CALLED OUT INFORMATION SERVICE
From the Baptist Press (Southern Baptist Convention)
Atlanta Baptist Association affirms homosexual-friendly congregations
Jan 31, 2001
By Todd Starnes
ATLANTA (BP)--Messengers in a Jan. 30 special called meeting of the
Atlanta Baptist Association voted overwhelmingly to defeat a motion
to dismiss two homosexual-friendly churches from membership and
fellowship in the association.
The two churches, Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland, were expelled from
the Georgia Baptist Convention in 1999 for "affirming and approving
and endorsing homosexual behavior."
The Atlanta association's 253-164 secret-ballot vote to maintain
membership and affiliation with the two churches was the result of a
nearly yearlong dialogue between the congregations and the
association's membership team. Observers at the Jan. 30 meeting noted
that the session was conducted with civility and moderated with
respect for both sides of the issue.
A motion was made at the March 20, 2000, annual meeting of the
association to remove Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland from the
153-congregation association of Southern Baptist churches.
The team decided that "as an association of churches we do not
support or condone homosexual activity, but neither can we support
the motion to dismiss two churches with a great history of Christian
ministry. Our recommendation is that while we do not support or
condone homosexual activity we do not affirm the motion to dismiss
the churches, and that we pray for the reconciliation of thought and
practice in the churches, which will strengthen the bond among us."
The association's membership ranges from Atlanta's First Baptist
Church to Second Ponce de Leon Baptist Church.
A news release issued by the association called the vote a "defining
moment for the Atlanta Baptist Association."
"In affirming their continued membership in the association, the
association does not condone or support homosexuality. It affirms the
longstanding Baptist polity of local church autonomy," the news
James Merritt, president of the Southern Baptist Convention and
pastor of the Atlanta-area First Baptist Church, Snellville, said he
was shocked to hear about the association's action.
"It is a sad commentary on the Atlanta Baptist Association," Merritt
told Baptist Press. "They have failed to do their spiritual and moral
Merritt said churches within the association may have "to take a
strong look to see if they want to be a part of that kind of
association," he said.
Merritt also was critical of the association's use of church
"If this [homosexuality] doesn't disqualify you from membership in
the association, what would?" he asked. "Can a church practice open
adultery, polygamy, desecration of the Lord's Supper and be a part of
the Atlanta Baptist Association?
"If you tell your members that you can be anything and do anything
and hide behind the smokescreen of local autonomy, then you've just
emptied your association of all meaning," Merritt said.
Timothy Shirley, senior pastor of Virginia-Highland Baptist Church,
told Baptist Press the vote by the association was an affirmation of
"I believe the decision was certainly an affirmation of what we are
trying to do here," Shirley said.
Merritt agreed with Shirley noting, "The Atlanta association cannot
have it both ways. I think a little leaven, leavens the whole lump."
Shirley said the inner-city church is affiliated with the Cooperative
Baptist Fellowship and the Alliance of Baptists, two breakaway groups
from the Southern Baptist Convention and its conservative biblical
direction. And while Virginia-Highland is listed in an official
Southern Baptist database, he said the church ended its active
affiliation with the SBC in 1992.
The church openly accepts homosexuals as deacons and Sunday school
teachers; performs same-sex unions; and recognizes the orientation of
homosexuals rather than the lifestyle of homosexuals.
"It is our belief at this church that homosexuality is a not
lifestyle or behavior," he said. "That indicates someone who can
choose what they are. We view it as who you are born as. It is an
Shirley said the vote to retain fellowship is the first step in
outright support of homosexuality within Atlanta's Southern Baptist
"We are a long way from being there, but we consider this to be a
journey," Shirley said. "I think that when more discoveries are made,
the church as a whole will be much more accepting of homosexuals."
Joel Harrison, executive director of the Atlanta Baptist Association,
told Baptist Press he doesn't expect its stance on homosexuality to
change and called any statements by Shirley premature.
Harrison was quick to point out that the vote was not held out of
"We are not against the Southern Baptist Convention, nor are we
against the Georgia Baptist Convention," Shirley told Baptist Press.
"The votes, motions and responses dealt strictly with the Atlanta
Baptist Association context in which we are located. It was not a
vote to say to any other group, `We'll show you.'"
Robert White, executive director of the GBC, said he was saddened by
"The issue that concerns me is that it sends a signal not only to
Atlanta and Georgia, but to the nation, that a group of Baptist
churches in Atlanta has moved to affirm homosexuality," White said.
"This sends a terrible signal."
White said the homosexual agenda is seeking victory wherever it can
be found and "they got it at the Atlanta Baptist Association
Harrison said questions had been raised about the length of the study
and why it took so long to reach a decision. "The one thing our
bylaws say is that we have to attempt reconciliation with our
churches," he said. "That doesn't happen in one meeting. Our team
took its job seriously."
Harrison acknowledged that the Baptist polity of church autonomy
needs to be studied.
"Our membership requirements are based on the 1963 Baptist Faith and
Message and it doesn't say anything about homosexuality," Harrison
said. "Many in this process have sided with that."
However, the association's administrative leadership team plans to
meet in two weeks to begin the process of studying the issue of
autonomy. "Our study will answer the question of how far is too far
and what is out of bounds for churches that affiliate with the
association," he said.
Shirley, too, said church autonomy should have boundaries. "I
wouldn't doubt that we should have boundaries," he said. "But I do
think we can find common ground at the foot of the cross."
White, however, said that isn't the issue at all.
"The crisis I see is that if you take the position of local church
autonomy as more important than dealing with the problem of sin, then
it creates a very dangerous situation for the church," White said.
"Then you have churches that will make their own decisions about
whether or not something is a sin."
Oakhurst and Virginia-Highland first drew national attention to their
support of homosexuality during the Nov. 16, 1999, Georgia Baptist
Convention when messengers voted overwhelmingly to "withdraw
fellowship" from the congregations over their policies and practices
It marked the first time the GBC had dismissed a church in its
177-year history. In 1992, the SBC changed its constitution to
prohibit churches that condone or affirm homosexuality. In recent
years the state convention in Texas has cut ties with one member
congregation and, earlier, the North Carolina convention cut ties
with two congregations over the issue.
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