a Convention. My argument is the latter. Our Southern Baptist Convention should let autonomous churches call whom they desire as pastor, to refrain from making "moral" judgments as to the worthiness of the pastor, and to help churches and pastors in their time of need. The Georgia Baptist Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention should NOT disfellowship from First Baptist Church, Decatur.
Nor should our Southern Baptist Convention or the Arkansas Baptist Convention "disfellowship" from the other Southern Baptist Church I specifically mentioned as well. In fact, we should help. I had called the pastor of the struggling SBC church before I posted the original post and left a detailed message of what I would be writing about his leadership and church troubles. He returned my call today. He said that my assessment of his ministry was judgmental. I countered that I, too, had personal experiences with him under his leadership, which only confirmed what his former staff members told me about his biblical pastoral qualifications, or lack thereof, so I wrote with firsthand knowledge, not second hand. But my point was not to emphasis his unworthiness as a pastor (though I stand by my assessment of his lack of biblical qualifications in at least three areas), but to reveal the fallacy of people (including me) attempting from "disfellowshipping" from churches by making "judgments" about the worthiness of that autonomous church's pastor. The pastor was quiet, and he seemed to genuinely reflect on my words. He expressed that times were tough, and the factors involved in his church being in financial shambles had more to do with the economic environment and the broken promises of people who owed the church money more than it did his lack of qualifications to pastor the church. I told him that I accepted his explanation, but the point of my post stands. I am trying to get Conventions to "stop" judging churches about they call as pastor. If you open the door of "disfellowship" on so-called "biblical qualifications" of a pastor, then you better be prepared to disfellowship a ton of churches in the SBC. The better solution is to let each autonomous church determine if the church's pastor is qualified. That is Baptist autonomy.
We also should do all we can to help our sister Southern Baptist churches instead of publicly humiliating them. Our church currently has a fiscal year surplus. We have received more dollars in receipts than what we have budgeted. I told the pastor of the church that I wrote about that if his church was about to be in default on their bank loan this month, to let me know, and I would take the need of his church before our Finance Commitee and church body to see what we could do to help them make one of the church's $33,000 payments. I don't have the authority to pass such a motion, but I would do my part to help our church see the importance of helping our sister church who is struggling.
In the coming months, you will hear how our church will be helping FBC Decatur and Pastor Julie Pennington-Russell as well.
I refuse to be silent while the Southern Baptist ship is sinking, and for heaven's sake, I need others in the SBC to help right it.
In His Grace and Truth,