Baptist polity can be incredibly difficult to wrap your mind around . . . especially for those raised in non-Baptist circles. To think that each church is fully autonomous in its existence and government defies conventional denominational structure. I mean, doesn’t the Southern Baptist Convention tell each church what to think and do? The Louisiana Baptist Convention provides marching orders for Temple, right? At least it makes sense that the local association of churches governs our church’s decisions? The answer to all of these questions is a resounding “No!” Instead, we voluntarily cooperate with other Southern Baptist churches in order to promote ministry and missions. We retain our right to make our own decisions as we submit to the Lordship of Christ, but we know that we can do more together than we can achieve alone.
But what happens when a cooperating congregation embraces unbiblical and/or unethical stances/practices? What can we do? First, I want to reassert that we cannot violate another church’s autonomy no matter how vehemently we disagree with its positions. And for that matter, no Baptist entity, such as a board or convention, can step in to overrule the individual church’s decision. However, we can and should withdraw our fellowship from such a group of individuals. They can hold whatever they wish, but we do not have to openly associate with them.
Over the past few years, most Southern Baptist churches have been removed from our fellowship because they have publicly approved of homosexual lifestyles, have ordained practicing gay clergy, or have sanctioned same-sex marriages. Of course, I strongly agree that we cannot maintain a relationship of fellowship with such congregations. We have no choice but to publicly state that we are not in fellowship with such churches. Recently, an African-American pastor and friend vividly framed the picture of such churches for me: “Reggie, those churches who approve of homosexual practices are not liberal. They are wicked!” And as Scripture reminds us, “What fellowship has light with darkness?” (2 Corinthians 6:14c NASB).
Last week, a Georgia Baptist association took the extraordinary step of removing a church from its fellowship for the equally sinful attitude of racism. And although I cannot recount the full story here, the simple truth is that African Americans were turned away from the church service. One visitor told the Christian Index when “she asked to use a restroom in the church, she was told to go down the street and use a convenience store’s restroom.” After associational leaders failed to mediate reconciliation and repentance, the association unanimously voted to withdraw fellowship from the church over “unchristian attitudes.” This, I believe, is the first such action taken against a Southern Baptist church upon those grounds, and I believe it to be necessary to the Kingdom’s priorities. We must unequivocally declare that the Gospel is for all and that the message of Christ actively confronts hate. You and I should be most notably grateful for this good news as we trace our ancestry to those who were outside looking in—the Gentiles!
My prayer is that we, as Temple Baptist Church, will always stand for the truth and work with those who embrace that Word. Moreover, we should pray that God would lead those wayward congregations to repentance and reconciliation!